The Watermelon Woman

Posted on Sat 19 Nov by AlexK / History, Film, QTIPOC, Lesbian

by MK Margetson

In Cheryl Dunye’s seminal 1996 work The Watermelon Woman, there’s a scene where Cheryl’s friend Tamra says ‘i can barely stand the stuff that Hollywood puts out now, let alone that nigger mammie shit from the thirties’, in response to Cheryl’s acquisition of old films featuring the title actress. This act of unearthing old, painful, cinematic images is an act of purposeful oppositional spectatorship. This is the way that queer people and people of colour have traditionally watched Hollywood images: you see a reductive representation but (especially with queer audiences historically) you are glad for any relatable image; you recognise its falsity and its omissions; and thus you fail to be interpellated into the white male Hollywood gaze, so your viewing of the film is stunted throughout. Yet the erasure of our stories can be fascinating - it feels like an act of uncovering, and correcting, historical wrongs.

We are naturally critical viewers because to not be would do a great disservice to our own image. (We know we’re not mammies and sissies.) To recognise and explore these images retroactively though, is a distinctly queer endeavour. The most vital and comprehensive example of this activity is Vito Russo’s beloved The Celluloid Closet, published in 1981 and translated beautifully for screen by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman in 1995.
 
In another scene, Cheryl goes to visit a gay uncle. We know he’s gay as she mentions his being distanced from the family as the scene changes, and from his Lena Horne impression. He, like Cheryl, is an archivist through sheer interest in the image plus the lack of resources already existing. Cheryl’s mother, already interviewed, is also considered a collector.
 

What’s so groundbreaking about this film - other than, in 1996, it being the first feature film by a black woman - is the engagement with the historical lack of representation. Dunye recognises, as she shares to camera, that ‘it has to be about black women, because our stories have never been told’. At a packed out screening of black lesbian stud-femme documentary The Same Difference earlier in the festival it occurred to me how early we still are in terms of black lesbian cinema, and how startling this is, as well as how formative Dunye’s film has been and the gravity it will always occupy in the black lesbian cinematic imagination.

If you’ve never seen The Watermelon Woman but have an interest in queer cinema, in queer representation, in black-female representation, in any of it, Sunday’s screening at the Barbican is a MUST. If you’ve seen the film many times before, this new restoration is like watching Cheryl and Guinevere in HD, and it looks incredible. The film’s fresh colour schemes pop like nothing on earth (I hadn’t realised there was so much pink!), and the beauty of the old cinema footage is more immediate than previously. The lead actors’ faces simmer on screen as they flirt, and the comedic responses of side characters are brilliantly full of life.

Sunday’s screening of the film’s 20th anniversary restoration will be a moment to consider and celebrate the strides made in black and queer cinematic representation, as well as the lack of an improvement on this black lesbian film in the 20 years since.

This is a moment absolutely not to be missed - make it to the Barbican this Sunday at 4pm for a celebration of the formative moment of black lesbian cinema.

A Rebirth of Femininity

Posted on Fri 11 Nov by AlexK / Lesbian, gender, Family, Artists Moving Image

 

by Serden Salih

This years Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest brings you a programme of experimental shorts discussing gender, sexuality and familial anxiety. The first part of the programme goes on a harrowing and revelatory trip around femininity and family politics.  

In Deborah Kelly’s Lying Women (2016), a montage of reclining nude females cut out of magazines are brought together into a collective mass. The 15th century Renaissance saw an artistic innovation in the way the female was presented in Western European art. The Sleeping Venus (c. 1510) by Giorgione is believed to be the first painting to depict the female as the principal figure and only subject of the painting. Often facing the viewer, the nude female is poised in an elegant position across a couch and the body is brought to the forefront of the viewer’s gaze. Lying Women presents an escape from heteropatriarchy and the confines of the medium itself. Cut-outs swarm in waves and join in a celebratory orgy of their newly found freedom.  

The remediation of the female body has shifted over time; it can be said that femininity has largely been, a male construct. The female continues to be constructed and deconstructed within a particular cultural framework. Social theorist, Simone de Beauvoir described this construct as “eternal feminine”, a psychological archetype that idealizes an immutable concept of “woman” and is one component of gender essentialism. She states that,

“The “feminine world” is sometimes contrasted with the masculine universe, but it must be reiterated that women have never formed an autonomous and closed society; they are integrated into the group governed by males, where they occupy a subordinate position; they are united by a mechanical solidarity” (Beauvoir, pg. 724).  

We see something similar in Stan Vanderbeek’s 1959 short film ‘A La Mode’ (not part of the programme). The film is a satirical montage of collaged women (taken from glamour magazine cut outs) commenting on the ways in which female beauty was idolized in pop culture during this period and a foretelling of contemporary mass media. The female is locked in position as male cut-out figures move across her body in playful action. Penetrated on all fronts, her movements become restricted, the choice of escape is not possible.  

These six experimental shorts question the position of femininity in a sociocultural context; the female directors are re-representing female identity through the use of collage and digital mechanisms in a way that is challenging the notion of fixed femininity. Kelly states that the females in her short are an “escape from centuries of servitude to a worldview in which decorative passivity is their whole purpose”. Each film illustrates a kind of escapist approach from “the other”, displaying a physical rebirthing of femininity.  

In the Iranian film, Painkiller (2016) directed by Mashid Mahboubifar, we see a female paint her face with the blood from a used tampon. She then applies a coat of red varnish onto her nails, pushing away at an angle, the nails remain unstained. In this moment, “the feminine” collapses and we are faced with a manifestation of female angst. During this process, the poem Reborn by Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad is being recited, 

“There is an alleyway where the boys that adored me with their tousled hair and slender necks, and skinny legs, still think of a young girl’s innocent smile. That smile which the wind one night, bore away.”  

This verse speaks of a moment in which the female is made equal to her counterpart through the admiration of her innocence and the transgressive shift away from woman as the “object of desire”. However, reality sinks in and her smile, the last ounce of feminine is taken away one night. Farrokhzad also writes, “Life is perhaps that enclosed moment when my gaze destroys itself in the pupil of your eyes”. She describes the female gaze here as merely a reversal of what the male gaze is seeing and as a result, her gaze is subject to being destroyed in comparison. John Berger describes this as,  

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight” (Berger, pg.47).   

Farrokhzad’s Another Birth series of poems speaks of a rebirth of the Iranian woman, herself being reborn as a new poet and female voice against the harsh criticisms of the position of women in Iranian society. In Painkiller we get a social commentary on the shame and pain put on women living in Iran. The rawness of the performance and application of the colour red is exhibited in full assertion of her own selfhood.  

When I’m a Woman (2016) directed by Andreea Sticlea, uses archival footage (early cinema) and animation to explore the psychological and social aspects of being transgender in today’s society. The first shot opens with a black and white clip of a female applying makeup in a mirror. There is a quick cut to a shot of glamour magazines on how to apply makeup and we then switch back to the female. In the next shot, an animated mask of a clown is layered over the female’s face, obscuring her “femininity” through a masquerade. The voice of a transgender individual speaks during this process: “When I’m a woman, I get changed and I get ready, and I make myself look like a woman, and then I look in the mirror and I see now what I want…there is a sense of dysphoria”. The voiceover in conjunction with the image illustrates a visual representation of how a transgendered person is positioned against societal expectations. The individual looks in the mirror for affirmation of “the other” yet is being questioned through the transgender gaze, the cisgender gaze and the male gaze, all permitting fixed codes of what it means to be “female”. Mary Ann Doane explains that,  

“With the specifically feminine masquerade, the “victim” takes on with a vengeance all of the myriad surfaces of femininity, which the gaze wants to corral into “woman.” She reiterates femininity with a twist, opening the formerly sutured gap between its conventional codes and the bodies those codes are designed to fix as “female” (Doane, pg.38).  

Women can wear superficial attributes of femininity as a mask, as a disguise to be taken-on or rejected. The feminine masquerade can also be seen in Petra Brnardic’s Fever (2015), a digital collage of psychedelic images of nude females and glamour stars transforming in a symmetrical collision of overtness. The female psyche is put on display as overlays of reds break away from the delicacy of the nude female. Her body is being masked by images of death, as skulls morph their features and serpents protrude from their genitalia. It is “the collision of eros and thanatos” as Brnardic states. Various female archetypes are present throughout, the sex symbol, the glamour star, the performer and so on.  

Past traditions of femininity are being destroyed by that of macabre imagery and the females begin to blur into one, fading in an out as if existing for a moment in time and then vanishing the next. Brnardic states that “It is a visual stream of consciousness which depicts dreams, visions and fantasies of a female person”. Fever is similar to that of Kelly’s work, we get a montage of women joining in a ritualistic mass, breaking away from their former femininity and entering a new world.  

What these shorts display is a brave approach at re-defining contemporary social structures of femininity and dismantling the attributes of gender essentialism. Giving voice to females that have been subjected to the confines of the gaze and trapped in an endless remediation of female angst. We are taken on a historical and digital journey through time to witness a new rebirthing of femininity.  

You can catch the full programme for free, including the shorts Spermwhore by Anna Linder and Technicolour Angst by Ketchup Freeland at Hackney Showroom on November 19th at 3:00pm. 

 

Reference: 

Beauvoir, de Simone, The Second Sex (Vintage Classics, 1997). 
Berger, John, Ways of Seeing (Penguin Classics, 2008).
Doane, Ann, Mary, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 1991).
Vanderbeek, Stan, A La Mode, (Video, 6 mins, USA, 1959). 

Raiders of the Lost Archive - Histories Real and Imagined at Fringe! 2016

Posted on Mon 07 Nov by AlexK / Lesbian, QTIPOC, History, Film

By Anna Wates

@anthnarra

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

We Are Family

Posted on Wed 02 Nov by AlexK / transgender, Brazil, QTIPOC, Trans, Film, Event, Gay, Lesbian, Family, Academy Awards, Documentary

Whether it is the struggles and triumphs with our biological families or those that we chose and make ourselves, the family has emerged as a dominant theme in this year’s programme. Opening film Viva - Ireland’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar (in Spanish!) - brings us into the life of a young Cuban hairdresser, initiated into Havana’s drag scene while trying to reinvigorate a relationship with his estranged father. Chosen families also shine through in stories of a Hijra family in India, vogueing houses in the US, and an inseparable band of Brazilian misfit punk queers. We invite you to join us for a Queer Family Sunday Brunch and short film programme all about the ties that bind.

Opening Film: Viva - Tuesday 15 November, Rio Cinema
Dir Paddy Breathnach / Ireland 2015 / 100min

Jesus, a young hairdresser, works at a Havana drag cabaret club to make ends meet. He dreams of one day becoming a perfomer himself. Encouraged by his mentor, Mama, Jesus finally gets his chance to take the stage. But when his estranged father Angel abruptly reenters his life, his world is quickly turned upside down. As father and son clash over their opposing expectations of each other, VIVA develops into a love story as they struggle to understand one another and reconcile as a family. 

VIVA is a moving drama that packs an emotional punch with its portrayal of families, from those we adopt to those we are born into while illustrating the every day struggles of ordinary Cubans and the transformative power of drag.

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A Little Lust - Wednesday 16 November - Genesis Cinema
Dir. Veronica Pivetti / Italy / 2015 / 104min 

16 year old Rocco's two aims in life are to get laid and to see his favourite pop star in concert with his best friends, sassy and tomboyish Maria and nerdy and quiet Mauri. When a  bullying incident at school forces Rocco to come out to his divorced middle-class parents their liberal leanings are severely tested. Luckily his two friends stand by him and join him in running away from home (in his parents stolen car) to see their favourite singer in concert, followed hot on their heels by his neurotic mother and eccentric gran to hilarious effect.

Presented in partnership with CinemaItaliaUK

Check It - Thursday 17 November - The Institute of Light
Dir-Prod Dana Flor & Toby Oppenheimer / USA 2016 / 91min

In this spirited and raw documentary, Washington D.C street gang Check It (claimed as the only documented queer gang in the world) are thrown onto the world stage as they struggle to survive and claw their way out of gang life through an unlikely avenue: fashion.

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The Nest - Friday 18 November - Hackney Showroom
Dir Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon / Brazil 2016 / 115min

Handsome young soldier Bruno deserts from the Brazilian army to go on a search for his long-lost brother in Porto Alegre. While his brother remains elusive Bruno quickly falls in with a gang of genderqueer bohemians and befriends Stella, one of his brother’s acquaintances. Through these unconventional new friendships Bruno begins to discover himself and explore his sexuality.

Guru: A Hijra Story - Saturday 19 November - Hackney Showroom
Dir Laurie Colson & Axelle Le Dauphin / Belgium/India 2016 / 75min

This moving portrait gives an insightful glance into the daily life of a family of transgender women in India - the hijras, more commonly referred to as ‘the third gender’. The film paints a fascinating portrait of their history, mythology, rituals and place in contemporary indian society, where they are revered in the country’s religious history yet ostracised by society and commonly rejected by their families.

Presented in partnership with Open City Documentary Festival

A Womb of their Own - Saturday 19 November - Hackney Showroom
Dir Cyn Lubow / USA 2016 / 85min

What can a diverse group of masculine-identified, pregnant people teach the world about gender? This touching and optimistic documentary follows queer transmasculine people experiencing pregnancy in the space between gender binaries, with identities in flux. This speaks to the experience of many genderqueer and trans people whose lives are omitted from the societally proposed binary. Fundamental, resistant and evocative, A Womb of Their Own explores the obstacles to self definition that are transcribed both within the body and onto the family by the state.

You’ll Never Be Alone - Sunday 20 November - Rio Cinema
Dir Alex Anwandter / Chile 2016 / 82min

Dance student Pablo lives with his father Juan, a manager at a mannequin factory, in their drab, homophobic suburb of Santiago. He has a secret affair with a member of the neighbourhood's street gang and dreams of starring in his favourite reality TV show with his best friend Mari, while his father struggles to become partner in the company he worked at for the last 25 years. One night, Juan and Pablo's lives change forever, and for the first time, Juan faces the harsh reality his son experiences on a daily basis.

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Shorts: A Queer Family Portrait + Family Brunch - Sunday 20 November - The Institute of Light

Joyful, emotional, hilarious and provocative, these films explore the bonds we share with the ones we love. Come join Fringe! for a big queer family brunch from 13:00 at Helio’s Cantina at The Institute of Light (a la carte), have your own queer family portrait taken, and stay for a cracking programme of short films redefining ways of thinking about family.

Brunch reservations recommended, screening tickets free but separate.
 
 

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