Rebel Dykes is a dynamic documentary that finds celebration in the face of discrimination, bringing a group of friends’ stories to life in vibrant and giddy detail.
Rebel Dykes was, unsurprisingly, one of the hits of BFI Flare in 2021 with its fierce and truthful conjuration of London in the 1980s, and more specifically a close-knit group of dykes who found solace with one another. It’s a documentary that has its moment of pain, of course, but for the most part it’s a propulsive, punky journey which scintillates as much as it does educate. Those being interviewed are as open as one could hope an interviewee to be: there is no embarrassment here, only an embracing of their true selves. There is a recognition that LGBTIQ+ people still face the kind of discrimination and ostracization from society that is discussed in Rebel Dykes (one piece of homophobic government legislation was only repealed in 2003) but, as one of the interviewees puts it, there is a cry for young people to see the freedom on screen and embrace their true selves without fear. A documentary that educates, then, but more over a documentary to inspire.
First screening in 2016 at BFI Flare as a work-in-progress, Rebel Dykes has had a fairly long journey before finally getting its release in late November this year. It tells the vital story of this particular group of friends who met at Greenham Common peace camp in the late 1970s, before moving to London and radically embracing the madness of the capital, attending everything from anti-Thatcher rallies to BDSM nightclubs. Rebel Dykes brings their intertwining stories to life in intricate detail, mixing charming animation with compelling interviews and archive footage to intoxicating effect. If you know nothing about London or the 1980s, fear not: Rebel Dykes will show you the way, that is, with a striking and fearless dynamism rather than any handholding.
Notable moments of this era are touched upon. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government’s Section 28, which prohibited local authorities and schools from intentionally promoting homosexuality or showing it as an acceptable pretended family relationship, is a jolting moment. Amidst the euphoric interludes of sex, partying, drugs and protests, it’s a damning reminder of the prejudices these women faced, as well as being an indication of their immense bravery. Rebel Dykes also focusses on London’s first lesbian fetish club, the awesomely named Chain Reactions, which highlighted the Rebel Dykes’ liberal attitude to sex but also caused uproar among other lesbian groups. Archival footage brings meetings of these groups to life, interspersed with reflections and thoughts from members of the Rebel Dykes in the present day. Most notable in these sections is this liberal attitude to sex: so often a taboo subject in film, Rebel Dykes is as open as you like, and it’s refreshing.
The love and care put into Rebel Dykes is clear. Made by women and non-binary artists – including being produced by one of the original Rebel Dykes, Siobhan Fahey – there is an obvious excitement at the chance to bring these stories to the screen and to a wider audience. The packed, wild world of the Rebel Dykes might be over in practice, but their influence is clear, paving the way for younger generations and, hopefully, stamping out homophobic attitudes. Directors Harri Shanahan and Siân A. Williams craft a sublime journey through this heady world, and their ability to construct a documentary that contains so many colourful people and stories whilst keeping it structured is commendable.
Rebel Dykes might not give enough time to all the people involved in this movement, which would have been difficult to do in its 92-minute runtime, and some of the editing and animation very occasionally comes off as jarring and rushed. But these are minor gripes, and the central celebratory liberation of Rebel Dykes is never lost. If it was a history lesson at school, it would be a success with its informative, educational angle, but it would also be one of the most riotous classes out there, full of freedom, charm and love, both individual and collective.
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