Hope Shines on a Silver Screen for Chinese LGBTs

In foreign embassies, basements, and even buses, the Beijing Queer Film Festival has screened for years in defiance of Chinese law. Could its success mark a turning point for LGBT equality in China?

BY Daniel Reynolds

October 29 2013 5:00 AM ET

A PFLAG-China mother and her child in Popo Fan's documentary Mama Rainbow

In 2006, Ang Lee made history as the first person of Asian descent to win an Oscar for Best Director. The world watched as Lee, a Taiwanese-American, dedicated his critically acclaimed film Brokeback Mountain to its two protagonists, Jack and Ennis.

“They taught all of us who made Brokeback Mountain so much about not just all gay men and women whose love is denied by society, but just as important, the greatness of love itself,” Lee said. “Thank you.”

The people of China — the nation from which Lee's homeland broke away — watched him accept one of the highest honors in the film industry. But they did not hear these words, because his speech was censored in advance by the Chinese government.

In China, positive media depictions of LGBT characters are against the law, which means that a film like Brokeback Mountain — telling the story of a clandestine romance between two men in the American West — would never be able to screen legally in the world’s most populous country. The government has a complex security apparatus that is designed to censor any content that could be considered subversive, a term that applies to LGBT people, their leaders, and their movement for equality.

This censorship presents a serious obstacle for LGBT people in China and those hoping to reach them. How does one effect change in an environment like China's, which is designed to suppress dissent, where pride parades are illegal and newspapers are prohibited from reporting on LGBT issues? How can Jack and Ennis change the hearts and minds of the Chinese if their story remains untold?

For a new generation of activists who are savvy in social media and word-of-mouth rallying, the solution is to go underground. Defying ongoing censorship and other obstacles from police and government officials, activists are beginning to form a network reminiscent of the U.S. pre-Stonewall era that has succeeded in moving the needle toward acceptance within the past few years. Film and its postive depictions of LGBT characters may be at the heart of this movement. The story of queer film in China, the artists involved in it, and its success despite the odds reflects the country's ongoing struggle toward equality.

Popo Fan is the director of the Beijing Queer Film Festival. While it may not be the oldest of its kind, the festival, established in 2001, is the longest-running in China, says the fresh-faced filmmaker in a recent interview with The Advocate. At 27, Fan looks like he's barely out of school. He carries a backpack that is filled with DVDs, pamphlets, and pins related to his work with the festival. He has traveled to Los Angeles to attend Outfest, one of the most prominent LGBT film festivals in the United States, where one of his documentaries has been chosen to screen. Through an IndieGoGo campaign, Fan succeeded in raising the funds required to bring him to the United States for this trip. So how does he manage to run his own queer film festival in China?

“We have a plan A and a plan B and a plan C and a plan D,” Fan says.

Over 13 years the festival has evolved through six editions, screened in countless locations, and seen many organizers in order to survive. It has been subject to police raids, arrests, warnings, and government spies, with many attempts to permanently end this annual display of LGBT pride. Its venues have ranged from gay bars to foreign embassies to an ally’s basement, where a white sheet served as a screen.

The festival was originally conceived by students at Peking University, who christened it the Tongzhi Film Festival. In Chinese, “tongzhi” translates to “comrade” in the Communist sense, which is how the students gained approval from the university to host the event. However, “tongzhi” is also a slang word for people who identify as LGBT, which served as an insider advertisement for its intended audience. The festival went on largely as planned but was shut down during its last day, when school officials discovered the ruse.

For several years, the festival remained dormant, due to the students' fear of more serious repercussions. After a second attempt to stage the festival at Peking University failed, organizers moved the location to 798 Art Zone, an artistic community in the Chaoyang District of Beijing that is populated with former military factories — large hangars perfect for art galleries and, with the right equipment, movie screenings.

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