Meet China Queer Film Festival Tour
In the twenty years since Zhang Yuan's landmark 'first Chinese gay film,' East Palace, West Palace, home grown queer cinema remains resolutely underground. Regulations which have kept LGBTQ films out of cinemas and off television now extend to the internet. The vacuum has been filled by groups organizing independent screenings around China. Among them is China Queer Film Festival Tour, established in 2008 by a group of activists and filmmakers in Beijing as a traveling cinema project. We caught up with two of their founders, filmmakers Fan Popo and Shitou.
How did the China Queer Film Festival Tour start?
The audiences at Beijing Queer Film Festival had been telling us that it was hard to find LGBT films. There was very little outside Beijing at the time for queer cinema, so we wanted to bring queer films, especially Chinese-language films, to a wider audience.
We started in 1st and 2nd tier cities, as well as key universities around the country. We were able to gradually increase our scope to include other smaller cities, and sometimes even rural areas and secondary schools through the last couple of years. We usually invite filmmakers to come along with us to interact with local audiences through panels and discussions.
How do you set up the screenings? Fan Popo：
There are three main groups/venue types we work with. There are queer bars and groups, where most of the audience is LGBT. Then there are film clubs, with a more mixed audience of mostly young people. Finally, universities and schools. By cooperating with different organisations, we reach different groups.
It is more difficult when we try to host screenings in schools, especially if we want to go into secondary schools and universities in smaller cities. Most of the time it is impossible for us to negotiate with the schools directly through official channels. We have to make connections with people we know who are teachers at these schools personally. But if we told them that we want to show LGBTQ films or films about gender issues, we would get rejected right away. We usually tell them we want to show films about environmental protection, along with some films about gender issues. That’s the only way we can get permission. We insist that both topics are closely linked to ecology and the environment: one is about the physical environment we live in, and the other the humanitarian and psychological environment, which is integral to our eco-system and just as important.
How do you decide what kind of films you would show at an event? Does feedback from the audience guide your programming? Fan Popo：
I remember when we showed a lesbian film called Lost In You (dir. Zhu Yiye), people complained that they thought it was a ghost story, because of the cinematography. Documentaries are usually more popular, because they are more ‘earthy’ and more authentic. But over time, our audiences have become more accepting of different films. It’s always an interaction. We have to balance what we show, depending on the situation.
In terms of programming, we really have to adapt to the nature of the location where we are doing screenings. We always have to pick works that cater to our audience depending on where we are. Of course, to stir the pot a bit, we sometimes intentionally bring more challenging content to less developed areas. In general, we start off by showing only Chinese independent queer cinema, but the repertoire is always growing. Sometimes, for example, a friend from Japan would bring us some work from Japan, or sometimes we could even show a couple of western films. We are always looking for diverse and quality content.
Do you have different experiences with different types of audience?
Fan Popo ：
I remember a few years ago, non-LGBT audiences would always ask, “Why are people gay, are you gay?” We are getting fewer of these questions though, which I’m happy about. When we encounter homophobia, I am always happy to engage people, but after a while it begins to distract from getting to a deeper level in discussion about the films. Non-LGBT audiences can pose more challenges, but that’s what film screenings are about. It’s about communication, conversation, and people seeing each other through the light of the screen.
I remembered very clearly this occasion when we hosted a screening at a small school in a rather rural area. In the films we showed, there were a couple of shots showing same-sex couples getting intimate, which caused raucousness in the students. The teacher that was watching the films with us was extremely nervous, and had repeatedly said that it would be absolutely necessary for us to guide the students through the content educationally after the screening. In the discussion we had after the film, the students showed amazing openmindedness. They were accepting, understanding, and they actively engaged in discussions with us. It left quite an impression on me. I was definitely pleasantly surprised.
You are both practicing artists and filmmakers yourselves. Has working with CQFFT influenced your work?
CQFFT is a great platform for filmmakers to find stories, especially documentary filmmakers. For example, both me and Shitou have shot interviews for oral history projects on the tour. We’ve also had journalists come along with us to meet people and find stories.
I have always thought that art and social practice completes each other. When I’m setting up events for the tour and when I interact with audience members during our screenings, I get to hear authentic and diverse voices from the receiving end of artistic creation. As a practicing artist, I benefit from the feedback in two aspects. Firstly, it broadens my understanding, and secondly, it grounds me. This process emancipates art making from its usual ivory tower, giving it new horizons to explore while rendering it authentic, and as Popo always says, ‘earthy’.
Filmmakers need to meet audiences, so they feel their work has value. A queer filmmaker in China won’t have their work shown in theatres, so seeing how it impacts people is harder. Personally, without these kinds of screenings, I don’t think I would be still making films.
What’s next for CQFFT?
China is a massive country, and we are constantly trying to expand our footprints to further, less developed places. We want to bring our films and queer topics to places where people would otherwise have absolutely no access to this type of content. That has always been and always will be our primary goal. Secondly, we would love to recruit more people to join us in this great venture. We need fresh blood and manpower as the project grows, and we need more collaborators to help spread our events into bigger and newer areas.
If you are a filmmaker and interested in screening your work with China Queer Film Festival Tour, would like to volunteer, or would like to host an event, contact the organisers by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
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