Erin Batchelder ‘17
On Wednesday, April 20, a small group of students, Five College faculty, and local community members gathered in the Isenberg Center for Business at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Everyone sat scattered across the large lecture hall that was converted into a movie theater for the night of the Annual Multicultural Film Festival. That night, Cheryl Dunye, a monumental figure in the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s, was also in attendance.
Twenty years ago, in 1996, Dunye released her first feature-length film, “The Watermelon Woman.” To be honest, there is no easy way to summarize “The Watermelon Woman.” The movie is a combination of romance, comedy, documentary, mockumentary and queer cinema. In addition to being the director, Cheryl Dunye also starred in the film, playing a character named Cheryl, who is a filmmaker herself. The film meanders back and forth between narrative and documentary conventions as (the fictional) Cheryl sets out to make a film about The Watermelon Woman, a forgotten 1930s black lesbian film star.
With a micro-budget of about $300,000, “The Watermelon Woman” was a work of love by Dunye and her community of filmmakers and artists that includes some heavy-hitters from the queer ’90s (Isaac Julien, “Go Fish” stars Guinevere Turner and VS Brodie to name a few). But after an astounding initial critical reaction, the film quickly became a staple in queer academics and cinema studies among scholars and university professors.
Dunye has just finished restoring the film for a rerelease, which she brought to share at UMass. In comparison to the original VHS copies owned by the Five Colleges, the new transfer looks like an entirely new film with restored color and image quality. During the Q&A session that evening, Dunye talked about why she decided to re-release in honor of the 20th anniversary.
“Instead of waiting around for someone to celebrate it, I decided to celebrate myself,” she said.
Throughout the evening she spoke candidly about how she made a space for herself in the independent film industry, and she kept coming back to the theme of “celebrating herself.” Instead of waiting to be recognized in Hollywood as a young filmmaker and instead of waiting for the film community to recognize “The Watermelon Woman”’s anniversary, Dunye followed her own path. She didn’t wait for the permission of the establishment to do the work she wanted.
Dunye, beyond rereleasing “The Watermelon Woman,” is currently set to shoot her next feature film, “Black is Blue,” which is about a transman who is a security guard in LA.
While she talked about her role as a revolutionary filmmaker throughout the evening, Dunye kept the tone of the room light with her bubbly and sweet personality, which for me was the most charming part of the whole evening. She managed to move seamlessly between talking about race and the heteropatriarchy to talking about how “Young Frankenstein” was one of her “major influences.” Her personality had this way of filling the room, and even though the room was full of people, you felt like you were being pulled into a personal conversation.