#85, make productive fake documentaries

April 11, 2017

In an article, “The Increasingly Unproductive Fake,” I wrote about The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996), I film that I produced and also acted in: “We took up fake documentary form in The Watermelon Woman to make many related claims about history: history is untrue, true history is irretrievable, and fake histories can be real. Dunye (both as director of The Watermelon Woman and as doppelganger character in the film, the African-American lesbian, “Cheryl,” who is making a documentary film) knows that before she came along, African-Americans, women, and lesbians did make films—in and out of Hollywood. She also knows that their presence, unrecorded and unstudied, passed quickly out of history becoming unavailable even as she craves ancestors to authorize and situate her voice. So, Dunye fakes the history of a formidable forerunner, Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards, so that she can tell a story that she, Cheryl, needs to know, one that is close to true, and yet also faked, and therefore at once beyond but also linked to reality and all that the real authorizes and disguises.”

“Marlon Fuentes reminds us that the gaps and ellipses of history are ‘just as important as the objects we have in our hands.’ The intangible is not inarticulate: it speaks in an unauthorized, untranslated tongue understood by some. In The Watermelon Woman, Fae speaks to Cheryl in a voice both expressive and inconclusive. And Cheryl can hear her. This is enough to empower Cheryl, at film’s end, to conclude, “I am a black lesbian filmmaker and I have a lot to say.” She learns a truth that she needs from the lie that she made which is Fa(k)e.”

Alexandra Juhasz and Lisa Marie Bronson, photo by Zoe Leonard from the “Fae Richards Archive”

 

“Dunye and Cheryl’s simultaneous avowal and disavowal of the real marks The Watermelon Woman as a productive fake. An (unstable) identity is created, a community (of skeptics) is built, and an (unresolved) political statement about black lesbian history and identity is articulated. The desire to say and hear something true through words and images that are fragmentary and even fake is the multiple project of the productive fake documentary.”

Some of the Fae Richards Archive, Zoe Leonard.

“In much more recent writing, I argue that the language of fake documentary has become the dominant vernacular of YouTube, and therefore, this once queer strategy has become toothless, or unqueer, or straight. Whatever. The ironic wedge, sometimes also known as camp, which long and well served the under-served of the modern and post-modern by allowing for a critique of the norm by using its very discourses of power against it, is now the discourse of power. But, to be productively queer was never simply to copy and mock, even marked with a funny or flouncy flourish or a some serious realness, it was always to do so with an actual change in mind. And all this is to say, in conclusion, something simple, sad, and maybe even hard to hear: that perhaps the self-conscious, self-aware, self-evident copy-with-a-twist is no longer queer at all, no longer productive, and all that is left is to be real.”

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