“What is history?”: Documentary as Liberation in The Watermelon Woman and Shirkers

Girls on Tops

“What is history? Who makes history, and who’s left out?” filmmaker Barbara Hammer asked in an interview with BOMB Magazine in 2018. In The Watermelon Woman and Shirkers, directors Cheryl Dunye and Sandi Tan endeavour to answer these same questions. They attempt to reclaim history – their own, or a shared cultural history – from a patriarchal thief through the act of documentary-making, whether that’s fictional or factual. The threat of white patriarchy is present at a systematic level in The Watermelon Woman, and at a personal level in Shirkers.

In The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl (played by Dunye) endeavours to uncover the identity and history of the titular character, a black actor who had roles in 1930s Hollywood movies but isn’t credited for her work. Meanwhile, in Shirkers, Sandi Tan seeks to reclaim lost footage from a film she and her friends made as teenagers, also named Shirkers. The film reels were stolen by their charismatic older mentor after production wrapped. For both of these women, film, and specifically documentary, is used as a medium to document their present while simultaneously reclaiming their past.

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