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Interview with Vivienne Dick: Punk, Art, Politics and Feminism

She Had Her Gun All Ready
She Had Her Gun All Ready

London Short Film Festival

10 – 19 January 2014

London, UK

LSFF website

Irish filmmaker Vivienne Dick looks far younger than her 63 years with her short thick hair and forceful stare. When we met in a pub in London before Christmas, I was reminded of film critic Jim Hoberman’s 1980 article on her No Wave films, where he wrote about her ‘obsession with female macho’. Cut to 2010: at the time of Vivienne’s major retrospectives, perhaps echoing Hoberman, there were articles written entitled ‘Dick Flicks’ and ‘Dicking Around’. This ruffles, because, if anything, her work, then as now, is rigorously gendered and firmly rooted in French feminism. Since the heady days of 1970s radical art and feminist thought, the bright lights have certainly gone out in New York’s Lower East Side, and Ireland’s Celtic Tiger has bottomed. Despite this, Vivienne’s films remain consistently uncompromising and consciously connect the personal with the political, reminding today’s audience just how vital oppositional filmmaking is.

Born in Donegal in 1950, after a bout of global travelling Vivienne settled in New York’s Lower East Side in the mid-70s and became friends with a group of artists whose connection to music and a radical punk aesthetic suited her own emerging politics. Conjuring up the spirit of Maya Deren and 60s underground filmmakers such as Jack Smith and Marie Menken, her trangressive Super 8 shorts became known as No Wave films as she turned a fresh Warholian camera on intimate performances and (at the time, underground) New Wave music from her friends such as Lydia Lunch and Pat Place. Some of her key films from this time are Guérillière Talks (1978) and She Had Her Gun All Ready (1978), both of which had an influence on 80s feminist filmmakers Lizzie Borden and Bette Gordon. In the early 80s, she marked her return to Ireland with a biting satire on her birth country’s shameless tourism called Visibility Moderate (1981). She relocated to London in the mid-80s and became involved in the London Filmmakers Coop. In 1990, she made a film about her friends and London’s cultural diversity called London Suite (Getting Sucked In) . Then in the mid-90s she moved back to Galway to teach, make films and raise a family. Finally, last year she settled in Dublin and turned back to making films full time.

In anticipation of the UK premiere of Vivienne Dick’s new film The Irreducible Difference of the Other presented by Club Des Femmes and Open City Docs at the London Short Film Festival on 11 January 2014, which the filmmaker will attend, Selina Robertson of Club Des Femmes talked to her about art, politics, feminism and No Wave film.

For information on screening times and tickets for the premiere of The Irreducible Difference of the Other, visit the ICA website.

Selina Robertson: You always pick strong titles for your films. Can you tell us how you came to find the title for your new film The Irreducible Difference of the Other?

Vivienne Dick: The title comes from the writings of Luce Irigaray, whose work I am very interested in. Woman is the primordial Other, but otherness can be displaced in colonialism, and war, and through caste and class. We have to find a new way of relating to the Other which is not based on dominance and brute force.

In The Irreducible Difference of the Other, we are taken on a personal journey through many portals: literature, song, poetry, performance, pop music, landscape, gardening, welding, the Arab Spring, war, politics in Ireland and feminism. On first viewing, the film unfolds like a collage – where or what was your starting point?

The starting point was war, vulnerability and otherness. I set out to make a film that would be very open to different pathways or directions. It can be a risky way to work because it is only when you are editing that it begins to coalesce. Fortunately the Arts Council in Ireland is still willing to fund work like this.

Three artists, Olwen Fouéré, Antonin Artaud and Anna Akhmatova are woven into the narrative. How do they relate to each other in the context of the film?

Olwen performs Antonin Artaud and channels, rather than plays, Anna Akhmatova. I see Artaud as a seer for this century. With all the technology we have in our hands we seem to be killing each other with ever more ferocity. It seems to me there is a connection between our treatment of the Other and our treatment of the planet. We all belong equally to nature and culture.

For the London Short Film Festival programme, we asked you to pick another one of your films and you chose one of your early No Wave films She Had Her Gun All Ready from 1978. In what way do you see the films as companion pieces?

She Had Her Gun All Ready is about relationship. The two main characters are performed by Lydia Lunch and Pat Place. I have been interested in the politics of relationship from when I first began to make films.

Your No Wave Super 8 films were so incredibly cool. They captured an underground punk art scene in downtown NYC as well as critiquing patriarchy, power, capitalism and gender relations. Can you expand on how your feminism and politics today connect with your filmmaking practice?

I have many of the same concerns I had when I began making films almost 40 years ago. I am going back to researching prehistory and images of women. It is about using images as a creative impetus for change. The starting point for new work is often people I meet, or a place, or music. I was in Cairo recently and would like to get to know the city and culture better.

Interview by Selina Robertson

Music and rebels at Rotterdam 2010

Red, White and Blue

International Rotterdam Film Festival

26 January – 6 February 2010

IRFF website

Indie punk horror rules in Rotterdam

If the term ‘slacker revenge’ seem oxymoronic, tell that to Simon Rumley, director of festival discovery Red White and Blue, a film featuring some nifty genre-shifting and a killer soundtrack, which set the tone for a Rotterdam festival featuring many musical delights.

Set in Austin, Texas, Red White and Blue starts as a character study of the ravenously promiscuous Erica, whose existence consists of picking up random men in bars and trying to hold on to the cleaning job at the guest house where she stays. Despite her frosty attitude, a tentative friendship blossoms with fellow lodger Nate, who, as it’s quickly apparent, is both disapproving and slightly unhinged.

Cut back to punk hipster Franki, an earlier Erica conquest, trying to get his band a European tour, giving his boss grief at his burger-flipping job, and looking after his ailing mother. On her death, Franki and Erica’s paths become entwined again in a twist that would jump out as controversy-baiting, had the preceding scenes not treated the characters in such a non-judgmental way.

From then the film shifts gear, unleashing a vicious streak of inventive violence that will satisfy gore-seekers (death by gaffa tape – the ultimate indie way to go?) but still retain the less squeamish brand of cinephile. ‘I liked the idea of making a horror film that people would enjoy but wasn’t an out-and-out horror film; almost subverting the concept of what is scary and what makes people disturbed,’ Rumley says. ‘With Red, White and Blue, it was about how to make a film with a killer, who’s not a traditional killer in that they don’t go round with a knife. I thought the idea of a person who uses their body as their lethal weapon was an interesting place to start.’

To talk more about the plot would spoil the film’s unfolding, but we can say much of the charm lies in the snappy pacing, a certain austerity of tone and an impeccable sense of place. Authentic feel was an important factor for Brit Rumley: ‘New York, LA and London all have their scenes. They’re different and they’re punk in their own way. There’s an Austin look too. It’s very much earth mother punk – a lot of tattoos, a lot of long hair, a lot of big beards. Marc Senter (who played Franki), is from LA and I don’t think he’d ever been to Austin before. We were discussing how the character and the band in the script are basically punk. I was saying I maybe wanted him blonde, and he was saying, “I see him more as Iggy Pop”, which I disagreed with. So I took him to Emo’s, the club in the opening scene. When I was filming there I saw the New York Dolls, Henry Rollins and Gallows play. It’s a very punky club. We went down the first evening he was in Austin, and he was like, “Oh my God, OK, now I totally understand what you mean”.’

The addition of Franki’s feather earrings, alongside a soundtrack of unknown Austin bands seals the film’s world. ‘While it’s not necessarily the look I would go for, I think a lot of people there look really cool. I was trying to recreate that,’ states Rumley.

Read Kate Taylor’s feature on Redmond Entwistle’s short film Monuments, which also screened at Rotterdam.

Further subversive slackers

This seam of music and a stylised discontented youth was highlighted most obviously in two other films with indie credentials and unlikely genres: Hiroshima (hyper-realist/surrealist slacker) and The Sentimental Engine Slayer (slacker incest fantasy).

In Hiroshima – Pablo Stoll’s Uruguayan paean to the joys of the discman – we follow unemployed Juan as he drifts through a day of encounters with friends, family and a life drawing class. There is very little dialogue, and what there is is delivered through witty use of intertitles, while the film plays with its post-punk audio to cracking effect. It’s a film that’s in no hurry, and occasionally drifts out of interest, yet it packs a surprising amount in. And the opening scene sets a stylish tone that will swell the heart of any music fan with a pair of headphones in their pocket.

The directorial debut of Omar Rodriguez Lopez (of At The Drive-In and Mars Volta fame), The Sentimental Engine Slayer is a psychedelic odyssey with an enviable score and an El Paso setting shot with dizzying urgency by Michael Rizzi. However, the scenario, of which has Barlam (played by Lopez) as an unlikely virgin geek with a crush on his drug-addicted sister, is way too pleased with its characters to fulfill its premise. Thus an exploration of the transgressions of grief and resulting sexual confusion falls lazily into a hateful machismo that regales us with the philosophy that ‘all that matters is pussy’, bolstered by a string of violent transactions with prostitutes, while the plot gets tangled in its own quasi-experimental flourishes.

Let Each One Go Where He May

Cinematic sound delights

Aural pleasures with post-rock flavour were to be found in the bursts of indie distortion from Thai musician The Photo Sticker Machine in Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Mundane History. A Tiger award- winner, the film makes a choppy segue from a delicate relationship drama unfolding between an sick young man and his nurse into a full-on existentialist romp complete with journey into the sun and full birthing scene.

Bursts of ska, Spanish ballads and the Country & Western of a prison request radio show set a quirky tone that punctures the often brutal world of Samson & Delilah, an emotional punch in the face of a film about two Aboriginal petrol-sniffin’ misfits trying to get by. While momentarily undermined by the inclusion of a bombastic cover of David Gray’s ‘Nightblindness’, much of the score was composed and played by director Warwick Thornton and his children.

A beautiful moment of non-diegetic sound occurs in Ben Russell’s experimental FIPRESCI winner Let Each One Go Where He May. The film consists of 13 ten-minute takes, as a Steadycam follows brothers Benjen and Monie Pansa going about life in Suriname. Using the language of visual anthropology with a fine art sensibility, it becomes a work about ways of seeing and the viewer’s relationship with the observed. In one shot we are looking back at the crowded rows of passengers on a bus, when a woman takes the seat directly facing the lens. There is a palpable sense of the brothers trying not to smile or acknowledge the camera, and then some music starts (composed by Monie himself), and for a few minutes the bus bounces around in an upbeat rhythm and with a shy joy as Monie puts on his best poker -face and looks out the window; his expression that of a man in a film pretending to be a man who is in a film but doesn’t know it.

While festival scheduling meant that the Where Is Africa? focus at IFFR started as many delegates were heading home, it felt timely that several of the wider festival’s standouts were set on the continent including Claire Denis’s superb White Material and the Tiger award- winning short Atlantiques by Mati Diop (herself the star of Denis’s earlier 35 Shots of Rum).

Live performance and furniture humping

On the live front, the festival offered eclectic pleasures, including Lovid’s mind-warping circuit-bending AV performance Light from the Dark Ages, and the soul-nourishing experience of Luke Fowler’s 16mm accompaniment to Alasdair Roberts’s folk singing. Both occurred in the Break Even Store, a pop-up concept shop selling filmmakers’ books and DVDs and hosting talks and happenings throughout the festival.

Sonic experiments from Mike Cooper fused with Greg Pope’s projections in Cipher Screen, a slow build of dots and scratches: a tasty piece of expanded cinema that, while not ground-breaking, did the trick of talking to the brain with a language that only live projections can achieve. It was a fitting highlight in the closing programme of Kino Climates, a summit of independent cinemas from across Europe (including the UK’s Cube, Star and Shadow, Side and 7Inch Cinema), which discussed the future of alternative exhibition.

Finally there was Cameron Jamie’s short film Massage the History. ‘The single greatest dance film ever made!’ ‘Better than The Red Shoes!’ So proclaimed a hyperventilating Harmony Korine (in town pimping his own Trash Humpers with such oddball gusto that people were walking out during the introduction), taking time out to whip the crowd into a frenzy for Jamie’s premiere.

It’s a mind-boggling piece, based on a group of tattooed young black men in Montgomery, Alabama, that Jamie first encountered online. Bored and surrounded by soft furnishings, they make up little erotic dance routines, occasionally don white gloves, and basically hump the armchairs in a semi-balletic fashion. Jamie’s addition of a Sonic Youth soundtrack elevated the would-be YouTube curio to a warped state of grace.

Kate Taylor