Selina Robertson is one half of female-focused programming team Club des Femmes. She interviewed American filmmaker Barbara Hammer at the Berlinale in February 2009.
‘I love personal attention,’ says Barbara Hammer, the charismatic doyenne of lesbian experimental filmmaking. ‘That’s probably why I’m a filmmaker,’ she adds. Attention is not something this extremely energetic and inspirational 72-year-old woman has ever been short of, especially in recent years. This February, the focus comes to London with a major retrospective of her work at Tate Modern, entitled Barbara Hammer: The Fearless Frame.
The show marks the culmination of a remarkably creative and inspiring three years that began with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer in 2009. That year, her digital video exploring the experience, A Horse Is Not a Metaphor (2009), won the prestigious Teddy Award for Best Short Film at the Berlin Film Festival. The video saw Hammer return to using film’s materiality, after at least a decade of making documentaries, to deal with her recent diagnosis. It is a deeply layered, intimate visual essay, reminiscent of Malcolm Le Grice’s structuralist film, Berlin Horse (1970). Hammer explains: ‘It is an emotional story: a document of my personal inner experiences of going through very strong chemotherapy and surviving, and then thriving, and even thriving with hope as I go through it’.
The film, and her experience, augured an aesthetic turn that has propelled her work into prestigious galleries. Three weeks after Berlin, she was showing off her award (which she described as ‘cute’) while presenting Horse and another new film, Diving Women of Jeju-do, to a 400-strong audience at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of a month-long retrospective. This has also allowed her to bring her stories and unique style of presentation to a whole new generation. ‘I received a standing ovation,’ she says of her MOMA moment. ‘I got to walk up and down the aisle with a roving microphone answering questions! There is nothing I like more than responding spontaneously while standing and walking!’ This is classic Hammer and recalls when she was invited by Club des Femmes to the BFI Southbank in London in 2008 to present her new documentary on Claude Cahun, Love Other. After the screening she impishly acted out the ‘lesbian gaze’ to an ecstatic audience; in this way she always seems to leave a piece of herself in the room.
In tandem with her Big Apple retrospective, her highly successful memoir, published by The Feminist Press, has revealed to readers the world over a lot more about Barbara Hammer and her notorious sex life. The title tells it like it is: Hammer! Making Movies out of Sex and Life (it was Hammer who added ‘and Life’). It begins with a 50-page erotic novel she wrote in the 1970s in a log cabin in the woods outside San Francisco. She says it’s so dirty that she couldn’t even show it to her current partner. ‘It catches the spirit of the time,’ she laughs cheekily.
Born in Hollywood in 1939, but a New Yorker ‘by choice’, she came to filmmaking in her 30s, surprisingly late considering her staggering output, after taking a film history class and watching early avant-garde pioneer Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). She recounts: ‘I was sitting with two feminist friends and finally Meshes of the Afternoon was projected. It was so different from the cinema I had seen that I was convinced, for those 15 minutes, that there was a women’s cinema that had not been told, and there was a blank screen, and this was where I could step in.’
With some 90 films and videos under her belt (she claims she has stopped counting), and a big heap of self-belief – ‘my mother thought I was great and that was all it took’ – Hammer has been unbelievably prolific. Always avant-garde in structure, her films have dealt with such topics as lesbian love, eroticism, age, women’s spirituality, radical feminist politics, lesbian and gay history, art and politics, feminism and technology, her own Ukrainian history and so much more. Her most famous work is the ground-breaking ‘dykes prancing around a field naked’ movie Dyketactics (1974), which is widely acknowledged as the first film to express lesbian sexuality on screen.
Following on from this, Hammer directed a whole host of films about lesbian sexuality – personal favourites include Double Strength (1978), Women I Love (1979) and Multiple Orgasm (1976). Her trilogy of documentary film essays on lesbian and gay history – Nitrate Kisses (1992), Tender Fiction (1995) and History Lessons (2000) – received numerous awards and was given an international theatrical release. Nitrate Kisses famously broke the taboo on lesbian sexual desire by showing two older women making love as well as images of bondage, piercing and SM. The early 2000s saw Hammer draw on the politics of resistance in World War II, with Resisting Paradise (2003) and Love Other (2006).
Getting her life and work in order, partly because of her cancer and partly because of the book and retrospective, seems to have been very cathartic for Hammer, but it has thrown a few surprises her way. She has found some ‘orphans’: films that she has uncovered in her archive that have never been projected or seen the light of day. One in particular captures the imagination: in 1975 she drove to Guatemala – ‘on my 750cc white BMW motorcycle with my 16mm Bolex strapped on the back luggage rack’ – where she shot a local market place full of indigenous women. She wants to return to the same village and reshoot the film in the same locations. Sounds great, especially if that white BMW bike is dug up too. Apparently, there are more ‘orphans waiting to be embraced’, presenting an incredibly exciting opportunity for Hammer, and her audience, to consider this new work in her canon.
Jump to present day: Tate Modern’s important, month-long retrospective of Hammer’s work will be launched with the UK premiere of 2011’s Teddy Award-winning short film, Maya Deren’s Sink (2011), a tribute to Deren’s long-standing influence on the artist. Deren has frequently been cited by Hammer as her film mentor; similarly Hammer has become, over the years, a huge mentor to many women. She is of the ‘let’s get organised’ 70s women’s-lib generation, and because of this, feels like a breath of fresh air every time she enters a room. Animated, flirtatious and always curious, she is currently mentoring a young ‘pierced, tattooed, shaven-headed’ filmmaker, who is hand-processing a 16mm film that they have just made together called Generations – 2 Bolex Dykes.
The Tate retrospective will include screenings of early, rarely seen Super-8 films; her central body of film work; special events featuring artists and speakers from across Europe and North America; and, surely, the highlight, a free, live performance in the Turbine Hall. It will hopefully be a reprise of the outstanding event that saw Hammer literally shine at the 2009 Berlinale, where she performed an expanded, early cinema piece from 1979 called Available Space at the Hamburger Bahnhof, re-naming it The Changing Space of Film: Available Space and Bent Time.
It was interesting for a younger audience to see her in this new (but early career) context, and it was certainly clear that Hammer was in her element pushing around a 16mm projector on a trolley, while dressed in a reflective silver suit. ‘I was a performance artist when I became a filmmaker,’ she explains. ‘I was doing performance in Berkeley in a team, we called ourselves Double Strength. We performed on trapezes and often in the nude; we didn’t think that a costume could show what we were about, so much of which was the physical body.’
It is this physicality that is at the heart of Hammer’s practice – her lesbian aesthetic, as she calls it. ‘The development of touch and sight as my aesthetic, which comes from physically touching a woman whose body is similar to your own, reinforcing your sense of touch, made my cinema haptic, kinetic, sensational in the Jungian use of the word â€œsensaeâ€, as a form of intelligence. I think that is what I have developed the most in my life, a physical ability to project a sense of touch on the screen.’
Hammer’s own connection with her lesbian sexuality happened around the same time as she started making films, and she put many of her partners in her work. ‘Sex with a woman changed my life,’ she states. ‘Making love with a woman directly influenced my filmmaking. My cinema followed with a desire to make the audience feel their bodies as they watched my films.’ As to what’s in store for Hammer in the years ahead, her cancer in remission, she says she wants to take up gardening, and draws on the example of avant-garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka, who teaches cooking in his film classes. ‘Why? Because you don’t have to have cancer to know that life is so rich and has so much to offer, and to spend all your time in the dark room looking at the screen is taking away from the vibrancy of the growing life, and the sun, and the rains, and the seasons. This incredible global world and the people who inhabit it, that is so different culturally. Why stick to a one-screen studio?’
Selina Robertson & Jonathan Keane