I have always been a fan of Beijing since having studied abroad at the Beijing Film Academy many moons ago. The city itself is an oxymoron as both China’s cultural center and political capital. There’s an air of anything goes there, as long as it’s not noticed or publicized. 10 years ago I made one my first short films there with a gay theme without a permit and smuggled it out of the country. This year I’ve been invited to guest curate a section of the Beiijng LGBT Film Festival on Queer Chinese Diaspora as well as screening my film Motherland there.The founders of the festival are Cui Zi’ En, one of the most prominent Chinese queer filmmaker/activists and Yang Yang, a feminist scholar. They started the festival orignially at Beijing University in 2001 and Cui, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, said the festival is an important event for China’s fledgling gay movement.”The biggest change is that I’m not the only one doing this,” he said. “There’s more support from the gay community. Society has become more relaxed and open-minded in its thinking.”
I totally agree. More than a decade ago when I was studying in Beijing, there was only one underground gay bar called DragOn and it was way outside the city limits. There was no gay or lesbian “scene” to speak off and everything was through word of mouth. Gay movies were to be had on illegal VCDs if you looked for them and through personal libraries of friends. When I went back in 2008 for the Summer Olympics I was amazed by the new openess and freedom. There were now several queer venues highlighted by the large commercial gay club Destination. After clubbing hundreds of gay men could be seen walking hand in hand even kissing outside in front of the police.
Even so, the air of openess is random and mercurial, changing daily with the political climate. At any moment police may shut down an event. The Beijing LGBT film festival has been shut down numerous times sometimes not making it past opening night. This year it has also been tough to secure a location as the government has been cracking down on political artists like Ai weiwei and certain national and local funds and organizations have just seemingly dissappeared. Luckily the film festival has found a new undislosed location and will tentatively go on. Filmmakers donate their films for free and the festival generally runs on donations and volunteers. I really admire the struggle of the organizers to make this festival happen. Something that queer people in democratic open societies sometimes take for granted. It goes to show that free media and film can make a difference and people will risk careers and personal freedom to have access to it.