- The Magazine
Community always finds a way. Such was the case in the early 1980s when a band of closeted lesbians living in rural southwestern Virginia, in and around Roanoke, gradually forged their own quiet, tight-knit group called First Friday. Filmmaker Kathryn L. Beranich, a member of the group, recounts its history in the winsomely titled The Unlikely Story of the Lesbians of First Friday (★★★☆☆).
The hour-long documentary is a love letter to the ladies, filled with personal recollections and vintage snapshots of their monthly meetings and, eventually, annual campground retreats. At the time, Roanoke was hardly the easiest place to be out. “It was very hard to be gay in that era,” says one of the group’s founders. “There were a lot of lesbians, but there was no core connecting group,” says another. “We were trying to create safe spaces.”
Beranich fills the hour with dozens upon dozens of talking heads, each indelibly in their own way. The movie plays out like a time capsule brimming with treasures waiting to be discovered, the most dazzling being an extended segment about the group’s annual campground retreat, which featured appearances by iconic lesbian entertainers such as Chris Williamson and Kate Clinton, and a mock Olympics that opened with a torch fashioned from a Kotex tied to a broomstick and set aflame.
“We brought out the best in each other,” says one of the women of the welcoming, embracing gatherings, which eventually drew lesbians from across the nation. Through it all, the group, which eventually dissolved, never lost its rustic, playful charm.
If there’s a bone to pick with the film, it’s that the surface is never scratched deeply enough. Much of what is warmly recounted grows repetitive after a point. Moreover, Berlanich has opted to impose a bouncy, twangy musical soundtrack to accompany the voiceovers. Not only is it horribly edited (a hacksaw comes to mind), but the music is played in a seemingly interminable loop that overwhelms the women as they speak. You just want it to stop.
Quibbles aside, the movie is a potent reminder that things were significantly different for the LGBTQ community even as little as 30 years ago. And as we forged our path out of the wilderness, groups like the Lesbians of First Friday helped to pave the way.
The Unlikely Story of the Lesbians of First Friday screens as part of this year’s Reel Affirmations Film Festival. For more information about the festival or to purchase tickets or festival screening passes, visit https://reelaffirmations.eventive.org.
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