JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Fae and Martha.

Fae and June

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The grip of interracial desire in Cheryl's life.

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Cheryl, the filmmaker within the film, makes a film within the film about Fae Richards, the Watermelon Woman.

Fae played the leading lady in blackcast films.

Glamour shot of Fae during her blackcast film career.

Glamour shot of Fae in the days of her blackcast film career.

Glamour shot of Fae as a blackcast film star.

The principal cast in The Watermelon Woman. (From left to right: Cheryl Dunye, Guinevere Turner, Lisa Marie Bronson, and Valerie Walker).

Cheryl, the film's narrator and protagoinist, and ...

... Cheryl Dunye, the director, have a complex relation to each other, especially in creating a fictional version of a black woman filmmaker making a film about a black actress' contribution to film history and black lesbian history. "Sometimes you have to create your own history."

 

Cheryl’s search for the mysterious black actress-jazz singer ends in loss, in the knowledge of Fae’s death. Yet, Cheryl remains determined to complete her documentary film project, which, despite June’s protest, will include images documenting Fae’s relationship with a white female lover. With the camera rolling, Cheryl addresses June and explains the meaning Fae’s life holds for her own sense of self in relation to the past and the contemporary world:

“I [sic] she meant the world to you, but she also meant the world to me! And, those worlds are different. But what she means to me, a 25-year-old black woman means something else: it means hope; it means inspiration; it means possibility. It means history. And most important what I understand is it means that I am gonna be the one who says, ‘I am a black lesbian filmmaker,’ who’s just beginning, but I’m gonna say a lot more and have a lot more work to do.”

Knowing Fae’s life story motivates Cheryl to assert herself as a self-determining subject in a world where prohibitions against the desires of a young black lesbian are imposed not only by the dominant heterosexist and racist society but also by the black lesbian community, a “family” that, June insists, “will always only have each other.” During her adventure of looking for Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards, Cheryl has found a heroine from the past with whom she establishes a deep bond of identification. The parallels between her own life story and Fae’s life story have encouraged Cheryl to pursue her career goal and other desires, even when her acts of self-determination mean defying societal demands that she conform to communally sanctioned norms. Having stated her intentions and explained them to June, Cheryl suddenly addresses the film spectator: “Anyway – what you’ve all been waiting for – the biography of Fae Richards.” The film spectator could not ask for a more satisfying ending.

Yet, Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman refuses to satisfy the nostalgic desire for the true life story of a heroic role model from the past. Rather, her mock-documentary perpetrates a hoax on viewers who presuppose that the documentary form provides an unmediated and truthful record of past realities or that word and image always reference an external reality.

In Faking It, Roscoe and Hight observe that most mock-documentaries do not play a hoax on their audience, and therefore announce themselves as fake either in prerelease advertisements or at the beginning of screenings. In this way, they allow the film spectator in on the joke.[13][open notes in new window] In contrast, Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman does not expose itself as fake until the presentation of its final credits.

At the conclusion of Dunye’s mock-documentary, Cheryl, the narrator-protagonist, proudly screens the final product of her labor — a quite conventional, yet masterfully executed, short documentary film whose sepia-toned photographs and authoritative voice-over present Fae Richards’s biography. This satisfying resolution to the plot is not, however, sealed with the customary phrase “The End.” Rather, Dunye’s mock-documentary concludes by interspersing intercuts of its final credits throughout its climatic presentation of Cheryl’s documentary film. These credits acknowledge the actors who played fictive roles in Dunye’s mock-documentary[14] as well as the visual artists who fabricated its realistic archival photographs and film footage.[15]

Because many film spectators who attended a prerelease screening at the 1996 Berlin Film Festival continued to mistake her seductive mock-documentary for a nonfiction autobiographical narrative, even after they had viewed the film’s final credits, Dunye added a more explicit disclosure of the film’s fictional status: “Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is a fiction.”[16] But, if Dunye intended to foreclose completely the possibility of playing a joke on future audiences, she would have transferred this declaration and the credits to an opening sequence. Instead, she elected to acknowledge the audience’s active role in determining the film’s status as a hoax and in constructing its broader meaning by suspending explicit disclosure of its fictional status until the closing sequence.

That some viewers of Dunye’s mock-documentary become the butt of a joke while others apprehend its fictional nature, or at least remain skeptical of its authenticity, is as much the function of viewer expectation as filmmaker manipulation. Indeed, many filmgoers possess a high level of visual literacy and can actively appreciate a broad range of film genres, devices, and techniques. In this context, Dunye’s mock-documentary calls attention to the fluidity of film spectatorship by opening spaces for a variety of viewer-positions.

For film spectators who presuppose the veracity of documentary form, The Watermelon Woman becomes a prank at their expense. To be sure, Dunye’s mock-documentary opens the trapdoor for these viewers by skillfully appropriating three modes of representation associated with classic documentary film – the observational, expositional, and interactive modes.[17] The codes and conventions of these modes or styles focus viewer attention on Cheryl's goal of presenting a faithful record of past reality, her gathering factual evidence for the purpose of supporting her documentary’s argument, and her relationship to the subject matter of her project. Nonetheless, what sends the film spectator falling through the trapdoor is the mistaken belief that a film’s deployment of classic documentary film’s codes and conventions guarantees its authenticity.

Because Dunye’s mock-documentary deploys the verité style of docudrama, viewer expectations about the factual basis of docudrama can also account for why some film spectators mistook its fictional narrative for a true story. In docudrama’s verité style, scenes in the observational mode of documentary representation are edited into episodes that enable narrative progression and establish narrative coherence without jeopardizing the illusion that the events captured on film actually happened in the unscripted flow of everyday life.[18] This verité style thus can combine dramatic narrative structure with observational filming. By deploying the docudrama’s verité style, Dunye’s mock-documentary prompts the film spectator to view its progressively structured episodes as dramatic reenactments of actual events from the past. Occupying this viewer-position, the film spectator does not entertain the possibility that the events unfolding on screen are pure fiction and have no basis in past reality, except as completely fabricated pro-filmic events of a cleverly crafted mock-documentary.

Also at play here is viewer expectations about autobiographical storytelling or first-person recounting of the past events of one’s own life from the perspective of the present. In autobiographical storytelling, the protagonist is also the narrator, who retrospectively imposes a meaningful pattern on events that they could not have had at the time of their occurrence. Dunye’s film, like all autobiographical storytelling, admits that its coherence is the result of retrospection, that its emplotment of events is a discursive construction rather than an intrinsic property of reality. The film begins with a clearly demarcated retrospective scene which precedes the announcement of its title and the name of its maker:

The Watermelon Woman a film by Cheryl Dunye.”

Although the film’s device of autobiographical storytelling alerts the viewer to its constructed nature, that device does not preclude the film spectator from mistaking Dunye’s mock-documentary for a dramatic reenactment of actual events from her past. The film leaves that possibility open until its concluding segment, when its final credits reveal that Dunye does not portray “herself”; rather, she plays the role of “Cheryl.”

Dunye’s mock-documentary plays a particularly devastating hoax on the film spectator who conflates Dunye, writer-director of The Watermelon Women, with Cheryl, the film’s narrator-protagonist, presupposes that voice and image are reliable indexes to external reality, and further presumes that a film about the life of a black lesbian is necessarily true when written and directed by a black lesbian filmmaker. In this way, Dunye’s mock-documentary critiques fetishizing film viewing practices and underscores the role viewer reception plays in determining the voices heard and the visions seen as authentic representations of social as well as individual identity.

In Dunye’s mock-documentary, use of autobiographical storytelling, appropriation of the codes and conventions of classic documentary film, and deployment of docudrama’s verité style provide no guarantee that a true story is being told. Indeed, The Watermelon Woman concludes by disclosing that Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards, Cheryl, and the other characters have no real referent external to the film that has just unfolded on screen. They, along with the autobiographical narrative itself and the realistic archival photographs and film footage, are fabrications. Just as Cheryl, the narrator-protagonist, has been bereft of the real in discovering that the object of her documentary film project is dead, the film spectator is bereft of the real in learning that the film s/he has been following is a fiction, a mock-documentary artfully constructed to interrogate the black lesbian subject’s relationship to the past in a context where a useable past must sometimes be invented.

Finally, the film’s hoax of the lost ancestor is a playful yet lucid statement on the irrevocable loss that defines the past. With the campiness of a sophisticated drag performance, Dunye’s faux documentary film mocks the sobriety of classic documentary films about the past and their nostalgia for the lost ancestor. Yet, Dunye’s mock-documentary does not deny the meaningfulness of the past, nor does it overlook the epistemic violence perpetrated by the erasure of the black homosexual from the historical record. Rather, the film affirms self-determining acts of making a living and open history from a past whose meaning is forged by the mediating capacity of the creative imagination to traverse historical knowledge and desire.

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