By Ella Cepeda; Modern day photos by author unless noted otherwise
Barbara Hammer started experimenting with films in the late 1960s, and since then, has been a powerful voice for queer women in film. Her short film Dyketactics brought the feminist lesbian movement to a wider audience in 1974. A series of ’90s essay documentaries — Nitrate Kisses, Tender Fictions and History Lessons — asks who makes history and who is left out, about what is true and what is fiction in the context of an autobiography and about cultural representation and re-appropriation. It’s rare to find an artist that is still making work and who is as adventurous at 75 as she was when she was in her 20s, but she is that person. I have never met a woman as energetic or passionate about queer cinema as Barbara Hammer. We met at the New York Porn Film Festival, which is where we first talked about doing an interview for 4U Mag’s Relationship Issue. I wanted to talk to her about how modern day Barbara related to her work and life over the past decades.
When I walked into her apartment in Chelsea, the first thing I saw was a pile of boxes, each stuffed with work from over the last four decades. After talking about her life, work and how her relationships play a big role in her films, she asked me to show her how Tinder works. We tried to find me a match.
Still from Dyketactics (1974)
What was it like growing up in Hollywood? Were your parents always supportive?
My mom thought I had talent for acting, so she took me for an interview in Hollywood when I was 7 years old. They said I was cute enough, but that I needed some professional acting classes and my parents couldn’t afford it at the time. So I escaped Hollywood and then became the person behind the camera. I’m the person I am today because my mother believed in me. I wanted to be the president of the United States when I was three years old and nobody ever told me, “you can’t.”
I really didn’t know what I wanted to do until I was 27. I had already gotten a master’s degree in English literature and a BA in psychology. I was sort of set for teaching, but it didn’t seem like a very exciting career.
I was married to a man at the time and living in the woods in a house we built. I was reading the biographies of French painters like Van Gogh and Gauguin and they lived extraordinary lives. I thought, that’s who I want to be. So I left my husband and I left the house in the woods.
When did you get married?
I was 21. I got married the day after I graduated from UCLA. I was too young, but the guy I married was interesting. He and I went around the world on a scooter. We flew to Milan and got a Lambretta 750 and we drove it through Turkey, Iraq, over the Khyber Pass into India, Pakistan, and then went to Thailand. We ended up in Japan where we rested for about a month and then came back.
What was it like to come out to your friends and family?
I was never in the closet. I told my father on the telephone and I said, “Did I surprise you?” He said: “Nothing you can do will surprise me Barbara.” He remarried and my lovers and I were always welcome in his house. My mother was deceased and she was the most important to me. Actually, my mother wasn’t dead, she was dying when we came back from Germany and I didn’t have the courage to tell her at that time. I think she knew because she hated my girlfriend.
After I came out of the closet, I went to Africa with my girlfriend and we got a motorcycle. We were running out of money and I heard on the radio that the army was looking for teachers in Germany, so we drove our motorcycles there. I walked to the interview with my motorcycle helmet and the Principal was thrilled because he wrote the motorcycle magazine for the US Army, so I got the job.
What were you teaching in Germany?
I taught English and then I taught a feminist film class. But once all the other teachers found out that we were gay and living on the army base … We were living there for $25 dollars a month to save money to buy our big motorcycles, the BMWs! But we were ostracized and it was really awful.
Left: Barbara en 1972; Right: Barbara hoy
When did you decide to go to film school?
When I finally got to San Francisco I saw a film catalogue and it was seemed much more interesting than art school. They had Russian cinema, documentary, experimental, all kinds of stuff that involved thinking as well as making. I got my second master’s degree in film by the time I was 31.
Who were some of the directors you looked up to while you were in school?
I had a film history class in which we were never shown women directors, but at the very end of the course we watched Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren. It was then when I knew there was a woman’s cinema. I was making Super 8 films and coming out almost at the same time and I was convinced that I should do cinema. There was a blank screen for women. Especially there was nothing for lesbians.
I thought that as a lesbian, living a lesbian life, my lifestyle was experimental. I had nobody to copy so my films should be experimental, too. When I looked into experimental cinema I found the work of Marie Menken, she also influenced me. She was very casual about her filmmaking — it was more about perception, whereas Maya Deren’s work was more emotional.
I really like how you explore Maya’s concepts of space, time and form in Maya Deren’s Sink (2011). Can you tell me about your editing process for that film?
The women that now owns Maya’s apartment threw her sink out, but then she thought, “oh, that’s Maya Deren’s sink maybe somebody wants it.” I asked the people at her film archive [where it ended up] if I could use it and they said yes. I started projecting her films back into the sink. I went to her homes where she shot, like many independent filmmakers do, so I could project in the same cabinets and into the chest of drawers where her cat was has baby kittens in the film, that was really exciting.
Escape 2 (1982), from Barbara’s recent exhibition of collage work at Berlin’s Kow Gallery
What was your first screening like?
I was 27 and married when I had my first screening. I made a super 8 film called Schitzy, which is short for “schizophrenic.” At the time I very much felt like a woman living in a man’s world — maybe I knew I was gay, but I was living in a hetero world. The film won an honorable mention in a Super 8 film festival and that same day I left my husband. I remember I was wearing an old antique dress, with a fur stole neckpiece and some kind of heels. It was the first time I projected a film I had won an award, even if it was small. Then I went home with the guy who won first place, so I wasn’t a liberated woman yet.
I feel like people either love or hate Valentine’s. Can you tell me more about the idea behind the Be Mine Valentine performance?
I did Be Mine Valentine on February 14, 1982 in San Francisco and then in New York in 1985. That was … hmm … I had a lot of lovers as a young lesbian. I think I was taken by romantic love and I was trying to critique it. I took a huge heart pillow and wore it around my neck. I put on romantic television shows on and then I shot arrows with rubbers on top so that they could stick to the television. I painted a big heart on the side of the gallery. I don’t think anybody knew what the performance was about.
I really love your film Dyketactics. What was the response from the audience during that time?
I wanted to make a feature film while I was in film school. The equipment was free and everybody wanted to help, so the crew was free. I had a lot of friends in San Francisco, so we all went out to this land that was owned by a witch. I directed the girls to do all these rituals in nature and when I came back to the editing room it was so boring that I fell asleep. So I cut the head and the tail of every shot and just went for the action. I didn’t shoot it this way, but the 110 images that are in the film all have touch in them. That touch might be a salamander going across a breast or a woman touching a tree; there was just a lot of touching in the film. The second part of the film is two women making love. I developed my aesthetic around that touch. I wanted my cinema to be something that the audience could feel in their bodies.
The first soundtrack that I put on Dyketactics was from a lesbian folk singer by the name of Alix Dobkin. I thought her songs went perfectly with my film, but then I found out from my teachers that you have to get permission [to use people’s music.] I asked her but she wanted me to promise that no man would see the film, and I couldn’t do that. She what was called a lesbian separatist. I couldn’t use that soundtrack, so I had to make my own. I went to Mills College and they had the Moog synthesizer, which is a room full of buttons where you can make all this tones. I just repeated them and loop them and in four hours I had a four minute soundtrack.
I saw Alix years later and she wasn’t a separatist any more, I guess it was because her daughter had two boys. She then gave me permission to use her music. I put her track “Every Women Can Be a Lesbian” after the music I had made because I don’t think anyone would listen to mine songs after hers.
Barbara’s house. Fotos por Ella Cepeda.
What is your working process like on your films?
It changes. Multiple Orgasm (1976) was just me and the camera woman; she was my lover at the time. Films like Superdyke (1978) were made in San Francisco with a community; there was a big feminist lesbian movement in the ’70s. Every time you looked around there was a new lesbian on the block.
Then I started doing personal work where I was shooting and nobody was in front of the camera that was my landscape work in the ’80s when I learned about underwater cinematography. I made Bend Time (1983) with single framing shots around the US. I was more interested in philosophy and ideas about how time bends at the edge of the universe.
I went from this early lesbian feminist work to landscape work that has an interest in science, and then I started doing feature documentaries. Mostly I did everything for Nitrate Kisses (1992), where the theme of the essay documentary was who makes history and who’s left out of history? It features queer communities in three different countries.
What is your 2014 documentary Welcome to this House about?
It’s a film about the American poet Elizabeth Bishop. A lot of my later work has been about looking at lesbian artists who stayed in the closet. I went to Elizabeth Bishop’s homes, influenced by the Maya Deren experience, because I believe that the space in which you create work influences what you’re doing. I met one of her maids in Brazil and she didn’t have very nice stories to say. I think this film might be shocking for some Bishop fans. I’ll be holding the first screening in Boston on April 10th at the Boston LGBT Film Festival.
She’s an amazing poet. What’s one of her poems that you love?
Like almost everybody, One Art. <recites> “The art of losing isn’t hard to master/ Then practice losing farther, losing faster.” I used her more intimate poems because my film really reveals that she was a lesbian and people who knew her knew that, but the outside world didn’t. I’m using intimacy through interviews and through her most intimate poetry to bring her out of the closet in my film.
Who are some of your favorite young queer filmmakers? Do you have a working relationship with any of them?
Two different filmmakers have made takeoffs on Dyketactics. One was Liz Rosenfeld, who did Dyketactics Revisited. Scott Berry did Fagtactics and another woman did Super Queer. Then there’s Gina Carducci that I made Generations (2010) with. She is another up and coming great filmmaker. There’s so many! You need to go to [queer experimental film festival] Mix NY in November.
Still from Nitrate Kisses (1992)
This issue of 4U mag focuses on relationships so I have to ask, which of your romantic relationships inspired your films?
Well, in the 1970s and ’80s, almost all of them. Film and sex went together for me, so about anytime I had a new lover I made a new film. Now I’ve been in a monogamous marriage for 27 years, so that’s changed the way I make films. I think it’s given me the stability I needed to make these documentaries that take a couple of years to film sometimes, and aren’t just about me.
What do you think about apps like Tinder?
It’s so different from the way we dated, but a lot of people find partners there. Sounds time consuming and you just don’t know if you are going to have electricity, but I guess some people could make friends from it. It’s kind of exciting.
What was the best advice given to you when you started making films? Would you give the same advice to young filmmakers?
One teacher said: “When in doubt, cut.” I thought that was pretty good because when you are editing, especially a long film, sometimes you go, “Should I leave that in or not?” If you are asking that, let it go. In other words we have too many long films, it is better to have some better, shorter ones. My advice would be to believe in yourself. Pick up the camera and don’t doubt. That’s goes for any kind of artist. If you see something that you like in what you’re doing, follow it. Even if you have never seen it before. Especially if you never seen it before.
What are your plans for 2015?
I’m actually going to do some digital photography next, so I cleared out this space <gestures to a wall> to do either projections or put up some photographs that I’ll print. I had a show in February at [Berlin gallery] Kow of collages I did in the ’80s, and [I’ll be showing work from the same collection] at Capricious 88 on September 11th. That will be of drawings that I did in the ’60s and ’70s. That’s also what I would say to filmmakers: keep your archive. On April 9 at I am doing a performance called Available Space at Garvis and Hahn Gallery as benefit for Global Community Arts.
Ella Cepeda works as a freelance fashion stylist and casting director in New York City. She used to be the co-editor of Nylon México and has collaborated for DNA, Nylon Japan, Vice México, and more. She’s one of the founders of Fashion is Passion, her fashion film project in Mexico City. You can look at her work here and stalk her on Instagram.