All We’ve Got. Directed by Alexis Clements. New York: Women Make Movies, 2019. 67 minutes.
The Archivettes. Directed by Megan Rossman. New York: Women Make Movies, 2018. 61 minutes.
All We’ve Got is a feature-length documentary about queer women and the spaces they make and maintain to survive, care for each other, and find joy in collaborating. The film is narrated by director Alexis Clements, who takes the audience along with her as she searches out the places where queer women (still) gather. The film is premised on the assertion that these spaces—bars, bookstores, and social movement organizations—once existed in abundance but don’t anymore and that their disappearance is an urgent problem. This refrain in popular coverage of queer women’s cultures is characterized by headlines like “Where have all the lesbian bars gone?” and can become a bit too nostalgic when it fails to map these shifts onto wider questions of economic and racial justice.1 All We’ve Got succeeds in connecting those dots by looking to spaces that have survived to see how they understand gentrification’s violence and model grassroots tactics for resisting the forward march of dispossession.
The film is organized around profiles of five organizations: a dyke bar called Alibi’s in Oklahoma City; the queer, Latinx-run Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio; the WOW Café Theatre in New York City, led primarily by Black queer women; the Trans Ladies Picnics (locations and leadership vary); and the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. This selection of organizations and spaces speaks to how social, erotic, and political life is entangled for queer and trans women, and together they offer a powerful critique of how public and private binaries limit the ways space is imagined. Clements is an adept interviewer, and the people she speaks with are gifted at explaining complex problems facing feminists—white supremacy in organizational culture, transfeminism, historical erasure, working across racial difference, alternative economic models—in terms that undergraduate students will find accessible. The film is also an important counter to perceptions that young queers prefer digital connections to shared physical spaces, which students may find resonant in a post-COVID-19, hyper-online moment.
All We’ve Got would shine in relation to course materials on counterpublics, space, and gentrification. On these themes I would teach the film alongside Jen Jack Gieseking’s A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbians, Dykes, and Queers (Gieseking also appears briefly in the film).2 The film is also a useful illustration of the difficulties—but also benefits—of collaborating across difference in movements. On this theme I would supplement the film with articles from the 2016 “Trans/Feminism”issue of TSQ, Emily Hobson’s Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left, or SaraEllen Strongman’s Feminist Theory article “‘Creating Justice Between Us’: Audre Lorde’s Theory of the Erotic as Coalitional Politics in the Women’s Movement,” which could be taught alongside Lorde’s poetry.3 There are also a number of accessible works about the organizations featured in the film, including Sara DeTurk’s Activism, Alliance Building, and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.4
The star of All We’ve Got’s organizational roster is Brooklyn’s Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA), where the film begins and ends. The Archivettes, also a feature-length documentary, is focused entirely on the LHA and dives deep into this unusual community archives. Housed in a domestic space, the LHA has gathered and preserved the materials of queer women’s lives and movements since the early 1970s. It is run by a committed group of volunteers who range in age from their early 20s to their late 70s, and the film is strongest at highlighting the unique intergenerational encounters furnished by working at and also researching in an archives.
In The Archivettes—and in many documentaries about LGBT history—homophobia and transphobia are located in the past, as resolved issues, and teaching this film would mean complicating that story through supplementary discussion and readings. This is in some ways a limitation of the traditional documentary form’s drive to outline a coherent problem and end in an uplifting way. But the film’s oversights may make it harder for students to name and talk about complex challenges these communities continue to face, particularly queer and trans BIPOC who do not benefit from equal rights- and visibility-based movement discourses in the same ways white lesbians have and do. For example, this film also has a story to tell about real estate, outlining the Lesbian Herstory Archives’ move from a Manhattan rental apartment to a Park Slope brownstone the organization purchased in the early 1990s. Left out of The Archivettes’s approach to this core story about the LHA’s past are the concerns for economic justice All We’ve Got centers. Gentrification has made living in or even visiting Park Slope, Brooklyn, inaccessible to many of the archives’ constituents and probably also volunteers, who are depicted working in the space but not commuting there from places like New Jersey or the Bronx. Gieseking’s A Queer New York tells the LHA’s story through this social geography and would also help students frame some of the pressures The Archivettes and mainstream LGBT rights discourses leave out.
Despite these limitations, The Archivettes is a very teachable film with a lot to offer, particularly for instructors skilled at bringing students around to questions of framing. The film is most relevant to classroom learning about archives and community history, so it would pair well with scholarly writing by long-time LHA volunteers, including Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz and Rachel Corbman, as well as recent creative theorizations of digital community “archives” by Cassius Adair and Lisa Nakamura or by Daniel Brouwer and Adela C. Licona.5
Finally, both of these films feature rich archival footage and photographs and offer instructors the opportunity to bring some of the significant primary source materials from queer women’s activism into the classroom. The LHA’s own digital collections are an excellent place students might start.
1 See, e.g., Ruthie Darling, “Where Have All the Lesbian Bars Gone?” Brokelyn, August 8, 2018; Molly Snyder, “Where Have All the Lesbian Bars Gone?” On Milwaukee, June 2, 2020.
2 Jen Jack Gieseking, A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbians, Dykes, and Queers (New York: NYU Press, 2020).
3 Talia Bettcher and Susan Stryker, eds., “Trans/Feminism,” special issue, TSQ 3, no. 1-2 (2016); Emily K. Hobson, Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016); SaraEllen Strongman, “‘Creating Justice Between Us’: Audre Lorde’s Theory of the Erotic as Coalitional Politics in the Women’s Movement,” Feminist Theory 19, no. 1 (2018): 41-59.
4 Sara DeTurk, Activism, Alliance Building, and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2015).
5Cassius Adair and Lisa Nakamura, “The Digital Afterlives of This Bridge Called My Back: Woman of Color Feminism, Digital Labor, and Networked Pedagogy,” American Literature 98, no. 2 (2017): 255-78; Daniel Brouwer and Adela C. Licona, “Trans(affective) Mediation: Feeling Our Way from Paper to Digitized Zines and Back Again,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 33, no. 1 (2016): 70-83.