'The Archivettes': Film Review | Outfest 2019

Courtesy of Megan Rossman
'The Archivettes'
A warm group portrait of a visionary project.

The world's largest collection of materials by and about lesbians is the subject of this concise documentary.

Now housed in a Brooklyn brownstone and comprising tens of thousands of books, personal mementos and cultural artifacts, the Lesbian Herstory Archives began in the mid-'70s in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, its shelves jury-rigged from boards and coffee cans, its "card catalog" consisting of a single desktop index-card file box. Forty-five years on, filmmaker Megan Rossman peers into the workings of the volunteer-run collective, speaking with its founders and following newbies as they acquaint themselves with a collection that is both sweeping and intensely intimate. With its hourlong running time, The Archivettes is a natural for pubcasters. More than that, it's a warm tribute to second-wave feminism and a quietly urgent rallying cry for continued activism.

Though the Archives' holdings are global in scope, this is also a specifically New York piece of LGBTQ history — not unlike the HBO documentary Wig, which looks at a very different part of gay culture, its '80s drag scene. The gay men's performative femininity and scalding humor couldn't be more different from the unadorned forthrightness of the Archivettes, but both films document the city as both home and crucible, a place where demonized people found one another and stepped out of the shadows, galvanized.

Rossman uses well-chosen historical photographs and footage to trace the gay movement's roots in civil rights and antinuclear activism, and a number of the film's voices reverberate with memories of the persecution of Jews in Europe and the States. "We are still in a political movement," one interviewee notes. The undertow of danger may have lessened over the years, but it's still there. "It's not a given that we're safe," another woman comments — a clear-eyed reminder of the bar raids, threats and vitriol that many of the collective's longtime members experienced firsthand. "I hope you die of AIDS," a stranger shouted at one interviewee as she crossed the street in 1980s Greenwich Village. When the Archives moved to its current home in the early '90s, the group kept its address unpublicized as a preventive measure against haters.

But the doc, as a whole, is about connection more than estrangement — generational connection in particular. Many of the Archivettes are well into their 70s, and the younger women who come on board, at first as interns, are mindful of their predecessors' legacy, especially at a moment of queer fluidity when, even within LGBTQ+ communities, the lesbian identity is viewed by some as old-school or even passé.

The interviews with Archives volunteers and with LHA co-founders Deborah Edel and Joan Nestle, former partners whose apartment was the collection's first home, reveal a spirited DIY resourcefulness, whether the matter at hand was renovating an old brownstone, inventing a "non-patriarchal" filing system, or, first and foremost, creating something out of nothing: a place to share and cherish lesbians' stories, in the form of their writings, photos, knickknacks, T-shirts, buttons, news clippings and more.

The Archivettes makes clear that LHA is more than a repository, more than a compendium of stuff; it's also a "rescue squad" for those stories, and its members are action heroes. On one occasion that heroism involved a mad-dash drive to Ohio to save a woman's bequeathed journals from the family determined to destroy them after learning, from her will, that she was gay. As an intern sorts through the items in a recent donation, and listens to a dying woman's recorded voice, she comments on "the emotional weight of the material." A defining mantra of feminism, "The personal is political," resonates loud and clear in Rossman's sensitive, discerning chronicle.

Venue: Outfest Los Angeles
Director-producer: Megan Rossman
Executive producers: Caroline Que
Director of photography: Megan Rossman
Composer: Lori Scacco

61 minutes