Lavande interviews queer artist Monica Mills about her new documentary, Lavender Girls: Coming Out.
Monica Mills is a queer artist who recently released a documentary about lesbian representation in cinema, which accompanies her painting series called Lavender Girls: Coming Out.
Watch Lavender Girls: Coming Out on Vimeo here.
An Instagram post by Monica showing one of her Lavender Girls paintings.
Lavande: What made you decide to create your Lavender Girls painting series and the documentary?
Monica Mills: I was born in Scotland, I spent nine years living in Zimbabwe as a child, moved back to the UK when I was 11, and then I moved to New Zealand. I've lived in the Czech Republic, I've lived in Macau, and when I was looking to do my Masters, I wasn't going to focus on LGBTQ stuff. I like painting, but obviously when you do further study they want you to have a reason behind everything that you do. I'm really passionate about LGBTQ rights so I kind of went straight to that and I was curious about laws, because I was like, "Hmm, I've just lived my gay life without really wondering about it or doing anything about it." I was right in thinking that Zimbabwe was still quite homophobic - same for Macau - but it was the the nuances of the legalities that I didn't know anything about, so from that I got really invested in just researching so much more, and obviously section 28 had a huge impact on education in the UK. I started going to school in the UK when I was 11 and I'm 30 now, and not once was anything ever mentioned about anything other than heteronormative sex. Thankfully my school didn't teach abstinence, but they did teach us how to put a condom on. Everything I discovered and found out was from television and cinema, and, I mean, we didn't have Netflix back in the day. Some of my classmates and course mates are ten years younger than I am and their outlook is so different, and it's amazing how much can change in that amount of time, so from then I was kind of like, "What did I miss out on?"
L: Had you made a film before Lavender Girls?
M: I'm very lucky that the videographer and editor [Joana Merlini] is my best friend and she has done a couple of things like this before. She had actually finished a bunch of projects at the end of the summer and we went into another strict lockdown here [in Prague] and we wanted to do something creative, something that would keep us occupied, something that would keep us busy. It was actually my first time doing anything like this. I'm still amazed. It took a lot of work.
L: What was the process of making it like?
M: We started in, I think, November. We were like, "Let's do this," so I wrote a script which I trashed and rewrote about 20 times and then I voice recorded the entire thing. My friend Joana lives here. She was one of the few people in my bubble and we were always seeing each other and discussing it, and I basically just gave her the script, gave her the audio. I said, "Play with it! Show me what you've got when you've got time," and we didn't have any intention of doing anything with it. It was more to keep ourselves occupied and then after a couple of weeks she was like, "I did some stuff with your script." She sent it to me and I was blown away. I was like, "You did all of those things?" and she'd gathered all of the movies, all of the clips. Obviously, it has changed a lot in the last six months but I was so amazed. I had no idea that that was something that could be done so quickly and so visually, so it was kind of a shock to both of us, and then we kind of had to keep filming bits. I actually don't particularly like being in front of the camera, so every time we had to film something, I would be like, "I'm going to give you an hour of my time. Film me and if you don't get it, it's on you," which I know is not fair or right! We just tried to make it natural, like, "I'm going to the studio today. Bring your camera. Film me when I'm not paying attention!"
L: What do you think it is that makes a film great to you in terms of lesbian representation?
M: I think it helps just to have the quantity, because when you have the quantity of the films, you can actually have one where it focuses on being gay, but that shouldn't be the point of every single movie that has a gay main character. I think one of the favourite movies I watched was Angry Indian Goddesses. It's an Indian movie and actually I didn't find it with subtitles, so I watched it in Hindi. Some of it was in English, but it was so well done that I could understand the entire storyline, if not every single thing that they were saying, because they gave very real reactions. It wasn't just focusing on the negative, it wasn't just focusing on the positive, it was giving a big, wider variety, as well as keeping the story moving instead of focusing on one aspect.
L: I wondered if you have an absolute favourite TV show or film after doing all of the research?
M: That depends on the mood, because actually, some of them are quite harrowing. Rafiki absolutely blew my mind away.
I watched it and was like, "Wow!" and I thought that was so brilliantly well done and brilliantly executed, and the storyline focused so much more on personal journeys rather than everyone else's reactions; of course it's going to be a negative reaction - that's the obvious part. Their internalised homophobia and them overcoming the fact that it's okay was so well done, so I loved Rafiki so so much. The World Unseen was beautiful as well. I hadn't heard about that one before and I loved it. If we're going for something funny, I would have to go with Imagine Me and You - something that's a little bit more lighthearted.
L: Leading on from that, do you have a favourite lesbian character in a film?
M: That's a very good question... I think Lena Headey's character in Imagine Me and You. She's so casual.
L: What do you think the main ways of representing lesbianism are through cinematography and maybe sound or music? What is the role they play?
M: I think especially in the latter half of the last five years, if a film plays a queer artist, then you kind of go, "Oooh, girl in red is playing - this must mean something!" but especially in the period dramas, there's so much staring, deep into someone's soul, which I'm sure as an actress can be really quite difficult, because what you're doing is staring at a camera! I think a lot of very subtle touches that you would read about in straight romances can be used in the exact same way.
Listen to girl in red's track 'we fell in love in october' here.
L: Lesbians are often seen within the patriarchy as something that exists for men. Do you think most of the films that have representations of gay people are driven by the male gaze?
M: I do genuinely think it does make a difference who the writer or the directors are. One of the things I really enjoy about Happiest Season is not just representation in terms of the film itself, but also it was directed by Clea DuVall.
It had so many lesbian perspectives, not just one lesbian perspective. We've got our own individual personalities. I think that it's important to make and have films that are not just romantic. That's why I was kind of focusing on having a gay superhero, because I love superhero movies! I'm hoping Captain Marvel will come out as gay.
I'm not sure it'll happen, but there you get a demographic of men, and women (without being too generalised, obviously). You capture people who are interested in action and adventure, without having it being over sexualised, without having to have any nudity, whereas romance, especially if it's for adults, tends to have a lot more, unnecessary sometimes, nudity and sexual tension that can be considered a turn-on and also moves away from the actual emotional aspect of it. I think having that kind of matter of fact perspective is really important, but without taking away from the fact that you can still have the physicality of it. There's nothing wrong with it. It's going back to having the quantity of things, having more of it so you can go, "Maybe not that one," like we do with heterosexual films. I just want to be able to choose in the same way.
L: That would definitely be ideal. Leading on from that, do you think a bad or problematic representation is better than none at all?
M: I think yes, because you can have wonderful critics turn around and go, "Well that was a load of trash," and people can still form their own opinions. I think there's just so many holes. Only in the last 20 or 30 years have we had representation. I honestly think it's dangerous to say any representation goes, because obviously that could highlight things that are super negative but even just having terrible films that have gay representation is still better than films with no representation at all, and, also, hopefully the more you have, the better the quality gets and obviously it's surrounded by money, so money talks. I don't know a single queer friend who hasn't watched all the big Hollywood queer movies. I still haven't watched Ammonite - I'm probably the only person who hasn't! I think the more we watch, the better the quality will be.
Unfortunately, reinforcing negative stereotypes can have an adverse effect but it's giving you a piece of what's actually happening in the world. There are people who react negatively to gay people - they exist. Not trying to perpetuate it, but if you are a gay teenager and you don't live in a place where you have that representation, if you don't have anything you're just going to think there's something wrong with you, but if you see that it exists and people react negatively to it, you go, "Okay, at least I'm not the only one and I have to be careful. I have to make sure that I am safe," rather than going, "Oh shit, I'm the only gay in the village!" I definitely think that having some, any, representation is better than none. Positive is obviously better than negative.
L: That's a really good point. Moving back to Lavender Girls specifically, what kind of response has it had so far?
M: It's had such wonderful, positive feedback. So many people have asked for a take two, and we will definitely be doing a take two. It just might be in a couple of months because I graduate in June and the next couple of months are insane for me so I don't know if I have the time right now. It's been fantastic, even for me, being able to share it with my family. I'm out because I've had girlfriends, but I've never been like, "Hey! Look how super gay I am!" It was kind of amazing and they've been so wonderful. Just being able to have a space for people to discuss, gossip and talk about it and share the movies. The movie Sisterhood was actually set in Macau. I lived there for three years and so did Joana, the videographer, and both of us had never heard of this film. We had to actively search and scrape through the barrel of tiny independent movies to find it, and what's wonderful is that we have both been in touch with the director who has fully supported the documentary as well, which has been really wonderful, so it's been fantastic.
L: Would you ever want to make a feature film now that you've got experience?
M: I feel if I say yes, Joana is going to hear this and she's going to be like, "Yes! We have to do it now!" Joana is desperate to do something like that but she wants me to write the script and work on it. It's not a 'no', it's a 'not right now'. I'd like to graduate, get my Masters, but for the future it's an absolute possibility. You work with the people who are part of the community, a group of queer people. You don't have to have the conversation about being queer because you just all are.