Daviel Shy’s “The Ladies Almanack” brings Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein and 1920s lesbians to life

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Filmmaker Daviel Shy was working on a short film when she first came across The Ladies Almanack, the 1928 tome from Djuna Barnes. If you’re not familiar with Djuna or the Almanack, the 1928 book is famous for telling the stories of the Parisian lesbian social circle of the time, which included Djuna’s friend, Natalie Barney and other writers and artists like Radclyffe Hall, Romaine Brooks, Dolly Wilde and Janet Flanner, just to name a few. But if you track down a copy of the book, you might be surprised that these names aren’t mentioned at all, as Djuna used pseudonyms to protect the not-so-innocent. You might also be put off by the difficult language and style Djuna is famous for, which is why watching Daviel’s new film might be a better bet.

Using not only The Almanack but every other piece of work written by the other women (most were published and often included their contemporaries in their work, generally thinly-veiled), Daviel created a script that is kind of like a family tree, or a chart of who was involved with whom.

“My rule was read everything they wrote that mentioned each other,” Daviel said. “That’s how it really began. Also learning French so I could read some things that hadn’t been translated. I had some translation help but I also had to learn a certain amount.”

But Daviel’s interest in the time period is shared by many, as it was a plentiful era for women —especially queer women —in art and literature. The Ladies Alamanack film attempts to touch on more than 20 real people from the most well-recognized (Gertrude Stein and Collette) to the oft-overlooked (Mina LoyBerthe Cleyrergue).

“It’s so full of so many lives, and so there’s only a hint of each of the stories in there,” Daviel said of her film. “I want to fill people with the kind of excited abundance that you feel when you start researching any of these women because we’re so taught the scarcity; looking back at lesbian history, that nobody was out, it was so sad, it was so miserable.”

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She points out that Radclyffe Hall’s famous lesbian-themed novel, The Well of Loneliness, was published the same year as The Almanack and was much more about lesbian lives as “something sad; a plea for tolerance.”

“This notion of abundance and that we can be in so many different ways, I feel like that’s at the heart of Djuna Barnes’s book,” Daviel said. “It proposes to be an almanac of women’s ways and what she is and what she’s made up of. And of course, it’s all about lesbians, which is awesome.”

Despite Djuna and co. living close to 100 years ago, a direct line can be drawn from the way they lived then and how queer women relate to each other and the outside world in 2016.

“Our history is not sad or limited,” Daviel said. “There’s so many different ways that people have been and being out wasn’t even a thing for some of these women. There was no in; there was no closet. These are things that are discussed. It’s not just rosy—these things are discussed in the film—but I do think that it’s important to show this [positive] side. And then all of the conflict and all the different disagreements are among women, among lesbians, so as to say there isn’t any one win, there isn’t any one perspective, but we don’t need to show our conflict with the world as our only kind of conflict. It could be conflict with each other.”

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The contemporary reality of how expensive it can be to make a film—especially one with 20 characters—is what makes Daviel’s film even more impressive. Filming took place in Chicago and Paris, and most of the actors paid their own travel as well as pitching in for others if they could. Everything from the costumes to the props and locations were donated or thrifting.

“For the most part, it was people we know and in-kind donations far exceeded the monetary donations,” Daviel said, noting that the production “totally exhausted our community which is so vast in three cities, of everything they had to offer.”

The cast itself was a mix of actors and non-actors, with Guinevere Turner playing the role of dancer and courtesan Liane de Pougy and Eileen Myles narrating as French author Monique Wittig. Daviel said both women were interested in participating based on their interest in the writers of the time period, and their work.

“For Guinevere, it was the love of different cultural voices that got her interested,” Daviel said. “Eileen Myles it was totally because of Djuna Barnes. The people that I didn’t know personally, they knew Djuna. And everyone who has a connection with this literature, it’s a very personal connection because it is so difficult I think. That keeps it intimate.”

Despite the difficulties the book and the coded writings of the time, Daviel said she found a way to weave a narrative by finding the modernity in the themes of the 1920s.

“I think what it does is it’s both true to the confounding nature of the book, but it is, I hope, inviting, and also causes you to see how all of this abundance is around us now, too,” Daviel said. “It’s not scarcity just because, you know, there’s a lack of female-driven narratives in the Oscars doesn’t mean there’s a lack of female-driven narratives.”

And for some characters, Daviel had to imagine them more fully when information was scarce. She notes that one of her actors, Fannie Sosa, played Mimi Franchetti, one of Natalie Barney’s lovers of whom there isn’t much documentation. Daviel explains that in real life, Fannie “spreads self-love and female-centric body healings through twerk.”

“Mimi didn’t write, so I don’t have much on her,” Daviel said. “I have just a couple of times she’s mentioned by [Djuna and Natalie]. So I was like, ‘Her character is pretty open. Let’s just have you inhabit that in what you do.’ So I don’t think it would be out of line to imagine that one of them would host in their house, because that’s the kind of nexus of the power is this private space. … and so I feel like the rightness of the home space which was true for them in Paris in Natalie’s salon, is kind of similar. So we were in this apartment in Aubervilliers, which is where I met Fannie Sosa and a bunch of the other actors from Paris, and we did this—she did all the same type of teaching she would do on film and that feeling, I think, is not very foreign for what would be happening among these women. Natalie had these amazing rituals reenacting Greek scholarships they were obsessed with and a lot of it was private, so we can only imagine. So this is how I fill in that imagining, with the present.”

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The Ladies Almanack is also full of gorgeous collages from artist Sarah Patten and a soundtrack (available now) with eight original tracks from LeCiel, which Daviel said serves as “entry points,” making it all more accessible.

“I’m not gonna lie and say it’s totally easy,” Daviel said. “I think that that, for me, is the one of the main ways I deal with the density of the text because I did not dumb that down. It’s not all her language; it’s a lot of different voices. It’s almost—I feel like the idea is that you’re inside of a kaleidoscope with so many voices, so many images and so much color and so, in that way, you come out and you’ll be confused but, hopefully, it’s a really pleasant and full confused that leads you to more and more. Because we’re not giving the whole story for anyone of the characters because it would be, like, 12 films.”

The Ladies Almanack was shot in Super 8 and is now in post-production, with a newly launched Seed & Spark fundraiser hoping to secure the finishing funds for the film to make it to festivals within the next year. Daviel hopes that the greater lesbian community, artists and film aficionados alike will find something in the project that would entice them, even if they’ve never heard of Djuna Barnes or her peers.

“I’m not a fan of anything that’s dialectic like one way or the other,” Daviel said. “This film is about there’s so many, so many, so many kinds of grey; that they’re so many ways to be a lesbian, there’s so many ways to be a woman, there’s so many ways to be an artist. And I think that there’s bound to be something in there for everyone that is really inspiring.”

AfterEllen readers are lucky enough to watch this exclusive five-minute featurette from the film below (fair warning: it’s a little NSFW). Then visit The Ladies Almanack website for more on the film, the actors, and the real lesbians who inspired it all.

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