Cheryl Dunye’s latest feature The Owls is an experimental narrative tour de force. It made its debut at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival and is now at Frameline, smartly written by Sarah Shulman. The premise of the film concerns four middle aged dykes who cover up the accidental murder of a baby dyke. The initial moments of the film blast footage of Riot Girrl band “The Screech” with captivating music saturated with feminist political lyrics and jarring imagery to boot. With this the veteran director pulls you in from the first seconds.
The Owls is an odyssey about lesbian/queer personal politics and features actors that continue to put lesbian filmmaking on the map. First up are veteran actors that helped change the way lesbian narratives were made in Rose Troche’s Go Fish (1994). Guinevere Turner plays Iris, former Screech lead singer and V.S. Brodie, sticks with the initials as MJ, former Screech producer. Director Dunye doubles up as Carol with UK filmmaker Lisa Gornick who plays former Screech bass player Lily. Then there is baby dyke and hearth throb, Deak Evgenikos as Cricket and her tool toting mate, Skye, played by Skyler Cooper.
The net is cast with an arc of narrative threads and first up is the scenario of a couple long on the rocks about to do a property division as amicably as possible. Iris drinks too much and is broke and MJ needs to get a life more than being aroused by porn on her laptop in the abandoned house the couple once shared. Neighbor Carol has her hands full with her partner Lily, an English neurotic who is truly misplaced in the Los Angeles Canyon cutting vegetables and trying to get pregnant to save their relationship.
One year later after a party that went all wrong, the misfits get a knock on the door by Skye who claims she has left expensive gear behind in the house. They let her in and she winds up staying on. But in truth she is looking for her partner Cricket. And we know that the misfits have killed her, accidently.
All this in the way of narrative explanation but the rich iconography of images, in your face closeups with soul searching confessions, and split screen anecdotes interspersed with clever dialogue makes this an exciting film. The fragmented narrative and cinema verité encounters with the actors, and the collective nature of the venture is a fresh kind off story telling.
OWL stands for Older Wiser Lesbian and all of these actors save the one that is accidently knocked off are + 40. Cricket’s “accident” is a symbolic action for how lost young lesbians don’t seem to acknowledge or care about the history of the lesbian movement. The film seeks to unite today’s nuanced lesbian – queer – butch – transman – movement with no labels but enough signposts that reveal a collective language known to the audience it caters to. Call it what you will, each woman defines herself, each woman speaks to the intricacies of relationships in the queer community, however isolated. In this case it’s a real slice of lesbian life in a little enclosure far from the city. The characters candidly and authentically speak to the camera and reveal their truths about what it means to be queer and lesbian in society today.
The filmmakers and actors belong to the Parliament Film Collective, a matrix of lesbian and new queer cinema creativity. The film cost 22,000 dollars to make and seems to fit in with the challenge put out by avantgarde filmmaker Maya Deren on making good affordable films: “my films cost what Hollywood spends on lipstick”.