Review by Sarah Williams
Sex positivity is all too often centered back to male pleasure. With frank discussions on intimacy and kink often centered on heterosexual structures, films like Kamikaze Hearts, Bloodsisters, and the films of experimental film pioneers document a queer liberated desire, specifically lesbian community, long before Hollywood acknowledged us. Receiving a rerelease from Kino Lorber, Michelle Handelman's bitingly funny documentary about the San Francisco leatherdyke community comes best served at a time where eroticism has been made absent from mainstream cinema. Bloodsisters has a dykes to the front agenda, proclaiming itself to be an A-Z guide to leather, lesbians, and left radicals.
Sadomasochism here is less about personal fantasy, and more a power structure created to build its own society. Domination is used to build trust: BDSM becomes a learning experience for the subjects. They build their communication with each other, and learn to set boundaries. It's a language of physicality, a societal vulgarity that feels truly liberatory in the guide Handelman's camera constructs. In places, the subjects indicate that it's less the fist inside of them or the whip, less the sensation itself than the trust and adrenaline rush that brings them to it. The key to this power play is how different it feels from some heteronormative kink seen today. They are clear that death should never be a risk, that this is pleasurable BECAUSE of consent, and that the danger in this is acknowledged, and given a reminder to check in with your partner.
The film is also incredibly quotable. "I'm butch but I primarily identify as a faggot, I'm very effeminate," one dyke says, "You're like a prep school butch," another responds. The refreshment here is the frankness of the language. Crass language, open sexual discussion, and terminology exclusive to this community is on full display, and the comfort the subjects have in this discussion is commendable. The deep dive allows so many voices to chime in their experiences, and there's a sense of camaraderie with the filmmaking team.
An important distinction made by a few of the documentary's participants is how they wish to be labelled as dykes, not lesbians, asking for an identifier ever further from being socially acceptable. This community is about subversion — it is about looking palatable respectability politics in the eye and saying if you don't want me for what I built to survive under you, you do not get me at all. The line "fist fuck the system" defines what these leather dykes believe. They believe in queer liberation without censorship, that it is better to find freedom in each other than respect in society. Of course, there are limits, in that this is a group that is mainly white lesbians.
Bloodsisters is a rarity because it calls out the dangers of kink without communication, and it makes it clear there are two halves to this equation. Even in all the playful fisting jokes, there are clear conversations about sexual power, and equality. Rarer still is how the film is a celebration of lesbian masculinity, dominant femmes and whiny butches, social roles and dykes refusing male pleasure. 77 minutes in the leatherdyke gives us more butches than the mainstream film industry has in twenty years. This is the kind of film we need to have a return to conversation. Not kink at pride discourse, not sex scenes in cinema discourse, but a clear, open discussion on healthy sex positivity free from a patriarchal structure.
Bloodsisters is now available on VOD.