Seven queer women on stage and in conversation, all in the name of burlesque? Yes, please!
The new documentary Femme Brutal looks at Austrian queer and lesbian burlesque troupe Club Burlesque Brutal, using intimate interviews and live performances to tackle such themes as femme identity and sexual power. Have you always wondered about the motivations behind burlesque? Well, these seven give you their views on the art they love.
We recently spoke with the film’s co-directors, Liesa Kovacs and Nick Prokesch, discussing their involvement in Vienna’s queer arts scene and the unique way in which they captured their vision.
AfterEllen.com: So how did this burlesque troupe come to your attention and when did you know you wanted to make a film based on them?
Nick Prokesch: Basically most of the people in this film are my extended family and are very good friends. I was there at the first show and starting from the second I started documenting every show, but just for their own purpose so they could watch it after the show and reflect. And also to save it for their own archive.
The energy that was in the room, you could almost cut the air with it because it was so full and rich. And Vienna is not that big of a city, so if something like this happens in your own queer feminist lesbian scene, you notice.
AE: You’re both members of Vienna’s queer arts scene?
NP: Yes, absolutely.
Liesa Kovacs: You could say so, definitely.
NP: We’re both queer arts students and art film students. And most of the people you have seen in the film I’ve known for 12, 15 years.
LK: The protagonists have always been a part of the community. But it wasn’t clear if it would ever happen again the way we were used to it.
NP: Basically we decided if this is the last show we have to bring all we can to keep this and to make a visual experience that is at least a little bit closer to what you feel like when you are actually there in the audience. It was also, for me, very important since the audience is also a big part actually of the whole experience of Club Burlesque Brutal. We wanted to give something to this audience who came to every show and was so supportive.
AE: So did you end up filming the last show? Or could I see the show if I went to Vienna today?
LK: Our protagonists are seven very different artists doing different stuff. Music, performance art, video art, and so on. So they are very active in what they are doing. There are many collaborations between performers still, but you cannot go to Vienna and like ask for Club Burlesque Brutal, and there’s going to be a show. That’s not what’s going on right now. But you never know what happens next, because there are also rumors that they might do something all together again.
AE: I’ve watched a lot of documentaries, but yours is particularly different in style and format. What inspired you to make the film the way you made it?
LK: What we really, really didn’t want to do is do this kind of “othering.”
NP: For us it was very important not to do this approach of like telling, one more time, the story of, “Oh no, these people, what are they doing on stage and when they go home?” This kind of voyeurism we didn’t want to do. They are never alone. It’s always a conversation between them.
LK: Every single moment they can decide if they’re in a performance still or if they share a private moment together in front of the camera. It was very important for us not to visit them back home and to see how every single one lives, but to stay in this kind of utopian space they created that was so special for us. And also for me, as a fan and as a woman who didn’t identify as femme before, and had troubles with it–but it was something also I kind of was missing. For me, it opened up a whole world, and I really wanted to have this empowerment that I experienced to be able to be transported.
AE: The women in the film all seem highly intelligent and not really in need of a lot of guidance. As filmmakers, did you have a lot of preset questions, or did you just let them mostly talk amongst each other?
LK: It was actually the concept to let them talk. We had a couple of days where we did interview shootings. They gave us so much. They gave us a lot of trust. It was me in the room asking questions, but mainly asking a question and then like stepping back and letting them discuss it. Of course in documentaries and also in interviews, things just happen. I think some conversations were just a present.
The timing was very important. They just told us like, “We’re in such an ego boost right after the show. If you really want to have fun conversations, ask us not right before or right afterwards, but a couple of days afterwards.” I think that is why even though we didn’t have so many days for shooting, we really had the chance to capture something kind of magical.
AE: You show several clips of the women performing somewhat at length. How did you go about deciding what portions of their performances would be best to use?
NP: We shot the shows first and then had the questions sometimes connected to what they did on stage.
LK: They were based on performances and what we of course knew of their personas, about their approaches. The shootings in the studio, which was very important for us, was maybe a week or so. But we were between jobs and studies–it took us like at least a full year to edit. We were really like kind of newbies when it came to this feature length documentary. It was a big learning process.
AE: What special point were you trying to make about queer women’s spaces with this film? For instance, were you trying to suggest that these women couldn’t have done what they did in any space other than that very queer positive space?
NP: A queer women’s space is essential to work like this. But also the space was not a separatist feminist space. It was open to men, it was open to trans people.
LK: The queer feminist community in Vienna is like very, very slow when it comes to intersectional activism. Like right now there are a lot of things going on, fortunately, when it comes to queers of color. But I am kind of waking up when it comes to this topic as well. When you look at the queer community, there’s still so much we have to work on.
AE: Finally, what, if anything, do you hope this movie will bring about? More understanding for burlesque? Even more excitement around it? What exactly?
NP: What I wish that people watching this movie feel is like a sense of pride and power in femmeness and in community. There’s so much strength in this. We had so many nice conversations with people watching the film who then felt like, “I want to do burlesque.” If that’s what comes out of this, that’s also great. I don’t think there is enough and I don’t think there can ever be enough of these spaces.
LK: I hope it can do a lot of different things. My experience was we had really different screenings already. We were so lucky, for example, to be part of the BFI Flare in London. But we also had a screening in the countryside of Austria where there’s not even a cinema close but some leftwing people who invited us showed the film there. We had a Q&A afterwards and we had a long discussion about queerness and what it actually means. So we kind of really want to get out there. It works on different levels, I hope. But the main thing I hope, also for myself, is that we manage somehow to give these very, very empowering moments to an audience that missed it somehow, or that were there but miss it.