Queer ‘guerrilla’ activism in China: Reflections on the tenth-anniversary Beijing Queer Film Festival 2011Monday, October 10th, 2011
by Elisabeth L. Engebretsen
On June 19 this year, the fifth biennial Beijing Queer Film Festival (BJQFF) closed after five days of screening over thirty queer films from China and abroad, hosting talks and parties, and with people attending from all over China, as well as from overseas. Queer and straight volunteers ensured a smooth-running festival, and a funding initiative assisted youth from inland provinces to attend, watch queer films and socialize in a distinctively queer community, some for the first time in their lives. This is a considerable achievement when seen in context of the persistently difficult socio-political climate for minorities in the country. While it has often been assumed that queer life is invisible, silenced, and poorly organized in societies like the Chinese, where formal recognition and legal protection remain absent, a rather different and more nuanced perspective emerges when we look more carefully into specific events and their particular context, such as this film festival. In the BJQFF organizers’ press statement they suggest that it was perhaps despite and even because of, official bans and police surveillance that they succeeded in hosting the film festival and achieving their aims - celebrating the importance of showing queer films, and spreading knowledge of queer cultures in a society where non-mainstream voices are stifled all too often.
This upbeat and celebratory attitude alongside a flare for ad-hoc activist creativity - or guerrilla-style tactics - are key characteristics of queer social activism in mainland China. Guerrilla activism in general works to empower marginalized groups by creating a temporary platform for transmitting their voices and experiences, and works relatively independently of established channels and vehicles of communication and organization. These strategies are of particular relevance in China, where authorities regularly but quite unpredictably, censor and crack down on dissenting activities. Yang Yang, chairwoman of this year’s film festival, said:
While it is unfortunate that we had to be guerilla-warriors [sic] once again in order to hold this festival, we feel empowered and invigorated by the reactions of the audience and the filmmakers, and we’re ready to continue with our goal of spreading queer films and queer culture in Chinese society.
Of course, many would argue that these are fundamental ingredients of (queer) activism in many places in the world. In the following, therefore, I would like to reflect on certain qualities of queer social activism in mainland China, by discussing the Beijing Queer Film Festival event in some detail. This is not, I emphasize, an attempt to argue an absolute cultural or queer Chinese difference, and I recognize the conundrum of the universality/particularity bind involved. In short, this tense dynamic involves, on the one hand, that some might consider queer activism in China as part of a universal, and similar if not identical, process of rights activism towards equality for all; on the other hand, some emphasize the unique particularity of a given cultural location - such as ‘China’ - against the (implicitly western) global flows of rights, pride, and rainbow flags.
In a recent special issue of the journal Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique on transnationalism and queer Chinese politics, Petrus Liu discusses this dynamic vis-a-vis queer academic practices (Theory), and points out that Eurocentric queer theory typically sees China as a relevant concern “only as the producer of differences from Western queer theory” (Liu 2010: 297). The referent of Chinese specificity, he suggests, often works to establish China as existing in the past, lagging behind in queer developmental progress, or to place China as exceptional, and categorically outside of, and hence irrelevant to, queer theory. In other words, China is important only insofar as it is positioned as a categorical and negative opposite to a generic ‘west’ and to queer scholarly inquiry. In a globalizing world, it is clear that both positions are problematic, as Liu also argues; while queer life in China is undeniably shaped by local culture and history, there is no denial that foreign impulses inspire and help shape current formations of queer identity, politics, and community. The Beijing Queer Film Festival event, then, serves as a poignant example of this local-regional-global dynamic.
Ten years of queer “guerrilla” activism: A short history of the Beijing Queer Film Festival
During its ten-year-long existence, the Beijing Queer Film Festival has encountered its fair share of official trouble. Started in 2001 by a group of Beijing University students and tongzhi (‘queer’), the festival has been organized every other year or so by a changing group of volunteers. The first two festivals (in 2001 and 2005) were marked by official interruptions and bans, forcing the organizers to keep their festival underground and far away from official eyes. In 2005, for example, I was in Beijing conducting research on lala (‘lesbian’) communities there, and attended the festival with some of my local friends. The opening event was scheduled to take place in a central lecture hall at the prestigious Beijing University. Organizers had applied to authorities for permission to hold the event, but not citing the ‘homosexuality’ focus of it in order to increase the chances of getting permission. In the end, officials were tipped off, conducted a last-minute check-up, and upon finding festival material with direct references to LBGTQ, they promptly canceled the event. A mass of people were stranded outside the hall, not knowing what to do. An impressive informal community effort, facilitated by personal connections in the arts community, cell phone messaging and Internet use, enabled the festival to quickly transfer to the Dashanzi art district on the other side of town, where the inaugural welcome and screening event took place to a packed, cheering audience, the next evening.
The third and fourth festivals in 2007 and 2009 were held in Songzhuang village, an alternative arts community, some distance outside central Beijing. This was a conscious choice of location in order to evade official scrutiny and censorship. The 2009 festival also co-hosted China’s first queer arts festival, Difference-Gender, which attracted several hundred visitors to its opening event. However, the organizers met considerable problems as authorities visited the site the day before opening and ordered a cancellation of the exhibition, arguing that this public art show boasted the ‘improper subject of homosexuality’ and ‘pornographic’ exhibits (see, Liao 2009). Organizers negotiated with police until only hours before the scheduled opening, and were finally able to hold the event, albeit with some empty spaces on the wall; the title/artist tags remaining as visible proofs of censorship. In the words of Xu Bin, leader of the Beijing-based lala (‘lesbian’) group Tongyu (‘Common Language’):
It was the triumph of the younger generation of China’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community. It was the triumph of their confidence to claim for proud exisitance [sic], triumph of their courage to insist on doing what they believe to be right! (Liao 2009)
The Songzhuang film festivals in 2007 and 2009 received little overt harassment from police and national security, despite the continued presence of official intimidation and innumerable requests for information and paperwork in the run-up to the events. This of course drained resources, challenged volunteers’ patience, and perhaps most importantly, necessitated that organizers remained on their toes, ready to deal with any possible intervention from authorities at any time. Comic relief works wonders in such testy environments; at the opening screening of the 2009 festival, where I was in the audience, one of the organizers humorously addressed the ‘hidden’ plainclothes police in the audience, saying he hoped they would also enjoy the films. All in all, the original programme remained pretty much intact, and this relative success encouraged the organizers to think bigger as they prepared for a large-scale tenth-anniversary festival in 2011.
In April this year, however, organizers had to adjust their plans due to official pressure. The Chinese government has become more edgy in the recent couple of years compared with the early 2000s. This is due to both domestic and global events, reaching far beyond the ‘improper subject of homosexuality’ - such as international sports (2008 Beijing Olympics) and trade (2010 Shanghai Expo) events, environmental disasters, ethnic minority riots, and a string of popular uprisings due to increasing socio-economic inequalities. The official cancellation of DOChina, an independent documentary film festival scheduled to take place in May, signaled that Songzhuang village was no longer a safe haven for alternative art events. As it soon turned out, other art locations around Beijing were also experiencing a severe climate of government control and censorship, so it was becoming very difficult to find venues willing to host the queer film festival. As Stijn Deklerck, member of the 2011 BJQFF organization committee explains:
Apart from Songzhuang, we also made screening agreements with several other locations. One by one they told us however that hosting the Beijing Queer Film Festival was too risky. They were afraid of being shut down by the authorities, and they told us that they didn’t want to work with us anymore.
The organizers finally decided to hold their festival at the Dongjen Book Club, an activity center in Xicheng District in west Beijing. Worried by the overall climate of fear, they decided not to publicize the exact name and address of the new festival location. Only the times of the screenings were made public, and people could only obtain the screening address after booking a ticket.
On Sunday 12 June, it became evident that the safety measures adopted were far from enough to keep the authorities at bay. Representatives of the Beijing Xicheng District Public Security Bureau, Culture Bureau and Bureau of Industry and Trade turned up unannounced at the Dongjen Book Club and demanded a sit-down with the BJQFF organizers. After a short talk, in which they made references to a number of Chinese laws, they declared that the festival was illegal and that it had to be cancelled. They announced that they would post police officers at the Dongjen Book Club during the festival, and they expressed that there would be harsh consequences if the organizers disobeyed their orders.
In an emergency meeting, the BJQFF Organization Committee unanimously decided to still hold the festival but at a different location. It was paramount that the festival not be silenced and erased, as Cui Zi’en, noted film-maker and long-time queer activist, co-founder of the festival, and member of the 2011 organizing committee:
The BJQFF was started as a platform to question and challenge mainstream culture. Since mainstream in China is mainly constructed by the government, we all felt a duty to not let the BJQFF be silenced by government bureaus, but to challenge their decisions on which films are acceptable for screening.
With only three days left till the festival opening, scheduled to start on June 15, the organizers started to engage all kinds of bars and cafes in Beijing. Uncertain if the authorities would find out about the new locations, they decided to avoid a concentration of activities in one single place. The opening ceremony on the evening of June 15, which attracted over 100 participants, for example, took place at the Vinyl Cafe, a hip venue in downtown Gulou Dajie, a popular tourist and hipster area of old back alleys and modern bars and restaurants a stone’s throw away from Tiananmen Square. Fan Popo, director of the Beijing LGBT Center, and one of the BJQFF organizers, described the atmosphere preceding the opening thus:
We were alarmed by the fact that the officials found out about the Dongjen Book Club, because we never publicized that the festival would take place there. What was even scarier, was that the authorities also knew about the previous talks we had with other screening locations. So we decided we needed some new safety measures, and one of them was to keep switching locations during the 5 days of the festival.
Another strategy employed by the organizers was to give the outward impression that the festival was indeed cancelled, informing all the people who had already booked seats that the festival would not take place. Only invited guests, volunteers, personal friends and LGBT organizations were informed about the new schedule and locations. This strategy posed a significant dilemma, namely that the possibilities for participation were severely limited, making the festival into ‘just’ a community gathering for those already established in the queer activist circuit and their immediate circle of trusted allies. However, in the difficult political climate of today’s China, other strategies aiming at more openness and general inclusivity have proven time and time again to result in total clampdown and cancelled events – generating very difficult dynamics within queer networks.
Despite all these difficulties, the film festival did open on June 15, and went on to host five full days of screenings and talks. Though not all screenings originally scheduled could take place, more than 30 films were screened in four thematic clusters: Film-makers’ Profile, Overseas Nation, Queers from Diverse Cultures, and National Panorama. To mark the tenth anniversary volunteers put together a special Beijing Queer Film Festival Retrospective Program; it consisted of a documentary film with film clips from BJQFFs ten years, and a panel discussion focusing on the development and future of queer film festivals in Asia.
Global connections and regional outreach
Although the film festival is located in Beijing city, and many of the organizers are based there, it is important to emphasize that the BJQFF has national and even international importance and reach. The program has increasingly included work by directors and activists based elsewhere in China, for example, and a growing trend in the film program is a focus on documenting personal experiences and histories. This contributes to diversifying ‘the Chinese queer experience’ and ‘identity’ quite significantly. At this year’s festival, more than 15 Chinese queer film-makers presented and discussed their work, with many of their films premiering at the festival. A focus on personal oral histories and narratives was running like a red thread through many films. Take for example “The next generation” (Xia yi dai, 下一代), a 90-minute documentary film that presents accounts by ten LGBTQ and straight university students from various parts of China (watch original episodes with English subtitles here). Directed by Queer Comrades-webcast host, Jiangang Wei, the film presents honest, personal accounts of love, family, education, sex, and the future. Similarly, the fifteen-minute “My journey of self discovery” (Faxian ziwo zhi lü, 发现自我之旅; directors: Ana Huang et al.) is a collage of selected shorts from a long-term lala (‘lesbian’) community workshop of digital storytelling, many with autobiographical contents (watch shorts from the Lala Digital Storytelling Project here. For updates on English translation/subtitles, more here). Then there was the tenth-anniversary collage film, “Our story - Beijing Queer Film Festival Ten Years” (women de gushi: Beijing ku’er yingchan shinianji, 我们的故事 - 北京酷儿影展十年纪), a documentary based on material recorded by the different BJQFF organizing committees over the years, telling their own stories about their participation and organizing.
BJQFF opening screening. (Photo: BJQFF)
Eight film-makers attended from outside of mainland China to share their films and personally talk about their experiences. They included queer cinema pioneer Barbara Hammer, Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival organizer Sridhar Rangayan, Taiwanese queer documentary film maker Mickey Chen, and Chinese-Canadian video artist Wayne Yung.
Barbara Hammer. (Photo: BJQFF)
I asked Barbara Hammer about her thoughts on the BJQFF this year; her response:
The fortitude and strength of the LGBTQI organizers at the 10th Beijing International Film Festival was truly amazing. Regardless of police shut-down, the show always went on. Humor, consistency, and darn good programming was enhanced by bringing together international guests. One night we all gathered, friends of the festival, and brain stormed how it could continue and in what guise or form. Many ideas came out that night. I look forward to continuing to support Beijing queers in any way I can!
In this way, the festival’s importance extends far beyond the actual event itself, and beyond Beijing city and its local queer activists there. The BJQFF is an explicitly inclusive and proactively engaging in outreach beyond the limits of identity, and beyond the limits of one particular city. This includes the positive welcoming and active recruiting of non-queer volunteers and participants as queer allies, building a funding programme that encourages attendees from regional China, and inviting overseas queer film makers not only from the generic ‘west’ but from Asian countries, such as India and Taiwan this year.
In addition to film-makers, volunteers, and regular participants, the 2011 BJQFF sponsored 25 individuals from China’s “remote areas” (pianyuan diqu, 偏远地区) to attend the festival. ‘Remote’ in this context refers to regions beyond the hyper-modernized coastal region and economically developed areas such as Chongching and Guangzhou. Such ‘remote’ areas are generally considered to offer less opportunities for queer community building and networking. BJQFF operated an online-based ‘viewer registration’ program where interested people from all over China could sign up, and in the end 25 lucky people were selected to attend the ten-year anniversary festival. In this way, the festival event and rationale provide a social and educational agenda beyond an already formed community based in the metropolis. This outreach focus strengthens the intimate links between the practice of alternative art, culture, and politics throughout China. As aptly expressed by one of the lucky funded participants, Songzi, a young man from Nanning, in the southern Guangxi province, when asked by Queer Comrades about his impressions: “I thought it was very interesting; I saw a lot of films that I really liked … I hope that more people can accept our community …”
These conscious strategies toward expanding inclusion, diversity, and participation, then, contribute to expanding a queer academic, and activist, focus on ‘Beijing’ to one that is simultaneously trans-regional and trans-national without resorting immediately to a one-to-one comparison with ‘the west’; it expands the definition of “China” as well, showing on-site audience and distant observers alike that “China” indeed is no homogeneous culture or location; within China there are marked regional differences in terms on queer activism, culture, and related practices. Additionally, the continued emphasis on showing films from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong - locations that share history, culture, and language in fundamental ways, but which also differ significantly - help foster cross-regional conversations and reflections on queer life and activism in Chinese societies. Thus, the BJQFF provides an important occasion for coming together and engage in conversations, education, and, let’s not forget: to have fun, despite the continued climate of censorship.
Chinese queer festivals and events such as the BJQFF constitute crucial interventions into dominant cultural and political representation of sex and sexual difference in Chinese society. Perhaps the most fundamental importance is that self-identified queers and their straight allies directly and unfiltered present their lived experiences and personal desires to the audience; they are not mediated, explained or objectified by medical or academic ‘experts,’ as has long been a requirement for public discourse on homosexuality in post-Mao China (see, Cui 2002). Therefore, on a local level, these events help push queer voices up from the underground, generate self-respect and pride, and present knowledge of non-normative sexuality to the general population. On a global and theoretical level, the socio-political communication of queerness, self-respect and pride in these contexts, trouble the globalizing ‘brand’ of “pride” that celebrates public visibility, unmediated displays of queerness such as Pride Parades, and which in turn relegates ‘Other’ strategies to the closet of shame, silence, and arrested development. A specific focus on Chinese queer activism, then, such as film-making and -screening, contributes to expand our definitions of queer politics beyond the dominant ‘queer theory’ lexicon. Perhaps, then, a detailed examination of the event of the BJQFF, such as the one attempted here, could help challenge us to re-configure entrenched ways of thinking sexual meanings and pride globally, in ways that position different practices in proximity, dialogue, and coevalesence; and furthermore, in ways that show “China” as central, not peripheral or even irrelevant, to thinking Queer Theory and non normative sexual politics in our transnational times.
Finally, I end with the intriguing analysis offered in BJQFF chairwoman Yang Yang’s opening speech:
In my opinion, a queer film festival is not an event only open to “marginal people” who come to escape the darkness of mainstream society. A queer film festival is a platform void of prejudice, a place where people can freely express, show, explore themselves and where they can enter in meaningful exchanges. Every film, every director, every audience has their own viewpoint and so does every one of the organizers. The only one thing that the festival stands for is that everybody who participates can freely voice their own opinion. The festival has a large significance not only for the queer community but also for the whole of society, because sometimes we all can’t see ourselves clearly, sometimes we all need to explore the influence we have on others to understand ourselves, sometimes we’re all living oppressed lives and we hardly realize that we can free ourselves through freeing others.
Our biggest enemy consists of a small number of authoritarian organizations that are using the powerful national propaganda machine to subtly construct mainstream ideology. And our biggest worth, our ultimate goal as a queer film festival is to challenge and oppose this mainstream ideology … The revolution hasn’t succeeded yet. Queers, keep up the good work!
Beijing Queer Film Festival Organization Committee. 2011. 5th Beijing Queer Film Festival Press Release. June 19. (Email received June 20, 2011)
Cui, Zi’en. 2002. “Filtered voices: Representing gay people in today’s China,” in the IIAS (International Institute of Asian Studies) Newsletter no. 29, p. 13 (translated by Chi Ta-wei).
Liao, Karen. 2009. “Difference-gender: China’s first queer arts exhibition” (publication date June 15, 2009).
Liu, Petrus. 2010. “Why does queer theory need China?” in Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, special issue on ‘Beyond the Strai(gh)ts: Transnationalism and Queer Chinese Politics,’ Liu, Petrus and Lisa Rofel (eds.), 18(2): 291-320.
Elisabeth L. Engebretsen is research fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki, Finland. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Note on upcoming event:
On October 28, 2011, the Nordic Institute for Asian Studies in Copenhagen, Denmark, will host a one-day workshop on Queer theory and activism in China, which will feature talks by 2011 BJQFF chairwoman Yang Yang, Hongwei Bao (Goldsmiths College, London), Benny Lu (Goldsmiths), Elisabeth Engebretsen, as well as talks and screenings of recent films by Cui Zi’en, Wei Jiangang, and Fan Popo. Register and get more information here.