Filmmaker and academic Dr. He Xiaopei has spent the past decade diving into the deep water fringes of society, documenting the lives of non-conformist queers and alternative lifestyle advocates. She shares her experience, and the importance of not taking things too seriously in the weird world of social movements.
Still from Our Marriages: When Lesbians Marry Gay Men
Hill climbing trained me to be a shepherd but the Himalayas turned me into a mountaineer. A government job made me an economist while the women's movement converted me into a feminist. In 2007, I co-founded Pink Space, a NGO working with people who are marginalized due to their gender and sexuality, and began to use films to enable these people to tell their stories and desires.
I like to incorporate humor, jokes and fun in my storytelling. One activist friend told me that she doesn’t watch documentaries because they are too tragic and depressing – watching them makes her lose strength. Reality is ruthless and society is indeed unfair, but our struggle needs humor and optimism to keep us moving forward. For me, documentaries are an integral part of social movements, and they should inspire people to continue their work.
My first film, Polyamorous Family, was inspired by my visit to a sexual rights film festival in India. I was disturbed by the fact that, despite being a sex-positive event, some of the films screened were mocking polyamory. I am poly and have an international family, so I decided to film them and invite other polyamorous individuals to tell their stories.
My family has a full spectrum of skin colours: black, white, brown and yellow. We bicker and fight. We talk about love and jealousy. Our relationship has always been intimate. We are all past middle age and like to cuddle in our pajamas, to cook together and chit chat. A polyamorous family is everything other families can be, and deserves to be represented as such.
Poster for Our Marriages: When Lesbians Marry Gay Men
Some years later, I made Our Marriages: When Lesbians Marry Gay Men. The film follows four lesbians as they look for gay men for contract marriages. I have heard a lot of negativity towards the ‘marriage of convenience’ idea. Some say it’s deceitful and means being ensconced in the closet. Others say it’s anti-feminist and anti-queer, or that the lives of Chinese homosexuals are tragic.
But these four girls spoke of family and friendship, ethics and lesbian rights with such ease. The film ended up being a comedy, which surprised some people. But then, isn't life itself comedic? When a tomboy dresses up like a Barbie bride, doesn't it make you giggle? When a mother asks for not the best wedding but the most expensive one, and ends up with a Mickey Mouse parade, don't you roll on the floor laughing?
As the maids of honour, the groom and the best man – all of whom are gay – jump their way into a contract marriage ceremony and snap photos under a rainbow flag, the heterosexual marriage ceremony turned into a lesbian and gay party and the ultimate ‘coming out’. It is important not only to consider the conflict between lesbian and gay lives and marriage, but also the essence of what the institution of marriage really means.
Most recently, I completed Yvo and Chrissy, a film about two British people living outside of the usual codifications of society. Yvo is an heiress who gave up a million-pound inheritance to escape her depression, and has since worked as a social worker, a prostitute and a stand-up comedian. Chrissy, a trans woman who dresses in masculine clothes, lives as a nomad in the forest of Wales.
Still from Yvo & Chrissy
The film reflects on how society worships money and the phallus while individuals reject it. The central motif is ‘giving up’: giving up inheritance or penis, giving up the pursuit of wealth and status, and giving up living for other people’s expectations. The characters experience painful emotions and moments of laughter. They wear worn out clothes and discover elegance in poetry, in masculine bodies with female identities and in spiritual escape. They demonstrate how there can be different lifestyles, different sexualities, and different individuals in a society that leaves little space for people to dream what a better life could be.
A film needs not teach a great lesson, but to tell a good story. Vibrant storytelling draws in the audience and helps people learn. Through the telling of personal stories, I try to challenge traditional and socially constructed norms around sexuality and gender.
I want to give voices to women, to the disabled, to transgender people, to the poor, the sick, and the homosexual. These people are underrepresented, misunderstood and often unseen. Film, as a globally popular communication medium, allows their desires and experiences to be expressed, recognized and understood.
Words: He Xiaopei
Translation: Jack Yan & Will Dai
CINEMQ is a queer short film screening + party series. It is run by a group of queers with too much on their mind to sit still for long. We’re publishing articles on queer cinema and screen culture every week. Want to contribute? Message our account.