!WAR Women Art Revolution
Lynn Hershman-Leeson / United States
Lynn Hershman Leeson’s follows up her 2007 hybrid-documentary/narrative Strange Culture with a hybrid-documentary/autobiography. !WAR Women Art Revolution marries her experiences as an artist at the cutting edge of the second wave women’s movement with an intensive history lesson about the use of art as a tool for social change.
Using interviews with artists recorded in her home over the course of 40+ years, Hershman weaves archival footage of performances, protests and consciousness-raising groups to celebrate and draw lessons from the movement. While paying direct tribute to their work, she articulates the angst they experienced at the hands of condescending art teachers and the indifferent (when not outright hostile) gatekeepers of the mainstream art scene. At the time, the leading trend for contemporary art was hyper-minimal painting and not the loud, brash work that occassionally involved body fluids that the women were doing.
Hershman also highlights the difficulty in forming collectives on the basis of identity politics because once the common enemy is lost the group can lose its focus. But for the time being, many of the women thrived existing with both outsider status and a community to come back to. They created new forums and channels for artists to present to, publicize and educate the public and Hershman has access to an exhaustive collection of photographs, video footage and handmade zines to re-create the heady experience.
!WAR follows a similar trajectory as many band documentaries -- the excitement of being weirdos having fun and doing something new, the delight in shocking the establishment and the incremental successes that were managed with varying degrees of certainty. Eventually in-fighting led to resentments, splintering and even the possible murder of one artist. In a music documentary this would serve as the low-point of the story and anything that came after would need to be framed as a comeback. But art critic B. Ruby Rich is quick to point out that the culture only benefits from a chaotic marketplace of ideas and that it’s the constant dialogue about feminist art that continues to make it one of the most vital arenas of expression.
Hershman’s own professional life as a performance, visual and film artist is framed as a similar three-act success story. She was rasied a nice Jewish girl in the suburbs, radicalized by her experiences at Berkeley in the 1960s and moved to New York. For over 20 years she received very little recognition from the art world until when in the late 90s she found a gallery owner who believed in her and sold her entire collection for a massive (undisclosed) sum of money.
Similarly !WAR treats younger artists like Miranda July (whose second feature film also screens at Sundance this year) and MacArthur Genius Janine Antoni as existing on a continuum rather than the people for who ‘the torch was passed down’. The music for the film is entirely made up of post-1990’s indie rock mainstays like Le Tigre and The Gossip with an original score by an early iteration of the Carrie Brownstein/Mary Timony supergroup Wild Flag -- creating a historical document that continues to live and breathe.
At the heart of !WAR is the desire to see feminist artists included in the broader institutions (many of the artists included are now professors and historians at major universities). The film ends with the bold message that there are no outtakes, only archives -- available in full as part of the Stanford Digital Collection.
There are films that take on a mythic levels of importance in their community, the gravity of their reception often owes more to timing and necessity than merit. Some stories reflect so much pain, regret or shame that any mention of the subject in a public way immediately transforms the casual film-going experience into a cathartic purge that in all likelihood has little to do even with filmmakers' intentions. These works still serve a purpose: they give voice to those under-represented in mainstream culture, they open people up to human experiences they may not have even known existed and they spread that much ballyhooed disinfectant -- sunlight -- into places that desperately need it. But they don't typically reflect a great deal of craft and rarely hold up to repeat viewings (anyone revisit Torch Song Trilogy recently? Yeesh.) They are films that serve an important function, but are largely disposable. But co-directors David Weissman and Bill Weber (The Cockettes) have made a thoughtful, firsthand account of what it was like to be at ground zero during a widely misunderstood epidemic and the beautiful, ugly and ultimately mundane human impulses that natural disasters lay bare.
We Were Here paints life San Francisco in the late 1970s as what probably wasn't, but will still be thought of as a utopic paradise. Far from the violent, hard-edged legacy of the Stonewall riots in New York City, San Francisco, bathed in the golden California sun, with all precepts of the 1950s WASP-y perfection already demolished by the Haight-Ashbury hippies and diverse immigrant populace, was the Promise Land to queer kids escaping hateful or hate-inducingly dull Midwestern burgs looking for a taste of the hedonistic, good life.
The story relies solely on five interview subjects strategically placed to cover much of the breadth of the crisis: a hospice nurse, an artist who dated a clinical biologist, a budding politician, a flower shop owner based in the Castro and a young journalist.
There are some harrowing images drawn by the film, a stubborn lover arguing about whether to be taken to the emergency room over a low temperature then dying during the short car ride to the hospital, a room full of doctors at a national conference to discuss AIDS drug trials breaking down sobbing over how badly they were failing their patients and the dread every person faced having to choose between which sick friends to attend to and which to shut out as a matter of self-preservation.
The film deftly avoids too much blame-shifting or rearview mirror grandstanding in lieu of underscoring the personal experiences in total chaos and uncertainty. At the apex of anxiety President Ronald Reagan appears. The oft invoked Republican icon of kinder, gentler (whiter, straighter, wealthier) days -- is typically portrayed in documentaries about this time as having been at best a clueless dolt and at worse a cruel dilletante who laughed off a genocide as it was happening on American soil. Here he's given a pass for being insulated by closeted gay staff members before focus is quickly shifted back to a young, overwhelmed community organizer who is trying to deal with the sudden upsurge of people starving to death in their apartments because they became too sick too quickly to feed themselves.
Weissman and Weber understand that cruelty and destruction hardens some, vulcanizes others but leaves most simply baffled. There's nothing extraordinary about the people who survived the early years of AIDS. And a lucky combination of chance, privilege and clear-headed thinking in times of pandemonium does not make for a happy ending to any cognizant human being. Still, it's a cliche for a reason, out of the wreckage and despair came real medical breakthroughs, a new respect between gay men and lesbian women and a generation of queers who had too much to be proud of (and too much to lose) to consider a life in the closet.