A movement that started gaining traction in the 1990s in the world of independent filmmaking, New Queer Cinema continued the tradition of queer cinema that had been championed by pioneers like Jean Cocteau and Chantal Akerman among others. Works from this period were characterised by their subversive treatment of heteronormative narratives and conventional discourses concerning gender identities.
One of the pioneers of the movement, Jennie Livingston said: “Speaking as a queer person, on one hand, seeing yourself reflected is very powerful. But I do think the way that people take on and appropriate and assume that they can know something when all they’ve done is see one movie is dangerous. Which is something I was thinking about with Paris Is Burning. I could have never predicted that the film was going to have a long life, and that many queer people and straight people who weren’t from that world would feel entitled to the language and culture.”
Livingston continued, “I think the danger is that people will feel they know something they don’t, and that because they think they know it, they don’t need to be conscious or try to make things safer for people who are from that world. Can you turn the knowledge you have from seeing a movie into direct action? Certainly the hope is that with visibility, people will. But it’s not enough to say, ‘I love those queens. I saw them in a movie. I don’t need to worry about the fact that people are being murdered.’”
In this edition of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we revisit the immensely important achievements of the seminal New Queer Cinema movement as a celebration of its incredible body of work.
10 essential films from the New Queer Cinema movement:
Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden – 1983)
Considered to be a feminist masterpiece, Born in Flames conceptualises a fictional version of the United States where the governmental regime is a socialist democracy. Fuelled by the fires of a romantic revolution, the film investigates issues of race, gender, sexuality and class in an alternate framework.
“After Born in Flames, I realised a lot about how the structure of a movie affects an audience. That movie was structured the way it was for various reasons: lack of money, having to shoot things over five years as opposed to being able to do it all at one time. A lot of the complaints I got about Born in Flames – I got complaints about everything-had to do with the structure. People felt it should have been more of a story. They found it hard to understand,” Borden admitted.
Kiss of the Spider Woman (Héctor Babenco – 1985)
A brilliant film adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman stars William Hurt as a prison inmate who forms a deep bond with his cellmate. The film ended up earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Film while Hurt won the Oscar as well as the BAFTA for Best Actor.
Babenco stated: “I think that filmmakers are all the time more responsible for the society they live in. My responsibility is with the Brazilian public and not the American or European one. I make films that fit into my critical vision of the world. If it is successful in other markets then that is good because more people can see my point of view.”
Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs – 1989)
Marlon Riggs’ seminal 1989 documentary combines documentary footage with poetry to explore the world of gay black men. It is a groundbreaking work of art that highlights how the pernicious evils of homophobia and racism contribute to an overwhelming marginalisation.
Riggs revealed, “In a way all the poetry that was coming out by black gay men inspired Tongues Untied. About two years before I made this, a number of voices had started to speak out in a very eloquent fashion and in a very different way from what you would expect.
“Around 1985-86 the primary means of expression for black gay men and a black gay identity was through poetry — using all forms and all kinds of expression. I saw one anthology after another of black gay voices in poetry, short stories, and experimental essay forms. All this seemed interesting material for a documentary.”
Looking for Langston (Isaac Julien – 1989)
Based on the life of the great American poet Langston Hughes, Looking for Langston is an experimental thesis on gay identity. Through the use of impressionistic elements and real footage from Harlem in the ’20s, Julien creates a fascinating investigation of identity and sexuality.
“If someone was to approach me and to ask me what is my work about, I would say that I’m a poet, that I’m interested in poetry,” Julien elaborated. “Looking For Langston is a poetic documentary and meditation on a poet of the Harlem Renaissance called Langston Hughes… It was very much an artistic statement around black gay desire.”
Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston – 1990)
One of the more famous entries on this list, Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary provides invaluable insights into New York’s dizzying ball culture. It is a transgressive masterpiece that records the philosophical nuances related to the drag community and the marginalised groups who find subjectivity through it.
Livingston reflected, “Our community has a lot of self-hate. We have a lot of difficulty feeling okay about ourselves. I think with each generation, we hope to have it a little easier than the last. I think that’s another value of the film: People can rally around it and have a lot of love for those in the ball scene and for themselves.”
Adding, “While on the set of Pose, this woman told me she was trans, and seeing Octavia Saint Laurent was what enabled her to imagine that she could transition. I hope that is Paris Is Burning’s legacy. You make a film to make a film, but if it can actually have an impact, that’s incredible.”
Poison (Todd Haynes – 1991)
Influenced by the works of Jean Genet, Poison is a sci-fi horror film which features three intersecting narratives told with postmodern sensibilities. Now regarded as a cult classic, Haynes indulges in an interesting commentary about the human condition through stories about sexuality and human depravity.
Haynes once said, “I felt that it was so sad to be weak and apologetic about who we were as a result of AIDS when the fucking society was letting us die. So it was like, ‘Look around, people don’t give a shit about you.’ If the only power we have is the power to upset that norm, then let’s use it and not try to iron it out.”
Blue (Derek Jarman – 1993)
Derek Jarman‘s final and greatest masterpiece, Blue, is undoubtedly one of the most experimental films from the New Queer Cinema movement. It is a haunting translation of Jarman’s experiences at the end of his life when he could only see things in shades of blue due to the crippling effects of AIDS.
Jarman explained, ”I wanted to convey some of what I’d seen, and the disaster of which I’ve been living through of the last few years. I mean for instance, last Thursday, I was in the hospital, and there was a mom with a two-year-old child who’s got the same infection in the eyes as I have, I couldn’t…
“I sat and watched as I waited, it was just quite terrible, honestly, you know, I was thinking of this child, you know, that’s all happening and people don’t see it, and they don’t think about it very often, and I hope the film sort of makes people think about that just for a moment.”
Totally Fucked Up (Gregg Araki – 1993)
The first addition to the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, Araki’s 1993 drama follows the misadventures of four gay boys and a lesbian couple who struggle to fit into an oppressive heteronormative society. Totally Fucked Up is not only an interesting exploration of sexuality but also an important chronicle of the absurdity of youth.
“The Queer New Wave wasn’t truly a new wave in the sense of the French New Wave,” the filmmaker explained. “Those filmmakers sat in a room and came up with this idea that they were going to create a certain type of cinema. For us, for all of us—and I know almost all of those [queer] filmmakers because we all met at, like, Sundance, and Berlin—it was never truly a ‘movement’ in that sense. It was just a bunch of us who were all approximately the same age and very passionate about independent cinema.”
MURDER and murder (Yvonne Rainer – 1996)
Winner of the Best Documentary Award at the Berlin Film Festival, MURDER and murder is a powerful intersection of comedy, romance and political energy. It features a middle-aged lesbian couple and their struggles after one of them develop breast cancer.
Rainer recalled, “I had been exposed to European art films and the New American Cinema, structuralist cinema, and I just saw film as offering greater possibilities for my interests. I got a Guggenheim [grant] in 1969 and I began to make haphazard scripts dealing with a group of dancers. I made a performance and a film on this $10,000 grant. So I was launched into filmmaking—the story in short.”
The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye – 1996)
Regarded as the first feature-length film which depicts the condition of black lesbians that is written and directed by a member of the community, The Watermelon Woman is one of the most influential films from the New Queer Cinema movement. It won the Teddy Award at the Berlin Film Festival and is now archived by the Museum of Modern Art.
“For me it was never, ‘in to be out.’ I was never, ‘in.’ I was always, ‘out.’ So it’s very important not to hide aspects of yourself,” Dunye said. “I don’t think I ever did. I never subtracted any of the titles of who I am from the work that I do. I wanted to have the ability not just to tell the ‘Black lesbian’ story but to tell everybody’s story—especially if it’s a powerful one, one that’s about the people.”