The First East European Mainstream Film About Lesbians History of Sexualities, Politics and Cinema under Communism in Eastern Europe
By , on 28 February 2018
The LGBT History Month, February is almost over, but it is never too late to talk about equality, justice and LGBT issues, especially in regions such as Eastern and Central Europe, where many issues, like same-sex marriage, are still to fight for. This text is based on my Lunch Hour Open Lecture, that I delivered at UCL on the 5th of December, 2017 (See below).
I will talk about the first East and Central European mainstream film with two openly lesbian protagnists. It is a Hungarian film by Karoly Makk Another Way (1982). Before I discuss this film, I want to start with some thoughts on a Polish Internet initiative to increase the lesbian visibility, called Lesbian Inspiration… At the end of last September, one of the most influential Polish online platforms and the feminist foundation, FEMINOTEKA, initiated an online action to increase a visibility of lesbians in Polish public debates and life. The initiative was entitled: Lesbian Inspiration/Lesbijska Inspira, a Manifesto against complete invisibility of lesbian issues, personalities and themes in Polish social and political. Lesbian Inspiration as a campaign was inviting artists, writers, scholars, activists to share their experiences.
The first response to the Manifesto was a series of drawings of a butch character by the artist Beata Sosnowska (http://feminoteka.pl/lesbijska-inspira-beata-sosnowska-superprocenta-2/). In the few sketches the character tells us both how she is present everywhere (since, a lesbian can be everywhere, for example both on the left and the right side of political arena), and how she wants to do everything what other people do, even though she feels discriminated and judged. Yet – despite the fact that she is often rejected, also by other lesbians – she, the fictional character of drawings, is determined to claim herself as being 100 per cent (hence her name, Stuprocenta, the feminine version of “sto procent”, 100 %).
The manifesto and Beata Sosnowska cartoon have been a result of a recent article (rather like a set of interviews/statements) with the leading lesbian figures in Polish public life. In these interviews authors openly stated the marginalisation of lesbians in both homophobic discourse and the LGBTQ discourses. Title (or titles) of this set of interventions: “Why there are no lesbians? / Dlaczego nie ma lesbijek”, and then in an online version: “Men, make some space for us”/ Faceci zróbcie miejsce…” already expose its main political argument: straight or gay, the world is still masculine.
The lesbians, as we know especially from the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s, occupied a peculiar position also when we talk about women’s emancipatory discourse: lesbians have often been denied the commonality with the women’s movement and feminist goals (remember “the term ‘lavender menace’ that had been created for lesbians by straight feminists anxious to distance themselves from the charge that feminists were lesbian man-haters”, Moss-Simic 2011). And this peculiar position can be perfectly observed in the first intervention within Feminoteka’s Lesbian Inspiration: a series of fantastic drawings, a mini-comic of a lesbian situation: a manifesto of someone that is queered all over as a woman; by her look, by her style, by her choices, by her politics. This is not only a lesbian figure, it is probably the most controversial lesbian figure: a butch. Historically rejected also by lesbians as the one that “plays” with masculinity by assuming it, therefore reinforcing it. And I see the lesbian woman/ a butch/ a dyke created by Beata Sosnowska as a symbol of excessive-ness of lesbian in social, cultural, public, academic debates and scholarship and perhaps the very reason why lesbians are still taboo, even when homosexuality is not.
What do I mean by lesbian as an excessive figure: Lesbian figures point out into identity politics in the era of deconstruction of identity; lesbian “flirts” with essentialism, when we try to see culture as construction (“firmly entrenched in the system of sexual difference”, Marylyn Farewell). Lesbian is always an excess in trespassing the cultural boundaries of expectations: never enough of a woman, never enough of a man, ambiguous in the beauty disputes: too pretty is seen as unconvincing, rejecting the rigour of fashion as an unnecessary and stereotypical rebel, as a mother always needs a justification, or as a wife accused of nostalgia for heteronormative institutions. Even the casual online search of lesbian themes in contemporary public debate connects lesbian with the word “excess”: excessive femininity, excessive masculinity, excessive sexuality, excessive drinking, and excessive health problems. Excess is also frequently present in the postmodernist and the most lesbian-friendly attempts to define “the lesbian”, as in Teresa de Lauretis’ idea of lesbian as “obliterating the boundaries of gender identities”, who “does not deny gender or sex, but transcending them”. Irony, game, parody, and grotesque, excess – those are the keywords often used in the discourse on lesbianism.
At the same time, Lesbian can be a deadly serious character, as Eva Szalanczky, a passionate and socially engaged journalist in the Karoly Makk’s film. She is an excess; she does not and cannot fit. She is best to be killed by the narrative “big brother”/ by the culture / by the heteronormative voyeuristic narrator who glances into the lesbian affair but his main goal is to present the trauma of politics.
The main character Ewa, the lesbian, is dead. After this spoiler from my side, let’s “see” the film. The two main characters meet in the elevator to the magazine editorial headquarters, where Livia (the blond, beautiful, hyper feminine, and married, played by famous Polish actress, Grażyna Szapołowska) works, and where Eva (Jadwiga Jankowska – Cieślik) the lesbian talented, but also being too direct, too uncompromising, kind of excessively truthful journalist is about to have a job interview which will go really well. Lets watch closer the characters through the film trailer:
- Lesbians in Communist Europe. Another Love/Another Way/ Other Glance
The film critics: Mima Simić and Kevin Moss in 2011 article Post-Communist Lavender Menace: Lesbians in Mainstream East European Film analyse the figure of lesbian in various Eastern European films as a metaphor of broadly speaking national constructions. They claim that many films, especially made by heterosexual directors who “used” the motif of lesbian love and lesbian characters not to represent any truth about lesbian communities in any particular country but to challenge other politically charged problems.
Essentially and rightly so, Simic and Moss claim that lesbian films often have very little to tell us about the lesbian lives. And this is the most interesting aspect, the often unspoken or overseen fact in the LGBT studies: the fact that lesbians are used in cultural discourses as a vehicle of other messages, of dealing with other fears: just like in pornography they are used for heterosexual pleasure, in culture they are used to challenge other aspects of social life rather then the primacy of heterosexual or male homosexual desires, and the issues of inclusion of lesbians in mainstream culture.
Going back to the film:
Another Way (Egymasra nezve, Hungary, 1982) is the first mainstream, popular and broadly watched film from Eastern Europe that shows the lesbian relationship (Moss, Simic, 2011). It was made by Karoly Makk (sadly diseased this year). “Makk’s ground-breaking film was also the first film from Hungary to refer to the events of 1956 as a revolution, rather than a counter-revolution.” (Moss-Simic 2011). The screenplay by Erzsebet Galgoczi, in cooperation with Karoly Makk, was based on Galgoczi’s 1980 novel, Another Love (Galgo ́czi, 1991, original title: Torve nyen belul? Within the Law Galgoczi, 1980). Galgoczi was herself a closeted lesbian (died in 1989), so part of her book and the film contain the notion of authenticity, which put even more lights on the fact how personal lives have been/are subjected to political discourses. She was at the time the head of the Hungarian Writers’ Union. Makk was an established and well-known director at the time, and the film went on to win the FIPRESCI critics award at Cannes.
The basic frame for the film is Eva’s death at the border, being shot by the border’s soldier who suspects her of attempting to leave illigally Hungary in 1958. We also see Livia in the hospital, paralysed as a victim of the recent jealousy outrage of her husband who couldn’t stand confrontation with the fact that Livia wanted to leave him for Eva, and he shoots her in the bathtub. The whole film may be seen as a projection of Livia’s memory, a retrospective narrative. Eva was fired in the midst of 1956 Hungarian revolutions. Hungarian 1956 revolution: was seeking the political change from Soviet Union’s unconditional influence in the communist regime. 1956 is a symbolic year for remembering Eastern European communism as a set of attempts to created better world rather then the subjection to the Soviet rules: the Hungarian revolution is a first such an attempt – a nationwide revolt against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies, lasting from 23 October until 10 November 1956.
Eva insists, among other things, on calling the events of 1956 a “revolution” instead of the officially sanctioned “counter-revolution”. And in between of these political disputes, Eva falls for Livia. Commentator of the films points out Eva’s uncompromising character: “Eva challenges her editor, and she also talks back to the police when they find the two women kissing on a park bench. The police send Lıvia back to her husband and threaten the single Eva with arrest. When she protests, they remind her “we are not in America,” (Moss-Simic 2011)!!
Obviously, in the “serious political discourse: it should be hinted that lesbianism is a foreign import. And as such should be stopped: Livia is shot by husband, then frightened and desperate, in the hospital, she rejects Eva, Eva leaves for the border. Confronted by a guard and told to stop, she continues walking and is shot dead. The critic Aniko Imre, Hungarian film specialist, argues that always-closeted writer Galgoczi wrote her novel “to bring her own un-representable subjectivity into representation. But the only way she could do so was by putting the smoke screen of national allegory in front of the highly auto-biographical story of the tragic lesbian”. Yet, the film, based on the novel, does the opposite. “Instead of using the political allegory as a smokescreen for presenting a lesbian plot, Makk does the opposite. His goal is to challenge the regime, and he uses the lesbian narrative to smuggle his politics onto the screen” (Moss-Simic 2011).
Moss and Simic thinks that “Makk is not at all interested in lesbian subjectivity. In a film that broke two taboos, political and sexual, the sexual taboo may have been equally controversial, but it was less politically risky than calling the events of 1956 a revolution.
For Makk, as Moss and Simic argues “sexual dissidence is a metaphor for political dissidence, which he was more interested in”. Also Makk has been quite ignorant about the gay history in Hungary: in his interview with Edit Bagota he says homosexuality was illegal in Hungary until 1953, or 1956. In fact laws against homosexual acts as “perversion against nature” remained on the books until 2002, although homosexuality between consenting adults was not prosecuted after 1961, which means homosexuality was indeed illegal at the time the film was set, in 1958. Makk admits that he was as ignorant as his male characters about how lesbians do it: “I would never in my dreams have been able to guess what two women do with each other in bed.”
Yet, Another Way became a cult film for Hungarian lesbians and for Polish lesbian history: in part because it was the only “lesbian” film. Hungarians are fond of claiming that Hungary was an exceptionally homophobic country, yet the release of this film would appear to unsettle that idea a little
Lesbian in Karoly Makk’s film is a metaphor of a national and political discourse. And she is a thread to it, needs to be symbolically killed, become double metaphor as a sexual and political dissident, in both cases tragic figures. What are the conclusions of these presentations of lesbian (the monsters – (the symbolic) representations of fear of the other in society?
Should we give up the national perspective? Should we always try to see lesbians on the broader perspective, transnational, beyond country, after all to be a woman is to have no country, her country is the whole world… following Virginia Woolf reasoning, so perhaps – if we push it to extreme – to be a lesbian is not even think in the national, country-like categories? Well, however much I am tempted by this pan-national perspective I think it is a dead end route, too utopian, historically false (taking into consideration how many lesbians were active in creating nationalistic discourses, Maria Konopnicka in Poland or Cecile Tormay in Hungary). Deconstructing lesbian figure as a metaphor in nationalistic political discourse is not to deconstruct/expose the discourse as unimportant to lesbians. It is just to show how they are used in it without being considered as significant part of the society, as part of the actual community or the community in need of construction.
Anikó Imre claims that perhaps the best way to unsettle heteronormativity and to challenge the marginalizing of lesbians is to take up the strategies of performativity, rather than activism: “In cultures and regions where lesbianism has limited visibility due to extreme religious or nationalistic hostility, serious political activism and essentialist identity politics are not necessarily more effective than forms of performative activism and the playful subversion of representations sanctioned by local versions of heteronormative ideology”. That means excessiveness again, with humor, stubbornly, like the Onehandredperscent character and her excessive stories about lesbian every day lives…. So: performativity as a strategy, just like the Lesbian Inspiration campaign… Will it work? Let’s see…
Lecture can be seen at:
 YouTube commentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xW8k55Sj-A
 Kevin Moss & Mima Simić (2011) Post-Communist Lavender Menace: Lesbians in Mainstream East European Film, Journal of Lesbian Studies, 15:3, 271-283.