A couple of years ago my producer and I were attending film festivals trying to raise money for our next project. We had scheduled a meeting with a successful sales agent in Berlin and were feeling quietly optimistic. They liked me, liked the script, liked our previous film and had successfully distributed similar titles. The meeting seemed to be going well, when the sales agent said, “You know, we would love to work with you. But we know from experience that lesbian films just don’t make any money.”
“But it’s not really a lesbian film, is it?” I said, confused, as our new project didn’t feature any lesbian characters. “Well, you’re a lesbian director: that’s your fan base,” she responded, referring to the fact that my first feature Break My Fall centered around a disintegrating lesbian relationship. “We won’t be able to market you to a straight audience, and the fact is that lesbian audiences just don’t spend money on their own culture. They will download the film illegally, they will share and lend one copy of the DVD amongst a group of friends, they will beg free cinema tickets to the opening night, but they will not put money into supporting their own culture.”
Although she loved our script and liked us, this woman was not prepared to take a risk. She would not dig deep for a film that would probably never return her investment. Even more depressingly, she herself is an out lesbian. I couldn’t help but notice the irony of her arguing that lesbians won’t support their own whilst at the same time refusing to fund a lesbian creative team.
Needless to say, I have since spent many hours pondering her career-destroying pronouncement and I have to admit she has a point. I would actually go further and say that lesbians will only support our own (film) culture when it’s been endorsed and sold back to us by the straight world.
An obvious example of this is the television series The L Word. Although it featured queer women behind the scenes, only a small minority of its cast resembled the true diversity of our community in terms of gender presentation, body shape, fashion sense or racial/cultural heritage. In doing so, it presented a sanitised and hetero-friendly (read shame-proof) version of lesbian life. Or how about handing the reins of power over to someone who doesn’t identify as a lesbian at all, in order to increase the project’s chances of success? Blue Is the Warmest Colour and Carol are just two recent examples of films based upon original stories by lesbian writers that were filtered through a non-lesbian lens.
The rare examples of lesbian films* that do break out often have an in-built hetero-friendly factor that renders the film unthreatening to the wider culture. Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, for example, is centred on middle-class/middle-aged white parents (played by famous, non-lesbian actors) with a plot that revolves around one of them sleeping with a male friend.
Is this internalised lesbophobia, the shame of being the only lesbian in the schoolyard following us into adulthood? Is it the much touted fact that lesbians are economically worse off, having to save our pennies for necessities such as rent, food and sex toys? Or is it that age-old female jealousy and competitiveness, caused by the scarcity of power and success available to women in general and lesbians in particular, being played out in the cultural arena? Why are we so afraid to go out on a limb and spend money on our fellow lady lesbians’ offerings until we get the OK from the boys’ club of mainstream culture? And what about gay men – how come they’re so good at supporting their own? Hell, they can make it without the straight world even getting a sniff of what they’re up to, whereas we need the approval (and bountiful finance) of the non-lesbian world just to get our projects off the ground.
Not long after that fateful Berlin meeting, I was in Cannes, meeting with another potential sales agent, with a different project. This time it was a clearly lesbian story. I allowed myself to get excited: here we could knowingly tap into my apparently already proven ‘lesbian fan base’. But there was another problem. They loved me, they loved the script and loved my first film, but one of the main characters was a Black butch lesbian. Couldn’t I just make her white?
“No, why should I?” “Well, it’s going to be hard to sell because it’s not a black film and it’s not a white film. I mean, no one will want to go and see something that isn’t clearly one or the other.” “But it’s a film set in London – a city known for it’s multicultural mix.” If I took out all the non-white characters it wouldn’t be authentic, and one of the things you apparently like about me is my authentic vision.” “Yes, but the black community won’t buy it because it’s so queer, and the lesbian community won’t buy it because they just don’t spend money, and the white community won’t buy it because it’s gay and black and…” Arghhhh!
For me, making films is about telling stories. Being a film director requires one to have unshakeable self-belief and a strong sense of one’s own authority. The lack of validation and support that all minority filmmakers receive from the wider culture increases the feelings of isolation, invisibility and the lack of self-actualisation we’ve most likely already experienced during childhood. This perpetuates the idea that our stories (i.e. our lives, our feelings, our concerns) are not relevant to audiences outside our own communities.
As we were preparing Break My Fall for release, I was asked to make several changes in order to make the film more appealing to a lesbian audience. Apparently lesbians wouldn’t find scenes featuring the two male best friend characters interesting. The 12-minute sex scene was cut down to seven minutes in case it made lesbian audiences ‘uncomfortable’ (break-up sex between two people who were screaming at each other moments before isn’t actually supposed to be cosy viewing). I was asked to take out violent scenes between the two girlfriends – despite the fact that, since it was a film about an abusive relationship, those scenes were integral to the plot – and add in as many funny scenes as I could. Apparently lesbian audiences want comedy, not uncomfortable emotions, but it’s not easy to make a funny film about an abusive relationship falling apart. Compromising one’s vision is always hard, but I wanted the film to be seen, so I swallowed hard, made the cuts and signed on the dotted line.
So who is this mythical lesbian audience that wants comedy and glamour and romance as long as they don’t have to pay for it? And why am I, as an artist and a storyteller, forced to give into their whims? It all feels uncomfortably like being bullied for not fitting in, whilst at the same time being marginalised into a group where our only commonality is our sexual orientation. This mythical audience has been used to manipulate me, as if it is right that my career and my creative output are based upon needing their approval.
Following successful meetings at last year’s London Film Festival I was again denied industry funding for my next project and privately told that I should try crowd funding, the implication being that I should go off and pan-handle for change from other disenfranchised lesbians rather than benefitting from industry support and validation like the ‘real’ filmmakers. But isn’t it time for the industry to start taking responsibility and stop perpetuating the idea that diverse stories aren’t valuable beyond a niche market?
If more of us had a hand in how we are represented, the true richness and diversity of our lives would finally be out there for all to see. Then we would no longer experience shame and denial over being shown as anything other than happy, beautiful and successful. Like the stories told by those with privilege and its accompanying sense of entitlement, our stories could be evaluated based on their shared humanity rather than marginalised for their perceived difference.
*For the purpose of this piece I am defining a lesbian film as a film written and directed by an out lesbian director and also featuring lesbian characters and/or stories. This is not to invalidate those important films that do authentically portray lesbian lives despite not being made by lesbians or those lesbian directors who have been forced to code the lesbian stories into their work, or were unable to be out in their public lives.
I also want to acknowledge here that I have used terms such as ‘lesbian’ and ‘woman’ as I am writing from my personal experiences where I have been defined externally as a lesbian and a woman. It is not my intention to exclude those people who share these experiences, but may not fit the conventional definitions assumed by those words.
Kanchi Wichmann is a British filmmaker based in Berlin. Her debut feature film Break My Fall (2011) was made without funding or industry support and was the first ever British lesbian film to get a cinema release in the UK. It currently has distribution in over 20 territories. For more information on the film, check www.breakmyfall.co.uk and our Facebook page.
With thanks to Simone Helleren and Linster Sangster