An Interview with Barbara Hammer – M-C MacPhee


Barbara Hammer is a lesbian feminist filmmaker who has been producing experimental and documentary films since 1969. The following is a conversation between NMP and Barbara Hammer in early April 2009. You can learn more about her incredible life and work from her website: and from her forthcoming (March 2010) book: HAMMER! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life.

M-C MacPhee: Congratulations on the awards that you have recently received for your latest film, A Horse is Not a Metaphor

Barbara Hammer: Thank you! It has won 3 awards. It most recently won Jurors awards at the Ann Arbour Film Festival, and at the Black Maria Film Festival and the big award was the Teddy award at the Berlin Film Festival for the best LGBT short film. That one came with a statue, a chunk of money, and a lot of press.

MCM: That must feel good…

BH: Oh, I feel really good about the film, whether it got a prize or not, I really like it.

MCM: Can you tell me a bit about it?

BH: I guess you could call it a personal experimental documentary. It traces eight chemotherapy sessions that I underwent for ovarian cancer stage 3. And it comes out of those very difficult therapies to a remission of hope and wonder as I ride a horse galloping through the hill locks of Wyoming.

MCM: Was that a really challenging film for you to make?

BH: No, it was for two days, but then I got over seeing myself ill on the screen, and I just saw it as a movie. But the first few days were hard.

MCM: You are often your own subject aren’t you?

BH: I have been my own subject. One of my goals was to put a lesbian on camera – on film – in the 20th century and now into the 21st, because when I began, there weren’t any that I could find. Part of my research and my filmmaking has been to find those who have gone before me and to make films about them. But the other hand has been working on depicting my life as a young sexual promiscuous dyke and now as kind of a steady, married, committed older lesbian woman. And I have always approached these subjects with a feminist politic whereby I have been out front about my gender and my sexual preference.

MCM: Was that hard to do when you started out in the late 1960s?

BH: No, it was never hard for me. To make the films wasn’t hard, and to come out wasn’t either. It was a little hard with my mother, partly because she was dying at the time, and partly because of the influence she had over me. But, she actually died before I made my first 16mm film. I found celebrating women’s bodies to be the right thing to do. It was very easy for me; I wasn’t trained or brought up in any religion, I didn’t have any moral compunctions to hide the body, so it was easy to celebrate this newfound sexuality. Later when I tried to get jobs, I think it hindered me, but in my own making of the work, there was never a problem.

MCM: Has that has changed over time? You’ve been making films for 40 years and during that time there have been some major changes, especially in the lesbian and queer communities. Have these changes affected your work?

BH: Oh yes, I like to keep up with what is happening and the whole question of fluidity of gender have been very interesting to me, and I subscribe to it as well. I continue to read theory, such as Biddy Martin and Judith Butler. Some of it strikes a chord as something that I’ve felt for a long time, and other times, there’s a revelation with an idea. For example, Biddy Martin says, “‘I’ is a lesbian couple”. In other words, can you be a lesbian and not be in a couple? So that’s a very interesting question to ponder. And Monique Wittig says: “I am not a woman”, because woman, as a category, did not define her, she says, “I am a runaway” (from that category). So that was another life changing thought that I heard. So I feel lucky to be to, and to continue to be able to experience life intellectually, emotionally and sensually.

MCM: Would you say that the transformation in the GLBT and queer communities towards a broader understanding of gender fluidity is one of the more significant shifts that you have witnessed?

BH: Yes, I think it is the most significant shift after the coming out period of the 1970s that really put lesbians, as a gender classification, on the map. Because before then, I was 30 years old and I didn’t even know what a lesbian was. So it had to happen in the 1970s; a lot of us couldn’t make choices without language. And then, I think the AIDS crisis in the LGBT community had a huge impact and from there, we grew into the queer community, rather than the LGBT community. And now, we see the fluidity of movement from gender preference to sexual and biological change. The freedom to choose your body as well as your sexual preference is profound. So actually there are four things there, maybe one for every ten years.

MCM: Your early work focused on uncovering lesbian history and discussing lesbian identity and desire. It seems like there has been a considerable shift in your work in the last decade to move beyond that, to look at other marginalized communities. Was this intentional?

BH: Yes. It was intentional because I got bored with the earlier subject, or I had followed it as far as I could see my interest in it. So to look at other communities in South Africa, or the diving women in South Korea, or the woman resistors in Southern France. This was new material for me and it meant new research, new ideas, and new undertakings, rather than continuing with lesbian identity and representation.

MCM: Do you think that your work has uncovered a lot of histories that have not been made available to the public?

BH: Yes, definitely. Right now, we are preparing stills for my book and we just went through Alice Austen’s stills, she was a photographer in the 1890s in Staten Island and was a lesbian. My assistant is helping me – she’s a young photographer – and has been saying “Oh, these are great, these are wonderful, I’ve never seen these, who was she?” And the same thing with Hannah Höch from the 1930s in Berlin, she was a Dada collagist, who was living with a woman for many years. So yes, my work is all about uncovering those who did go before me, who – when I went to school – were never mentioned.

MCM: Through your work, you have created a lesbian cultural history, and some might say that by uncovering all of these invisible histories, your work in and of itself is an archive.

BH: That’s really interesting to think of it that way. Because I’m sitting here talking to you, and I’m looking at about 15 boxes – all marked by decade – where I’ve catalogued my work starting in the 1960s and ending now, as well as two boxes of journals. And I have my own archive, because I have kept every scrape of paper that has my name on it, every review, criticism, letter or flier, or something that called me names, everything. And that is going to go to a university and will be available as an archive. So there will be an archive within an archive, which is very interesting because I never thought about it that way, but you’re right, it is. I have a Meta archive, in my archive.

MCM: So you’re a collector?

BH: Well, I collect if I have a project in mind. If I’m working with Nitrate Kisses and I want to put Willa Cather in my film because she was a lesbian and nobody knows it,and she’s
a famous American writer and she had her letters burnt before she died and all those kinds of horrible historic details that we know about, then I go to Red Cloud Nebraska where her archive is, and where she lived, and I don’t know what I’m going to find, I have an appointment to meet the curator and I go in and I select photos, and I Xerox material that I can read later and I go to her home and I take a tour of it and I film as I go, and on the way driving in, I see some old deserted houses falling apart and I film them. And I just gather whatever I can.

Then I come back and I have other material from around the world, and I memorize my data so I understand every image that I have, and I work as a collagist in my montage and I reach for an image or a thought or a subject and I put it on my editing bench and I have an intuition of what should follow it, and I reach for that, and often it works, and sometimes it doesn’t work, and then it goes back, and I reach for something else. But I work through having the database in my mind and then trusting my intuition, so it’s a lot like sculpting.

MCM: That’s a very involved process.

BH: Oh, it’s a lot of fun, because it’s all new material. You never know what you’re going to do exactly. I hate working with a script, well, I don’t hate it; it’s just less exciting.

MCM: Given the importance of the archive as both theme and method in your work, what are your thoughts about making full video available freely on the web as opposed to just clips of it? Do you think that such open access can complete the archive – especially for the largely invisible and undocumented lesbian history?

BH: What a great question. Just today, my assistant wanted to take photos of photos that I have, but I told her I can’t give her permission because they came from an archive I had to pay to use in my film and I don’t have the right to freely put them up on the web.

And then you take somebody like me, and I’m living off of the proceeds of my films and videos so I prefer somebody to buy a DVD of my work, rather than take my source material and work with it. Plus even the time to get my own work into 2 and 3 minute sections for the video so that people can go to the website and see what a little section of it looks like…that takes so much time. And I can’t imagine going through and taking out the old film research and the old photos and then going to the archives that they came from to get permission to use it in another format. I asked and received written permission for use of such material for each film and specified how it was going to be used, so I can’t republish those images in a book unless they have been used in a film and the photo in the book reflects that it is a still from my film. So it’s more complicated, then a simple, “yes, we should have an open access”, but it’s very exciting to think about the possibilities.

MCM: By consulting archives for your work, you do bump into barriers in terms of access and permissions?

BH: No, not really. I think that the thing to do is to get out there and do it. I think a lot of people assume that there are difficulties. But what are the difficulties that I’ve encountered? At one archive, I heard that the owners of the archive were destroying the lesbian material there. I heard that from the lesbian curator of the archive who was taking the material home at night and then bringing it back everyday, because she said things were disappearing. Now, I don’t know if that was true or not, but when I went to this particular archive, I couldn’t say that I was doing lesbian research.

The same with Claude Cahun on Jersey Isle; now, they’ve published their own book on Claude Cahun with a series of articles by photography critics, and she’s now out as a lesbian, but when I was doing my research, a student that I know who had been there doing research told me “ don’t use the L word” so I never did when I was at that archive. But now, it’s a known fact that she’s a lesbian, so things can change quickly within a period of two to three to four years. It depends on who has the ownership of the archive and what they want to protect.

I have to make sure that everyone has access to my archive. And I have to make sure that when I sign it over – or probably sell it – that there will be a clause in the statement, indicating that the LGBT community should know where this archive has gone and they should be welcomed as guests to this archive.

MCM: When I met you at the Lesbian Herstory Archives 35th Anniversary in New York, you mentioned that you rode your motorcycle down the west coast of the states to Guatemala. What was the trip in honor of?

BH: What was it in honour of? It was me running away from too many lovers! It was in honor of my independence! And in honor of me doing something brave and strong by myself. I had a leather riding suit that zipped up from my ankle to my chin with a red stripe down the arm. I has a 750cc white BMW with a big gas tank that I could strap my map onto, and I had two satchels behind me so I could carry everything I needed. In Mexico I would drive about 200 miles a day and then I was exhausted – I don’t think I had a windshield on that trip – but I would find a hotel complex that had an inner courtyard so it would always be locked inside overnight. It worked beautifully. I even visited my very first lesbian lover on that trip.

MCM: Can you tell me about your upcoming book, HAMMER! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life?

BH: It’s going to be so wonderful. It progresses by decade. You have the introduction and then the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. There is an introduction to each decade and then they are made up of both published and unpublished materials from my archive.

It begins with part of a fabulous novel that I wrote in 1970 when I was living in a cabin on a river that had no electricity, and I had an old typewriter and I wrote 4 pages everyday, and when I was done I would go down to the river or hike or do whatever I wanted to. And then it moves into the 1980s and then the 1990s and finally the 2000s into my struggle with mortality and coming to the end of a life and dealing with illness and commitment as well. So it’s a broad collection of material that I hope will be an inspiration for young lesbian artists. I sort of see it as “Letters to a Young Poet” that Rilke wrote. Sort of a guidebook, but not really, because everybody will go their own way, but just something to give inspiration to say, somebody else has done it, somebody else hoed this row, I can do it too.

MCM: Do you think you could have written this book at any other time?

BH: No. After Cancer, the first thing I wanted to do was to get my film archive in order and then to get my paper archives in order. After I did that, the editor at the Feminist Press contacted me and said it this book perfect for her. Because I had everything in order, it was a very smooth process.

MCM: When will it be out?

BH: March 2010. And it will come out in conjunction with a Retrospective at the MOMA in New York and at the Reina Sofía in Madrid, the Tate Modern in London, and I hope a museum or cinemathèque in Paris.

Barbara Hammer was born on May 15, 1939 in Hollywood, California. She is a visual artist working primarily in film and video and has made over 80 works in a career that spans over 30 years. She is considered a pioneer of queer cinema.Her experimental films of the 1970’s often dealt with taboo subjects such as menstruation, female orgasm and lesbian sexuality. In the 80’s she used optical printing to explore perception and the fragility of 16mm film life itself. Her documentaries tell the stories of marginalized peoples who have been hidden from history and are often essay films that are multi-leveled and engage audiences viscerally and intellectually with the goal of activating them to make social change.

Hammer’s experimental documentary film on cancer and hope, A Horse Is Not A Metaphor, which she premiered in June, 2008 at the 32nd Frameline International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in San Francisco and February, 2009 at DocFortnight at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It won the Teddy Award for Best Short Film at the 2009 Berlinale and Second Prize at the Black Maria Film Festival. It was selected for Punta de Vista Film Festival, Torino Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, International Women’s Film Festival Dortmund/Koln, and Festival de Films des Femmes Creteil among others.