BFI London Flare Film Festival Review – Rebel Dykes (2016)

Directed by Sian Williams and Harri Shanahan, Rebel Dykes is the rough-and-ready story of the lesbian counterculture born out of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in 1981. Punk meets feminism in this rowdy documentary, exploring unspoken events in Britain’s political history through the eyes of London’s lesbian subculture. Artists, musicians, rioters—the “dykes on bikes” Black Widows—all form an unconventional family in the bars and streets of 1980’s London. But there’s one thing they all have in common: they love girls and they love sex.

The grime and kinky nature of these young women’s lifestyle is perfectly portrayed through old archive footage and explicit animation in Rebel Dykes. A combination of talking heads, photography and live music give the documentary real texture, transporting viewers back in time. A map of London—the stomping ground where women squatted and partied and protested all night long— is created throughout the film. Specific locations (i.e., “The Bell” pub) and scraps of old VHS build a world within the viewers minds, navigating these women’s story with detail. You really get a feel for this lost world—it’s raw creativity and grit. A time of experimentation, mischief and revolution.

Lesbianism goes hand in hand with Socialism, especially in the political climate of Britain in the 1980s. From the protests against nuclear weapons on Greenham Common, to the boycotting of Section 28 (1987), the rebel dykes terrorized mainstream ideals, paving the way for a more open-minded Britain. Homophobia and racism were rife or women of this time, making their actions that much more dangerous and that much more necessary. And though their lives may have been messy, they were certainly a lot more free than most.

One of the main focuses of Rebel Dykes is the promotion of BDSM, often as entertainment in gay clubs. Unlike modern days criticism of “vanilla shaming”, punk lesbians received immense opposition from the mainstream radical feminists, who compared S&M to domestic violence. From this came a whole new world of fetishism and unconventional sex, Rebel Dykes explores, where new art, inventions and ideas came to be.

For all its political documentation, at the heart of Rebel Dykes is a sense of love, community and friendship. “We loved each other, and we loved people who loved our lovers”, as the rebels put it. The alternative family would spend Christmas together—cooking a turkey whilst tripping on LSD—crowded in shabby, abandoned apartments, three or four to a room. For some of them, this was the only family they had, and together they lead the way for societal change. Financially they may have be poor, squatting in derelict buildings, but never in spirit or in company.

Having previewed at the BFI London Flare Film Festival in 2016, the full documentary was screened during this year’s festival run. Buckle your seat belts for a psychedelic ride of sex, drugs and leather jackets, breaking barriers and claiming liberation. You can view the website for the Rebel Dykes movie and other projects here.