Legendary director Beth B on the importance of Lydia Lunch and creating a female language of cinema

Be fearless. We really have to be fearless.

By
Clementine de Pressigny
July 22, 2017

No rules, no money, no fucks given – the No Wave scene was an intense burst of creative originality, a flare shot into the sky as a warning signal against the mundane, the conventional and the retreading of well-worn artistic ground. The catalyst was the dirty, crumbling and dangerous downtown NYC of the late ‘70s, an unrepeatable microcosm that was a magnet for kids looking to be part of something entirely new. They brought raw talent, no technical skills and no money – resulting in rule breaking, pure experimentation and cross-pollination between art, film, music and performance – with everyone rubbing up against each other at now iconic places like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, talking, planning, sharing ideas. Having cash for a roll of film was more important than dinner – the hunger was for new forms of creative expression.

This climate shaped the perfect stomping ground for a young Beth B, who studied art at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, and was bursting with ideas and a growing interest in making Super-8 films. “The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were definitely a unique time in creative history in that it was the convergence of all these extraordinary people who, in their own unique and yet similar ways, were outcasts or misfits or people who were trying to escape something,” says Beth. “We were looking for a sense of liberation, seeking a kind of freedom from things that we found binding us, and a lot of that was expressed with a certain kind of rebelliousness,  anarchism and alienated voices.”

Beth B shot in New York City by Vanessa Dos Santos, June 2017

“We were looking for a sense of liberation, seeking a kind of freedom from things that we found binding us, and a lot of that was expressed with a certain kind of rebelliousness,  anarchism and alienated voices.”

In the ruins of the near-bankrupt city, those drawn to its possibilities were transgressors, determined to make a space for something different. Being told ‘no’ was just fuel to their fire, so it’s perhaps not surprising that from that space came bold female voices leading the creative charge; women like Lydia Lunch, Vivienne Dick and Beth B. “I never looked at my gender as something that would handicap me at any point in my life. I felt completely empowered and I was very rebellious, I had a big voice and the feeling of unstoppability,” says Beth, who, working with her partner Scott B, (they were collectively known as ‘the Bs’), put women front and centre. They worked with No Wave iconoclast Lydia Lunch, who was already making her mark spitting her poetry over the top of a noise wall with her legendary band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. The Bs cast her in Vortex and Black Box. “She scared the shit out of me when I younger,” says Beth of Lydia. “She was so outrageously unstoppable, and what came out of that mouth to me was a foreign language, but it gave me, as a young woman, the permission to express those unspoken parts of myself.”

Lydia Lunch & friends

The scene, of course, couldn’t last. “I think a lot of things destroyed that energy, and it imploded on itself in many ways because of drugs, lack of money, people trying to figure out, ‘how do I survive without being part of the establishment?’” says Beth. “There was a great embrace of this sensibility that was outside of the box, but at a certain point the mainstream came in and usurped it and made it harmless, brought it into shopping malls, into Bloomingdale's. People were left with ‘where do we go from here?’” Where Beth went was into TV, after years of struggling to get money to make films, and with what little funding there was drying up, she spent close to a decade making TV docs. At a certain point though, she began to feel compromised, censored, and it was time to split. “It lead [me] coming full circle back to my roots, saying I have got to get back to my idealistic mode of filmmaking, you know I'm gonna just take the camera in hand, just like I used to do with a Super-8, and make the films that I want to make, without any financing, completely uncensored, guerrilla style, and go back to the underground.”

This return to the essence led to the making of Exposed, (2013) a deeply nuanced doc telling the stories of performance artists using burlesque to mount a powerful challenge to the concept of normal, in terms of gender and disability. “I think that there is a place for making films that are as outrageous, as challenging and thought-provoking as what was being done in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, but today I think it's more difficult actually, to raise money and get the films made, and it's more difficult to get distribution,” she says. “But for me the most important thing is the content, and I have to make films that are giving voice to the people who do not have a voice.”

Beth has come to accept that being that sort of filmmaker today, telling those stories that are confronting and challenging and go against the grain, requires giving up on the notion of big name success and a big bank account. But she gets her drive elsewhere: “The greatest pleasure is showing a film and somebody in the audience says, oh my god, I feel like I can come out of the closet now, not just in the sense of gender but in a mental state, you know, embrace who I am!”

 

Beth finished making her latest film, Call Her Applebroog, in 2016. It’s a highly personal work, many years in the making, about the brilliant artist Ida Applebroog, who is the filmmaker’s mother, and a voice she knew the world should hear. “A lot of her work is very political, talking about things and visualising things that are uncomfortable and scary to people,” says Beth. “She's in her 80s and I really was compelled to tell her story because it’s the story of generations of women who had to really struggle against the patriarchy and against the establishment to be able to find their own voice and actually have a career.” The film, which had its world premiere at MoMA and garnered critical acclaim, cemented Beth’s determination to keep using her camera to preserve and disseminate the vital knowledge, ideas and experiences of creative pioneers whose contributions have been undervalued. It was natural to next turn her lens back toward Lydia Lunch. “Her voice needs to be heard. She's been doing it for 36 years. It was really early on that she started talking about things that were so taboo — violence against women, incest and domestic violence.  Nobody was talking about this. We cannot allow invisibility, we have to be seen, we have to be heard, and that's the way I feel about the film I’m doing with Lydia Lunch.”

It’s still a tireless hustle to get her films made – the Kickstarter campaign which Beth launched to raise funding for the Lydia Lunch project took it out of her. “With each step I take I'm like, ok, here we go again. But I’m fine with that, because you know my films are speaking truths that people are scared of.”

 

The feelings of creative invincibility – that being a woman wouldn’t hold her back in any way – which Beth had when she was starting out in NYC didn’t last. She was faced with the realisation that the way things were in her microcosm of No Wave NYC was not reflective of the wider world; a poignant example being the wake up call received when it turned out there were people out there who actually wanted Trump in power. Here we are in 2017, and the issues of gender and race equality feel just about as entrenched as ever, and are stark when it comes to film. Beth sees a real need for female filmmakers to develop their own cinematic vernacular in order to break away from the tropes created by men, fed on through film schools, taught by male professors and championed by production houses. “The male language of cinema is really all that exists. And I would love for more women to start looking at who they are making these films about; who their characters are. The female filmmakers that have become successful in Hollywood often just reiterate or replay the same fucking male stories, male characters, a male manifest language.”

Women in film have a responsibility, says Beth, to think carefully about the stories we put out there. “Who are they about? What are they about? Be political. Whether it's a comedy or drama, whatever the genre, the politics of being a woman have to be infused in your filmmaking, that's my philosophy.”

She’s not suggesting it will be easy; with a long career behind her Beth still feels it’s a constant fight, where you get knocked down and have to get back up.  “I feel like it's really exciting to go against what's established as the acceptable mode of expression. And be able to take the risks to be inventive to do things that are not acceptable. That to me the most important thing. Be fearless. We really have to be fearless and fuck convention.”

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