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 6:00 AM ET

Pictured: A film screening and panel discussion at Tsinghua University

The festival survived at 798 for two years, at which point Fan, who was first an audience member, volunteered to become an organizer. He made an impact immediately. After heightened police scrutiny, Fan helped to move the festival to a rural location nearly two hours from Beijing. Its remote venue helped protect the festival, since surveillance of LGBT organizations and events is highest in urban areas. But even in this secluded place, police discovered the location in 2011, which forced Fan to once again transplant the festival back to Beijing. Throughout the years, he’s learned how to “play the game of cat and mouse,” staying one step ahead of authorities while orchestrating an ever-changing and underground festival that is hosted in secret venues throughout the city. As actress Lucille Ball once said, “A moving target is hard to hit.”

This year the five-day festival screened 28 films from nine countries, including Fan’s documentary Mama Rainbow, which follows six mothers (“one for each color of the rainbow flag,” he says) as they forge relationships with their gay and lesbian children. The moving documentary, which illustrates a growing PFLAG-style movement across China, was shown in a bus as it rolled across the streets of Beijing.

"I travel a lot," Fan says, with a gleam in his eye. "I watched a film on a flight, and I had this idea, ‘Oh, well, we can’t rent a plane, but we can rent a bus.'"

In addition to being a moving picture show, the bus also served as a tour for initiates, stopping at different locations that have housed the festival throughout its more than decade-long history. The experience is an eye-opener for first-time audience members, who are accustomed to a lifetime of media censorship regarding LGBT issues. One of Fan’s many duties is fund-raising, and he uses part of these funds to host an annual lottery that will pay for the transportation and lodging for 25 lucky winners from more rural areas of China who will then be able to travel to Beijing and experience LGBT films — many for the first time.

And for many, the festival is more than just about film. Fan recalls meeting one former audience member who fell in love with her partner during the festival. Afterward, she was inspired to pursue a degree in gender studies at the University of Hong Kong, where she examines a cultural practice called “form” marriage, a common practice in China in which a gay man and a lesbian will marry one another in order to appease their families.

“This film festival is a home for us,” she told Fan.

Unlike traditional film festivals, the Beijing Queer Film Festival does not impose strict standards of entry or award accolades. It functions more as a refuge for LGBT people, their ideas, and their artistic expression. It is one arm of the growing pride movement in China, though its size is limited by its inability to advertise.

“We can’t do that much promotion,” says Fan, who estimates that audience size at screenings range from 30 to 115.

In addition to the bus, the Beijing Queer Film Festival also relies on collaborations with foreign embassies, including the French embassy, the Dutch embassy, and the Beijing American Center, which, being foreign soil, are safe from police intrusion.

According to Fan, police “just want to scare you,” preferring to close the venue and disperse the crowd rather than arrest the audience members. However, he recalls incidents in which officers would attempt to record the identifies of participants or even take photographs of their faces with a cell phone. They will use this information to keep tabs on LGBT people or even reveal their sexual orientation to family members. And arrests do occur. Fan remembers one filmmaker who was kept in a police station for several weeks. During this time, he spent his days lecturing to the officers on duty, providing them with lessons about LGBT issues.

Happily, this year's film festival concluded without incident. A press release, disseminated after the festival's closing June 23, announced that this is the first year that the police had not interfered with the proceedings. Thanks to word of mouth and established networks, nearly every screening was at full capacity.

To broaden the festival's reach, Fan also launched the China Queer Film Festival Tour in 2008 along with LGBT activist Bin Xu and actress Shi Tou, who starred in Fish and Elephant, one of the first mainstream Chinese films to feature lesbian characters. Throughout the year, Fan travels to different cities, helping to screen LGBT films at venues that range from private salons to an occasional university. He also stages Q&As and panels that are designed to help educate audience members, many of whom are straight, on LGBT issues.

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