BELLS! looks at the art movement behind The New Romantics
Cutting planes is a series of personal essays where filmmakers tell how their film was made. This is one of 5 directors’ essays presented at the 2022 Inside Out Film Festival 2SLGBTQ+.
Rising from the nihilistic ashes of the punk movement in the late 1970s, a new crowd of flamboyant fashionistas, who would later be dubbed the New Romantics, began to materialize on the streets of London, England.
My new feature film, BELLS! repositions the iconic 80s subculture as an art movement rather than just a pop-cultural one.
This period of British history was particularly unique because children could attend art or fashion school for free and also lived in huge squatted houses with other fledgling artists. In a pre-AIDS era, this way of life offered a lifestyle with very little consequence and resulted in a thriving artistic production that straddled film, music, art and fashion, causing waves around the world. whole that resonate to this day.
Their radical proto-drag confused the media, who couldn’t look away – like a cultural car accident, and soon enough they were brought into international homes with the soaring rise of Boy George and his band Culture Club.
The idea for the film goes back to my trip to London, England, with my first film in 2013. Admittedly, I came to the city with a well-developed obsession with British music, arts and subculture dating back to my youth. . I was struck by the proximity of these artists who were both at the center of my pre-existing obsessions, and those who permeated the margins of the cultures I had come to love.
I knew right away that I had to spend some time in his shoes for my next movie, and it wasn’t until a series of coincidences revealed to me what that movie would be like, things started to unfold. implement.
As my research delved into their depths, I realized that I wanted to distract from the megastars and instead shine a light on people like the painter Trojan, who had so far been immersed in the shadow of his partner in crime, performance artist Leigh Bowery. . These shadows were also cast by the onslaught of AIDS and widespread drug use, which effectively banished much of the creative community into obscurity.
I’ve come across incredible artists like fashion designers BodyMap, jewelry designer and stylist extraordinaire Judy Blame, choreographer Michael Clark, and style icons Princess Julia and Scarlett Cannon. I was obsessed with their images, having permeated the pages of groundbreaking cultural magazines like ID and The Face, but I seemed to be floundering in terms of being celebrated as part of this movement that was truly born out of a diversity of artistic practices, rather than strictly pop music aimed at straight people and mainstream culture.
To me, BELLS! is a film about youth culture, the central characters happen to be more advanced in their years. Of course, nightlife in London continues to thrive, and although they seem to be slipping into the annals of digitization of gay culture, the East End’s alternative gay bars are still teeming with boundary-pushing queer artists and festive monsters. DJs like Princess Julia and Jeffrey Hinton are still at the center of it. They’ve been there since the early 80s – Jeffrey Hinton was the resident DJ at Leigh Bowery’s notoriously bawdy Taboo nightclub.
People like Julia and Jeffrey are a fountain of energy and I couldn’t wait to get my bucket down there! I wanted to bridge the gap between the archaic divide between the so-called “children of our day” and the generations that preceded them. I think the saying goes, if you’re not interested, you’re not interesting. The subjects of my film continue to engage and produce art in any form – even just by dressing up!
Making a documentary can be quite exhausting, especially when you spend years chasing money from granting agencies. For me, it also translated into a feeling of unworthiness – as if the project I cared about so deeply didn’t have the value I felt. It can also be costly in many other ways, like a forced unsustainable lifestyle, especially when other filmmakers seem to navigate through things like funding and distribution, where I felt I was destined to wade.
That’s why when I was looking at the topics in BELLS! I began to see them not just as members of a bygone subculture, but rather as some sort of mystical source of inspiration. To be an artist is to be a survivalist, resilience is central, and so the film’s narrative began to develop around those themes. Because I needed to hear it, I assumed that others like me would also benefit from their secrets. What was the source of this resilience? How do they survive? How am I going to keep making art and survive?
The New Romantics essentially lived what we now see in what is sometimes called the generation of the precariat; those whose income and employment are totally precarious today. While working odd jobs at friends’ shops and a variety of other side gigs, trying to survive while making this film – that fear-filled existence became central to my life and the film’s narrative as well. Very dramatic, I know, but these are undeniably dramatic moments.
I was hoping that the answer and the inspiration to continue down this path existed somewhere in their story. It was the inspiration I needed to grow as a filmmaker and as a person, and so BELLS! was born.
I wanted to find some tenderness in a community that was so known solely for its aesthetics, and through this concept and cliché of “artist struggle” I feel like we really found a lot of heart there. . It wasn’t until the movie was asked to play BFI Flare, and I stood on stage at two sold-out screenings that I realized the chase I so desperately needed to continue, was is truly manifested in this documentary. I am so excited to be able to share this with anyone who may continue in this position.
Ultimately, BELLS! is an allegorical gesture for artists of any generation trying to figure out how to produce work in an aggressive capitalist political economy. It happens to be set in London, but hopefully it will speak to artists around the world.
BELLS! screens in Toronto during the Inside Out 2SLGBTQ+ film festival on Tuesday, May 31. It is available to stream across Ontario from May 26 to June 5.