Queer cinema has been a foundation of film since the beginning. The genre offers a poignant vision that challenges normality, bringing to the screen a life that is bigger than what we have imagined for ourselves. There is mobility in queer cinema that highlights the spirit of independent filmmaking. From the DIY spirit of Derek Jarman in the 1980s to the pioneers of the New Queer Cinema movements of the '90s from directors like Gregg Araki and Gus Van Sant, queer cinema's power is undeniable as it shapes a new vision of Hollywood.

All of this was prevalent in Cheryl Dunye's directorial feature debut, The Watermelon Woman. Written, directed, and fronted by Dunye, this film follows a young Black lesbian working in a video store as she fights to get her own dream project made. Balancing a breezy romantic comedy with a serious inquiry into the history of Black and queer women in Hollywood, the film rewrites long-standing constructions of race and sexuality on-screen, introducing an important voice in American cinema.

The Watermelon Woman holds the distinction of being the first feature film ever made by an out-Black lesbian filmmaker, and the path to making the film wasn't easy. However, these obstacles seemed to excite Dunye, who seemed to make opportunities out of obstacles that challenges her creative process. Since releasing The Watermelon Woman, Dunye has released several more films and become a prolific TV director, helming episodes of series such as Dear White People, Queen Sugar, and the forthcoming Lovecraft Country.

The film, which now has a director-approved Blu-Ray special edition available on Criterion (which features six of Dunye's early short films, a conversation between Dunye and artist-filmmaker Martine Syms, and more), has taken on a new life for Dunye. In a recent Zoom call from her home in Oakland, CA, Dunye reflects on The Watermelon Woman's legacy, how to show up to be in part of your creative world, and how to get yourself and your work out there for people to see.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: Congratulations on this new edition of The Watermelon Woman coming out on Criterion. That's such a massive thing in this world, so congratulations. I'm really curious about what your take is on this film now, after revisiting it 27 years later.

Cheryl Dunye: My take on the film is quite, you know, it's, it's the water. I mean, she's 30 [years old] now, right? She's lived a big old life. She's a millennial. She's [part of] Gen Z. She's a part of me. So many things. I'm just amazed that it connects with people, that people are so wowed by it. I know that I was trying to wow people. Nobody else is doing the work to make a narrative film for lesbians, black lesbians, at the center of it, and not doing a coming out story, which is also important.

I guess I had to do it because it wasn't there, you know, that type of thing. That it still has vitality, and people are just finding themselves in it. Not just recent audiences here in the States, but audiences in Bangladesh. I mean, I get screening calls for places all over the world. So the global impact of it, I'm just blown away by,

NFS: I'm curious about what motivates you to tell a mockumentary or like in your style of Duynementary.

Dunye: I play with form in narrative because I went to art school and I have an MFA in fine arts, and I was a video artist. I was playing with languages, storytelling. Martha Ross was one of my professors, and I come from an art background. So I was informed about how to make messages, how to make meaning, synapse words, structure, form the dark, Barbara Hammer, and all these kinds of crazy people. I was looking at their work, and being like, “Ooh, ah, they're showing their bodies, they're telling stories, they're moving the frame. Optical printing.” You can use all that and still make a piece of work.

That's where the form and the wanting to play with stuff came from. The wanting to be a narrative within the context of this sort of independent world that was happening was being in New York at the time when all my short work was leading up to me living in New York, me being an art curator. I did this show called Bad Girls at the New Museum and created a video showcasing my work that has been featured in a couple of biennials.

I was around the Sadie Bennings, the Christine Vachon, the John James Schamus Killer Films, the Good Machine, all that was bubbling around me when I was there. Sundance was just starting. I had shown one of my shorts at the USA Film Festival before it was even Sundance. So I knew that people were starting to pick at putting their own label on and making longer form work that was a narrative or played with narrative. 

For me it was like, in my group of people that I knew in New York who were around me or buzzing around was Todd Haynes, I heard of Gregg Araki, Go Fish. So at the same time, I knew those people outside of the film world. I knew more about them in the lesbian world. Tom Caitlin, one of my favorites with Swoon, who really played with form. These are my colleagues, you know, my people I was acting up with and or some sort of meeting and then seeing them do their work. I knew that we could make something longer, something longer could be made, looking for work to look for my space in that there was nothing that was black and lesbian and narrative. I knew there was a doc by Michelle Parkerson on Audrey Lorde [A Litany For Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde], but I knew there was nothing in the narrative space.

A woman listening to a street preformer, 'The Watermelon Woman''The Watermelon Woman'Credit: First Run Features

NFS: You have that quote, too, in the film where it says, “Sometimes you have to create your own history.” That's what this film is about. I feel like your storytelling is, and what Criterion is. It's like preserving history and also creating the history that hasn't been told.

Dunye: Especially in distribution, too. You see what's happening today. So many people are just being thrown off streamers now, and they made work. They spent tons of money, and the world is shifting the dynamic of what is Hollywood and what’s not Hollywood. It is striking away right in front of us. I use the word strike, too. It's just changing. Being able to be generative, being able to make your own work, and being able to make your own Hollywood is quite important. I sort of just did that and I continue to do that.

NFS: Well, I'm curious about how you made your own Hollywood. I know that Greetings Grom Africa was a great launching point for The Watermelon Woman, but what is your perspective on how you created your own Hollywood?

Dunye: Right. I mean, you know, I keep right-sized. I think that's the one most important thing about being a director, writer, filmmaker, you know, multi-hat, multi-hyphenated type of person, is creating work that stays right-sized. You're not, of course, looking at that "grain of salt," inspiring stuff. Do your research. Citerion’s where research comes in for cinema. Knowing what has come before, knowing what is to come, combining or taking away from something, or that you keep your little checklist of stuff. Really dig into watching cinema, not just looking at Wiki or seeing little clips on YouTube.

Then form a plan of like, “How am I gonna do it?” Don't run to make a feature. That's why I keep saying, don't run to make a feature first, but make it short.

There are so many outlets for it. Those are the initial steps for doing and showing up where you think you need to be. If you wanna fight for reproductive freedom and the vote or whatever, show up in those rooms, those Zoom rooms at these virtual rooms, you don't have to be there physically at this point. There are so many ways for you to show up to be in part of your own world. You can easily show up for a free seminar or screening or Q&A with IndieWire or any magazine online, and get a sense of the language, the style, what people were doing, and whatnot. You already then just did what half of what film school's about, you know what I'm saying [laugh], you can do it yourself.

I think that's one thing about seeing, how to embody it. Hollywood is constantly changing, you have to kind of constantly check in and reembody it. For me, making work allows me to do that. I do kind of keep one thing at the forefront of [my films]. Again, kind of trying to play with the form or storytelling and trying to highlight people that look like me or from my world, queer brown people of color, people of other, and people who create their own agency and live in that world. I'll always be doing that, and that'll always make me feel like I am “Hollywood.” 

It's not Hollywood. It's feeling human. I am a human being who's productive in what I do, and I'm just trying to take that journey.

Two women in a video store, 'The Watermelon Woman''The Watermelon Woman'Credit: First Run Features

NFS: During one of your most recent interviews, you talked about the value of the physical media of seeing yourself in photographs and feeling real in that. Creating your own Hollywood is putting yourself out there and making sure that you are telling your story the way you wanna tell it.

Dunye: Right. Again, form is not a Google search. It is not this piece of metal that was, you know, harmfully extracted and made by who knows what. We don't even know the long-term effects of what this is gonna do to us, but we know that we are changing our brains. But at any rate, it's shutting this down for an hour, two hours, three hours of a day, putting down the device, whatever you need to do, and going to the library, getting a library card gets you a Kanopy card so you can see more movies. People don't know that, but that's one of my favorite streamers. It's not paying into the system, it's paying to the public somewhere. I mean, somebody's making money, of course, but people forget about books, but people don't forget about books.

Going to the library is like the best thing, the journey of leaving your house, going to the library and coming back, add in the public transportation or riding a bike, not just driving. You can go live on that for days. 

The realness of experiences, the realness of the world, of your journey in the world, is so important to take. Not just putting it in a file or storing in the cloud or, or whatnot. Your family has photos. You don't even know. They're just sitting there. I had those up and had to take them out. My God, there's such a story there. There's that human interaction that you wanted to have with an elder or a younger person in your world, and you've done therapy.

Right now, the biggest thing for me during the striking moment and whatnot beyond my own routines of health and fitness is to walk. I live in Oakland. There's this thing called Lake Merritt, and there are tons of places. The Bay Area is filled with hiking trails. But walking Lake Merritt to me … it's filled with diversity. You walk around these 3.3 miles. So I'm doing that as many times in a week as I can. I'm alive again in a different way. I can't even describe what it means. Figure out a way to walk, just walk. Walk for your health, and walk for your fitness health. It really is about, again, being in public and, and understanding what public means and hearing stories.

Watermelon_woman_2'The Watermelon Woman'Credit: First Run Features

NFS: The photos that you created, these fake truths within The Watermelon Woman. I was very curious if you could talk about creating these images that you are using as fake history that's based on something that is real.

Dunye: It's a twofold story, or maybe even more than that. We had our producing group, which is just like my girlfriend at the time, and a couple of volunteer students from Swarthmore, some people that she was teaching, and just friends. Zoe [Leonard], who's actually a professor at the Claremont Colleges, when she was a graduate student or undergrad, I think Eve [Oishi] had just graduated from Swarthmore was helping us out for the summer. She went to the Library of Congress because we found an archive that we could use that matched the timeline of a black woman or whatever. She went down, got the pictures, and looked at them. 

We had the sponsorship through Women Make Movies, but it cost money to license them to use, and we didn't have the money, so we were like, “Oops, can't do that.” Well, how are we gonna create? Let's make our own pictures. I know I have … my mom has never thrown a pair of shoes away since the forties. I mean, we had everything. Wouldn't it be great to just do that, and then we could sell the pictures? Yes. Let's get the pictures sold at an art show and find an art artist collaborator. So it just turned to that. It was one of those group initiatives. I saw my brain firing and just thought I couldn't serve my own purpose. 

We got the pictures. Zoe collaborated with me to gather all our friends up and, then restaged all this stuff in Philly as well as in New York, some New York Street, too. We were about to put those up at AIA Gallery in 1994. It must have been ‘95. As an artist, it was like a collective gallery for women. You could get a slot and have an opening for like a week or something. That was the day we were doing it. It was also the day someone comes running in, saying “We got a message on the answering machine. I think it was that uh, the NEA grant for $31,500 that we applied for. We got it.” 

We not only had a couple of people who bought some print there, I don't think anybody wanted anything. It was just fun to have a little cocktail party and show the pictures off and hang out with some lesbians. 

But it's almost like you have to do the work to get things that happened. So that was number one on a long journey to, you know, saying that the pictures are their own project.

NFS: I love it. Do you have any advice for filmmakers who are looking to make that leap from a short format to a narrative feature?

Dunye: Keep making it short. Keep putting it out there. There are tons of film places to show your work. Keep showing. Show outside of the United States of America. Please submit your work to international film festivals. Our narrative, our scope of things in this country is insular. I mean, people don't even know what we're talking about when we talk about certain streamers. When I leave the bay, people don't know about some apps I'm talking about from up here. So don't forget that the world is not what we think about. To share your voice as a young dancer or whomever, whatever you're doing in the world, making a short film is your ticket to the next level.

Again, look for opportunities outside of the US as well as the ones inside. Screen at those festivals. Go to those festivals, and create a docket of where you’ve screened at. Then, you're off to have your own mobility and community and connect with those people to spark the next level. Show up where you need to be. There's a film festival every day of the week. Affiliate yourself with them, see the work, and then figure out where you wanna be involved in the process of filmmaking. 

Everybody's not a director. Everybody's not a writer. Everybody's not an actor. There are people who are great at locations. There are people who are great at design. There are entertainment lawyers. You know what that means right now for some people who are in trouble. Agents, man, there are not enough agents that look like us or look like me. There are so many places that fit in the world of literature, intellectual property, and representing somebody's writing. There are so many ways to show up in that industry that we call Hollywood or, or media or entertainment. It's hella important to show up.

Watermelon_woman_3'The Watermelon Woman'Credit: First Run Features

NFS: Do you have anything else that you wanna mention, um, before, before we end our conversation? Is anything exciting that is coming up for you?

Dunye: You know, I'm working on a project with Killer Films, developing a novel by Audrey Lorde for Orion right now. It's a big journey. It's a big one. That's my next project.

Nobody's told her story. She is what people look at me as in film. She was like the first black lesbian, mother, poet, warrior, and intersectional person who, when I read her work, I was able to do my work. For me to take it to the next level and tell her story, her Genesis story, it's gonna be quite exciting.