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Deitch, Donna (b. 1945)  
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Pioneering filmmaker Donna Deitch is best known for Desert Hearts (1986), a classic of lesbian cinema. Produced a decade before the advent of the New Queer Cinema, Desert Hearts is one of the first films to present positively a sexual relationship between women.

A native of California, born June 8, 1945 in San Francisco, Deitch enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s with the intention of becoming a painter. She soon became interested in photography, however, working first with a still camera but then discovering that her true vocation lay in making motion pictures.

Deitch continued her education with graduate studies in film production at the University of California at Los Angeles. She concentrated on making documentaries, mostly on the lives of women. Because of the quality of her work, the American Film Institute awarded her a grant of $2,600 in 1972 so that she could complete one of her projects.

Along with muralist Judith F. Baca and painter Christina Schlesinger, Deitch founded the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in 1976. SPARC "espouses public art as an organizing tool for addressing contemporary issues, fostering cross-cultural understanding, and promoting civic dialogue." Among the artworks that the group has created is a gigantic mural about which Deitch made a documentary, The Great Wall of Los Angeles (1978).

In 1979, after reading Jane Rule's novel Desert of the Heart (1965), Deitch wrote to the author, seeking to buy the film rights to the story. Rule had received previous proposals from movie studios but had turned them down, wary of how the Hollywood establishment might distort her tale of lesbian love. After meeting with Deitch and seeing her films, Rule decided that she was the right person to make the movie.

Securing funding for the project was a challenge for Deitch, who made about a thousand phone calls to potential investors. She also held fund-raising backer parties in ten cities around the country, with celebrities such as Lily Tomlin, Stockard Channing, and Gloria Steinem co-sponsoring the events.

After winning kudos at the Telluride, Toronto, and Sundance Film Festivals, Desert Hearts was assured a wider audience when it was picked up for distribution by Samuel Goldwyn Studios in 1986. Although it had a major distributor, however, because of its subject matter the film played mainly in art houses.

Deitch stated in 1997 that "Desert Hearts was definitely ahead of its time in the sense that had I made that movie now, I think that it would have crossed over or attracted even a much wider audience, and in every way been more 'mainstream.'"

What set the film apart was its positive depiction of lesbian love. Unlike most previous depictions of lesbians in love in popular literature and film in which the protagonists committed suicide, went mad, or experienced a miraculous conversion to heterosexuality, Desert Hearts was an affirming statement of the power and naturalness of lesbian love.

Desert Hearts tells the story of Vivian Bell (played by Helen Shaver), a professor of English literature who has come to Reno, Nevada to divorce her husband, and Cay Rivvers (played by Patricia Charbonneau), an artist, ten years her junior, whom she encounters at a "divorce ranch" hostelry and with whom she falls in love.

Influential film critic Vincent Canby of the New York Times gave Desert Hearts an extremely negative review, writing--curiously enough--that the landmark film "has no voice or style of its own" and concluding that "it's as flat as a recorded message from the telephone company."

Other critics, however, recognized the importance of the film and the talent of its maker. Rob Salem of the Toronto Star stated that "Deitch is blessed with uncanny instincts when it comes to pulling the most impact from any given scene. Visually, Desert Hearts often approaches breathtaking." He also observed that the film's principal love scene is "one of the most erotic, seductively photographed sexual encounters, homosexual or otherwise, you are likely to find at the movies."

Lesbian viewers took Desert Hearts to their hearts, and it quickly became a staple of glbtq film festivals. Deitch has observed that "the most repeated comment" that she received from women who had seen the film was that it had moved them to come out.

Desert Hearts was released on DVD in 2001, making the affirmative story accessible to a new generation of viewers. A sequel to Desert Hearts has also been reported as in the works.

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Donna Deitch at the OutFest 2008 film festival. Still from a YouTube video.
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