Classic African American lesbian film returns
by Sari Staver
San Francisco is the next stop on an international tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of Cheryl Dunye's widely acclaimed film The Watermelon Woman, which has been restored and digitally remastered for the occasion. The film will be screened at the Castro Theatre on Sunday, May 1, at 2 p.m., during the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, followed by an onstage conversation with Dunye, a Bay Area filmmaker and assistant professor in the school of cinema at San Francisco State University, and Darius Bost, Ph.D, assistant professor of sexuality studies at SFSU.
"I am super-thrilled to be back at the Castro for the International festival," said Dunye in a telephone interview with the Bay Area Reporter. Since the film screened there on the opening night of Frameline in 1996, Dunye has gone on to make over 15 films, including Mommy Is Coming, The Owls, HBO's The Stranger Inside and Miramax's My Baby's Daddy. Last month, Dunye was awarded a 2016 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, an award given each year to artists, scholars and scientists on the basis of their past achievements and promise for future accomplishment.
"When I began filmmaking in the 1980s," said Dunye, "there was no body of work by queer African Americans, and I have dedicated myself to filling that void by turning the lens on how I live my life and struggle through it." As the 20th anniversary of her film approached, "I realized I had better give myself a birthday party."
Dunye approached Marc Smolowitz, a fulltime independent filmmaker and producer, about working together for the occasion. The two agreed to team up, Smolowitz heading up a fundraising effort for some of the restoration costs while Dunye organized a team of curators to put together other events. The two are also working together on a new feature film based on Dunye's short Black Is Blue, produced by Smolowitz.
The 2K high-definition digital restoration of The Watermelon Woman "is breathing a whole new life" into worldwide distribution of the film, said Smolowitz, who wouldn't discuss the cost of the project except to say that it was "more than the $30,000" it initially cost to make the film. The restoration was a project of the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project.
Smolowitz said an independent film seen decades after release often disappoints the audience because it has deteriorated. "We could not have had the 20th anniversary release without the cooperation of so many people who stepped forward to contribute" to support the restoration. "It was a first-class Hollywood job."
The current tour began in Berlin in February at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Teddy Award for Best Feature in 1996 before going on to become the first African American lesbian feature to be theatrically released in the U.S. The film then screened at the opening night of Outfest Fusion in Los Angeles.
After its stop in San Francisco, the film has six confirmed film festival screenings, with more expected this fall, said Smolowitz. The film is also touring college campuses and is available for community screenings. This fall, it will go into commercial release and be available on demand and on a 20th anniversary DVD "with fun extras," according to Smolowitz.
Rod Armstrong, now in his 11th year as a programmer with the SFIFF, thought it was a "great idea" to schedule the film as soon as he learned of the availability of the restored film. "It's a seminal movie in a number of respects." Armstrong, a gay man who remembers seeing it at Frameline in 1996, said the film was "part of the new queer cinema movement." But over the years, he said, "there are fewer filmmakers working in that genre, and fewer films from a queer viewpoint and angle." While the film was heralded as the "first by an out black lesbian, there is still a dearth of films by women, out lesbians, and African Americans."
In recent years, there have been queer films about groups such as long-term survivors of the HIV epidemic and transgender people, but despite the many conversations about diversity, there are not as many American-made queer narrative films as you might expect, Armstrong said.
Darius Bost, Ph.D., who will appear with Dunye onstage after the Castro screening, has shown the film to students in classes for the past six years. "It's as relevant today" as ever, he said in an interview. Bost, who is working on a project about the histories of black gay men in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, says it is still "very, very necessary" to create work about people who have been marginalized. Although the field of black queer studies is burgeoning in academia, "African American men and women are both still very marginalized in the academy," he said. This fall, Bost is organizing a two-day national symposium honoring the anniversary. "I'm a great fan and honored to be a part of this."
Dorothy Santos, a Bay Area writer, editor and curator, was "thrilled, honored and humbled" when Dunye asked her to be part of the team creating exhibits that will be part of the anniversary celebration. Santos, who is coordinating an exhibit that will be shown in San Francisco and Oakland this fall, said "as a queer Filipino woman of color, this film continues to inspire me to remember the importance of telling our stories." Santos, who has seen the film three times, said, "Each time, I get something new" from watching.
Local film buffs anxiously await the upcoming screening. Jennifer Junkyard Morris, who was director of programming at Frameline when the film screened in 1996, recalls the foot-stomping standing ovation it received that night. "I can't wait" to see it again, said Morris, now the director of programming at DocFest.
Tickets to The Watermelon Woman are available at the SFIFF website, sffs.org. For information about scheduling a community screening of the film, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. More information can be found on the Facebook page, The Watermelon Woman 20th Anniversary.