Two British queer films for Halloween
for two weeks from 30 October
'The Mark of Lilith' (Bruna Fionda, Polly Gladwin, Zach Mack-Nataf, 1986) and 'Sex, Lies, Religion' (Annette Kennerley, 1994) both flirt with sex and death as they confront some of the under-discussed and controversial currents of their filmmakers’ contemporary queer scenes: bisexuality in the former film, and the pleasures and perils of the lesbian underground in the latter. The films feature two of London’s finest cemeteries.
'The Mark of Lilith' and 'Sex, Lies, Religion' were made in the context of a vibrant experimental film scene in the capital which saw the short-lived blossoming of a plethora of groups that supported women filmmakers, including The London Film-Makers’ Co-op, Women in Sync and Women Challenge Film Education (founded by Fionda and Gladwin). These groups hosted lively discussions on feminist film theory and practice and provided equipment to facilitate shooting and editing. In 1997, Annette Kennerley and Zach Mack-Nataf founded London’s first International Transgender Film & Video Festival.
'The Mark of Lilith' was distributed by the feminist film and video organisation Circles, which became Cinenova in 1991 and now distributes both films. —D.S.
Programmed by Daniella Shreir
With major gratitude to Charlotte Procter at LUX/Cinenova, and to Selina Robertson for allowing us to republish her interview with Annette Kennerley.
'The Mark of Lilith', Bruna Fionda, Polly Gladwin, Zach Mack-Nataf (1986)
Due to financial and time-based constraints, this programme is only captioned in English. Future programmes will continue to include multilingual options
A white bisexual vampire, Lillia, is trapped in a monotonous cycle with her thoughtless, misogynist vampire partner, Luke (who, while also being a bisexual, prefers to devour women prey). Her encounter with Black lesbian Zena, who is reading about goddesses across religions and cultures and thinking about the horror film genre, pulls Lillia out of a state of bad faith into an enlightened state of knowledge and play.
'The Mark of Lilith' was the graduation film of Bruna Fionda, Polly Gladwin, Zach Mack-Nataf’s from The London College of Printing, under the tutorship of Laura Mulvey. The film was shot in Brixton and made with a cast and crew of local filmmakers, artists and activists.
The Mark of Lilith was digitally restored from the 16mm print by the BFI in 2021 and is included on the BFI Flipside Short Sharp Shocks Blu-ray release.
Interview with Bruna Fionda, Polly Gladwin, Zach Mack-Nataf
Dani – Can you speak a little about the background of the film? How did the three of you begin working together? Do you remember the discussions you were having that led up to the film’s conception?
Polly - Bruna and I met at The London Filmmakers Co-op and we went on to study film together at the London College of Printing. We set up a group called Women Challenge Film Education that brought together women from different colleges to provide a support system for women students. This is how we met Zach. We were all part of a close-knit group of women film students in South London, exploring feminist and lesbian issues. In 1984 we began to work as a trio on student projects, and in 1985 we made our graduation film, 'The Mark of Lilith'.
Bruna - The idea for the film arose while we were on holiday together in Italy. We realised we all had a thing for vampires. We all loved Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and David Bowie, and talked about wanting to pay homage to other vampire films including Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kumel, 1971), based on the 16th-century Countess Elizabeth Báthory, also known as the “Blood Countess”, a prodigious serial killer who murdered six hundred young women and girls.
While we found the queer, erotic pleasure of horror enjoyable, we were tired of seeing the woman characters as victims. We wanted to create a film whose heroines challenged that. We alighted on the vampire genre as we thought it was more open to lesbian-feminist subversion and that through it we would be able to tackle and think through notions of otherness while looking at sexuality, race, and gender issues. Subverting and challenging the rules of genre was crucial. We wanted to deconstruct and rescue the vampire from the status of pure aberrance and shift the onus back onto society. Only in a misogynist society could female power and sexuality be seen as a threat demanding repression.
Zach – I remember the suit-and-tie butch lesbian in the opening coach scene of Browning’s Dracula and being surprised to see her there. He seemed to be communicating to a particular gay or queer audience with visual content that could be read and understood fifty or more years after it was made. I only recently found out that the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker, the director of Dracula, Tod Browning, and the director of Nosferatu, F. W. Murnau, were all gay, which of course informed their aesthetics and subtexts.
Polly - We latched onto the idea of ‘revamping’ the vampire genre and so our production company ‘ReVamp Productions’ was born. Though we divided up tasks on the shoot, decisions were made collectively. Collaborative working was based on our feminist ideals.
Dani – Can you talk about the construction of the film’s narrative?
Polly – We wanted to keep characterisation and plot simple. Our film portrays the journey of Lillia to self-awareness, to defining her own sexuality. Lillia is a bisexual vampire dissatisfied by her relationship with her vampire partner, Luke, who kills women just for the pleasure of it, and longing for more. Then there is Zena – a lesbian researcher into women’s mythology who wants to know why the ancient goddesses in patriarchal religions are always turned into monsters. Zena has a didactic function in the film.
Lillia and Zena meet in the dream/film-within-a-film sequence, in which Lillia is playing the role of victim again. She is doubly trapped: in her life as a vampire and as part of the patriarchal apparatus of cinema. Lillia and Zena then meet in the “real”, non-filmic world, and Zena is able to “rescue” Lilith back from patriarchy.
The film was working on two levels, the vampire story of ‘otherness’, on the one hand, and the interrogation of film theory regarding control of the cinema, the male gaze and visual pleasure on the other…
Bruna – We wanted Lillia to transform the constraints of the genre. We based Lillia’s character on Lilith, first wife to Adam, who refused to make love under him. She wanted to be on top. Lilith is demonised in patriarchal religions. She ended up as the Lamia demon-woman, Lamia who entered men’s dreams, sucking their lifeblood and sending them ‘terrible’ fantasies.
Zach – Lillia was also informed by our thinking on bisexuality. At the time, I was grappling with the reality of the bisexual identity. Lillia starts out with a man with whom she has heterosexual sex. Having sex with Zena made her bisexual in that instance. Zena, while “saving” her from patriarchy and the male gaze, was also trying to seduce her into lesbianism.
I remember that some of the women I worked with in the context of women/feminist cinema and filmmaking were so women-identified that they seemed to present as ‘potentially’ bisexual or identified as 'political’ lesbians, without actually being bisexual or lesbian.
I realised that bisexuals exist as an identity, more than just being determined by their interest in more than one gender when it comes to their ‘love objects’. They were not all just experimenting or refusing to give up access – via proximity – to patriarchal power, as was a common criticism from certain separatist lesbians.
So I think that representing a bisexual woman in the lesbian community was actually quite radical at the time!
Dani – Lillia’s question to Zena, “Are you a student?” to which the latter responds, “No, this is independent research,” seems to correspond nicely to one of the layers of the film: an excitement about and engagement with many disciplines including film theory, psychoanalysis and myth, but outside the strictures of the academy.
Do you remember what texts and films you were engaging with at the time, inside and outside of the university?
Polly – It was the eighties so of course we were completely dependent on bookshops and libraries for our research into female deities. The Women’s Library at Hungerford House and the Silver Moon bookshop on the Charing Cross Road were fantastic resources for us. Two of the books we drew from were Barbara G Walker’s The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets and Patricia Monahan’s Women in Myth and Legend.
Bruna - Our ‘bible’ was Women in Myth and Legend, which appears physically in the film a couple of times. In the scene with Zena and the waitress, for example, Zena is reading from it as she directly addresses the camera. Polly still has the book, and it still has part of our script, from which Zena read, taped to its inside pages.
In terms of horror genre literature, the article that influenced us the most was Barbara Creed’s article ‘Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’ to which we paid homage by quoting her term ‘monstrous-feminine’.
We explored the notion of patriarchy and the control of women’s sexuality in film and mythology through the demonisation and marginalisation of the figure of the transgressive woman.
Zach – I think it might actually have been our tutor Laura Mulvey who introduced us to the Creed article.
Bruna - Yes, and we talked to her about voyeurism, otherness, the loaded significance of mirrors and about challenging narrative structures: all of which was food for thought that helped us to shape our film. As we developed our synopsis into a script, Mulvey’s support was invaluable.
Polly – Yes, we had long conversations with her regarding the ‘male gaze’ and the ‘mirror phase’ in the context of her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’.
Zach – Mirrors are a familiar trope in the vampire genre since vampires aren’t meant to be able to catch sight of their reflections. Lillia’s journey to define her own needs and desires begins when she first glimpses her own reflection. Through the mirror scenes, we wanted Lillia to perceive her autonomy and separateness from the male vampire.
Polly – The use of the mirror first occurs in the café where Zena talks about how female goddesses become demonised and the scene then transitions to Lillia, the female goddess/vampire as she tries to see herself in her bedroom mirror. The mirror is again used in the final sequence at the fairground, in the house of mirrors. Lillia is now able to easily see herself and consequently has greater self-understanding.
I remember we talked to Laura about Zena’s roles within the film. We decided that Zena could break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. It is Zena who breaks into the pleasure of the audience’s gaze, and it is Zena who controls the cinematic apparatus in both the opening and ending of the film.
Polly – We had all watched films by Godard and plays by Brecht and were influenced by them, but in women’s films of the eighties, which we watched at women’s film events where we also discussed film theory, talking to the camera was not unusual.
Bruna – One film I remember was Martha Rosler’s ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’ which has Martha talking directly to the camera.
Polly – We talked about breaking the pleasure of the traditional story arc.
Bruna – Yes, we wanted to break the viewer's pleasure by disrupting the narrative flow through direct addresses to the camera, so that the viewer might question what they are watching.
Zach – Though I think that we might have placed so much emphasis on the dismantling of male, patriarchal pleasure that we forgot to emphasise the dangerous and erotic pleasures of the female/lesbian gaze more. The pleasure of the cinematic experience that engages “women” erotically and psychologically.
Dani – Can you talk about your involvement with activism? In the credits I noticed you gave “special thanks” to the Brixton Gay Community, Theatre of Black Women and Women in 119 Brook Drive…
Polly - In the seventies my mother helped set up a Women’s Aid centre in Grimsby. As a teenager, I witnessed a lot of violence against women and the consequences of that violence. I attended ‘Reclaim the Night’ marches during the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror between 1975-1980 and on moving to South London witnessed violent attacks against others because of their race or sexuality.
Before attending college, I worked on a number of student films in order to get together a portfolio. This led me to working on films about Greenham Common and The Witch Trials. At The London Filmmakers Co-op, I helped out on a film about the suffragette movement. I was involved in film because I wanted to hear and tell other stories about people who were not well represented. We had been fed a diet of films and TV dramas that used violence against women solely as a plot device, with the victim simply there as a piece of butchered flesh.
Bruna – Women being attacked or raped was and is still common. One attempted rape incident I experienced in the early eighties led to me to take up self defence and I later qualified as an ILEA Women’s Self Defence Tutor. I was teaching self-defence in Brixton while we were making our film. I think this influenced one short scene in our film where we see a man in the distance insinuating rape by telling a woman, ‘I know what you could do with…’, she instead effortlessly uses self-defence techniques by throwing him to ground.
We also worked together on student projects that concerned addressing issues of oppression. A couple of videos that we made together focused on issues surrounding Capoeira, policing, media control and the Miners’ Strike.
Polly – Feminism was on fire in the eighties, and we were part of many women-only groups discovering our voices and identities. At the same time the Channel 4/ACTT funded franchised workshops were very much alive and their remit was to provide video and film facilities along with training for communities to create minority programmes for broadcast. We were actively involved in a number of these workshops, one of which was Women in Sync, where Bruna, Zach and I run video production courses for women – we contributed our wages to our film fund for 'The Mark of Lilith'.
Bruna – Polly and I lived in Brixton and so we were in contact with Brixton Gay Community. In the mid-eighties the homophobic misinformation surrounding AIDS exploded. Considering the connection of blood and transmission of HIV, we were concerned as to whether our film should have a gay male vampire character. BGC were happy to talk with us about the potential content of our film; we came away having decided that we would not have a gay male vampire in our film!
Dani – The film made me nostalgic for a London cinema culture I wasn’t alive to experience. The idea of The Ritzy as an independent cinema that you could get permission to film in, instead of the chain-owned, overpriced theatre with terrible labour practices that it is now... Can you talk a little about your experience of being an artist in London in the eighties and the community you created in Brixton?
Polly - I was relatively new to the area, having grown up in Grimsby. I was blown away by the atmosphere and people. We felt like we were in the centre of the known universe. We had fantastic support from our community.
Bruna – Brixton was alive with the arts in the eighties. It was an inspiring place to live in and be amongst like-minded people. In the seventies, Brixton had streets of unoccupied rundown houses that attracted a lot of artists and filmmakers. They squatted the empty buildings and then fixed up to live in. We also had Brixton Art Gallery in Atlantic Road and Stockwell Artists squatted the Old Hospital in Jefferies Road. As I had friends in both these artist communities and had access to a video camera, I made a video about Stockwell Artists called 'Hot Art in a Cold Climate' (1992) which covered two of their exhibitions. I also made a video about a women-only exhibition in Brixton Art Gallery, Women in View (1988), which Polly helped on as camera operator.
Polly - 'The Mark of Lilith' crew and cast were all London based and many of them from Brixton. Our roots were in Lambeth, so we tapped into local support. For Lambeth locations we used the Streatham Odeon, Burroughs Eel & Pie House which used to be located in Coldharbour Lane, a flat in Brixton Housing Coop and a funfair at Clapham Common. We used The Bunker Sound Studio, which was in a basement on Saltoun Road, where the musicians recorded additional music and sound effects we added in the edit.
The Ritzy cinema was a key location and owner Pat Foster gave us full access to the cinema.
Bruna – Yes, in the late seventies, a cinema called 'A Little Bit Ritzy' opened, which later became known as the Ritzy Cinema. In the early days, before cinema seats were installed, the venue was used for gigs, and they gave me free access to put on a benefit gig.
The Ritzy was at that point mainly known for screening left wing films and so the organisers were generous and sympathetic to the cause. We were lucky enough to have access to the cinema and projection room to film in.
Polly – Laura Mulvey joined us to observe the part where we shot the audience there. We have a tracking shot of the cinema audience wearing eerie shiny masks. Most of the audience consisted of our cast and crew, but little did Laura know that we had a spare mask and that she would be persuaded to appear in the audience scene as well! Towards the end of the track, you can spot Laura behind Zena on the left, slouching in her seat and wearing a mask.
Bruna – I will never forget the first time 'The Mark of Lilith' was screened at the Ritzy. In the film, during the scene where Lillia is in a taxi, Lillia delivers a line "Take me to the Ritzy" and when they heard it the audience responded with cheers and rapturous applause… It was wonderful to experience such a positive response to our film of our Ritzy cinema while sitting in it!
Sex, Lies, Religion
Annette Kennerley (1994)
Annette Kennerley’s ‘Sex, Lies, Religion’ explores lesbian cruising in Abney Park cemetery, and features the filmmaker and a woman she'd met the night before at the capital's short-lived Clit Club.
Selina Robertson: You began making super 8 and 16mm films in London in the eighties. What prompted you to use film and, as a lesbian filmmaker, where did you find support to realise your aspirations?
Annette Kennerley: I had always expressed myself in writing – diaries and journals – since I was a child. Later I became a journalist and worked in the media during my twenties. When I moved to London in 1980 I discovered a vibrant alternative arts and women’s scene. I did an evening class in photography, a six-week 16mm filmmaking course for women at London Film Makers Co-op, a women’s video course at Women in Sync and an evening class making Super 8 films at Kingsway Princeton College. This whet my appetite for filmmaking and amazingly got me into St Martin’s art college which gave me the privilege of access to facilities and student awards and the chance to develop my ideas and skills – days spent in a dark cupboard with the wonderful optical printer, which became one of my favourite thrills.
There was very little funding around for alternative filmmaking at that time but we had wonderful places like Kingsway College, Women in Sync, London Film Makers Co-op, Cinenova and Four Corners which supported us and enabled us to make our films. Small amounts of funding were dished out by the Arts Council and facilities bursaries by various smaller organisations such as Four Corners and VET. And we all helped each other, too. A group of us started up a queer art group called Visible Images – we met regularly at each other’s houses or studios to share, support and organise exhibitions of queer work. A few of us clubbed together and bought an old Steenbeck that was being put out to graze (as 16mm became less fashionable as a medium). It was housed in a friend’s squat and we all used it to edit our films. Everything was done ‘in house’, like a ‘family’ project. This is often how we worked in those days, giving us more control over what we wanted to do, collaborating and helping each other achieve our creative projects in an independent way, with little funding and tight budgets, but without having to conform to the restrictions of major funding bodies or other more corporate organisations. It enabled a greater degree of experimentation, spontaneity and creative freedom which was crucial for saying what we wanted to say without compromise, without having to explain ourselves or tone things down. In that way, too, it mirrored and reflected our lives at that point in time.
For me 16mm film was very raw, sensuous, hands on, visceral and intimate: a medium I was able to mould, shape and control, from loading and shooting on my clockwork Bolex to splicing and editing on a flat bed. Using 16mm was like creating a painting or sculpture. The aesthetic and the process suited the content which involved emotional and intimate personal exposure. And the preciousness of the film medium meant that every second counted or cost you dearly.
SR: Your films about London’s nineties dyke scene document a rich treasure trove of lesbian history, sexuality, memories, clubs, bars and encounters. I’m particularly thinking of ‘After the Break’ (1998) and ‘Sex, Lies, Religion’ (1994). What were your intentions in making these films?
AK: I certainly never started out with the idea of intentionally recording or documenting an era, but watching these films now makes me realise just how much they captured of that particular time and scene, of different places and lifestyles. Perhaps the way we lived as lesbians has changed – I don’t know if that’s true. Clubs and bars are referenced that no longer exist but they were where we lived out our lives: 'Sex, Lies, Religion' emerged from a random encounter at the short-lived Clit Club in Vauxhall. There were discussion groups and workshops to explore our views about lesbian sexuality and sexual politics – there were ideas about how we should behave and those who didn’t want to behave at all.
There was a desire amongst many artists at that time to break taboos and challenge representations of lesbians and sexuality, to reveal darker sides that were often unspoken and controversial even within the lesbian community. We had clubs for women that were more like the gay male spaces, and maybe we sought to dip our DM-capped toes into that male domain. Our relationships were unconventional, open, multiple, fluid, often anonymous and spontaneous. It was like we lived this secret life in a secret world – and of course this made it all the more exciting, too. It felt like an era of exploration, of re-working and re-defining our own identities and experimenting with ways of living our lives and being in relationships.
But there was so much I wanted to portray that wasn’t shown in the mainstream – and I still don’t know if it is, really. I used my work to examine and explore some of the issues we were working through and the ways we lived and loved. These films are about chance encounters, non-monogamy, sexual dynamics, power, love, lust and loss. They capture a moment, like a snapshot: unscripted, spontaneous and unpredictable. The words came from my personal writings. And yet, while these films remain as intimate filmic diaries for me of formative years of my life, of experiences and emotions that are deeply personal, I also hope they resonate and touch people who see them.
SR: You set up London’s first International Transgender Film & Video Festival (1997-2000) with Zachary Mack-Nataf [programming note: one of the directors of 'The Mark of Lilith']. Why did you decide to set up the festival, did you receive funding, and can you tell us about your programming remit and describe the response from the LGBTQ community?
AK: Zach was a friend of mine and a passionate trans activist. He was determined to set up a festival to provide a platform for trans people to portray their lives and represent themselves. His enthusiasm inspired me to work with him to launch the festival with very little funding but an amazing team of volunteers – we were all volunteers. We had some small amounts of funding from the BFI, National Lottery, Arts Council, London Arts Board, London Film & Video Development Agency, Channel 4, Cinenova and a number of transgender organisations but never enough to pay any of the many people (including ourselves) who worked so hard to make it all happen. Nevertheless, we were extremely ambitious: we staged several days of films, performance, art, archives, awards, discussion panels and parties with international guests and we ran it for three years at The Lux in Hoxton Square.
Our aim was to deliver a broad spectrum of trans-global and cross-cultural representation under an all-encompassing trans umbrella – to do for transgender audiences what lesbian and gay film festivals had done for lesbian and gay people. We hope we achieved some of that aim. The festival packed the cinema with an audience that came mainly from trans and gay communities; it gave people a voice and a platform and it opened up an arena for a huge amount of essential and groundbreaking debate. Not everyone in the gay and lesbian community embraced or accepted trans people in those days, which is why events like this were so important.
SR – Can you talk a little more about your first experiences of screening 'Sex, Lies, Religion'?
AK – 'Sex, Lies, Religion' screened at numerous film festivals worldwide for several years. Its first-ever outing was very grassroots, shown as a work-in-progress at one of Gay Sweatshop’s One Night Stand events in November 1992, and the unedited rushes were projected onto a makeshift screen in a club, with the script spoken live by my friend Jo, with me squeezing her leg to prompt her. It also screened at the ICA in January 1994 in competition for the infamous annual Dick Award for "the most provocative, innovative and subversive short film made in 1993". A film called Ding Dong won the award but we girls found it amusing and subversive that the film had even been included in the competition. And we went on upstairs to party with the boys – including Bernardo Bertolucci – and to harangue the organisers to start up a new award named after the women’s equivalent to the Dick Award. It still hasn’t been done…
This interview was originally published on the occasion of a screening of Kennerley's films by Club des Femmes at the ICA in 2017.
The Mark of Lilith and Sex, Lies, Religion are both distributed by Cinenova, a volunteer-run feminist film and video organisation. Cinenova was founded in 1991 as a result of the forced merger of two feminist film and video distributors, Circles and Cinema of Women, each formed in 1979. Cinenova currently distributes over 400 works produced from the 1910’s to the early 2000’s. The Cinenova Working Group, set up in 2010, oversees the ongoing work of preservation and distribution, as well as special projects that seek to question the conditions of the organisation.