With over 80 films to her name, and a major retrospective at the Tate Modern until Friday called “The Fearless Frame”, pioneering experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer still found time to talk to Wonderland about politicising audiences, breaking taboos, and the late Whitney Houston’s bathtub.
There was this image in The Sun that really got me thinking about your new film, “Maya Deren’s Sink” (2011). It was a grainy photo of the bathtub Whitney Houston died in. Deren’s sink, Whitney’s bath – what do these objects represent to you?
To show Whitney Houston’s bathtub is exploitative, but to see Maya Deren’s sink from the 1950s is revelatory. I was sitting in the Anthology Film Archives lobby, and somebody brought in this sink and said it was Maya Deren’s. I couldn’t believe it. Seeing her work “Meshes of the Afternoon”  made me want to make film in the first place. I immediately wanted to project her films back onto her pieces of furniture. It’s a lowly sink, I suppose, but to me it carried some memory of her. And that was the way the film began. So with some snooping and research, I found Teiji Ito’s [Deren’s second husband] wife after Deren, who inhabited the same home. That was pretty interesting, because she could talk – even about the bathtub that Deren used to use and how she used to soak for half an hour! She felt like Deren’s spirit was still there.
Do you see a trajectory from your early shorts to the later long-form documentary?
When I started making films, I knew there were very few female filmmakers, and as far as I knew, no lesbian ones, so I decided to put my life into my films and on the screen, for the lesbian community, and for everyone else. Today, at least in urban centres, we’re less fixed on these identity statements like “I’m gay, I’m straight, I’m bi, I’m asexual” – we don’t care anymore. But there are people in the middle of America, in rural communities, and in other countries, who are bullied and committing suicide. So in a way I think we have to work on two levels at the same time. So all these films that show my young, youthful ideas as well as my mature ideas, and issues of mortality, all fall under that theme, of making the invisible visible. I want the audience to move out of their seats, to become active. I want them, after they watch my cinema, to become political in the world.
Your films seem to broach the subject of age, often through taboo-breaking representations of the ageing-yet-sexual female body. Is ageism something you’ve come across?
You can’t help but notice ageism in society. Greetings cards, for example, are always making fun of old age. All of us – men too- should make a stand. In many societies, age equals wisdom and beauty. I was always been attracted as a lesbian to older women. They knew more than I did, it seemed like. And I knew that, as with lesbian lovemaking, it had not been depicted on the screen in terms positively. So in “Nitrate Kisses” (1992), I wanted to show the older woman as active, as sexual, as attractive, as smart. “A Horse Is Not A Metaphor”, my film about surviving ovarian cancer is also looking at the ageing body, a body under treatment. So there’s the bald head from chemotherapy, the scars – but look, she’s living! She’s walking! She’s swimming in the river! She’s only half-way through chemo! That’s a strong message to share, but it was my life, so why not share it?
Barbara Hammer: The Fearless Frame is running until the 26th February at the Tate Modern. Hammer’s DVDs and autobiography HAMMER! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life (2010) are on sale at the Tate Modern shop.
Words: Sophia Satchell Baeza