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Dorothy Towers: Birmingham’s Queer Safe Haven

Updated: Mar 10

Words by Sophie Young

As part of CineCity film festival, the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts showed a special screening of Dorothy Towers accompanied by a live score, followed by a Q&A with director Sean Burns and musician Lai Power.

Dorothy Towers is a documentary which explores the heritage of Clydesdale and Cleveland Towers, two residential blocks in Birmingham which became more infamously known as Dorothy Towers due to their largely LGBTQ+ population. At the height of the HIV epidemic in Britain, the queer population of Clydesdale and Cleveland grew, as the towers became a relatively safe home and community for queer people - Burns says, “Queer people wanted to live amongst other queer people.” (Baldwin, David). And it certainly didn’t hurt that Dorothy Towers, situated next to Birmingham’s Gay Village, remains today within walking distance of an impressive amount of nightclubs and gay bars.

Shooting 16mm film brought its own challenges, as Sean Burns explained how he advocated for the use of real 16mm film - with all its limitations - rather than augmenting modern digital film to imitate it. One round of footage from inside the towers turned out blurred and had to be reshot, but instead of using the clearer, reshot footage, he decided on the blurred version to more accurately articulate the reality of using 16mm.

A great deal of footage was shot from a moving car, which was intended to represent how Birmingham, according to Burns, is a city built around the car. The prevalence of underpasses and overpasses meant always walking underground and below the car, or seeing the city from above, as the car monopolised the places people would usually exist. Lai Power, who performed the live score with an assortment of dreamy, disorienting, intense instrumentals, said they had many memories of experiencing Birmingham from a moving car. The concrete brutalism and car-dominated landscape of Birmingham juxtaposes the glamour of the hidden world within Dorothy Towers, exemplified best by residents like club icon Twiggy and drag queen Seemaa Butt.

Although documenting a place where many queer people hid and suffered during a turbulent time in queer history, Dorothy Towers is full of colour and humour. In the documentary, one resident remarks that after his HIV diagnosis, he came to Birmingham to die - and that it seemed quite an appropriate place to do so. Burns told the audience that this line is always particularly appreciated, and met with howls of laughter when screened in Birmingham. Further in the film another resident gives a detailed, somewhat somber history of Dorothy Towers from his room, while cuddling a pink hairless cat and cooing at a colourful squeaking bird on a perch. The film closes on a warm and intimate birthday party for Seemaa Butt, as she lights a tea light with a hand covered in glamorous and enormous rhinestone rings. Burns remarked, while smiling, that although the party was thrown for Seemaa, it was Seemaa’s idea entirely - and he just brought the cake.

Extended reading: Baldwin, David. ‘Filmwire Spotlight: Dorothy Towers’. Flatpack. 08.09.22.

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