The Watermelon Woman (1996)

Undoubtedly filmmaking outside the mainstream has always looked different, and as a film which presents itself as a documentary, lo-fi technology and a lack of budget is practically flaunted here. The lead character (played by director Cheryl Dunye) works in a video rental shop, using its resources to research and film a piece about a mysterious 1930s actor known only to her as ‘The Watermelon Woman’, so we see her recording equipment, not to mention shelves and shelves of antiquated VHS tapes (although these may not have seemed so at the time, I suppose). But it would be wrong to write the film off because of the way it looks, just as it would be disingenuous to say its greatest value is in representing a black lesbian point of view. Certainly it was and remains interesting for that reason, but 20 years on it still has an energy to its underlying message that goes beyond simply testifying to the presence of black and lesbian women in history. At a wider level, it’s a film about the erasure of identities within history as a whole, as Cheryl picks through various archives and libraries, not to mention the testimonies and personal mementoes of an older generation, in order to find something out about her subject. Yet all this is presented within a broadly comedic framework (even romcom, with the appearance of Guinevere Turner’s video shop customer) that makes its political force effortlessly palatable, and hardly diluted by the fact that the black lesbian actor of the title is a fictional recreation — not existing may be the ultimate erasure of historical identity.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Cheryl Dunye | Cinematographer Michelle Crenshaw | Starring Cheryl Dunye, Valarie Walker, Guinevere Turner | Length 90 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 10 December 2016

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