BFI FLARE REVIEW: ‘Rebel Dykes’ (2021) A Wonderfully Focused Lesbian Self-Documentation

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Broadcasting the stories of these lesbians is, itself, a form of reclamation” 

In Rebel Dykes, directors Harri Shanahan and Siân Williams stitch together a patchwork of home video, cartoon animation and talking heads, in a reflection on London’s 1980s lesbian communities. Retold by those who were involved, the brazen film is an impressive self-documentation that focuses on recounting the experiences and work of this tight-knit lesbian group.

The directorial pair collaborated on a short film by the same name in 2016, and this 2021 documentary is the feature-length version that extensively captures the UK’s post-punk dyke culture, exploring the roots and action of the collective movement. The oral history plots their political presence and social standing in a landscape where no hand of solidarity was extended from the outside.

London lesbians formed an artistically radical subculture and Rebel Dykes astutely reminisces on how their sexuality became both politicised and policed. Although the women featured talk to a sense of queer hegemony, they are particular in how there was an individualism of lesbianism pertaining to identifying as both gay and a woman.

Conversations of exclusivity and why categories of queerness are so often divided into heteronormative paradigms are weaved throughout the documentary. Personal quipping includes playful reference to the ‘proper lesbian’ rule book and discussions of wider LGBTQ+ issues, Rebel Dykes offers a self-reflexive commentary on queer youth and the importance of including lesbian perspectives in this broader dialogue. A point that remains pertinent, from the 80s to today, and is made accessible through chronological, engaging talking heads.

A still, grainy image of lesbians sat on the floor in a city meeting to discuss protest plans
Image Courtesy of BFI Flare 2021 Festival

Debbie Smith, Roz Zaveney, and Lisa Power, in particular, bring valuable insight and are thoroughly charming storytellers. Memories surrounding Chain Reaction are also a significant contribution to the documentary: the trans-inclusive space, a place to party and let loose with absolute freedom, is fondly known as a landmark for lesbians. Reclaiming the bodies and identities as sexual beings, these lesbian spaces were essential for the merging of art and sex in music, film, and live performance. From mud wrestling to cabaret, the boundaries were the limits of imagination in these safe-havens.

Rebel Dykes powerfully chronicles a narrative of lesbian space and reclamation through the use of grainy archive footage. The lens flickers over smiling and joyous faces, and although the footage is not the best quality, in this context, the intimacy it brings to the documentary is precious and the personal insight is immensely poignant. 

From fury at Thatcher to Section 28 protests, Rebel Dykes is a comprehensive look at the political identities of London’s 1980s lesbians. Pushing and stepping over boundaries to be heard, grabbing headlines to start a discourse, the uniform of the outlaws was Dr. Martens and a leather jacket. Rebel Dykes puts lesbians back in the timeline of London’s queer history, for their politically charged subculture and artistic shaping of culture, it’s about time a film is dedicated to their activism.

Taking refuge and making homes out of abandoned London properties, the reclamation of space even feels pertinent to this film in its wider context. Broadcasting the stories of these lesbians is, itself, a form of reclamation. The film’s commitment to centring lesbian narratives is impressive as it brings home the importance of women documenting their own stories.

Rebel Dykes is screening as part of the BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival 2021 until 28 March. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

Dir: Harri Shanahan and Sian Williams

Prod: Phil Hunt, Siobhan Fahey, Charlotte Knowles, Melanie Iredale, and Michelle Mangan

Header Image courtesy of BFI Flare 2021