Sundance 2021: Looking Back on New Queer Cinema with Rose Troche, Cheryl Dunye, and More

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This afternoon at Sundance, I took a break from binging movies to watch a panel straight out of my queer film nerd dreams. If you’re familiar with New Queer Cinema and if names like Isaac Julien and Tom Kalin excite you as much as they excite me, then I’d say skip this summary and just watch the panel yourself. But if you don’t have an hour to spare or don’t know about this movement or these people, then read on! My enthusiasm is endless and I would love to share it with you.

Thirty years ago queer critic B. Ruby Rich hosted a panel called Barbed Wire Kisses where she coined the term New Queer Cinema. A film movement born out of the AIDS epidemic, NQC had no manifesto — it was just a group of queers in different cities reacting to the same conditions. But this panel gave them a name and set their place in history. This year B. Ruby Rich returned with original panelists Isaac Julien and Tom Kalin as well as an astounding mix of other queer filmmakers to talk about the past, present, and future of queer cinema.

The panel was split into two parts by generation. First Rich starts with Julien, Kalin, Gregg Araki, and Rose Troche. Julien was at the ’92 festival with his film Young Soul Rebels, Kalin was there with Swoon, Araki was there with The Living End, and Troche would come to Sundance two years later with Go Fish.

Kalin starts by talking about how they were united by an urgent anger and a feeling that they could make a difference. He, along with Troche and other filmmakers like Todd Haynes and producer Christine Vachon, were a part of ACT Up and saw film as an extension of their activism. Julien agrees that film became a tool to challenge norms and stereotypes. NQC was a Socratic strategy of contesting and undoing the status quo. It was as much about creating a new queer language as it was about telling new narratives. Araki notes the contrast with other more organized film movements like the French New Wave — this was a movement born out of united emotions and necessity, not coordination. He notes the importance of younger generations having these films not only as works of art but as documents of the time.

Troche is the outlier as it’s noted that in 1992 there weren’t really any queer women making these kinds of feature films. But it’s Rich’s article about NQC that inspired Troche to seek out these filmmakers and their work. She talks about seeing Todd Haynes’ Poison at the Music Box in Chicago and talking with Haynes and Vachon. She says that like her male counterparts she made Go Fish in direct response to the anger and activism of the time — it was a way to fight against feeling invisible.

Rich asks them how they maintain that energy over time and Kalin says it requires a constant state of reinvention — they can’t just remake their old movies. Troche quips that Cheryl Dunye already did a fresh take on Go Fish with The Owls. She then talks about the dangers of over-assimilation pulling us away from our identities in the context of being first generation and queer. She bemoans gay marriage and how her own loss of youthful bite and confidence mirrors the softening of queer culture at large. She says we need to watch out and not get too comfortable because comfortable is not where great films are made.

Julien mentions some of the amazing young creators he’s inspired by and specifically shouts out the young Black filmmakers whose work has been shown at McEvoy Foundation of the Arts in San Francisco where he lives. Araki says there’s an artistic advantage to being a queer filmmaker of color because you’re always looking from the outside and have a wariness of the dominate cultures and that leads to the best work.

Kalin then waxes poetic about the loss of the theatrical experience during Covid and before. But Troche is excited about new technology. She sees VR and AR as new spaces to play. She thinks the key is an awareness of technology, not an avoidance. But that awareness requires a consciousness and pushback. She recommends using someone else’s Netflix account to trick the algorithm and make random discoveries.

This look to the future transitions to the next part of the panel with Lisa Cholodenko, Cheryl Dunye, Silas Howard, and Andrew Ahn.

Dunye starts by talking about going to Sundance with her shorts back when it was called USA Festival. Her Black gay male friends were dying and she felt an obligation to honor them by moving forward and making work. Poet Essex Hemphill, who is in Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston as well as Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, told Dunye not to be concerned with where she fit in film culture. He said not to worry about being a token because what you can do with tokens is put them in the bus and ride. She moved from short video work to narrative shorts and went to Berlin with her film Greetings from Africa where she walked around with a poster advertising herself and her desire to make her first feature The Watermelon Woman. Of course, she would make this film — with an NEA grant and Women Make Movies as her fiscal sponsor. The film would go on to win the Teddy at Berlin and be my personal favorite movie of all time.

Cholodenko says that her first inspiration was actually Jane Campion and her film Sweetie. It was seeing another woman — albeit a straight one — that made her feel like she could make movies too. (Attending a double feature of Sweetie and Campion’s later film Bright Star was actually a really huge moment for me as well so I really loved this anecdote!!) Cholodenko worked on John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood and began thinking about new voices in cinema — and where she might fit within that. She left LA to attend Columbia film school and it was such an expensive gamble she felt like she had no choice but to write her movie and find a way to make it. Work by John Sayles, Patricia Rozema, and Derek Jarman gave her an initial spark, but it was Dunye and Todd Haynes who really gave her the confidence to do it. And she did — eventually making High Art.

Howard talks about starting his career making a feature — By Hook or By Crook with Harry Dodge — and then working backwards — going to film school, making shorts, and then finally back to features. Howard says the era of New Queer Cinema was his coming-of-age time. He wasn’t surprised by AIDS, he was raised in it. He met mentors and watched them die. As a genderqueer person, he felt like the outsider of the outsiders, but he and Dodge were really committed to not explaining themselves in their work, opting for a sort of transnormative approach instead.

Ahn is the youngest of the group having attended Sundance with his film Spa Night only five years ago. He says that growing up he felt like the only queer person and it wasn’t until college when he was shown works from NQC including Poison and By Hook or By Crook that he realized the legacy he was joining. He talks about the mainstreamification of queerness and how that leads to the abandonment of parts of the community that aren’t cis, white, and privileged. His comments are reminiscent of what Troche was saying — there’s a difference between palatable queer representation and thoughtful, boundary-pushing, inclusive work.

The conversation turns toward the optimistic as Howard talks about the importance of community in his artistic development. He didn’t have a stable income, but he was able to make work, because of the people around him. Even in the pandemic, he’s hopeful to see things like Twitch drag shows and Zoom sex parties.

Dunye is also excited about technology. She notes that combining video and film in The Watermelon Woman was totally unheard of but is normal now. She mentions her 20 and 22-year-olds who are defining their own identities outside of binaries. She feels like a big part of her job now is to step out of the way and let younger generations be the radicals. Cholodenko similarly cites her kids’ level of awareness and sophistication of identity. She feels hopeful that queerness is now a more expansive category.

Ahn agrees that technology allows more people to make work more easily, but adds that he wants people to find connections and gain additional opportunities. He wants work to get a wider release that’s personal and bold. It’s interesting even though the panels were split by generation that this part of the panel is itself split by generation. I, personally, find it inspiring that Ahn is the least optimistic of the group, because there’s a fine line between optimism and complacency. New Queer Cinema was born out of anger and a need to change the systems of our world and the systems of cinema. It’s exciting that there are filmmakers like Ahn who still feel that same sense of purpose.

Rich ends the panel by reminding us that queerness isn’t oppression — it’s a passport. It’s a passport out of dead end neighborhoods and dead end jobs and dead end high school relationships. It’s an opportunity to make our own lives. And our own films.

If you haven’t already, I really encourage you to seek out the work by these incredible artists and all the incredible artists they reference. It’s great that we’re receiving more and more mainstream queer representation, but there’s more to queerness and queer film than the mainstream could ever acknowledge. Watch our history, support our present, create a better future — in film and beyond.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 549 articles for us.

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