An interview with Barbara Hammer


AE: You’ve never shied away from being a lesbian filmmaker, you’ve never tried to separate the lesbian part of it.
BH: Well now, that’s a difference between me and Chantal.

AE: Why do you think that is?
BH: At first, I was told by feminists who were promoting writers and performers at the time, I should choose. Which did I want to be? Either an avant-garde artist or a lesbian filmmaker, I couldn’t be both. I just never could make that choice, because I love both. I just followed my instincts and made films about what I needed to make films about.

That was one thing that I didn’t appreciate, that she did step back and say, "I want to be seen as a filmmaker, not a lesbian filmmaker." Well, I can understand that too, because it was a gamble for people in terms of their programming. Oh, we can’t have her until the Queer Week. [laughs] You can get pigeonholed. I found myself in that predicament in the conservative ’80s after the burst of social change in the ’70s, so I just took women out of my films and made film art. That way, it couldn’t be ignored. It placed me, I guess, in the art world, which is what I was striving to be seen as. Then, that could last a few years. You know, the lesbian never goes away. [laughs]

Then identity politics came to the fore in the late ’80s, early ’90s. Theory was leading art, and it was very organic. I was feeling a need to return to sexual expression, but with larger, flung out ideas. Nitrate Kisses, I was releasing that when I was at the Chicago Art Institute. It’s a film about history, or actually, what’s left out of history. Let’s put back queer sexuality and queer history, but also, let’s not mythologize gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people and think that we’re better than anyone else. What do we censor?

A still from Nitrate Kisses

That was very interesting when I came to that in the film. I remember using Barbara Scharres’s office, the head of the film center there at the Art Institute, and I didn’t have my own fax at the time, and I was using her fax, and I was getting so many requests from Europe and the States for Nitrate Kisses. It was a pretty dynamic year for me starting in January of ’93 when it started at Sundance.

You just have to follow your own inclinations, and hopefully, the world is with you. [laughs] Maybe it will be after you’re dead. [laughs] It might catch up one day.

AE: When you look back at Nitrate Kisses, modern day, do you think much has changed in the wy queers represent themselves in film, or in life, or in culture in general? How has it stood up over time?
BH: I was just at a memorial last night for Sarah Jacobson. There’s the Sarah Jacobson Grant for DIY feminist — I don’t think it’s necessarily queer — filmmakers. I saw the award winners for the last few years, and they were all so confident in themselves and what they put on the screen. It was rough, and punk, and it was do-it-yourself. It was cut-out animation. It was stills from television. I think there’s a confidence in young women filmmakers, young feminist filmmakers, young queer women filmmakers.

Maybe people were stuck with those questions, are you going to be a film artist or a queer filmmaker? Those questions, I don’t think, aren’t so burdensome today. People can float back and forth between their subject matter. They can do a film on trafficking of human beings, and the next turn-around they’re having a queer identity problem. I don’t think people are stuck with labels like we were.

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