Sheffield Doc Fest ’21: An interview with Beth B, director of ‘Lydia Lunch, The War is Never Over’

Still from the film: Lydia Lunch is centre of the image, with a black dress and hair, holding a microphone and looking directly into the camera. Surrounding her are a band, two men with guitars either side and a man on the drums in the background.
Still from ‘Lydia Lunch, The War Is Never Over’. Photo credit: Kathleen Fox

Legendary filmmaker Beth B’s latest project explores a female rage that is both generational and deeply personal. Her subject is the incendiary and brilliant artist, songwriter and poet Lydia Lunch who Beth first met as a young filmmaker in New York’s radical No Wave art scene.

“I met Lydia when she was 19 and I was 23, in New York City. I discovered her on the stage with her band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and when I saw her perform, I mean, it scared me! It scared me to hear a very young woman, in the late 70s on stage screaming the bare, raw reality of violence, abuse and disturbance in such a poetic and cathartic way.

“I was working on a film at the time called Black Box and I thought, Lydia has got to play this role. It was a reversal of the male, authoritarian figure and casting her in that role pushed out this kind of radical concept about what roles women were able to play. That film led to other films that echoed that sentiment throughout the years.”

Lydia Lunch, The War is Never Over follows the inscrutable artist from her teenage years as an angry young woman, through her artistic liberation in New York and a litany of different bands and finds her still as outrageous and unguarded a muse now, in her early sixties.  

“It’s been an extraordinary experience to watch her – and her message is still relevant today. A lot of my work has thematically run parallel with Lydia’s and that’s why we’ve always found these places to collaborate with each other.”

While her work came-of-age during the late 1970s in the form of ‘an indictment against authority, nihilism, Vietnam, Manson, Nixon, Watergate, Kent State’, among other societal ills, Lydia’s message, as Beth points out, is strikingly relevant today and her galvanising words are perhaps even more vital in the age of #MeToo, Reclaim the Night and the ever-forceful influence of the patriarchy.

“My films are about voices that are unheard and about encouraging people to voice what they might consider too disturbing. Through my career I have come to recognise the ways in which women’s voices and the core of our beings have been restrained. It feels very important to document that”.

This is by no means the first time that Beth has grappled with issues of female agency in her work. Her 2013 film Exposed (which chronicles the often-misunderstood world of Burlesque) and her 2016 film Call Her Applebroog (a quietly seditious portrait of her mother, the artist Ida Applebroog) both explore a sense of bodily oppression in women, the iterations of which recur throughout Beth’s larger body of work.

“I have to remind myself that even at 66, there are things that trigger me. They’re in our bodies. Young women have been really connecting to the film because there are things we embody as women at all ages that have to do with the history of oppression. When they see the film, they understand more about the voice that says ‘no I will not be caged anymore, I will not be silenced, don’t tell me to calm down’. That is liberating.”

While the voice at the centre of this film is undeniably Lydia’s, her words represent a polyphony of female agency, foregrounded by Beth’s urgent style of filmmaking.

“The film is stylised in such a way that it comes from my visual catalogue of images and edginess and it mirrors those elements in Lydia’s career because we grew up with very similar kinds of visual and cultural inspirations”.

Both Lydia and Beth were key figures in the underground No Wave scene of downtown New York in the late 1970s. Beth recalls it well –

“New York City was in a state of decay, burnt out and abandoned. In this wonderful way it became a playground for the disenfranchised – a bunch of misfits who were completely alienated. Everything that seemed impossible suddenly became possible because we didn’t have anything to lose. People were looking to recreate identities, to take the idealism that I certainly had and destroy everything around us that did not represent the reality of what was going on in this country, which was, in a way, truth telling”.

 Many of those misfits went on to become venerated countercultural figures. The film has an impressive array of talking heads, including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, multimedia artist Kembra Pfahler and legendary underground filmmaker Richard Kern – all key players in a nucleus of creativity and transgressive art that was booming in the Lower East Side at the time. Beth includes segments from Kern’s seminal film The Right Side of My Brain, featuring Lydia Lunch, in her documentary. The film is unapologetically erotic and Lydia is, as ever, an alluring and challenging protagonist. Its inclusion in the documentary was of great importance to Beth,

“When The Right Side of My Brain came out, it was seen as shocking and controversial by a lot of people. But to me, it represented a part of the female psyche that had been shut down by societal norms. Women have sexual fantasies that society might look down upon – because our fantasies give us power – they put us in touch with our desires, our fears, our pleasure. Whenever we embrace those things as women, that is a position of power.

“What was controversial in the late 1970s has become usurped and rendered harmless by the media. If you put the sexual persona of Lydia Lunch, with her brassier and spiked heels on a billboard in order to sell a product, then it suddenly becomes acceptable”.

She feels strongly that while “tabloid news and reality TV and Oprah” have opened up certain avenues in the discussion of female sexuality, “it’s usually really exploitative and positions women in such a way that they feel the need to apologise for whatever sexual fantasies they might have”. She cites the work of Lydia and other women in her generation as being distinct in their refusal to apologise.

The film doesn’t pull punches when it comes to discussing difficult areas in Lydia’s life – from her experience with childhood sexual abuse, to candid accounts of her own struggle with sexual fulfilment and desire. Beth is very aware of the challenging nature of her film but believes adamantly that one should court controversy in a bid to understand more fully why it invokes a reaction, and find compassion and a greater understanding through the process.

“It’s important to tap into why we sometimes feel reactionary about something. Instead of reacting, I can choose to respond. Responding takes us into a more reflective way of looking at life. In the film, there are provocative elements, but then there is always a reflection. My mode of filmmaking is to smack you in the face and then say ‘wait! Don’t run away. Let’s reflect on this, take it apart, find the catharsis and respond’. The same goes for Lydia’s work – it is a call to arms for us to look into ourselves and ask, ‘why is this frightening to me?’”.

In many ways, the film itself is testament to that impulse to draw closer to what scares you as opposed to turning away. It is a burning, heartfelt, hilarious and at times heart-breaking account of one woman’s life, and simultaneously a mobilisation of female anger, agency and kinship. Beth never walks away from a film she’s made – “most of the projects I’ve done resonate with me so personally that I live them continually. It’s a kind of moving catharsis. The film continues to live on beyond my making, through the audience and through the discussions it provokes.”

It is a striking observation that goes to prove that, as much in art as it is in life, the war is truly never over.  

Lydia Lunch – The War is Never Over premiered at Sheffield DocFest on June 5, 2021.

Doc´n Roll Film Festival will open its 8th edition with the London premiere of Lydia Lunch – The War Is Never Over at the Barbican on 28 October, followed by a six-city UK regional tour in November.

Lydia Rostant is a 22 year old writer who’s lived in Manchester for the past four years. Her cinematic interests include (but are not limited to): women in film, women being bad in film, food in films, weird snacks that symbolise something else (a hot is never just a hot dog … or however the saying goes), great soundtracks in films, characters singing in their cars, tracking shots that start with the feet and work upwards, films about drop-out music geeks that pretend to be teachers in order to live out their fantasy at a local rock gig (yes, School of Rock is in her top 5).You can read her work on her blog: https://thepristineinnerexperience.wordpress.com 
Twitter: @LydiaRostant

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