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Cheryl Dunye’s feature The Watermelon Woman airs in Turner Classic Movies’s Women Make Film event on Wednesday, September 9 at 4:15am EDT. You can stream The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye on Kanopy.
Cheryl Dunye’s first feature, The Watermelon Woman, plays with autofiction in film: the plot follows “Cheryl,” played by Cheryl, as she “tries to make a documentary” about an actor from a 1930s film known only as “The Watermelon Woman.” Dunye first used the autofiction form in short films she made with grad school friends in the early 90s, projects she has dubbed her “dunyementaries.” The term could easily be mistaken for an inside joke, but critics have recognized its significance, praising the shorts as a new form of cinema that Dunye had invented.
Although Dunye made the early shorts over several years, the six films work well as one continues work, collected in The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye by distributor First Run Features. The same actors appear under new character names, but making the same mistakes. Dunye’s characters feel like they evolve continuously: from the newly out lesbian Cheryl reflecting on a high school friendship, to Shae, who is exploring dating after a heartbreak, to a socialite celebrating an anniversary with a serious partner.
The stories are fictionalized, blending documentary and narrative. Dunye’s presentation suggests her dramatic scenes are more than reenactments, but she doesn’t try to suspend our disbelief, either. Dispersed through dramatic scenes, characters sit down for interviews to talk us through the action.
In one of the longer shorts, “She Don’t Fade,” characters “Paula” and “Zoie” (played by actors of the same names) comment on their friend “Shae” (Dunye) as she navigates dating after heartbreak. Zoie introduces the story, enticing us to watch it. “You can trust me,” she says, with a pout. “Just look at my face!” After one of Paula’s interviews, she stops herself from summarizing: “Anyway, you watch for yourself.”
On a first date with her new girlfriend, Nikki, Shae puts her hand on Nikki’s back, and an arrow appears on screen, pointing at the brief touch. It feels like Shae has turned to a friend watching for a silent thumbs up. It’s absolutely delightful.
With moments like that one, the film begins to feel like friends sharing their amorous adventures with each other. During an intimate scene between Shae and her new girlfriend, Nikki, Dunye breaks character while embracing her partner and calls out to the crew, “Don’t be all quiet please!” Everyone laughs. As they continue to embrace, crew members encourage and instruct. “Roll with it.” “Sit up, Cheryl.” “You guys are dead, you have to move more!” These moments call attention to the oddly public collaboration of intimate scenes in movies. They also equate that collaboration to what happens between friends. As friends recount their romantic escapades, it’s similarly collaborative: they shape ongoing stories together, even influencing each other’s romantic decisions.
Throughout the other films, Cheryl narrates stories of friends or family members from her past, or observations on terms like “vanilla sex.” One of the longer shorts, “The Potluck and the Passion,” shows several lesbian couples hosting and attending an anniversary party. Throughout all the films, Dunye incorporates her special humor, as if she’s having a conversation with a friend. I love that she carries this humor over to her feature, The Watermelon Woman. The humor may have developed when Dunye was working with friends, but she takes it beyond her familiar circle and brings it to larger works, too.
In an early scene in “She Don’t Fade,” Cheryl-as-Shae tries to say the same interview line over and over: “So the other day while vending, I met this girl.” It’s as if she’s an actor trying to get the moment right, but she remains in character. Shae–or Cheryl, or does it matter?–is too enamored to capture the significance of the moment. I love Dunye’s work for moments like this one, when the blend of forms produces a new intimacy with the character.
This year, The Watermelon Woman was added to Criterion’s collection to celebrate Black filmmakers, and Dunye is thrilled about it because it makes her storytelling accessible to people when the world of distribution is usually “about dollars and cents.” Since making The Watermelon Woman, Dunye has gone on to make several more features, and in the past few years she’s been directing for TV. If we’re lucky, this new recognition for The Watermelon Woman will bring us more dunyementaries. I very much hope so!
© Amelie Lasker (9/8/20) FF2 Media
Photos: Cheryl Dunye, Zoie Strauss, an unnamed actor in various shorts from The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye.
Photo Credits: First Run Features