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Screening the Lost: Artistic Responses to Archival Absence in The Watermelon Woman and Nitrate Kisses

Nitrate Kisses (Barbara Hammer, 1992)

EssayPart of Issue #14: In Absentia

The archive is a man-made construction, and as such it reflects the socio-political context within which it has been established and maintained. What this means practically, is that when researchers seek out traces of marginalised histories in the archive, we (myself included) are constantly reckoning with human fallibility and bias. Work made by women, filmmakers of colour and LGBTQ+ filmmakers has historically been undervalued, and as a result this work is less likely to have been widely screened on first release, less likely to have been the subject of wide mainstream critical and academic attention, and less likely to have been selected for archival preservation.

Archives also have finite resources, so when work is chosen for preservation, that does not always mean that it will be properly stored, catalogued and made accessible. Even today, at a moment in time when there is a greater appreciation than ever of a diverse and representative film culture, marginalised filmmakers often seem to be caught in a cycle of remembering and forgetting. Female, black, and queer filmmakers drift in and out of the public consciousness, becoming fashionable for a period, before receding again into the background, never quite fully integrated into the canon of “great cinema”, nor widely screened outside of specialist circles. All too often then, when seeking information about and work by marginalised filmmakers, that search is characterised as much by absence as by presence: what we find only draws greater attention to what is missing.

How to address that absence? How do we reinsert marginalised filmmakers into the story of cinema, and present their surviving work to audiences, while also acknowledging the omissions that characterise these fragmented histories? These questions grapple with the impossibility of recapturing what has been lost, and in doing so they force us to turn to inventive creative solutions. For curators confronting these issues, inspiration can be found in the work of filmmakers who, in the course of making work about marginalised film histories, have found imaginative ways to bridge this gap and screen the un-screenable.

This is the case with two landmark queer films of the 1990s. Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996) and Barbara Hammer’s Nitrate Kisses (1992) both draw on reconstruction, archive fragments, and activist politics to blur fact and fiction and to propose alternative readings of film history. By addressing the past explicitly in their work, these filmmakers also inevitably reflect on their own presents, and in doing so create texts which have become, from the vantage point of today, archival artefacts in their own right.

The Watermelon Woman is not a documentary, but it looks like one. Cheryl Dunye’s boundary-blurring feature debut, adopts the tropes of factual filmmaking—intertitles, interviews, archival footage—to weave together real and imagined elements. The meta-textual stakes are established early when, in an opening scene, our protagonist turns the camera on herself. “I’m not a filmmaker… I’m working on being a filmmaker,” Cheryl (Dunye) tells us in the first of several video diary style interludes which punctuate the film. “The problem is I don’t know what I’m making a film on. I know it has to be about black women, because our stories have never been told.” Given that Cheryl shares a name with, and is played by Dunye, who edited, wrote, and directed the film, the knowing wink to the audience here is clear: by placing herself in front of the camera, as a fictionalised version of herself, the filmmaker is also able to outline to us her political intent. This is a film directly inspired by an absence, a piece of art constructed in order to bridge a gap, art as a tool of activist revisionism.

From this point onwards, an absorbing meta-narrative unfolds. The fictional Cheryl is a twenty-something video clerk/wannabe filmmaker who has become obsessed with uncovering the story of Fae Richards, an actress active in early Hollywood who is sometimes credited only as  “the watermelon woman”. The real Dunye was a twenty-something film student/wannabe filmmaker when she began researching black actresses in early Hollywood and became frustrated by a lack of archival materials available. The fictional Richards is a character that Dunye went on to create in response to that gap in the historical record. In collaboration with the artist Zoe Leonard, Dunye went on to stage a series of photographs and archive reconstructions using actors, charting the course of Richard’s career. In The Watermelon Woman Cheryl slowly uncovers this fictional archive and presents it to the audience as fact, documenting her journey of discovery along the way.

By explicitly addressing archival absence, The Watermelon Woman narrativises experiences familiar to any curator working in this area. As the viewer follows Cheryl’s journey, we are introduced to many barriers that real researchers face. There are no traces of “the watermelon woman” in the library, and it is only through a personal connection with a living witness—a family friend introduced to Cheryl by her mother (played, naturally, by Dunye’s real mother)—that she discovers Richards’ real name. On a visit to a volunteer-run feminist archive, Cheryl finally uncovers a stash of photographs, but the collection is chaotic, uncatalogued and segmented away in the “black section.” Attempts to collect oral histories are thwarted by death and illness, although in another meta-twist Cheryl records interviews with a number of film experts, including the real Camille Paglia playing herself.

The film builds to a closing section in which Cheryl outlines to us everything that she has found, presenting a series of “archive” images of Richards across her career. These images are shown to us alongside stills of real film stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Hattie McDaniel. By seamlessly incorporating her “fake” archive into this real black cinema history, Dunye suggests that sometimes the only way to acknowledge the extent of what is missing, is to fill that gap yourself. A final intertitle at the close of the film makes explicit this message: “Sometimes you have to make your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction.”

With the passage of time, The Watermelon Woman has become itself a piece of archive. Widely thought to be the first US feature film produced by a black lesbian director, Dunye’s film is now considered a landmark queer filmmaking, and in 2021 it was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry. The general lack of depictions of the black lesbian experience in films of this period (an erasure that persists across much queer media today), means that despite being a work of fiction, the film has clear value as a record of LGBTQ+ history. In a final twist, the Fae Richards Photo Archive, credited to Zoe Leonard, has now become an official archive object in its right—it is currently held as part of the collection at the Art Institute Chicago.

If Dunye bridges gaps in cinema history by inventing an archive, Barbara Hammer identifies a real lost queer film from early Hollywood, and places it front and centre of Nitrate Kisses, framing this genuine archival discovery with historical footage, photograph, oral testimony, and pornography. Instead of inventing an archive, Hammer presents us with fragments of what she has found, although she still uses film to fill the gap between what she can show and what is lost.

Nitrate Kisses is an experimental documentary that roams across time to tell stories that span across LGBTQ+ history. Hammer has described the film as being about ‘“who makes history” and “who is left out,”’ a subject she would continue to revisit in her subsequent Invisible Histories Trilogy. It is a film which attempts to generate an archive out of a history that was never preserved. One section focuses on the queer lives of artists, discussing how the dominance of accounts written by heterosexual biographers has led to the continued closeting of these figures after death. In the second half of the film there is a discussion with queer Holocaust survivors silenced by shame in homophobic post-war society. Throughout, Hammer is preoccupied with unspoken elements of queer history, peeling away the layer of silence that often shrouds these lives.

The most arresting section of Nitrate Kisses discusses the secret queer history of Hollywood. Fragments from Lot in Sodom (1933) by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, the first American film to feature explicitly gay content, are interweaved with first hand oral testimony which recounts the experience of LGBTQ+ workers in Hollywood at the time. Hammer interrupts the scenes from Sodom with intertitles quoting the Hays Code, the highly conservative code which enforced censorship in Hollywood from 1934 to the mid-1960s. One of the rules of the code was that images of “sexual perversion” were forbidden, meaning that any depictions of queerness in mainstream cinema of the period had to be heavily coded.

As Gwendoline Audrey Foster has highlighted, one of the reasons why Hammer’s film is seen as landmark, is because it was one of the first films to reference many key aspects of queer life – from the history of New York’s queer districts, to pulp novel culture, to the experience of racism and ageism in the LGBTQ+ community. A key reason why it took until the 1990s for these issues to be addressed in film was due to the lingering legacy of the Hollywood censorship code. Hammer takes on that legacy of silence and turns it upside down. In the absence of an official, well-preserved archive, Hammer pieces together jagged fragments wherever she can find them, flooding the viewer with brief glimpses of queer history that, when seen together, build to a three dimensional whole. Just as Cheryl in The Watermelon Woman holds a procession of publicity portraits of black film stars up to the camera, so Hammer often uses montages of stills—a parade of book covers from lesbian paperbacks for instance, or images of queer cabarets in 1930s Berlin—to serve as evidence of the queer lives lived. In between these images Hammer fills the blanks with audio recordings of oral histories from first hand witnesses who describe their experiences. Additional footage depicts the filmmaker herself exploring derelict buildings and empty spaces, gesturing towards the inevitable frustrations of searching for absence.

Nitrate Kisses also tackles lingering censorship through its use of pornography. Throughout the film Hammer undercuts the coded messages of queerness in the archival artefacts by cutting to sequences of four different queer couples having unstimulated sex. These images are consciously intersectional—they include an older lesbian couple, an S&M scene between two lesbians of colour, and an interracial gay couple—and gleefully explicit, disrupting the prudish language of censorship with images of erect penises and oral sex. The result is witty and energising, but it also serves to bridge a gap. The sexual lives of LGBTQ+ people are rarely present in historical records, yet sexuality is often a crucial aspect of the queer experience. As the writer So Mayer puts it:

Nitrate Kisses puts the kisses back onto nitrate… It is a film that queers the cinematic by contesting the objective status of the documentary, opening it up to the imaginary, the erotic, the complex and the diverse.So Mayer, A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing,  2020, 66.

Nitrate Kisses identifies an absence in cinema’s depictions of sexuality, the unspoken queer histories buried by censorship, and draws it to the surface. Hammer’s interest in making explicit unspoken queer histories finds its echo in Dunye’s film, when the fictional Cheryl discovers that Richards was herself a queer woman. This information is left out of official records, and is only revealed when Cheryl seeks out surviving eye witnesses, all themselves black lesbian women, who can testify first hand to the lived reality of Richards’ life. As Hammer demonstrates, sometimes the only record of queerness can be found outside of physical objects, in the testimony of first hand witnesses. Finally, at the film’s conclusion Cheryl finds the proof she has been looking for, home video footage of Richards with her female lover. Even with the knowledge that it is fabricated, this footage still carries a charge—the emotional spark of seeing a hidden history unfold.

It’s impossible not to view queer films of this period through the lens of the political context at the time. Both Nitrate Kisses and The Watermelon Woman were made in the US at the height of the AIDS epidemic, during a period in which political apathy was being met by a resurgent LGBTQ+ activist movement. Viewed through this lens, these films bring to mind a slogan that was widespread amongst AIDS activists of this period: Silence = Death. For Hammer and Dunye, addressing the archival silence surrounding queer film history was a form of urgent activism. These films attack that historical silence and the continuing erasure of diverse LGBTQ+ representation in the queer culture of the 1990s. Three decades on, these films now serve as archive artefacts in their own rights, enduring evidence of queer cinematic lives, that reveal as much about the culture in which they were created as the historical subject they seek to tackle.

For curators and researchers, The Watermelon Woman and Nitrate Kisses also propose a way to creatively tackle the gaps which we inevitably find when we seek out marginalised filmmakers in the archive. We cannot screen what is lost, but we can identify that absence, draw attention to it, and seek out creative ways to fill that space. As Dunye put it: “sometimes you have to make your own history.”