CMN! no.1 (Autumn 1996)

Fiona Cunningham Reid Interview

Craig Watts

British Lesbian Filmmaker Fiona Cunningham Reid's first feature film, "Thin Ice" (1994) was featured in the Tokyo Gay and Lesbian Film Festival held in Tokyo and Kansai this past May. Ms. Reid was in attendance at the festival and agreed to an interview, which was held at Artscape in Kyoto on May 19, 1996 in conjunction with G-Front, a gay activist group based in Kansai.

Question: Since your visit to Kyoto with the Tokyo Gay and Lesbian Film Festival made this interview possible, could you begin by giving your impressions of the two-day Tokyo Gay and Lesbian Film Festival held in Kyoto?

Reid: I enjoyed it very much. First, I loved it here in Kyoto especially. I think Kyoto is more beautiful than Tokyo; I thought the venue (Kyoto Daigaku Seibu Kodo) was much better.
  In Tokyo, my impression was that the people who came to the festival felt a bit formal, not so relaxed. There were a lot of people that wanted to ask questions, but they were very shy in Tokyo. And you had to vacate the theater at 11 p.m., so there was nowhere to go to talk. But in Kyoto everyone could talk all day. I liked that the Kyoto festival lasted only two days. But I'm sure that will change because in the future they will want to show more films.
  One big difference between the Tokyo Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and other festivals is the lack of filmmakers. I haven't met any filmmakers here. But I enjoyed it more in a way because people talk about the film, they talk about the characters in it, and they don't give a shit about the problems of the money and the technicalities.
  As a filmmaker, sometimes, you lose sight of what you're trying to say because you're just overwhelmed with all the technical problems. At the festival people ask you, "How did you do this?" and "Did you get permission for this?" "Where did you get this?" Which is nice, of course, but it's also great to hear people who just wanted to see a story. But it would be great to meet filmmakers here.

Question: What were the first gay or lesbian films, the first images that you had personally, for example, the first film you saw?

Reid: I think it must have been "Desert Hearts." I think that was the earliest. Before that there were books: Radcliff Hall, "The Well of Loneliness," written in the 1930s--terrible book. "Emmanuel" movie and book.
  I was brought up in Kenya, East Africa, so there weren't a lot of things available. My mother lived in Spain. And I went to boarding school in England. Boarding school, of course, is a big lesbian hotbed, women always in love with the older woman. When I was 17 I had posters of Elton John and Virginia Wade, the tennis player, on my wall. But I was very heterosexual until I was 24. My mother in Spain had many many gay friends, for example, Americans playing in piano bars. Gay culture was always there, and many gay male friends. I used to hang out with a lot of fags. The called me the faghag. But it was really in film school in 1978 that I became aware of gay films, lesbian films, and all this. Quite late.

Question: How did you get started as a gay filmmaker?

Reid: I started with film school, 12-13 years ago. And then I discovered feminism, lesbianism, and people from many different countries. I focused on doing camera work mostly. I did camera work for 10 years, film camera, assisting on many films like "My Beautiful Laundrette," "1919," and "Superman 3."
  I was gay, lesbian, and I was pretty open about it. I was not always open about my sexuality at work because the work wasn't always regular. A job, for example, might last for only one month.

Question: The non-fiction footage from the 1994 New York Gay Games forms an important backdrop for your film "Thin Ice." What were your impressions of the Gay Games?

Reid: Chaos. Absolute chaos. What was annoying was that I was trying to work in the Games. So of course I thought everything we wanted was more important than anybody else. We wanted our positions at the ice rink, but they would only give positions to CNN, NBC, all the big televisions stations. So we had a terrible time fighting to get a camera in because there was only one possibility to do it.
  But the Games was very strange because I'm used to Australia and the Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras which is very very well organized. We arrived in New York, and because they're so commercial in America, there's a lot of money, there were one million people coming to New York. So they had Pride Tours, and on the Gay Games Committee everyone was having affairs with everyone else, fights. There was one room for journalists with free telephones, and everybody was using it to call all over the world.
  Ian McKellan did a show for three or four nights, sold out, and the money was meant to go 1/3 to the Gay Games, 1/3 to Stonewall, and 1/3 to AIDS. But the Gay Games took everything. They were in so much debt. Huge debts. Chaos. Chaos.

Question: The impression the film gives seems very different.

Reid: Somebody said that about my documentary on the Mardi Gras ("Feed Them to the Cannibals" 1993). They went there because of the film, because it looked so fabulous. Then they came back and said they wanted $4,000 back because they couldn't see--there were too many people. But if you make these films, you're always aware that people would love to mock anything that's gay. You're always very conscious that you have to make it positive.
  The New York Gay Games was a big thing for them to do, huge. And they did it. This is the thing. There was a good feeling there. I think Amsterdam (Gay Games 1998) will be amazing. But I mean it was chaos. The closing ceremonies, on the other hand, was boring. It was "thank you for the person who emptied the rubbish, thank you for the person who wrote one letter. " Four hours of speeches. It was agony.

Question: I wanted to ask about the idea of politics and private love. It seems one of the themes "Thin Ice" addresses is the politicization or commercialization of lesbian and gay people's lives. What are your thoughts?

Reid: A very good Australian friend of mine, an AIDS activist named David McDermott who passed away, always had the 1960s philosophy: "the personal is the political." Now, it is becoming very hard with the Mardi Gras, with Gay Games--it's commercial, money. I know we can't go on living in a little fairy fantasy world of "gay is nice" and we don't need money and all this stuff, but it's hard to not exploit.
  When I made the Mardi Gras film ("Feed Them to the Cannibals"), it was sold to Australian television. It was the first time anything like that had been on television. It's very full-on: penises, dancing men--it's outrageous. It had an avalanche of mail, both negative and positive, but a lot of negative. "Public television stations must not show these perverts." An Australian preacher said, "In the beginning God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."
  But this is very popular on television. Many many people watched it. It had the highest ratings. I was in fact making a political sort of film, but now the ABC televises the Mardi Gras live. It has the highest ratings in Australia. So me and my friend who produced "Thin Ice" and the other film, we feel a bit sensitive--we wish we had been paid a bit more to do it. And I'm sure that at the next Gay Games there will be a huge film. Somebody, some American will do it, and they'll do it well. They'll get a proper script ready.
  The commercialization is everywhere. You walk into the Gay Games where shops are selling crap because they've got rainbows and you think "Why, why this big marketplace now?" I think it's sad. The more accepted we are, the more we lose. The identity gets diluted, and then you lose who you're writing for, who the festival is for, who a play is for. "Did you make it for a straight audience, or a gay audience?" And the Mardi Gras parade had a big problem because "Playboy" wanted to put a float in their parade--because it goes on television. They offered to pay the Mardi Gras committee a lot of money, but the committee said no.

Question: What is the political situation for gay filmmakers in England?

Reid: 7 years ago in England "Clause 28" was introduced by the government. The purpose of Clause 28 was to stop the promotion of anything overtly homosexual or lesbian in public institutions such as schools run by the government, and even in libraries. To do this was made illegal.
  The introduction of Clause 28 started politicizing many lesbian and gay people, especially those in the closet because it affected all films and theatre. The government said we couldn't do anything that was lesbian or gay or written by gays, which was very difficult because many of the plays at that time were written by lesbians and gays. The government said in theory they would never use the act, they would not make it law in schools, but the fact was that they could use the act. It was possible.
 So "Stop the Act--Clause 28" was started by many activists and actors--quite well known ones, like Ian McKellan, Michael Cashman, and Douglas Slater a man who used to work in the House of Lords in Parliament and now has AIDS. They started a movement. They had a big benefit to which many famous people came, including people like Vanessa Redgrave and many others in the theatre or cinema in England. People like Ian McKellan came out of the closet, many actors came out. We decided to start a group called "Stonewall", and I was a founding member. We started the group because in England there wasn't yet an organizing professional group fighting for lesbian and gay equality. There were many very good activist groups--Outrage, Queer Nation, Campaign for Homosexual Equality--but they were all very different. Everyone was sort of fighting, and they had little demonstrations here, and another one here.
  We decided to start this group with 5 lesbians, 5 gay men, preferably with black people, Asian people--which didn't actually work in the beginning. The idea was to include people from media, law, fundraising. The group included one politician who was thrown out from his seat because he was gay. The idea was to pool the resources and make a group. There was a small benefit to start to get people to join. The idea was to be non-political--not socialist, not conservative. The single purpose was for equality in the law, legal equality for lesbians and gay men and everybody. For the first 2 or 3 years, many people who had been in the grass roots organizations were angry because they thought the people in Stonewall--Ian McKellan, lawyers--had been in the closet for 25 years. Where were they? But these people had connections; they could ring up the prime minister. Some people thought you have to be activist only to make change, but "Stonewall" said you have to lobby, you have to persuade people, you have to go to Parliament--you do it like everyone else does, not by direct action only. As individuals, members could do this. Now they have over 20,000 people supported on the newsletter.
  Many lesbians were angry in the beginning because some of the prominent men were very disparaging about lesbians. They used to forget to say lesbian--they always said "gay."

Question: What were your reasons for including Ian McKellan in the film?

Reid: Originally we wanted to get famous people in cameo roles because we thought that would help to sell the film. Martina Navratilova was going to do a little part, and then she said no at the last minute. Ian is a sort of friend of mine and was willing to do a favor.
 Ian was the first gay man to be knighted by the Queen. Noel Coward was, but he wasn't out. There's a joke now: You have to go down on one knee for Sir Ian--Sirena.
  Many gay activists such as Derek Jarman were very upset that Ian accepted the knighthood. He thought Ian was giving in to the establishment. But they became friends. Ian will become very famous. He's just made a a big film, "Richard III" that will be coming to Tokyo, and Osaka.

Question: Is coming out still difficult for English actors?

Reid: Ian was a theater actor, Shakespearean. And most actors in England now are out. I think nearly all. Since Clause 28 many people realize that it's ok. But still, the lesbians not so much. Women in the theater and cinema and everywhere, have a hard time as women. So then to come out as a lesbian as well is sometimes very hard. One woman I knew came out to her director while playing a heterosexual role in a play . The day after she came out, the director said concerning her acting, "I don't believe you." He knocked her acting ability, said she wasn't playing straight enough. So people still need a Hollywood actress to come out. And it will have to be Jodie Foster.

Question: Wouldn't that be taking a big risk?

Reid: Well, her company made the film "Trevor." And she's making a lesbian film now. She takes her girlfriend to all the parties in Hollywood. It's tragic that we all need someone famous to come out to feel better. But I get upset with people who don't come out if they're powerful and strong. She made how many millions on the last film? She makes her own films. It wouldn't damage her. k.d. Lang is very popular. She still won at the Grammy Awards after coming out. Melissa Etheridge. Martina, of course. I think it's changing.
  But I find America extraordinary. You think it's this big wide open country--and it's just right-wing, narrow-minded. Real extremes. They have a ghetto in San Francisco of gays--everywhere has their ghettos--and then this terrible middle America, right-wing, prejudiced. It's just appalling.

Question: Finally, I would like to ask a few questions specifically concerning "Thin Ice." We understand from the beginning that the Steffi character (Sabra Williams) is a lesbian who has been through a number of relationships. Natalie (Charlotte Avery), on the other hand, doesn't have any experience as a lesbian, but comes to see this part of herself?

Reid: Exactly. It's more a "coming of age" film, than a coming out film. It could have been a boy or a girl. I think it's just something that happened to her. That's what we wanted. In her life, her father committed suicide, she's living with her sister, and then the possibility of a relationship with a woman comes along and she finds that very exciting.
  In the film, the Natalie character was meant to be much younger than the actress that's in the film--she was meant to be 18. But the original actress dropped out 2 weeks before we stared filming. So this slightly older woman came. And I couldn't find anyone else--and I liked her. And I said, "you're too old for the part." And she said, "no, no, no."

Question: The relationship between Steffi and Natalie begins gradually, with friendship. On the other hand, relationships between gay men seem to turn physical rather quickly.

Reid: The sexual fluidity of lesbians and gay men is changing now. I think now there are many young lesbians who act more like gay men. I will be 40 this year. 15 years ago it was pretty exciting. We did all seem to fall in love first. It wasn't just lust. They have this joke: What does a lesbian bring on her second date? Everything. The dog, the cat--they move in. Lesbians mate. I think lesbians, still on the whole, prefer to mate. There's a very strong feeling. They spend 2 years and they become each other's best friends and they become sort of mothering and caring. And then they move on and meet someone else and it starts again.
 I think men keep quite a lot to themselves. But lesbians share everything.

Question: The love scene between Steffi and Natalie was very sensuous, but there wasn't a lot of sexuality shown. How do you feel about showing lesbian sexuality on film when it's so frequently used by men for pornography. Did you cut that out intentionally?

Reid: No, there were two problems. First, the women wouldn't do it. Second, I felt funny about how to do this as well. I feel ambivalent. I find it very unerotic for anything to be going in an out of any orifice. If you have imagination, anticipation is more erotic than the act. I don't think much of pornographic films. But kissing and nice photography are good. If you're in someone's head and you know they're going to have sex then it's enough. But I would have liked a bit more in the film.
  The film as it is can be seen by children which is important. I do think it is a young film--it's not going to change the world in any way, but I think it's a film that young people will be able to see, certainly people in Latin American Catholic countries and young people in Japan.

Question: Is the film geared for young people?

Reid: I think so. Because of problems with the script, we had to lose so much of the stronger, darker stuff that we just decided to go for a very youthful romance. We just didn't have time to work on it. It was a frightening process, how it changed. Terrifying. It was a darker film, and then it became very light.

Question: Beautifully photographed scenes included the wedding on the ice rink, the poppy field in the country, and fabric in the cottage and at the curtain shop. Were you especially conscious of the cinematography?

Reid: We only had the ice rink for three days, and we had to share it with schools because we couldn't buy it. So we bought 3 hours of ice time, and I suddenly thought: "Can we have a wedding? Can we have a wedding?" And we did. In the video it's re-cut. It's in the wrong place in the film. The wedding comes after the cottage, the seduction. So you're meant to go from lesbian sex to heterosexual wedding. And in the poppies the bees are pollinating, and making honey.
 The bedcover seen in the cottage was something my stepgrandmother made for me with silk from all her old dresses.
  And I was amazed by the curtain shop. It's a sweet scene. The camerawoman is excellent. I was her assistant too for 5 years. I did second camera on the film--out of economical necessity.
  But the shop itself is very English. Very snobby people go to this kind of shop to exchange their curtains. You don't buy new ones, you just exchange--they're very expensive curtains. The customers don't like to admit that they can't be rich enough to buy curtains, new ones. It's a terrible shop to work in. So it's very English for this poor girl to work there where these horrible women would come in and say "I'd like my curtains like this and this."

Question: What were your thoughts in choosing a black woman and a white woman to play the leading roles in the film? Were you consciously trying to address questions of race with the film?

Reid: No, not at all. Originally the black character was meant to be an Australian. I made a film in Australia 3 years ago on the lesbian and gay Mardi Gras. I thought maybe we could get some money from there, but we didn't, and so the script had to be changed. The Steffi character came for another part in the film, which was to play a small part in New York--the Steffi character was meant to have an affair with someone in New York. We couldn't find someone to play the Steffi part, and I liked her. So I asked her if she would like to play the big part, and she said yes.

Question: Was there a problem finding people willing to take on a lesbian role?

Reid: Not, the problem was to find someone that could skate. That was the problem. There wasn't a conscious decision to have a black actress. But having got a black actress, we then had to think carefully about what to do concerning her background. And then I thought, "oh, stuff it, it's just a person, it doesn't matter." So the Steffi character is just a nice person living with this boy and they have their friendship and we didn't have to push too much.
  It was like once I had the black character, I felt guilty, "Oh my god, we've taken on a black character. Now what do we do? Because once you've made the film, everyone would say oh, it's black, white. . . . So we decided we couldn't invent a whole family background for her. We ran out of money and time, so we just decided she'd just be.

Question: One other thing in the film that I liked were the small realistic touches, like when Natalie came into the club for the first time with Steffi, Steffi made her pay her own entrance fee: "It'll be two quid, Nat." And then in the taxi cab, there's this Indian music playing in New York.

Reid: It's so weird when you go to New York. You're in a cab and the driver doesn't speak any English and there's this third world music pouring out--it's such a weird thing. But I got panicky about the copyrights, thinking, "maybe someone will recognize that."

Question: What about future projects?

Reid: My girlfriend is writing a children's script--a film for children. I'm writing a drama-documentary about a 100 year old woman. It will be her life. I will reconstruct stuff in her life, key events in the 20th Century. I started that because I have some old film of my grandmother shot in the 1920s 1930s. I suppose I'm going to reinvent my grandmother as how I wished her to have been. It will be archive footage, Second World War, nuclear disarmament, and she will have had an affair with a woman. I'll also have real historians talking in the film. Also, I want to make her an amateur camerawoman--always take pictures of her girlfriend with a movie camera. And she will be out.