Rebel Dykes – BFI Flare 2021

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Directors: Harri Shanahan and Sian Williams

We all benefit from the fights of earlier generations to secure the rights and freedoms we take for granted Rebel Dykes is Harri Shanahan and Sian Williams’s documentary, making a second appearance at BFI Flare following a preview screening in 2016, exploring the untold story of lesbian activism in the 1980s as a close knit group of friends reflect on the their battle for sexual and political acceptance.

From Greenham Common through the Chain Reaction club nights to high-profile Direct Action campaigns, Rebel Dykes is most interesting when exploring the conflicting tides within the lesbian community as traditional feminism clashed with women wanting to live with greater freedom to explore the desires and interests without judgement or restriction.

That traditional feminism built increasingly stringent rules around the expression of female bodies and their physical needs is examined through the regular BDSM Chain Reaction nights where several former attendees and performers recall the liberation and excitement of having a space that expressed their lifestyle and interests.

The division that resulted between those who equated BDSM with domestic violence and patriarchal oppression, who wanted sexuality to become a homogenised experience, is scoffed at by a group of women living a more open lifestyle, sharing partners, living in squats and using their creative talents in the production of art, theatre and performance – many of whom developed notable careers.

That this fight for acceptance within their community evolved into a wider demand for equal rights is well charted by Shanahan and Williams whose film considers some of the consequences of the HIV epidemic and protests against Section 28 legislation. As one contributor notes, for this group of women in the 1980s, lesbianism was a potent combination of politics and sexuality.

The price was high for those trying to live openly and Rebel Dykes never shies away from the physical attacks suffered by this community from raids on club nights from bat-wielding assailants to random attacks on the streets. Yet the film does not dwell long enough on the difficult of trying to blend in and avoid unwanted attention with the need to create safe areas to be themselves.

Using archive footage, photographs, talking head contributions and wonderful animation by Harri Shanahan, Rebel Dykes is an energetic piece of filmmaking that captures the experience of a group of women who identified with punk and wanted to openly celebrate the sex in their sexuality. It does include sometimes graphic footage and images from Chain Reaction nights including mud and baby oil wrestling as well as posed pornography magazines and discussion of a sex toy company established by one contributor.

But what Shanahan and Williams do best is to show the diversity with the LGBTQ+ community and how the Rebel Dykes helped to galvanise its disparate elements to protest and celebrate. The women interviewed here call this an untold story, one they insist subsequent generations need to see to understand where they came from and how hard they fought for progress. Hear them loud and clear.

 BFI Flare runs here from 17 March to 28 March 2021

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