Your plans for February just got way more interesting. Film Forum’s SAPPH-O-RAMA Festival opens this Friday, February 2 and runs through Tuesday February 13. From the silent era, to vampire horror and co-dependent queer space aliens, to lesbian cult flicks and classics of the 80’s, 90’s and more – SAPPH-O-RAMA celebrates the queer girl canon in a 30-film series that has been curated to include some of the most groundbreaking and influential lesbian movies of all time.
The fest is a reboot of the successful July 2000 Film Forum series of the same name. Ten of those original thirty titles are slated to grace the screen again this month at NYC’s leading movie house for independent film.
With a strong staying power, many pictures were independent productions made on shoe-string budgets by the bold visionaries of their day. At least one had Congress literally peeing their pants over the pornographic implications of two women carrying on (GASP!). Some are carefully restored masterpieces of beautiful grainy film – all for your queer viewing pleasure!
There’s something for everyone –
Personally, I’ll NEVER turn down an opportunity to see a nun flick – especially one with chain-smoking sisters and a drug addicted lesbian Mother Superior who lures in needy women and gives them humiliating names, like Sister Manure and Sister Sewer Rat. Pedro Almodóvar’s DARK HABITS (ENTRE TINIEBLAS) (Spain 1983) was rejected by Cannes for its sacrilegious treatment of Catholicism (also a plus). A young Carmen Maura plays bongos for a pet tiger to boot!
Is there a lesbian on the planet who would miss the chance to watch “a sensitive new student” fall in love with her boarding school governess? The 1931 German classic, MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM boasts an all-female cast, and no shortage of lingering gazes. “What you call sin, I call the great spirit of love which takes a thousand shapes.” (Governess Fräulein von Bernberg)
Prison flick, anyone? “Pile out, you tramps! It’s the end of the line!” In the 1950 classic, CAGED, pregnant teenager Eleanor Parker faces off with hardened inmates and comes up against a sadistic butch ward matron. Sigh. Caged nabbed 3 Oscar nominations in its day (which tells me that people were up to more than what they let on in the 1950’s).
Some of the most important decades of queer filmmaking are amply represented at this SAPPHO extravaganza: the 1980’s and 90’s, when lesbian pics were gradually finding their way to conventional theatrical release; back when lesbian romance pretty much guaranteed an R rating. Those who actually LIVED through this time might remember how revolutionary it was to see these films under cover of darkness at a suburban mall theater – often, with only a few people in the audience. How rare, raw, and new it all was.
Such classics include coming-out-gem, DESERT HEARTS (1985). Set in the 1950’s, repressed Columbia professor, Vivian, travels to Reno to get a divorce. She catches the eye of a free-spirited ranch owner’s daughter, Cay, who’s not terribly shy about introducing the professor to the sapphic delights that will cure her emotional woes.
Rom-com THE WATERMELON WOMAN premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1996 – the first feature film directed by an out Black lesbian. Director Cheryl Dunye takes the lead as a video store clerk who watches films from the 1930s and ’40s with Black actresses playing “mammies” and other stereotypical roles. Aspiring to make a documentary about Fae Richards, a fictionalized Hattie McDaniel-type character actress, her probes reveal that Richards had a behind-the-scenes secret interracial romance. At the same time, Dunye is navigating a romance of her own with a white bourgeois store customer (Guinevere Turner). Dunye’s debut work shines light on the history of Black and lesbian women in Hollywood. Despite a controversy in 1997 that had conservative congressmen aghast over a $31,500 NEA grant used to make such a “patently offensive and possibly pornographic” movie, in 2021, the landmark picture was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and has also been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.
HEAR FROM THE FILIMMAKERS!
SAPPH-O-RAMA will offer the chance to hear from special guests, including dancer, choreographer and filmmaker, Yvonne Rainer with film critic Amy Taubin in a Q&A on Sunday, February 4. Rainer, who turns 90 this year, drew from a breast cancer diagnosis to tell a tale of middle-age love between a life-long lesbian and a newcomer in Murder and Murder (1996).
Vampire expert, Laura Westengard, introduces erotic cult classic DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS on Saturday, February 10. A stylish picture that Camille Paglia described as “psychological high Gothic”, the plot sports a newlywed couple who encounter the mysterious Countess Báthory and her companion, Iona, at a seaside grand hotel. Báthory becomes fixated on the new bride and wants to recruit her to the joys of lesbian desire and human blood. The film was inspired by a real-life Hungarian noblewoman who reportedly bathed in the blood of 800 virgins to preserve her youth. Tip to filmgoers: wear a scarf.
Maria Maggenti will be on site Tuesday, February 13 to speak about her groundbreaking coming-of-age lesbian movie that will always play refreshing and sweet: THE INCREDIBLY TRUE ADVENTURE OF TWO GIRLS IN LOVE (1995). And what could be more fun than watching a very young kinda butch Laurel Holloman (Tina of The L Word) play “Randy” falling for “Evie” (Nicole Ari Parker) in a story of high school first romance? (Sidebar: I worked on this film back when Maria and I attended NYU grad film school. I can’t remember exactly what I did, but I’m pretty sure it involved carrying a ton of equipment up lots of stairs).
If you’re blessed to live long enough, you too, might find that some of the films of your yesterdays prove the classics of your tomorrows. It’s a joy to have so much to choose from in the year 2024.
See you at Film Forum. Trailer here.