REVIEW: Rebel Dykes (BFI Flare 2021)
We weren’t Lesbians, we were Dykes!
At the intersection of punk and feminism, we meet the “Rebel Dykes”, a group of women who recount their riotous stories of their lives in London in the 1980s, in this eye-opening and anarchic documentary feature. The idea of women claiming their space and sticking a middle finger up at the patriarchy is something that reaches outside of the LGTBQ+ community, and is something which is particularly potent at the moment, given some of the recent headlines. There is a lot of fun to be had in this documentary, but at the same time it doesn’t shy away from the hardships, with homophobia, verbal and physical attacks so commonplace that it led many from the community to only feel safe in their own spaces and at night.
One of the spaces given a lot of focus in this film is a club called Chain Reaction, London’s first lesbian fetish club. Extremely progressive in terms of the overt sexuality on display, and an inclusive space for those in the trans and non-binary community as well, the film celebrates the hedonistic and punk nature of the club, but doesn’t ignore the flipside to this as well. Despite encouraging and celebrating intersectionality, the club faced a backlash from more conservative factions who saw the S&M community as being unfeminist. Decades later, this is still an issue in different forms, with the “TERFs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) being a particularly vocal group, seeking selectivity and exclusion rather than unity.
Rebel Dykes has a rebellious spirit that is hard not to be drawn in by. There’s an unrelentingly punk energy to this documentary, and some of the stories honestly need to be heard to be believed!
It also explores the idea of activism, born out of a time of incredible frustration against the government and the establishment. It is not just about the desire to be a rebel, but the need to be a rebel as one interviewee puts it, because there were things which needed to be rebelled against. It is still mind-blowing to think that Section 28, a British law that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality”, was still in existence in our lifetimes. Hearing the stories of those who lived through and fought against these laws is therefore an absolute necessity, and should form an essential part of our education system going forward.
Told through a unique blend of archive footage, animation and recreations, Rebel Dykes is a fascinating insight into this subculture, and it is particularly important that the people themselves are here to tell their own stories. It is simply a privilege to spend time in the company of these trailblazers, and a thrill to finally see their story being told on screen. More than anything, Rebel Dykes is a celebration, a tip of the muir cap to those who paved the way for the modern lesbian community, and a truly wonderful documentary.