Rebel Dykes


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Rebel Dykes
"A piece that is deeply personal, punk in its aesthetic, and all the more powerful for both."

The complexity of the political landscape that Rebel Dykes must navigate is perhaps best exemplified by the disclaimer about the use of the word 'we' that comes after the credits. This after a piece that is deeply personal, punk in its aesthetic, and all the more powerful for both.

One of a number of crowdfunded documentaries appearing at 2021's Edinburgh International Film Festival, this is a portrait of a community and its successors, their struggles and their antecedents. It's a confident mixture of animation and archive, interview and insight.

Directors Harri Shanahan and Siân A Williams have assembled something that fulfils those Reithian ideals of educating, informing and entertaining. I mention that dead Lord because we also see direct action at the BBC. Well, 'see', in the sense that it's reconstructed, because they did not provide the archive footage. It means you'll have to imagine, or remember, a future royal correspondent sitting on an abseiling lesbian.

From the other side of Section 28, with something approaching marriage equality and either the commodification of queer or a mainstreaming of miss-behaviour some of this feels properly historical. Of course it didn't at the time, that is the nature of rebellion.

Born from an oral history project, these are compelling stories told well. The 'oral history' part takes a particularly apt diversion in a story featuring (not yet then Sir) Ian McKellen, but what he toys with in that tale is one of the many boundaries the film explores.

This is at times an uneasy watch, in part because these are stories, people, that there were various efforts to suppress. That distress is at times accompanied by comic mileage, the varying recollections of the acronym of a group who smashed up the venue for BDSM club-night 'Chain Reaction' in apparently unironic protest about violence against women raise a smile to parallel a rictus grin of horror.

There's discussion of the feeling of being a 'second-class' lesbian because the motivation was lust, not politics. There's some careful and enlightening discussion of the reactions to rituals, some of which get messier than the mud wrestling at the clubs. There is controversy over naming conventions, a heart-breaking implication in the use of the word 'comparatively', an exploration of the complex politics of (homo)sexual liberation. That these are battles still being fought does not mean that there are not victories here to celebrate, nor, sadly, defeats and the departed to mourn.

As a cis-het white man I basically get to interact with the world on easy mode. The multiple challenges for those in the film are a solid reminder of privilege. Not only of intersectional advantage, but of freedom from the internecine. I might joke that the only way to get two left leaning groups in the same pub is to have one meet there and wait for the split, but the factionalisms of feminism and the consequences are starkly illustrated here. The scene(s) depicted were (and are) trans-inclusive and while many of the phobias now playing out on social media aren't new the level of vitriol isn't either.

The extent to which acceptance within and without is predicated upon sexlessness is fascinating. These Rebel Dykes might have their genesis in the rainbow gates of Greenham Common but the weaponisation of 'right' and 'wrong' shows the impact of seeing the world in black and white. As a historical document there's tremendous value, even if you know some of the stories the depth of detail here is astonishing. As entertainment there's tremendous value too, tongues may be in various places but they're firmly in cheek at times. The soundtrack is also strong, I don't know how many cassette-laden cupboards were raided to provide DIY sound and vision, but it was worth it.

With the first stirrings of the project in 2015/16, this is clearly a labour of love, and all the stronger for it. There are places where it might benefit from giving more context, but I can't and won't fault them for focussing on voices from within the group. That Section 28 is in part explained with a chalkboard being wiped isn't an issue, but for those like me who grew up under its strictures it would have been nice to have more about how it came to be. That it (pun somewhat intended) was in part a backlash to sex-positivity is explored, but it would have been nice to have more. That at times this feels like fond nostalgia is not a weakness, but to its credit. To find light and welcome in these darknesses was important, and still is.

Reviewed on: 19 Aug 2021
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Rebel Dykes packshot
Documentary about the underground lesbian scene in London in the Eighties.
Amazon link

Director: Harri Shanahan, Siân A Williams

Year: 2021

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: UK


EIFF 2021
Newfest 2021

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