Nearly 30 Years Later, Filmmakers Reflect on the Birth of New Queer Cinema — and Offer Their Visions for the Future

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Panelists participate in the original "Barbed Wire Kisses" panel at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. ©1992 Sundance Institute | Photo by Sandria Miller

During the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, scholar and critic B. Ruby Rich took the stage in Park City to host a panel discussion that delved into an important chapter in independent film history that was just then unfolding. Assembled for the conversation — titled “Barbed-Wire Kisses” by the Festival’s then-director, Alberto Garcia — were preeminent artists and writers like Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien, Tom Kalin, Jennie Livingston, Marlon Riggs, Sadie Benning, and Lisa Kennedy.

Set against the backdrop of George H.W. Bush’s presidency and the devastation wreaked by the AIDS epidemic, the original panel centered on a group of films that Rich dubbed “New Queer Cinema,” a collection of contemporaneous works that were made by and for LGBTQ+ audiences; were notable for their radical and often collage-like aesthetic; and weren’t afraid to talk about issues like race and class. Features like Araki’s The Living End, Haynes’s Poison, and Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston were a departure from earlier films made about but not necessarily by the community, sanitized for mainstream consumption.

Isaac Julien and Derek Jarman at the 1992 Festival. © 1992 Sundance Institute | Photo by Sandria Miller

It was a watershed moment, with members of the panel ranging from 18 (Benning) to 50 (Jarman, the “godfather” of the group): In fact, there were reportedly so many artists in attendance that a roll call was taken. And in the years that followed the Festival would go on to be graced by a whole new generation of LGBTQ+ filmmakers — among them, artists like Silas Howard (By Hook or by Crook, A Kid Like Jake), Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, The Kids Are All Right), Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman, Stranger Inside), and Andrew Ahn (Spa Night).

Earlier this year, during the 2021 Festival, just days after the mobbing of the U.S. Capitol and days before President Donald Trump left office — and against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic — Rich returned via Zoom to assemble “Barbed-Wire Kisses Redux,” a virtual panel that brought together early New Queer Cinema filmmakers Araki, Julien, Kalin, and Rose Troche, alongside Howard, Cholodenko, Dunye, and Ahn, who brought us up to the present and offered a look at the future.

Watch the full hourlong conversation below, and read some of our favorite takeaways.



ON PUTTING TOGETHER THE ORIGINAL PANEL:

B. RUBY RICH: “There were very few women filmmakers working in queer cinema at that time outside of short video pieces, which was why Sadie Benning was on the panel, because she was doing those tiny little Fisher-Price video pieces then. And Lisa Kennedy, who was my editor at The Village Voice, was also on that panel.”

GREGG ARAKI: “The name ‘Barbed Wire Kisses’ is actually from a Jesus and Mary Chain album. That was popular; I remember [former programmer Alberto García] and our whole gang of people were listening to it a lot at that time. And that's kind of it.”

ON WHAT WAS HAPPENING IN 1992:

BRR: “We were in the 12th year of the Reagan-Bush regime. We had 12 years of Republican rule, and we were still in the white-hot heat of the AIDS epidemic. There was not yet a cure. The cocktail would not be invented for about another five years, and it was a time of immense despair and immense energy. I think that this panel really marked a moment when people began to take stock of what was going on — what was happening to the queer community.

I think that this panel really marked a moment when people began to take stock of what was going on — what was happening to the queer community.

—B. Ruby Rich

“People were kind of bloodied from these years of attack coming out of Washington under two different presidents and had no idea that there was about to be a change at any time soon. And so I think it's a fitting moment to be bringing you now in 2021, when we are just hopefully leaving another horrific regime and beginning to figure out, in the midst of a very different pandemic, the COVID pandemic, what on earth is going on and how can film inspire us.”

TOM KALIN: “I was just thinking about COVID and AIDS. At the height of the AIDS crisis, we could only talk about how many people died per hour. So we were shocked that one AIDS death every hour, or two AIDS deaths every hour, and now we're living in a situation where people are dying by the minute — thousands and thousands of people are dying on a daily basis. So that feels familiar. Obviously COVID and AIDS are not the same moment at all, but it's striking to think that George Bush was our major antagonist in ’92, and we couldn't imagine a president as terrible as the one that's leaving office now; it was a really energizing time.”

SILAS HOWARD: “I'm kind of obsessed with this time because it was, I guess, my coming-of-age time. I moved to San Francisco at, like 18, 19 years old. And I was part of the generation that wasn't blindsided by AIDS but was raised in it. So this was sort of the landscape of coming out was meeting all these mentors and then seeing them that were a bit older than myself and seeing them die. And so it added urgency to everything.”

ON THE BIRTH OF NEW QUEER CINEMA:

ISAAC JULIEN: “I think it was a groundswell tipping-point moment. It was a moment where basically, along with our American comrades, we were sort of at the forefront, with Derek Jarman as a sort of godfather. … We were really thinking about film as a kind of tool with which we were able to arm ourselves to challenge the kind of normative stereotypical, and the boring aspects that we thought about in relationship to gay cinema, so to speak. New Queer Cinema was in a way a sort of aesthetic strategy of trying to both contest and undo all of those sort of aspects and so on that we felt were missing.”

Isaac Julien’s “Young Soul Rebels.”

GA: “The thing I always just say … is that there was no orchestrated ‘new wave’ in terms of the way the French New Wave was sort of planned. [With the French New Wave] there was a manifesto, and it was a group of filmmakers getting together. This was more just like everybody sort of working in London or San Francisco or New York or LA, all energized by the same things. The idea was energized by the same thing that was energizing Queer Nation and ACT Up — just the outrage and anger and the frustration and the despair, and turning that via art into these really potent documents.”

ROSE TROCHE: “I was in ACT Up and Queer Nation, and Go Fish would not have happened outside of the anger we were all feeling, and outside of feeling outside of the activism, outside of feeling invisible. There was a sense of this lesbian invisibility at that time, and Go Fish was definitely a film that was responding to that moment.”

ON THEIR EARLY SUNDANCE EXPERIENCES:

CHERYL DUNYE: “I remember coming to Sundance way, way… when it was still called the U.S. Film Festival with my shorts. I had no idea what it was, but I was very excited to be kind of the first African American lesbian who was out who was making work.”

LISA CHOLODENKO: “I just had sort of a mantra. I said, ‘You're gonna find somebody who's going to want to make this movie with you and give you money. And then you're gonna go to Sundance and somebody will buy it and you'll start a career and blah, blah blah.’ And it's kind of what happened. And it just was the sweet spot because I think that people were really interested in going to the next level of independent and queer and Black and outsider cinema.”

Lisa Cholodenko’s debut feature, “High Art.”

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY:

SH: “We couldn't fail because people expected nothing from us. There was no representation. So we had to build systems: Like, here's a cafe; here's a band. We just kind of took turns being the important person in the room. We made own thing because we were so rejected, especially being queer. You know, we really, we didn't fit in, gay or lesbian. We were the outsiders of the outsiders. It felt like that, anyway.”

We couldn't fail because people expected nothing from us. There was no representation. So we had to build systems.

—Silas Howard

SH: “I didn't get the memo that to be an independent filmmaker, you needed to be independently wealthy. So I was like, ‘How do you do this? How do you survive this?’ And it was really my community and doing everything backward, making a feature with no experience, going to film school to learn my craft, making another feature, then making a short, making whatever I could get my hands on… It was the community that greenlit me. And I realized at a certain point when I was getting to the age where I felt like I should have some security financially, and I didn't, but I had success because I was making work.”

ANDREW AHN: “It's so interesting for me, because I think for a lot of queer people, when you grow up, you feel like the only one — you feel like you're the first queer person. And it wasn't until I got older in college and in grad school that I had this education about New Queer Cinema, the folks in the films as a part of that movement, and a big part of it was because one of my grad school professors, Abigail Severance, has a connection to that community. She showed us By Hook or by Crook, and I watched Poison in her class.”

Silas Howard's 2001 film "By Hook or by Crook."

SH: “I think that community is still around on whatever platform that it takes shape on. I mean, I'm watching the pandemic Twitch drag shows, all kinds of Zoom live events. There was even a sex party on Zoom. That seems really interesting. Maybe still in beta, but you know, you saw the art find a way, because that's what we do.”

ON FIGHTING AGAINST COMPLACENCY:

AA: “I will say now, as a filmmaker in this phase of my career, I think a lot about the future and this kind of mainstreamification of culture — how that can and has abandoned like parts of our community that aren't necessarily cis, white, or privileged. I think about infrastructure and having to proactively build it. I think if we get lazy with it, right, we're like, ‘Oh, queer culture's gonna be fine,’ then it's just gonna turn into the most palatable, least challenging, unhealthy thing for us. It's just candy when we really need fiber.”

I think a lot about the future and this kind of mainstreamification of culture — how that can and has abandoned like parts of our community that aren't necessarily cis, white, or privileged.

—Andrew Ahn

RT: “I've been working on a feature for a long time, and inside of it is this notion of being first generation; there's this notion of over-assimilation pulling us away from our own true identities. I see that not only with myself as a Puerto Rican woman, but I see myself with that as someone who is queer, and queer as mainstream now, and being invited into the horrifying thing called marriage that's not worked for anybody, and I see a lot of my friends get married the same way. Look, I'm happy. I'm happy for people. I've officiated four weddings already and one divorce … but I just think that one has to remind themselves — and I ask myself this question all the time — "Where's my bite? Where's my confidence that I had?" I had a blind confidence when I was younger, and now I feel a little bit more scared at the same time and also want to shut myself into my comfortable pocket. Inside the comfortable pocket, great films are not made.”

LC: “One thing that queer cinema and New Queer Cinema did was really open the space of what's queer and what's weird. And I think it's not so narrow anymore. You know, I think people are freaky, and a great story well told is queer. It's weird. It's outsider. And I think that we're along with technology being so many things now.”

ON NEW FORMS OF STORYTELLING:

CD: “As technology and the outlets of these technological things are synergizing and merging and people are having access to them, queer or not queer, Android, merged identities, we'll start seeing this work that's out of this world. I think the kind of advances with this technology getting in the hands of individuals and again with the spirit of defining their own community, putting themselves in the picture, I think that is in a box alone to a virtual identity. I think that's the next gen that's coming out.”

Rose Troche’s 2017 VR project “If Not Love.”

AA: “Because of access, people can make images, can make film and video in various ways so much more easily now. And I think it's a very intimate, personal process. I think for me, the biggest thing is to think about how that can grow and how people can get connected in meaningful ways that create additional opportunities. I think that especially because of the pandemic, we all kind of had to focus on ourselves and had to find ways of expressing ourselves. And I think post-pandemic, it'll be a question of how can we reconnect? How can we collaborate? How can we build?”


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Lead photo:

Panelists participate in the original "Barbed Wire Kisses" panel at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. ©1992 Sundance Institute | Photo by Sandria Miller