Rebel Dykes was only supposed to be a 10-minute Powerpoint presentation. Seven years ago, ahead of LGBT+ History Month, Siobhan Fahey (a Manchester-based activist, not to be confused with the singer of Bananarama) sat down with a handful of her mates and spoke to them separately about their memories of squatting, protesting and partying their way around south London in the 1980s. 

Back then this part of the city felt slightly forgotten, and as house prices began to soar, word spread at the Greenham Common Peace Camp that hundreds of buildings lay empty in the capital. Soon an enterprising bunch of queer women from across the UK – Fahey among them – gravitated to areas like Brixton, Tulse Hill and Peckham to make the most of the free rent. From these community-minded squats, this motley crew of leather-clad punks printed scrappy, biro-scrawled zines, started riotous, ramshackle punk bands, opened London’s first lesbian fetish club, and juggled raucous parties with protesting against Thatcher’s government. 

Thirty years later, Fahey wondered why nobody seemed to be documenting these rebellious activists, and so armed with a tape recorder, she began recording their stories herself. Originally, the idea was to preserve these conversations in an oral history project with a DIY ethos. Then Fahey showed her findings to a filmmaker friend to see if they could be turned into a short video. “I was like, hold on, I know these women that you’re talking about, and how significant this is,” co-director Siân A. Williams recalls. “This has to be a feature film, it’s too good a story.”

Rebel Dykes (2021)
© Riot Productions

Gripped by the piles of unseen photographs and untold stories, Williams rang up their friend and bandmate Harri Shanahan, and asked if they would co-direct a documentary about the group with Fahey as producer. “We’ve been in queer bands together and we’d always get pissed together and say: ‘we need to make a film’,” they laugh. “Here, all of the stars aligned between the three of us.” 

Aesthetically, Rebel Dykes is inspired by the rough-and-ready, collaged nature of the era’s photocopied zines, like Shocking Pink and Feminaxe – mixing Shanahan’s cartoon-style animation and filmed present-day interviews with original archive footage, photographs and DIY-minded re-enactments. “Rebel Dykes were energetic and handmade, and we wanted to take that energy and make it personal,” Shanahan says. 

Unsurprisingly, people’s recollections of events like the Rebel Dykes’ notorious BBC invasion varied quite dramatically – and since the BBC refused to provide footage of the studio invasion “due to the political nature of the film”, showing the true shape of events sometimes proved impossible. Where footage didn’t exist, the filmmakers re-enacted the rough outline of the moment in theatrical fashion. 

“We came up with the idea of putting on masks and doing what the Rebel Dykes would do – make a performance out of it, and have fun. It’s direct action with a message behind it. While we were doing more and more recreation it became another way of addressing gaps and absence in the archive,” Williams explains. The result is fast-paced, high-energy look at a community of queer women who weren’t afraid to be themselves amid an incredibly homophobic social climate, and helped to change the political shape of the world (with a huge number of hedonistic, antic-filled parties along the way)

Rebel Dykes (2021)
© Riot Productions

“We took our lead from the Rebel Dyke’s way of doing things,” Shanahan says. “If you want to advertise something, you draw it, stick it on a photocopier, and paste it on the bus stop. Everything tends to be quite rough and ready.”

While an increasing number of fictionalised films and television shows have begun sharing UK LGBTQ+ history with the mainstream in recent years – Russell T. Davies’ It’s a Sin and the 2014 feature film Pride, for example – many of the dominant narratives still centre on the important activist work of cis gay men. Fewer stories centred on queer women’s role are out there, and it’s this lack of representation that persuaded the filmmakers to press on with Rebel Dykes, Shanahan explains. “I remember early on when we were just starting out, I went to an event at the BFI called Where Are All the Lesbians?” they remember. “A lot of filmmakers were saying, people won’t fund us because they think it’s too ‘niche’. This idea that lesbian stories, queer women’s stories, dyke stories, don’t sell and there’s not an audience for them… I’m really hoping we prove them wrong!”

“And if there’s a gap in the historical record in the first place, there isn’t that bank of material for a screenwriter to make a fictional film anyway, is there?” Williams points out. “So, at the very least, if this is opening some doors so that the next dyke Russell T. Davies can make a show, that’d be amazing.”

Since this forgotten subculture of queer women didn’t have a collective name, the trio came up with Rebel Dykes; a retrospective label that reflects the group’s intersectionality. “It’s a very inclusive umbrella,” Williams explains, welcoming in “bi queers, trans queers and S&M queers”. The inclusivity of the Rebel Dykes ethos, which included trans and non-binary people, feels particularly important to acknowledge in a time where a minority of lesbians today are seeking to sow mistrust, fear and exclusion of the trans community. These individuals don’t speak for LGBTQ+ people as a whole, and as this documentary shows, lesbians have historically stood in solidarity.

Rebel Dykes (2021)
© Riot Productions

From here, the team began hunting down everyone they could find who ran with the Rebel Dyke circles in the ’80s, interviewing photographers from the glossy, sex positive lesbian magazine Quim, members of the scene’s crucial punk bands, and the founders of Chain Reaction – a night for S&M dykes hosting jelly wrestling competitions, sex shows and plenty of leather. 

Many of the Rebel Dykes’ sex positive antics met the ire of political lesbians, who accidentally helped to advertise the new club by smashing it up on opening week. On multiple occasions, the Rebel Dykes ended up splashed across the front pages, after abseiling into the House of Lords and that notorious invasion of the BBC News desk live on air. The latter direct action led to the quite surreal headline ‘Beeb Man Sits On Lesbian’.

As you might expect, certain stories concerning “lots of theft and minor crime” didn’t make it into the documentary for legal reasons, and an anecdote concerning a group of polyamorous lesbians whose falling-out culminated in a dildo fight was deemed that bit too “scandalous”. Though the film covers a huge amount of historical ground, visiting the group’s work with the grassroots HIV and AIDS campaigners Act Up and their demonstrations against Section 28 (which made it illegal to “promote” homosexuality in schools), there’s plenty that didn’t quite make the cut. Earlier this year, some of the footage was shown at the Rebel Dykes art and archive exhibition – and every recording, flyer and photograph has now been added to a brand new archive at London’s Bishopsgate Institute. 

In making Rebel Dykes, its co-directors say that they have taken away an important lesson about the power of sharing memories across generations. “Go and talk to older people,” Shanahan concludes, “that’s so important. Those are the conversations that we need to be having between generations, or we’re not gonna solve our mutually held problems. All you need is a voice recorder, and you can make some oral history yourself.” 

Rebel Dykes is in cinemas and online on BFI Player and Bohemia Euphoria from 26 November. Bird’s Eye View’s Reclaim the Frame is presenting a series of Rebel Dykes events and special screenings across the UK including Q&As and panel discussions.