To quote but a few: Thomas Waugh (ed.), ‘Show us Life’: Towards a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary, New York: Scarecrow Press, 1984; Alan Rosenthal (ed.) New Challenges for Documentary, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988; Paula Rabinowitz They Must be Represented: the Politics of Documentary, London: Verso, 1994; Chris Holmlund & Cynthia Fuchs (eds.), Between the Sheets, In the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997; Diane Waldman & Janet Walker (eds.), Feminism and Documentary, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Julianne Burton quoted in T. Waugh, op. cit., 376.
Françoise Lionnet in writing about women’s autobiographical novels notes that women are “consumed by the need to find their past, to trace lineages that will empower them to live in the present, to rediscover histories occluded by HISTORY.” Françoise Lionnet, Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988, 25-26.
This would correspond in Bill Nichols’s classification of documentary to the “performative mode” which offers its viewer neither the objective summation of events promised by the expository mode nor the lived immediacy of the observational form. Instead the performative mode “emphasizes the expressive quality of the filmmaker’s engagement with the film’s subject; addresses the audience in a vivid way.” Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2nd edition, 2010, 152.
Michael Renov, “New Subjectivities: Documentary and Self-Representation in the Post-Vérité Age,” in D. Waldman & J. Walker (eds.), op. cit., 88.
I prefer the term “gay” to “queer” which was claimed by North American theorists in the 1990s and applies to rethinking gender and sexuality in terms of fundamental instability and fluidity. “Gay” does not pretend to such conceptualisation of a poststructuralist identity “as a constellation of multiple and unstable positions” (Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction, New York: New York University Press, 1996, 3), but on the contrary seeks to assert a legitimate and positive image within the dominant heteronormative culture.
Pioneering British researchers like Richard Dyer have mainly studied Hollywood cinema (Gays and Film, New York: Zoetrope, 1977, Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film, London: Routledge, 1990). According to Robin Griffiths, the first study to explore lesbian and gay representation and authorship in British cinema was Stephen Bourne’s Brief Encounters: Lesbians and Gays in British Cinema, 1930-1971, London: Cassell, 1997. (Robin Griffiths (ed.), British Queer Cinema, London: Routledge, 2006).
The responses to the film ranged from celebration to total condemnation on the part of the popular press. One tabloid ran as its headline: “Child-porn Row Looms on Gay Film.” Controversy was renewed in 1984 when the film was broadcast on Channel 4 alongside Sebastiane as part of a series of films programmed by the critic David Robinson. Once again, the tabloids had a field day “More Channel 4 Shockers” and Ron Peck remembers that that night he received threatening and obscene phone calls.
It took four years for Ron Peck and Paul Hallam to complete Nighthawks: conceived as early as 1974, it was released only in August 1978. The film’s application for financing was turned down twice (by the BFI in April 1976, then by the National Film Finance Corporation in September 1976). Shooting was interrupted in December 1976 due to lack of funds and after finance was secured by German television in September 1977, the film crew found it impossible to find a school that would allow them to shoot classroom sequences.
In his short filmic essay What to Do with a Male Nude? (1985), Ron Peck humorously revisits the history of the representation of the male body — from Greek statues to contemporary porn —, the male body as object of the gaze, triggering admiration, fascination or desire. As the voice-over assumes little by little its status of desiring subject, the camera becomes more and more preoccupied with what is left unshown, what remains taboo — namely male genitalia. The forbidden representation is ultimately revealed in a final flash which also freezes the shot as in a hiatus.
« C’est en ce sens qu’elle force la lecture, ‘captive’ le lecteur, produit sur lui la sensation d’enfin appréhender le réel. Et non plus de l’examiner à travers le récit sur, le discours de. Ainsi naît le sentiment naïf, mais profond, de déchirer un voile, de traverser l’opacité du savoir et d’accéder, comme après un long voyage incertain, à l’essentiel des êtres et des choses. L’archive agit comme une mise à nu ; ployés en quelques lignes, apparaissent non seulement l’inaccessible mais le vivant ». Arlette Farge, Le Goût de l’archive, Paris: Seuil, 1989, 14.
Richard Dyer & Derek Cohen, “The Politics of Gay Culture,” in Richard Dyer (ed.), The Culture of Queers, New York/London: Routledge, 2002, 22.
Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Patrick Williams & Laura Chrisman (eds.), Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993, 225.
“I made Nighthawks with Paul Hallam in 1978, 12 years ago. I’m 42 now, I was 29 then. But somehow that project began back in 1962 when I was 14.”
Richard Dyer has consistently studied the impact of mainstream representation on minority groups such as gays and lesbians: “Negative designations of a group have negative consequences for the lives of members of that grouping, and identifying with that grouping, however much it doesn’t ‘get’ all of what one is personally or all of what everyone in that grouping is, none the less enables one to try to change the circumstances of that socially constructed grouping.” Richard Dyer, The Matter of Images: Essay on Representation, London: Routledge, 2nd edition 2002, 3.
Ron Peck explains: “Just as we are told today there are no homosexuals in China, I thought there were no homosexuals at my school, none at university; I didn’t even count myself as one.”
Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942, oil on canvas, 84.1 x 152.4 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago. Ron Peck made a documentary about Edward Hopper in 1981 in which he explains: “Nighthawks was the first picture by Hopper I ever saw. A picture in a colour magazine which I put on the wall. It felt like all the bars I’ve ever been in to spend all night in — somewhere to go in all that blackness — a bolt hole. I spent a lot of time there.”
Victim, directed by Basil Dearden in 1961, was a landmark “social problem” film in so far as it was the first to attempt to tackle the difficulties homosexuals lived through, exposing the repressive law of its time. Dirk Bogarde plays a closeted gay lawyer who is victim of blackmail.
Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (US, 1968) opened in London at the Open Space on January 15th, 1970. On February 3rd, the venue was raided by the police and the print confiscated after the complaint of an audience member. By the end of the week, however, the Director of Public Prosecutions declared he would not pursue the case as an obscenity case and the police changed their investigation to “fire code violations”. It nonetheless led the University of Edinburgh to cancel their showing of the film. See <http://www.warholstars.org/filmch/flesh.html>, accessed June 3rd, 2011.
The film details a series of inserts of book covers tracing back the history of gay rights movements, showing titles such as The Early Homosexual Rights Movements 1864-1935 (John Lauritsen & David Thorstad, first published in 1974), Coming Out. Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (Jeffrey Weeks, first published in 1977).
Ken Robertson who played Jim was the only professional actor and he was cast long after the script was completed.
In a climactic scene towards the end of the film, Jim is confronted by his pupils and questioned about his sexual orientation (“Sir is it true that you’re bent?”). As the camera focuses on the class of taunting children, placing the viewer in the position of the accused, the whole scene conveys a genuine sense of happening, of spontaneous tension and potential violence.
Peck’s voice-over states: “Behind closed doors we exchanged the stories of our lives. But when we walked out in the morning to our separate jobs and occupations we left our homosexuality behind us. [...] It was a common experience — the double life, half of it open, the other half secret, furtive at night. It led to lies and deceits, looking and not looking.”
Matt Lucas, “My favourite Londoner,” Time Out, November 23-30, 2005, 194.
Ellis Hanson (ed.), Outtakes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film, Durham (NC): Duke University Press Books, 1999, 18.
“When we were editing there was a lot of argument about Colm’s character, whether he should stay in the film or not. Some people felt it gave the wrong impression of being gay, it was too alternative, too political, the whole set up was altogether too weird [...] but there were others who argued just as forcefully that he should stay in, its difference was its strength.” Ron Peck recalls his friend as “a fighter”, “in many ways a braver man than I was because he was out on the streets and he was insisting on his right to be gay. He wasn’t going to be discreet about it, he wasn’t going to take the abuse, the violence.” Press cuttings are inserted to testify to his dismissal from work in July 1977 as Clifford was dismissed for “wearing provocative badges on his uniform”, the badge in question being a GLF (Gay Liberation Front) badge. “He was out marching with a banner long before I ever thought of Nighthawks. Whatever confidence I have in being gay now, I owe partly to people like him and so did Jim the school teacher in the film.”
This question of responsibility and legitimacy is a common feature of documentaries dealing with ethnographic subjects, as well as minorities that have little or no access to means of production and distribution in the media. For the case of British Black cinema for example, see: Isaac Julien & Kobena Mercer, “Introduction: De Margin and De Centre,” Screen 4:29, 1988: 2-12.
James Leggott, “Nighthawks and 1970s British realist cinema,” essay included in the illustrated booklet of the British Film Institute DVD, 2.
Roland Barthes, Image/Music/Text, trans. Stephen Heath, New York: The Noonday Press, 1977, 44.
This idea, which was celebrated by modernist filmmakers, is summed up by Alain Bergala about Rossellini: « Rossellini a sans doute été le premier cinéaste persuadé que de toutes façons, quoi qu’on fasse, quelle que soit la volonté d’inventer une fiction, un film est toujours le documentaire de son propre tournage ». Alain Bergala, Rossellini, le cinéma révélé, Paris: Flammarion, 1988, 26.
The expression comes from Patricia Erens’s article “Women’s Documentary Filmmaking: the Personal is Political,” in A. Rosenthal (ed.), op. cit., 554-65.
There was an outcry from gay and lesbian communities against mainstream Hollywood films such as Cruising (1980) or the Silence of the Lambs (1991) which all equated homosexuality with perversion and violence.
Ron Peck made Nighthawks through a collective organisation called Four Corner Films (1972-1985) which was founded by Ron Peck himself along with three other students he met at the London Film School (Mary Pat Leece, Joanna Davis, Wilfried Thust) and which was committed to promote independent filmmaking.
Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 — or Clause 28 as it became to be known — was a controversial amendment to the United Kingdom’s Local Government Act 1986, enacted on May 24th, 1988 and repealed on June 21st, 2000 in Scotland and on November 18th, 2003 in the rest of the UK by section 122 of the Local Government Act 2003. The amendment stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” See <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_28>, accessed January 3rd, 2014.
Peck decided to publish a call for extras in the magazine Gay News which read: “Director needs gays for first ‘real’ gay film.”
S. Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” op. cit., 236.Haut de page