Queers of colour are front and centre in José, a gritty, erotic gay love story that journeys through the heart of Guatemala. With the tide of anti-immigrant rhetoric rising in America, US-resident Chinese filmmaker Li Cheng sold his house and headed south over the border wall to make this defiantly powerful film. CINEMQ caught up with the director and co-writer/producer George Roberson at BFI Flare to talk transgressing borders and transnational filmmaking in the age of Trump.
How did José come about?
Li Cheng - It started with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. We knew that things weren't going to be good in the US. We didn't like what he was doing or preaching, so we decided to leave the country. Trump wanted to build a wall at the border and block Latino's from coming into the country, so we decided we wanted to do the opposite, to tell Latino stories. We sold our apartment in Denver, Colorado, and used that money to travel and make this film.
In a lot of Latin American countries, the majority of the population is very poor, and very young. It's very working class. And they are not white people, they are dark skinned people. In Latino film and TV, these dark skinned people are really underrepresented. They aren't showing the majority on TV. So we decided to do something different, and make a love story about these people.
We went to twelve countries, to the twenty largest cities, and spoke to young people about their lives, their love stories and their struggle. We made appointments with them through Grindr and Hornet, online dating and sex hook-up apps. We collected all these stories, and we started writing them in Sao Paolo.
Then we ended up in Guatemala. We didn't know anything about Guatemala. When the Spanish came many centuries earlier, they were trying to build an empire in the country. Guatemala still has a very high indigenous population today however, so we thought this would be the perfect place for us to go. We walked around for a couple of weeks and thought, yes, it is going to be here. It is a very thematic place, great locations, and people are really struggling. We felt like we wanted to do something for them.
What kind of freedom do you gain from self-financing your projects?
George Roberson - We have this theory about outsiders versus insiders. We're not Hollywood people, it's not a our aesthetic. Really we wanted the opposite. I think as gays, you're sort of always the outsider. We're always in the minority. It can be a weakness, and a lot of LGBT movies are about the weakness of being a minority and being marginalised, but I feel like LGBT cinema can turn that around into an advantage.
That's what we try to do, embrace that outsider status. The Hollywood system would never give us a bunch of money to do this. So we just embraced this, and came up with the money ourselves, in ways that we can. Sell our home, sell our cars, live extremely frugally and modestly. When we were [making the film], we had to be prepared that it wouldn't be shown. It was a long shot.
That's a very inspiring story for queer creators who struggle to find a space. We often talk about the under-representation of Asians in Western popular culture, and also of stories of migrants. Does this fuel your sense of being 'an outsider,' and how does that inform your work in a film like José?
Li Cheng - This is a tough question. I think as a double minority, a gay Asian, in many ways it is a very difficult. I was born in a very poor family in 1970s. I always felt I wanted to do something different. I guess a lot of gay guys think the same way, they are different, so they want to do something different.
When we were traveling in Latin America, for example Mexico, we saw a lot of people struggling. We saw dark skinned people with nobody giving them a voice. I like the idea of fairness. There is no 100% equality in this world, but...as artists, we always want to resist, to bring a little more fairness into the world.
A lot of prominent LGBTQ cinema is dominated by a particular Western, often white, experience. How do you see the way forward for other representations?
George Roberson - I think José is a shining example of what can be achieved through resistance. I hope it can be part of a larger movement. When we went looking to tell a story in Latin America, we went looking for a country with a high percentage of non-white people because that's who we wanted to populate the frame with - not just the protagonist, but everyone.
LGBT cinema is still young, and sort of restricted. Honestly, there is a lot missing. We see a lot of the same themes, over and over again. A lot of the themes are very shallow and limited. So we found that frustrating. My push through to the next generation of filmmakers would be: be original, push out into new bounds.
For example, we could be looking in more depth at the bullying of LGBT people by society, by the political system. The majority of people are being bullied by the system. The global economic system does not work for the majority of people. That's why our protagonist is literally running around the street, dodging cars and delivering fast-food and making 5 or 6 dollars a day. You don't have to be LGBT to be bullied by these systems that are unjust, unfair and racist.
Li Cheng - In the richer countries of America and Europe, coming out is one set of problems. But in developing countries, there's a different set of problems. You make $5 per day running around 10 hours. You don't have food to eat, you can't pay the electricity. And then you talk about coming out...it's such a luxury to come out, you are trying to survive first.
It seems to me, you can whine about being born in Europe, you were born gay and you're in the closet...shame on you! Look at other people, look at how they are suffering. There are a lot of people in the world. The elite middle-class in white countries, they are so privileged already and yet they are whining about everything. To me, it's a joke, and we really want to reverse that. Hopefully, José is a start.
Li Cheng with actors Enrique Salanic and Manolo Herrera at Venice Film Festival
Interview originally in English. Images are from the film and the internet.
Interview: Will Dai
Translation: Annabel Li
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 or email email@example.com