This 1995 film by Michelle Handelman, celebrating the lives and lifestyles of San Francisco’s lesbian BDSM ‘leather women’, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. I am apparently old now because it really doesn’t seem that long ago. You only have to watch this film, to realise that 1995 was a hell of a long time ago actually.
The stylistic choices – split screens, colourful filters, kaleidoscopic effects, by the director date this film firmly in the late twentieth century.
But it’s more than that. This film was made when the Aids epidemic was at its peak. Deaths amongst all sections of the community were on the rise and it wasn’t until the year that this film debuted in cinemas that antiretroviral drug treatments became available to Aids patients.
Attitudes towards gay and bisexual people weren’t exactly in a great place anyway at the beginning of the 1980s. The advent of Aids awareness throughout the 80s and 90s, heightened those homophobic attitudes of many people still further. Gay people and their supposed promiscuous behaviour were held, by many small-minded bigots, to be the cause (and possible divine purpose) of the Aids epidemic.
It’s a hell of a backdrop to any story of queer culture.
The cast of characters who tell their stories in Bloodsisters weren’t just snubbed by the straight community, though. As enthusiastic proponents of sadomasochistic lifestyles, they were also often ostracised by the lesbian community.
The Sex Wars which had raging since the late 1970s, pitted – on one side – feminists who believed that pornography and BDSM was inherently contrary to women’s rights and – on the other – kinky women like the stars of Bloodsisters who maintained that the freedom to express their sexuality was fundamental to the rights of women.
There are so many well-informed, independently-minded, queer and kinky role models in this documentary. People like J.C. Collins, Queen Cougar and Tala Brandeis. Many of the participants are former holders of the title Ms San Francisco Leather.
Skeeter is quite possibly the star of the whole show. A softly-spoken butch woman, she allows us to see her dominant persona during a particularly arresting part of the film: the camera (and by suggestion, the viewer) is commanded to kneel at her feet and do as she says. “You will call me Sir,” she tells us.
My personal favourite was Pat Califia. Pat identified as a woman when this documentary was made but has since transitioned. He is now known as Patrick and I’ll refer to him by his preferred pronouns here.
Patrick is a joyous, funny contributor to the film. He is happy to embrace the silliness of BDSM. (“We dress up in funny clothes! We drag heavy equipment into the bedroom so we can get off!”) It’s a wonderful contrast to some of the seriousness elsewhere in the documentary. It’s a serious business defending one’s right to be who you are but it’s also good to remember that kink is fun!
Bloodsisters is a wonderful film about extraordinary people in revolutionary times. It’s good to know that 25 years ago when I was in my early twenties and concealing both my sexuality and my kinks from the world, there were other, brave women out there shouting it from the rooftops.
I watched BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes and Sadomasochism as part of the 2020 Fringe Film Fest.