Can the Experimental Films of French Gay Liberation Pioneer Lionel Soukaz Still Inspire Social Change?

‘Militant Desire’, a new series of screenings at London’s Gasworks, revives consciousness-raising 

In January 1978, the French Ministry of Culture raided a gathering of queer intellectuals and radical thinkers convening in the basement of a cinema in Paris’s seventh arrondissement. Famed for its Japanese, pagoda-like design, La Pagode became a hotbed of underground activity after it was saved from demolition in 1972. On that night in ’78, it hosted a festival organized by the avant-garde film director Lionel Soukaz. The Ministry detained him briefly on grounds of indecency but censored his sexually explicit and brutal films for decades. Until 2004, following a campaign by the critic Nicole Brennex, they were rediscovered, digitized and restored to 35mm reels.  

Lionel Soukaz, Race D'Ep: The Homosexual Century, 1979. Courtesy: Gasworks, London

Over the past three weeks, Soukaz’s work has been the subject of a series of screenings and consciousness-raising (CR) discussions curated by Paul Clinton at Gasworks, a non-profit space in south London. Clinton aimed to return the works to their activist setting, using a combination of 1960s and ’70s film-forum and CR formats to explore their relevance to present-day queer discourse. Instead of listening to a panel of experts pontificate about what had been screened, after each film audience members shared their responses in a 45-minute un-facilitated forum. 

The women’s liberation group, New York Radical Women, first adopted CR in the early 1960s, after one member, Ann Forer, remarked: ‘I think we have a lot more to do in the area of raising our consciousness.’ In principle, the idea of CR is to share individual experiences of oppression in order to frame them in a broader structural context. Clinton transposed this to an art space, using the non-profit gallery as a resource for creating a supportive environment for marginalized people to discuss their lives. Rather than being about radicality, ‘Militant Desire’ had the potential to be radical.

Lionel Soukaz, Race D'Ep: The Homosexual Century, 1979. Courtesy: Gasworks, London

Soukaz produced films with a group of gay Parisian intellectuals, including the ‘father of queer theory’ Guy Hocquenghem and the philosopher Michel Foucault, whose influence is evident throughout his oeuvre. Race D'Ep (1979) was made three years after Foucault’s seminal text The History of Sexuality vol. 1 (1976) and builds on his idea that homosexuality was defined predominantly through medical imagery. In four dramatized chapters, it covers the gay history of the 20th century – from Wilhelm von Gloeden’s late 19th-early-20th-century pastoral photographs of naked Sicilian boys to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The essayistic style of Race D’Ep is in contrast to the ‘swords and sandals’ parody of Tino (1985) and the tragedy of Maman sue Man (Mom that Man, 1982), in which a working-class boy is deceived into an underground world of drug-taking by a handsome older man.

Being seated in a circle of 15 strangers debating the impact of controversial films makes you aware of how few non-academic spaces there are for people to have critical and meaningful conversations. Some of the most urgent points related to the need for intersectional thinking about queer issues and creating optimism at times of intense commercialism. The most insightful responses came from personal, rather than theoretical, standpoints; in those moments, the conversations reflected the original principles of the format. 

Lionel Soukaz, Race D'Ep: The Homosexual Century, 1979. Courtesy: Gasworks, London

Although the series consisted of four screenings, CR sessions accompanied only three: Race D'Ep, Tino and Maman que Man. The most explicit work, IXE (pronounced EEKS – as it is said in French – like a scream, 1980), was shown in the cinema of moving-image archive, LUX, as a rare 35mm double projection. IXE was meant as a provocation against censorship, citing images banned by the Control Commission: an exhilarating mix of drugs, sex and religious profanity. Soukaz’s polemical films trouble every possible reading and it’s for this reason CR worked so well. As a non-hierarchical, alcohol-free forum, it promoted deeper relationships with artworks, where people could discuss how to move forward in solidarity. 

Main image: Lionel Soukaz, Race D'Ep: The Homosexual Century, 1979. Courtesy: Gasworks, London

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and frieze editorial trainee based in London, UK. 

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