By Sherrie Li
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‘I feel really honored,” says director Donna Deitch, the recipient of this year’s Outfest Achievement Award, between sips of coffee at Masa of Echo Park. “Outfest is an organization that does much more than have a festival for one week or 10 days of the year,” she adds. “There’s the Outfest Legacy Project, which archives and preserves gay and lesbian film. That just doesn’t exist anywhere else, and it’s such an important aspect of the preservation of the culture. But, also, in terms of people who have preceded me in receiving this award, it’s good company.” Those previous recipients include Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant and Sir Ian McKellen. “I’d like to see more women, but ... ” Deitch’s voice trails off in laughter.
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Desert explorer: Donna Deitch
Best known for directing the 1986 queer cinema classic Desert Hearts, about the lesbian love affair between an emotionally guarded, newly divorced college professor and the untamed cowgirl who teaches her to sing more than the blues, Deitch has also directed cable and network-TV movies, including the Emmy-nominated The Women of Brewster Place, The Devil’s Arithmetic and Common Ground; the award-winning documentary Angel on My Shoulder; and countless episodes of episodic TV. Currently, she’s working on a half-dozen projects, including a sequel to Desert Hearts and a film adaptation of her partner Terri Jentz’s recent nonfiction book, Strange Piece of Paradise, for which Jentz is writing the script. The Weekly sat down for a conversation with Deitch three days before she flew to Zambia with Gloria Steinem and the activist group Equality Now for a conference on female sex trafficking.
L.A. WEEKLY: You reveal in your documentary Angel on My Shoulder that you’re the daughter of a fashion designer mother. What do you think you inherited or absorbed from her, not just mother to daughter, but artist to artist?
DONNA DEITCH: Well, let me add something about my mother, which is not apparent from that film. My mother came to this country as a non-English-speaking immigrant, who worked in a sweatshop as a seamstress in New York. In many ways, it was my mother’s history and struggle that had more, or equal, impact on me than the fact that she was a creative person. My mother was Jewish and ultimately got her entire family out of Hungary before the Nazis got in there, and that was the story she told to us as children.
Quite often when the term queer sensibility is used, it really refers to categories of gay-male aesthetics, cultural politics and practices. Outside of academia and lesbian-focused publications, there doesn’t seem to be much consideration given to what might be the lesbian equivalent of a “queer sensibility.” Do you think there’s such a thing as a specifically lesbian sensibility?
To respond to the earlier part of your remark, about the lesser attention given to lesbians vis-à-vis queer or homosexual issues or identity or sensibility, well, that simply parallels this [larger] society, because there’s less attention given to women than men. So naturally, there’s less attention given to lesbians than gay men. I mean, it’s pervasive. Nothing new there. Now, is there a lesbian sensibility? With regards to what?
Well, let’s take film, and even non-gay film. For example, Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroomand Moulin Rouge — regardless of Luhrmann’s actual sexual identity — are quite often cited as having a queer sensibility and, more specifically, a gay-male sensibility.
Ah, yes, yes.
Would you say there is an equally identifiable lesbian sensibility?
Not that I know of. But I’m certainly not an expert. Someone else might say something different.
What do you think of the feminist critique of the history of cinema as being largely defined by a male gaze?
Women’s experience in the world is very different from men for very obvious reasons. First of all, the world is a much more dangerous place for women than it is for men. Women are not yet equal to men. Women are second-class to men, right? And, therefore, women’s experience is different. Everything we do as artists comes from our own experience, so I think women tend to see things — I’m speaking very generally now — differently than men do.
Let me give a specific example. When I was thinking about the love scene I was going to be directing in Desert Hearts, I decided I was going to look at a lot of love scenes to study what was wrong with them. Why weren’t they moving me in so many instances? Now, what was available to look at were primarily male-directed scenes because men direct most of the movies. I don’t know if I saw any directed by women at the time. There probably just wasn’t anything out there. What I was trying to do differently — is that something that wasn’t the male gaze? I’m not sure. But it had to do with the fact that I didn’t see any intimacy in most of those [male-directed] scenes, which was all right, but if there was no intimacy, then I needed a certain type of heat to replace that intimacy, something to connect with [the scene]. I mean, there were some great, hot [scenes], but those were the minority. Did that have to do with the male gaze? I don’t know. It’s hard to say, because so many of the films were made by men, so it’s very hard to make the juxtaposition, to be able to look at what is different and what would be a female gaze.
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