Raiders of the Lost Archive - Histories Real and Imagined at Fringe! 2016
By Anna Wates
At the end of Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, the following sentence appears: 'Sometimes you have to create your own history'. It hints at the intentional blurring within the film of the division between fiction and truth. As a black lesbian, Dunye wanted her film to highlight the poverty of the historical record when it comes to the stories of marginalised peoples and communities. This is because the archive tends to favour those with power. As for all the rest us, very few records exist; our stories rarely survive, and if they do, queerness risks being unacknowledged due to the prejudices of the era. So we have to imagine, project, or retell versions of the past which include us. This year Fringe! offers some great films doing just that; a selection of thought-provoking features and shorts that cast the net back through the archive, collecting hidden gems as well as confronting one or two lingering ghosts along the way.
One such film is Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman prompts us to reflect on the disparity between histories we are told and those we must imagine in order to be able to see ourselves in a past that forever attempts to erase us. This is clever filmmaking, a satire on fiction and truth through the format of a “mockumentary” in which the main character speaks directly to the camera about plans to make a film (the one we’re watching?). Dunye termed this style of filmmaking a “Dunyementary”, playing a version of herself as an aspiring filmmaker cum video shop clerk in search of fragments of the life of Martha Page, a black actress who worked in Philadelphia during the 1930s, also known as “the watermelon woman”. In some ways, the search is frustrated by the constant erasure of Page’s queer identity in official records of her life, as well as her own sister’s memories. Yet in other ways, Cheryl unearths a veritable treasure chest of archive material, including photographs of Page looking dapper with her lover, or an interview with older lesbian Shirley who tells Cheryl that the watermelon woman used to sing in clubs “for all us stone butches”. These tantalising glimpses of a vibrant queer past clash with stark irony the harsh reality of silence and voids alluded to in the poignant closing lines of the film.
The fact that Page is black, a woman and queer means her story is even less likely to appear in the history books than a white (or male/straight) counterpart. We can think of real-life figures such as Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker, whose queer relationships can often only be guessed at. Yet this exclusion takes place within queer culture as much as in straight society, something wryly explored in a scene from The Watermelon Woman in which Cheryl visits the CLIT archive of lesbian material. Searching for information on Page, Cheryl is handed a shabby box filled with uncategorised material by the white archivist, who tells her they keep collections pertaining to black lesbians separate in order to “make it easier”; a neat jibe at the frequent absence of people of colour from the LGBTQ+ record.
Intelligent, powerful and important, we are delighted to be able to present this classic of black lesbian/New Queer Cinema in its full magnificence, now beautifully restored courtesy of the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project in honour of film’s 20 th anniversary. Catch The Watermelon Woman alongside our shorts Histories, Real and Imagined and explore these vital commentaries on queer histories rarely told or acknowledged.
The Watermelon Woman screens on Sunday 20 November at Barbican Centre