You’ve heard countless jokes about members of the BDSM community on your favourite American sitcoms, but have you ever heard about this alternative lived experience straight from the horse’s mouth? Bloodsisters, a groundbreaking documentary re-released from 1995, explores and dissects this underground culture of women and queer people who love to blur the boundaries between pleasure and pain. Beyond that, they are performers, activists, educators and community representatives, some even partaking in workshops and meet-ups to mingle and to share knowledge.

They strive to debunk the myths surrounding leather, dykes and sadomasochism and members of these communities, all the while being presented in a way that does not offer judgement towards their chosen lifestyle. Now during a period of more accessible content and the ability to stream, not to mention the more relaxed attitude towards people with these alternative lifestyles, it is truly wonderful to see such a bold and empowering documentary, as full of heart as it is filled with sexual desire.

The documentary starts boldly and unapologetically, with an old school montage of women with whips, engaging in rallies and protests and hurting each other. It is clear that you will be learning about the details from the 1970s-90s that are often left out of the history books due to their negative stereotyping in mainstream media and beyond. Bloodsisters has a beautiful blend of archive footage and reconstructed and reimagined, but the piece is primarily led by interviews from community members themselves, upgrading the piece’s sincerity and authenticity.

Their level of dedication from the self-proclaimed leather dykes shines through the piece strongly, with certain POV sequences from the perspective of a ‘slave’ or sub with a demanding dom on the other side of the conversation, creating an immersive seemingly firsthand experience. They discuss personal limits in terms of how much pain they can take, and equally how far they may go with play partners that wish to be dominated. The openness and honesty of the discussions helps to eliminate the myths regarding members of the community being rage-filled and eager to hurt others, which is refreshing and somewhat touching.

These women, visible members from some of the most underrepresented and publicly shunned groups, are truly brave and proud of taking part in these acts and they find solace in the performances they put on for community members and tourists in safe and inclusive venues. As discussed through the interviews, historically they are a group of women who have been consistently under attack by feminists during the late 20th century for their alleged promotion of violence towards women. What the feminists don’t understand, and arguably the core of the documentary’s message itself, is how what they partake in is completely consensual and empowering, and even really beyond the realms of gender and gender violence. Of course, everyone has limits and boundaries, but it is clear from members of the community themselves that they are more aware of personal limits than most would typically tend to be.

Some moments may have you feeling particularly hot under your collar (pun intended) or give you the tendency to wince, but it is exactly these sensations that make the documentary so compelling – it feels as though you have been given exclusive access to a different way of life, one that is so often misunderstood. Various violent imagery that is peppered throughout may not be for the faint of heart, but the refusal to dilute or downplay what activities these women partake in is admirable and compelling. As previously stated, what Bloodsisters excels at is showcasing the experience of such a harmless group that are unjustly discriminated against, and each valuable interview from the documentary offers up new insight, including the concept of unleashing inner hurt and pain in a way that is liberating.

Each act they partake in is an act of defiance against the major authoritative powers that be, reclaiming and remolding concepts such as oppression and authoritarianism but doing so in a way that brings forth a sense of catharsis. They impersonate those in power that dictate their rights and their ability to be safely visible to reclaim some of that power for themselves, and to utilise in a roleplay fashion – it’s a dynamic they are extremely familiar with, and to add a sense of control and erotic-infused storytelling to it must be extremely liberating.

Bloodsisters is a bold and empowering documentary, a truly beneficial addition to the lacking accessible resources regarding these BDSM cultures and communities, and its re-release also acts as a reminder that we have come a long way in terms of acceptance, but there is always more to be done to help the next generation to safely survive and thrive.

Rating: ★★★½

The 25th Anniversary release of the groundbreaking look at the San Francisco leatherdyke scene –
Available on DVD from Kino Lorber and Digitally on Kino Now from June 29, 2021