Beijing Queer Film Festival Goes Guerilla

Published on Jun 19, 2011

On Sunday 19 June 2011, the Beijing Queer Film Festival successfully closed its fifth edition after 5 days of guerilla-style screenings and talks around the city.

China- Beijing

On Sunday 19 June 2011, the Beijing Queer Film Festival successfully closed its fifth edition after 5 days of guerilla-style screenings and talks around the city.

3 days prior to the start of the festival, Chinese authorities had told the organizers to cancel the festival, warning them that they would be watching the Dongjen Book Club where the festival was supposed to take place. The organizers refused to lay down however and hurried to find several alternative screening locations in bars and coffee-houses around Beijing. By implementing strict safety measures surrounding the publication of screening times and places, they managed to stay out of the hands of the authorities for the duration of the festival.

More than 500 people, including an impressive array of Chinese and foreign queer filmmakers, attended the festival which showed more than 30 queer-themed films and held numerous talks.

Despite and perhaps even thanks to the ban imposed by the authorities, the Beijing Queer Film Festival succeeded in what it set out to do: celebrate queer film and celebrate the necessity of showing queer films in a society where non-mainstream voices are stifled all too often.

During its 10-year-long existence, the Beijing Queer Film Festival (BJQFF, had its fair share of official trouble.  Started in 2001 by a group of Peking University students, the festival has been organized every other year by a changing group of volunteers.  Its first 2 editions were all marked by official interruptions and bans, forcing the organizers to keep their festival underground and far away from official eyes.

The 3rd and 4th edition, held in 2007 and 2009, were more successful.  Held in Songzhuang village, an artist community just outside of Beijing, they both took place without overt harassment from police or national security.  It encouraged the organizers to think bigger as they prepared for a large scale 2011 edition.

In April 2011, they had to adjust their plans however.  The official cancellation of DOChina, an independent documentary film festival scheduled to take place in May, signaled that Songzhuang village wasn’t a safe haven anymore for non-mainstream art happenings.  As it soon turned out, other art locations around Beijing were also experiencing a severe climate of government control and censorship.

“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.”, says Stijn Deklerck, member of the 2011 BJQFF Organization Committee.

The organizers finally decided to hold their festival at the Dongjen Book Club, an activity center in Beijing’s Xicheng District.  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 publicized, and people could only obtain the screening address after booking a seat for the festival.

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 vaguely cited 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.

“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.”, says Cui Zi’En, co-founder of the festival and member of the 2011 organization committee.

With only 3 days left till the festival opening, scheduled on 15 June, the organizers started to engage all kinds of bars and cafe’s around Beijing.  Uncertain if the authorities would find out about the new locations, they decided to avoid a concentration of activities at one single space.

Fan Popo, one of the organizers, describes the atmosphere preceding the opening: “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.”

The organizers also decided to give the outward impression that the festival was indeed cancelled, informing all the people who had already booked seats that the festival wouldn’t take place.  Only invited guests, volunteers, personal friends and LGBT organizations were informed about the new schedule and locations.

Nervously starting on 15 June, the Beijing Queer Film Festival managed to hold 5 days of inspiring screenings and talks.  Though not all screenings originally scheduled could take place, more than 30 films were screened during the festival in 4 thematic programs: Filmmakers’ Profile, Overseas Nation, Queers from Diverse Cultures and National Panorama (including short, feature and documentary films).  A special Beijing Queer Film Festival Retrospective Program consisted of a documentary about the past decade of the BJQFF and a panel discussion focusing on the development and future of queer film festivals in Asia.  Apart from the opening- and closing night ceremonies, the festival also managed to bring together a party crowd on 3 different nights of the festival.
8 filmmakers from outside of mainland China personally shared their films and experiences at the festival, including famous queer cinema pioneer Barbara Hammer, Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival organizer Sridhar Rangayan, Taiwanese queer documentary maker Mickey Chen and Chinese-Canadian video artist Wayne Yung.  More than 15 Chinese queer filmmakers presented and discussed their work, with many of their films premiering at the festival.  In a festival first, 25 people coming from the less-developed parts of China obtained funding to attend the festival, giving them the occasion to watch queer- and LGBT-themed films, an unknown luxury in their respective hometowns.  Overall, more than 500 people attended the festival, and proudly celebrated queer film.

At the end of the festival, the organization committee looks back on a very successful 5th BJQFF edition.

“While it is unfortunate that we had to be guerilla-warriors 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.”, says Yang Yang, the chairwoman of this year’s Beijing Queer Film Festival.

She sums it all up in her written preface to the festival: “[…] 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!”

Media contact:  Yang Yang