Cheryl Dunye, the first lesbian woman of color to be a feature film director, is visiting Bloomington this week for a series of IU Cinema events celebrating her work.
The events began Sunday evening with a screening of Dunye’s early short films. On Monday night, the Cinema screened her debut feature, “The Watermelon Woman” (1996) and her 2014 short film, “Black is Blue.” On Tuesday afternoon, Dunye gave a lecture as a part of the Cinema’s ongoing Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker program.
Janae Cummings, Chair of Bloomington PRIDE's Board of Directors, said the idea to bring Dunye to the IU Cinema has been floating around since IU graduate student Brian Graney suggested it during planning for Bloomington PRIDE’s upcoming PRIDE Film Festival began last summer.
"Everyone loved the suggestion," Cummings said.
She said the festival's organizers wanted to include classic queer films in events to supplement the film festival.
When screenings of "The Watermelon Woman" were suggested, Dunye's work was already on IU Cinema’s Associate Director Brittany Friesner's radar.
Friesner said she came across the film while working on a programming idea for a feminist film series.
After Graney proposed the film as IU Cinema’s partnership film for PRIDE Film Festival, Friesner said she began to delve deeper into Dunye’s filmography and realized she would be an excellent future guest for the cinema.
“At that point, it really felt like the universe was aligning to encourage us to invite Cheryl to IU Cinema,” Friesner said in an email. “So, I sent her an email introducing myself and IU Cinema, and we are so grateful she accepted our invitation.”
Cummings added that she is very excited for people to have the opportunity to celebrate Dunye’s work and attend a lecture by the filmmaker herself.
Cummings said Dunye is a legend in black LGBTQ+ cinema and has paved the way for other films, including Dee Rees' "Pariah."
“I'm so excited for people to learn more about her experiences and hear her much-needed perspectives on the future of inclusive queer cinema," she said.
“The Watermelon Woman” won the Teddy Award for best feature film at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Audience Award for Outstanding Narrative Feature at L.A. Outfest after its release in 1996.
Dunye said she made the film to combat a lack of representation on the screen of lesbian women of color.
In preparation for Cheryl’s visit to IU Cinema, Friesner said she watched a number of her films and was enamored by the humor in Dunye’s work.
“Even though, at times, she’s dealing with incredibly serious subjects, her playfulness, sense of humor and candor shine throughout the stories she portrays,” Friesner said. “This makes her characters feel infinitely relatable and, frankly, it makes her movies really fun to watch.”
Friesner also said that she admires Dunye’s early works for their purist do-it-yourself aesthetic.
“Many of the visiting filmmakers we host have the same piece of advice for students: just go make movies,” she said. “I especially hope aspiring student filmmakers will come be inspired by what Cheryl has to say about her journey and her process.”
Friesner said the message about women, society and representation that Dunye's work carries is still relevant today.
“Cheryl was a groundbreaker in the 1990s as part of the Queer New Wave, and her work, while it feels very much of its time, launched a dialogue that we have still barely broken the surface of today,” Friesner said. “Her stories are as relevant as ever.”
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