Toni Adeyemi, a senior in media studies at the University of San Francisco, and Karina Hodoyán, an associate professor in the Spanish Studies program and director of the Master's in Migration Studies at the University of San Francisco, interview filmmaker Cheryl Dunye. The conversation took place across different media platforms and moments in time, and focuses on both Dunye's past work and her recent directorial transition into new platforms of filmmaking and storytelling, including directing episodic television. Dunye mentions the politicization of the breaking of the “fourth wall,” and the advent of social-media storytelling about identity, race, gender, and queer desire. She also discusses her current project Black Is Blue, a work in progress set in the future about a love affair between a trans couple in Oakland. The figures show a related Instagram project touching on Dunye's many influences as well as instances of fourth-wall breaking in contemporary television.
Since filmmaker Cheryl Dunye was interviewed for Alexandra Juhasz's feature-length documentary film Women of Vision: 18 Histories in Feminist Film and Video (1998), a lot has changed in terms of how stories are told in media, most notably involving technology. The following conversation involves Toni Adeyemi, a senior in media studies at the University of San Francisco, and Karina Hodoyán, an associate professor in the Spanish Studies program and director of the Master's in Migration Studies at the University of San Francisco, asking questions of filmmaker Cheryl Dunye. They focus on the legacy of Dunye's work and her recent transition into other forms of directing and new platforms for filmmaking and storytelling. During the discussion, Dunye cites the politicization of the “fourth wall” and the advent of social-media storytelling about identity, race, gender, and queer desire. She touches on her current project, Black Is Blue, a work in progress set in the future about a love affair between a trans couple in Oakland, as well as her transition into directing episodic television. Dunye speaks passionately about the art and craft of film as a medium, its liberatory capacities, and the current state of this digital revolution that has given anyone (well, almost anyone) the ability to be filmmakers, documentarians, and producers. What was once out of reach for the margins is now within reach. Revolutions can be created by anyone with a smartphone and a Facebook account. And if this is true, have we fully embraced social-media filmmaking outside of the center? The following conversation spanned months, across film screenings and different media platforms such as Instagram, Google Chat, Zoom, and emails. It illuminates some answers and raises as many more questions. The figures show a related Instagram project touching on Dunye's many influences as well as instances of fourth-wall breaking in contemporary television.
karina hodoyán: A lot has changed in the past decade in terms of how stories are told through media. Cheryl, during your original interview for Alexandra Juhasz's Women of Vision (1998), you were moving from independent video to feature film. Now you're working in feature film but also episodic TV. How have these transitions connected with the broader landscape of creation and production in the medium of storytelling and narrative media?
cheryl dunye: The key transition for me, and the world of storytelling, has been platform. The technology has shifted from analog to digital. This had an immense impact on budgets, which plummeted, creating a space for different forms, different makers, different stories. This was a plus, of course, but it's interesting to see who is still being listened to and allowed to tell their stories. I have my feet in both worlds. I think this transition is about standing where I've always stood—and then elsewhere. Ultimately it's not much of a transition for me, it's just that instead of being underemployed, now I am employed.
The new generation of young people seeing my film The Watermelon Woman (1996) have concepts of diversity and intersectionality woven into what they want to see. I stand there with them, with the film, and with the ability to speak languages that they want to hear. They say that still the stories aren't all told, but I think there's more interest and marketability in the world because they have youth and desire.
toni adeyemi: A significant point in your creative journey is the acknowledgment that films and media have changed with the advent of the video camera. If breaking the fourth wall is a type of reclamation of power in individual storytelling, what do you think social media does in regard to people being able to take control of their own storytelling?
cd: I think today's social media allows for a more democratic—maybe even a socialist—influence on storytelling. But despite this wave of digital production, I don't think we've yet started to see the storytelling, the writing, and the acting fully embrace what it's capable of. Networks and distributors are still all about how to make a buck and have high ratings. The stuff that the millions of Facebook, Twitter, and social media users like or comment on rarely makes it to any screen! I don't see many media majors truly racing to embrace people like Emma González and what she represents in their shows. But I do see younger people using this as a way to communicate.
kh: Your work references different forms and genres. How does genre specifically offer a different way of representing your concerns?
cd: People are still focused on dramatic storytelling about problems from the past. The present still points backward. Science fiction and fantasy, on the other hand, point forward but somehow are never filled with queers, people of color, or trans or gay folks. Isn't this odd? Future fictions are what we should focus on. Fill the future!
I consumed Octavia Butler long ago, and many other queer and of-color sci-fi writers such as Samuel Delany. Their “future fictions” give agency to us all, no matter your race, class, or gender. Maybe that's why the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises are so popular: they attempt to embrace a future filled with creatures. So I'm strategically conceptualizing how to put ourselves in the future instead of the past to see if that will guide us to different kinds of visibilities and possibilities. Right now I'm working on Black Is Blue, but I would love to adapt an Octavia Butler novel. And there's Nola Hopkins, who is much more queer, and of color too. But I want somebody who is not questioning the future, but making it. I think you can't go wrong with imagining a utopian queer future; you just have to show up.
ta: What are your biggest concerns in terms of representation at the moment? You say that you don't necessarily seek to change the world, so how does the political moment confirm your work nowadays?
cd: I was formerly looking at the work from the point of view of a more commercial and Western world. Now I'm aware of a world that is not just Western, that is not only North American. Having had many experiences, having traveled and seen many more lives and identities of people around the globe, has made me think about the different possibilities, the infinitum, that I need to strive toward. That's why Black Is Blue is written like it is-not limited to a causal connection but broadened out to a possible speculation of what the world could be. I'm still using commercial tools and mechanisms, but I'm using Black Hollywood, Black television, Black characters, Black film worlds, and Black narratives to push beyond current frames. I'm using the current table, and not jiggling it too much from what we already have ingrained in our world.
The grain hasn't changed. I think that people have sanded it down a bit, but I don't think I've gotten to the beautiful wood beneath it all yet, so I'm still helping sand us by rubbing across the grain with what I do. It's just that it's bigger, and it's not an immediate fix. I once thought I could create a future of women of vision. Now I don't want to necessarily have that same vision. I want to drop things and let other people use them, more so than for my own good. I think I have a very comfortable space now, you see, directing episodic television, and with some visibility, and I'm comfortable with that. I love being able to influence younger people to do things—you know, having kids who are doing it, or immediate family. I don't want to tell you what to do with it so much anymore. I still want to leave the door open, not necessarily to my own narratives but to new kinds of creative practice. I'm trying to leave a bigger stamp on creativity than what's inside the boundaries of narrative or the experiment.
kh: In relation to this, how important is framing of character to you when you're trying to capture the idiosyncrasies of a story? I'm thinking of series like Transparent (Prime Video, 2014–18) or I Love Dick (Amazon Video, 2017–18), with their breaking of the fourth wall to engage directly with the struggles of trans and queer identities.
cd: In those shows, characters are not having to question their identity so much, particularly their sexual identity. I think race is important, but class is the most important thing to question right now. The world is out of balance.