“If Something Gives Me the Chills, or If I Ever Think, ‘Is This Too Much?’, Then I Know I Have to Use It”: Michelle Handelman on the 25th Anniversary Rerelease of BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes And Sadomasochism
Filmmaker/video artist/photographer/performance artist/writer/professor Michelle Handelman is a 2011 Guggenheim fellow and 2019 Creative Capital awardee whose work is featured in collections from Napa, California to Paris to Moscow. But back in the early 90s Handelman was simply an explorer with a video camera, diving headlong into a San Francisco Leatherdyke scene that would pave the way for today’s gender nonconformity movement as we know it.
Her resulting film, 1995’s BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes And Sadomasochism – just rereleased last month with bonus extras by Kino Lorber – is an artistic amalgam both of its time and surprisingly timely. Scenes from leather pageants are interspersed with frank discussions with players (topics include topping from the bottom and being a macho femme), and accompanied by an in-your-face punk and post-industrial soundtrack by beloved bands like Frightwig and Coil. There are also an abundance of non-sugarcoated interviews with politically inconvenient pioneers. Writer Patrick Califia (before he began identifying as a bi trans man) and Queen Cougar (1993’s Ms. SF Leather and one of the few Black faces in a seemingly overwhelmingly white scene) are especially vociferous about securing visibility and acceptance. And this at a time when their unabashed embrace of BDSM horrified both left-wing feminists (who saw sadomasochism as a self-loathing extension of the patriarchy) and right-wing organizations like the American Family Association (which used clips from the film in its fight to defund the NEA). Not to mention the stance of the American Psychiatric Association, which only stopped classifying kink as a mental disorder less than a dozen years ago.
The genre-defying Handelman – who according to her provocative bio creates “confrontational works that explore the sublime in its various forms of excess and nothingness” – found time to fill Filmmaker in on the rerelease, and also on how far queer culture has come in the past quarter century. And how far we’ve yet to go.
Filmmaker: I read that you were introduced to the leatherdyke community through Skeeter and Jaime, who are both featured in the film. I assume the fact that you played – i.e., weren’t an outsider – allowed you to gain some level of trust, but what was the filmmaking process actually like? How long did you get to know these activists personally before you brought in the camera?
Handelman: I met Skeeter and Jaime through my friend Scott Shatsky (Senior VP, Kingdom Reign Entertainment), who at the time worked at The Gauntlet piercing salon. All three of them made introductions for me. So I just started showing up at events and shooting. It was always a negotiation. On the one hand you had extroverts who wanted to be on camera all the time. And then you also had people who wanted to keep this part of their life very private. Plenty of people came right up to me and clearly stated that they did not want to be on camera, but most people were more than eager to appear and often played to the camera.
After I had been shooting for a month or so, my production partner Monte Cazazza began coming with me too, so we had two cameras. One of us would talk to people while the other would capture wild sound. After awhile people just expected us to be at all the events – and when we weren’t the next time we saw them they would ask, “Why weren’t you at my event last week?” There was a lot of friendly competition in terms of whose event would get covered and end up in the final film.
Of course figuring out who to interview was its own process. We didn’t do pre-interviews because with our DIY approach we wanted the immediacy of a first-time interview. And the interviews were long – two to three hours on average – all afternoon. An editing nightmare for sure, but interviewing is my favorite part. That’s where you get to go deep and learn something about your subject. And it’s also where you as a filmmaker get to give someone a platform to speak about things that are meaningful to them. Some people needed a little more coaxing, like Patrick Califia and Gayle Rubin, two pioneers who started Samois, the first lesbian-feminist BDSM group in the late 1970s, as both of them had experienced great pain and loss after coming out. I think Patrick, who at the time identified as a lesbian, said yes because he knew he had the knowledge and experience to give a historical overview, particularly in relation to the lesbian sex wars and prejudice against the leather folk within the queer community. I never could convince Gayle to appear onscreen, but she generously shared a lot of stories with me and allowed me to shoot some of her archive which appear in the film.
Filmmaker: Can you talk a bit about the rerelease and perhaps its importance at this time? On the one hand, BDSM is no longer pathologized in the DSM [the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], and 50 Shades brought kink visibility to the straight mainstream. On the other hand, the divisiveness surrounding Pride in recent years has included calls for the leather folks to go back in the closet in the name of “family-friendly” values. The film almost strikes me as an ironic testament both to how far we’ve come and gone back.
Handelman: One of the things I’ve learned over time is that nothing scares people as much as BDSM. And big dykes into BDSM – forget about it! The taboos of being queer and being into BDSM are just so deeply engrained by religion and conservative family values that most people can’t handle it and immediately want to shut it down. That’s how repression and oppression work.
While the battle for leather folk to go back into the closet sadly still exists, I can honestly say it’s the people in their 20s who have made this rerelease happen. I wasn’t thinking about rereleasing it or celebrating the 25-year anniversary at all. But I started to get calls from young film programmers – first from Europe and then from the States – and it became clear to me that something was happening. The film was still speaking to people. And actually speaking to people in a way that it never had before.
When BloodSisters was first released no one in the US would broadcast it. It was too controversial. It played at over 50 festivals, but it still was met with a lot of resistance. People were afraid. So it’s been galvanizing to now see all these young festival programmers actually loving BloodSisters. I always wanted this film to be a historical document of this radical group of leather women who were on the frontlines fighting for sexual freedom, and you can directly trace the de-pathologizing and mainstream visibility back to their activist activities. But unfortunately history’s trajectory is usually two steps step forward, one step back. In fact, JC Collins talks about this in the film, discussing the civil rights movement and how many laws were repealed or changed over the years. It’s taken over 20 years for BloodSisters to achieve its full impact. Now I get emails from young queer people around the world thanking me for making this film, and giving them a piece of their history that they always knew existed but had never seen. Giving them back a piece of themselves. It’s humbling.
Filmmaker: It’s disturbing (though also absurdly hilarious) that the film was notoriously once used by the American Family Association to target the NEA and specifically its funding recipients like Women Make Movies, which subsequently had to drop the doc. What was that experience like? Did it cause any acrimony between you and WMM?
Handelman: Let’s be clear: WMM didn’t have to drop BloodSisters. That was a choice executive director Debbie Zimmerman made on her own. I don’t want to drag WMM over the coals here because I still believe in their mission, so I’ll just say it was very disheartening. From the moment I started shooting BloodSisters I knew I wanted WMM to distribute it. At the time they were the leading distributor of films made by and about women – maybe not so much now, but at the time they were. And I always saw BloodSisters as a very important piece of lesbian-feminist history – of women’s history. I was proud to be in the WMM collection.
I never received NEA support, but WMM did. In 1997, the American Family Association put together a “sizzle reel” of films distributed by Women Make Movies – clips from BloodSisters, along with clips from Barbara Hammer and Cheryl Dunye films, which they used to lobby against the NEA. It became a bit of a news story and Debbie was interviewed on several news outlets. But after the story died down Debbie said, “I always knew we were going to get in trouble for this film.” And just like that, she dropped BloodSisters from the WMM roster!
I was shocked and furious, but mostly I was very disappointed that WMM didn’t stand up and support BloodSisters. I thought it showed a great lack of vision on WMM’s behalf. And it was a direct example of institutional censorship, which I consider one of the most dangerous forms of censorship as it comes from within. BloodSisters was taken in by WMM, then it was kicked out. That action was a blow, and a further othering of an already marginalized community.
Debbie ended up connecting me with Waterbearer Films, which handled the home video release, but the message was clear: WMM did not want leather dykes in their collection. Look, it’s a testament to how BDSM is so triggering to so many people that they can’t see beyond their own fears and acknowledge the actual depth of content. But in the long run it’s all worked out, as Kino Lorber is a much better home for BloodSisters than WMM ever could have been. Not only because they have a wider distribution, but because Kino Lorber believes in BloodSisters. Having that support means everything to me.
Filmmaker: There’s a monologue by the top Skeeter that stood out to me in particular for its jarring tonal difference. In it she relays a story about knife play that culminated in the woman bottoming telling her to “do it” as the knife reached her throat. Skeeter’s admission of how close she came to complying is downright chilling. So why did you choose to include this radical scene? At the time did you hesitate at all? It’s such a brave but risky decision not to sugarcoat the sometimes problematic practices of a marginalized community.
Handelman: Oh no, I never hesitated. I always go straight to the core. No sugarcoating allowed! If something gives me the chills, or if I ever think, “Is this too much?” then I know I have to use it. You know, we have to question ourselves. We have to look at ourselves in the mirror. We have to go to these dark and uncomfortable spaces in order to better understand ourselves and each other, in order to have empathy.
Although I certainly don’t consider myself “brave” for doing this. Skeeter’s play partner was the one who was brave. She was the one letting someone bring a knife to her throat. I’m just doing honest filmmaking that stays true to its subjects and true to myself. If being honest to oneself is being “brave,” then our world is a pretty fucked up place. And unfortunately it is. My films have been criticized for being “too provocative,” but I believe you have to provoke people to get them to think deeply and critically. You have to wake people out of their media-saturated slumber to create meaningful dialogue about the things that scare us, that move us, that make us human.
Filmmaker: One of the most thrilling aspects of the BDSM world is that it’s a gender irrelevant space. Male or female, gay or straight, Black or white – all these binary categories are rendered moot because everyone is seen first and foremost as a top, bottom or switch. Indeed, so many of these Leatherdyke pioneers – most notably Patrick Califia – no longer even identify as dykes but as trans men. So did you have any inkling back in the 90s that your kinky subjects might be paving the way for today’s trans revolution?
Handelman: Oh yes, it was absolutely apparent at the time that progressive change was happening. But of course I don’t think any of us imagined what this would look like 25 years on. The non-binary, gender irrelevant space you talk about is exactly what attracted me to the leather community to begin with. At its core the leather community has always been inclusive and intersectional. No matter how freaky you are, or what groups you’ve been shut out of, the leather community will open their arms to you. Outcasts find their home in underground communities of pleasure and liberation.
But look, what was going on in San Francisco during the early 1990s was absolutely groundbreaking in terms of expanding forms of gender identity. And as I was getting the film ready for the new release I was struck by how BloodSisters had captured this burgeoning trans community with Patrick Califia, Tala Brandeis, and Susan Stryker. All of these people who started our now public conversations on gender fluidity and trans identity, including Judith Butler, can be traced back to 1990s San Francisco.
I was also struck by how radical and vital the film still feels, as the need to take to the streets is more potent now than ever. I always thought of BloodSisters as not only a historical document, but as a living document. A statement on queer rights, civil rights and sexual freedom for everyone.