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Cheryl Dunye: Return of the Watermelon Woman

Dunye slices and serves.
Kevin Scanlon

It’s fitting that Cheryl Dunye is discussing her new burst of creative energy between sips of iced tea at Mornings Nights. The low-key but bustling Silver Lake café nearly burned down a few years ago, then sat boarded up for a long time before its owner recently reopened it to a still-loyal clientele. Dunye herself burnt out on filmmaking after she cashed in her string of groundbreaking, experimental shorts (anthologized in the recent DVD release The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye) and two controversial but acclaimed features for the chance to direct My Baby’s Daddy (2004), an ill-conceived, poorly received foray into the Hollywood machine. The whole experience of making Daddy was so disillusioning for Dunye that it played a part in her decision to move to Europe for several years, where the Liberian-born director raised her daughter and reconnected with her own muse, before returning to the U.S., newly inspired.

Now Dunye, who teaches film at San Francisco’s California College of the Arts and at UCLA, is working on several fledgling film projects simultaneously — and she makes it clear that she’s steering wide of the Hollywood types who convinced her to abandon her own gifts and instincts five years ago. She’s also focused on a May 11 fundraiser and screening for the restoration of her debut feature, The Watermelon Woman (1996), and used the occasion to reflect on her career.

L.A. WEEKLY:Can you briefly describe the tenor of the early ’90s, when so many queer filmmakers of color were pushing the envelope in terms of form and content?

CHERYL DUNYE: You know, I was doing this lecture at UCLA for the Queer Studies Conference last October and the Queer Studies Program gave me a plenary to present whatever I wanted from the Legacy Collection that Outfest started at UCLA for film preservation. [The Legacy Collection] is massive, almost overwhelming, so the one thing I could do was to look for myself, look for how I started, and that led me all the way back to [Shirley Clarke’s] Portrait of Jason. I started to remember how [as a film student] I was searching for myself in work, and how I was learning about form and putting myself in the picture and all that, and I ran into Jason in some doc film class at Temple [University]. Watching it again in October, the same feelings happened — painful anger, weird pride. I did a little bit more research on Jason Holliday and that led me to look at what we were doing in the ’90s as this seminal moment. From Jason until the ’90s, there was only Michelle Parkerson, Isaac Julien and Marlon Riggs, and then came this explosion in the ’90s. I think what we all got to do in our own way was look at our own Jasons, our own media, from television commercials to what we were starting to see as young queers of color at film festivals, to what we were reading — Kobena Mercer, Audre Lorde, etc., and put that into action.

It’s disappointing how that experimentation gave way to conservative filmmaking from queers of color (e.g., Noah’s Arc). Now the overwhelming bulk of it is boilerplate in terms of form, materialistic and formulaic in content.

Part of the problem is that Clinton and the Bush administration both wiped out public funding for the arts, the NEA’s funding of independent art, so we don’t see that [kind of] work much anymore.

Any younger filmmakers that inspire you?

There’s Kortney Ryan Ziegler’s work, which content-wise is very strong, so kudos to her. There’s a short called The Young & Evil by Julian Breece, I don’t know if you’ve seen it.

Yes, it’s fantastic.

Woo! When I saw that at Fusion [Film Festival, last year] nobody in the audience knew what to do when it was over. Nobody went up to him. They didn’t know what to say. Aaliyah Williams, his producer, is doing the new project I’m working on, Watermelon Woman 2.

This is on the record?

Ummmmmm...yes, it’s on the record. We’re trying to figure out what this project should be, how to get up and running very quickly with the same kind of spirit [as the original].

Tell me about this fundraiser and how it came to be.

It’s sad to say that we have to do this to make The Watermelon Woman survive. The negative is sitting at DuArt [film lab in New York], where it’s been since the original theatrical run, and it’s scratched up like a cat got to it. They want $4,000 to release it to us, and neither my producer nor I have the money, so. . . . The fundraiser is at Phyllis Stein Art, downtown. The woman who runs the gallery was actually my props manager on Stranger Inside (2001). We’re bringing all the memorabilia out for auction. Once people found out about it, they dug through their own stuff to donate. There’ll be a little burlesque going on, a DJ and some emcees, plus some surprises. I’d questioned heart in this city a little bit, but I now have to look at the city a little differently. People really came through and wanted to help.

The Watermelon Woman screens Monday, May 11 at 8:30 p.m. at REDCAT, in Beta SP. A fundraiser will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Phyllis Stein Art, 207 W. 5th St., L.A.

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