13 November 2023
Figure 1. Love Queer Cinema Week 2023 poster (credit: BJQFF)
At a Chinese Independent Film Archive launch event in September 2023, a member of the audience asked a panel full of Chinese indie film festival curators a strange question: why does Beijing Queer Film Festival (BJQFF, aka Love Queer Cinema Week) still exist in China today, whereas most other indie festivals, such as the China Independent Film Festival (Nanjing) and Beijing Independent Film Festival, had all been shut down by the authorities. A similar question was raised in a panel discussion on queer Chinese cinema at the 16th Beijing Queer Film Festival held in Beijing in November 2023. Why a film festival still exists in China, and how it has managed to do so – this may sound a bizarre but perfectly valid question, suggesting the tacit understanding that not being able to run an indie film festival is the norm in today’s China under strict government control and film censorship. But this question also points to a larger, epistemological question about what a film festival is and can become.
This question can be approached in several ways. A common answer, especially among an ‘older’ generation of cis-male and heterosexual-identifying indie film festival curators, is that queer and feminist topics are not seen as politically sensitive enough to attract sufficient attention from the government. This line of argument has increasingly lost its persuasiveness, as we witness in recent years the shutdown of major queer organisations (such as Beijing LGBT Centre in 2023) and public events (such as Shanghai Prode in 2021), the interrogation and detainment of feminist and queer activists, as well as the continuing and intensified media censorship of LGBTQ issues. In fact, throughout the BJQFF history, the organisers have been constantly faced with mounting pressure from different authorities. For example, the first BJQFF had to close earlier than planned, and the second BJQFF was shut down before the festival even started. In recent years, BJQFF has to take refuge in embassies and cultural centres in order to survive. Despite this, BJQFF organisers constantly have to face harassment and threats.
Figure 2. The First Beijing Gay and Lesbian Cultural Festival, 2001 (credit: Norman A. Spencer)
Another answer, according to BJQFF curators Jenny Man Wu and Popo Fan, attributes the BJQFF’s continuing existence to the festival’s ‘lightness’ (qingqiao xing 轻巧性). Theorised in Chinese film studies by Paula Voci (2010), Luke Robinson (2013), among others, ‘lightness’ primarily refers to the easy accessibility and portability of digital video technologies, as well as the popular, audience-friendly aesthetics, which allows videos to be produced and circulated to the audience through social media and informal channels of distribution in a decentred, scattered way. Indeed, most queer films are short films (wei dianying微电影) produced by amateur or semi-professional community member turned filmmakers, using digital video cameras or smart phones, and circulated online and on social media. There are seldom feature-length films because of financial and technological barriers; nor do they have to be. If shorts are the best way to engage the queer community, so be it. In other words, it is ‘lightness’ that makes queer film possible in the first place.
I would like to extend the discussion of ‘lightness’ to queer film festivals. Most film festivals, including indie Chinese film festivals, follow a particular convention that places emphasis on scale and prestige: international scope, media bombardment, high-profile directors, celebrity actors, large movie theatres, red carpets, and more. As Chris Berry and Luke Robinson (2017) argue in their edited collection Chinese Film Festivals: Sites of Translation, these film festivals are ‘sites of translation’ and negotiation between the global and the local, the regional and the national, politics and economy. Chinese film festivals are influenced by, but do not necessarily follow, its global, Western counterparts. It is the innovative forms and glocalised strategies that make Chinese film festivals an exciting and worthwhile field of study.
There is, however, an alternative way of organising a film festival, with a strong emphasis on community engagement and with a more open mind about what a film festival can be. For example, instead of looking for conventional movie theatres as privileged screening venues (which is a mission impossible for queer film festivals based in Mainland China anyway), BJQFF has held screening events in cafes, restaurants, nightclubs, community centres, bookshops, art galleries, and even on a moving bus and train. And their locations change from year to year, and sometimes from day to day. Organisers often have to prepare several plans to cope with emergency: if one venue is shut down, there is a Plan B so the festival can still take place. The organisers humorously describe this as ‘playing guerrilla warfare’ (youjie zhan 游击战) with the authorities, as shown in curator Yang Yang’s 2014 documentary Our Story: The Beijing Queer Film Festivals 10 Years of Guerrilla Warfare. Their purpose is to bring films to audiences instead of creating a media hype and a ladder of authority and prestige.
Figure 3. Our Story (dir. Yang Yang, 2014) poster (credit: BJQFF)
In contrast to the ‘life-long’ directorship of many Chinese indie film festivals, BJQFF adopts a chairperson-on-duty system. That is, the festival is run by a board, or an organising committee, and committee members often take turns to organise the festival each year. This decentralised structure allows organising work to be shared among committee members, and new members to be coopted onto the committee; it facilitates a democratic, collaborative way of working together and encourages knowledge sharing and talent development. This organising structure also reduces the risk: if an organiser runs into trouble with the authorities, the festival can still continue as other committee members can quickly take over the job.
BJQFF has adopted an inclusive principle of curation. It uses an international open call to solicit films from China and internationally. Almost all the domestic entries submitted that meet the entry requirement will be screened. This, on the one hand, shows the festival’s commitment to fostering new talents; on the other, manifests the paucity of Chinese queer films in the current socio-political contexts where the lack of government and industry support significantly constrains domestic queer film production. It is worth mentioning that Queer Lab, a mentorship programme for new queer filmmakers, was set up by BJQFF in 2022 to support new and emerging queer filmmakers.
I have lost count of how many times BJQFF has changed its names: from the first Beijing Gay and Lesbian Cultural Festival to the second International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, from Beijing Queer Film Festival to Love Queer Cinema Week. All the Chinese terms denoting queer identities and intimacies deserve a separate study. ‘Film exhibition’ (yingzhan 影展) was used to bypass the political sensitivity of the term ‘film festival’ (dianying jie 电影节). A ‘film exhibition’ has now become a ‘cinema week’ (dianying zhou 电影周). For those who want to monopolise film festivals in China, BJQFF is not in competition; it does not directly challenge the authorities. Rather, it subverts the dominant powers and hegemonic forms of film festival organisation by playing linguistic and organisational games – I call them ‘tactics’ instead of ‘strategies’; these tactics are undoubtedly creative, flexible and ‘light’.
Figure 4. The 5th Beijing Queer Film Festival Poster, 2011 (credit: BJQFF)
Figure 5. Love Queer Cinema Week poster, 2015 (credit: BJQFF)
The forementioned BJQFF practices manifest a feature that can best be described as ‘light’: ‘light’ in terms of organisational structure, curatorial principles and naming strategies. Admittedly, this is a relatively young (with 22 years of history) festival with a small organising team, most of whom are young, enthusiastic queer film lovers, filmmakers, curators and activists. But they are equipped with creative and innovative ideas; they are bold, courageous and committed.
Perhaps one of the main take-ways for other Chinese indie film curators is to depart from a conventional model of film festival organising characterised by formal, hierarchical structures; a radical film festival requires radical organising principles and tactics. Make the festival small, light, open, contingent, creative, collaborative, rhizomatic and radical. Create a radical structure, or anti-structure, that best manifests the indie spirit and a democratic way of life. This is a radical, alternative and independent form of film festival organising. This form is shared among many indie filmmakers, artists and curators around the world, as documented in Contemporary Radical Film Culture (which features my chapter on BJQFF) and Radical Film, Art and Digital Media for Societies in Turmoil (which features my conversation with BJQFF co-founder Cui Zi’en) (Bao 2020, 2023).
Let me conclude by adding that ‘lightness’ is not a unique feature of BJQFF; it is also shared by many China-based queer film festivals who face similar challenges. For example, before its permanent hiatus in 2021, the Shanghai-based film collective CNEMQ frequently hosted screening events of queer shorts in bars and clubs, mixing up film screenings with music, drag shows and dance parties. For BJQFF and CINEMQ, queer films do not have be shown in movie theatres (not that it can be in today’s China); there are many ‘light’, interesting and engaging ways to engage with the community audience and the wider public. This principle is nicely summed up by the CINEMQ slogan, ‘Walls are our screens. Rooftops and basements are our cinemas. Queer is our purpose’.
How cool is this statement! I am sure that indie Chinese film festival organisers as well as film scholars can all learn something from this – make indie films and film festivals ‘light’, because being ‘light’ is not only a survival strategy; it also signifies a radical cultural politics.
Figure 6. CINEMQ poster (credit: Alejandro Scott)
This essay is a new synthesis of my previous publications (Bao, 2017, 2019, 2020. 2021, 2023). I thank Cui Zi’en, Popo Fan, Matthew Baren and Jenny Man Wu for sharing their valuable experiences, insights and inspirations about organising queer film festivals in China. I also thank Chris Berry, Steve Presence, Chris Tedjasukmana, Daniel H. Mutibwa, Luke Robinson, among others, for the stimulating conversations about Chinese film festivals and radical film cultures.
Hongwei Bao. 2023. ‘Making Films is Like Friends Getting Together and Having Parties: Hongwei Bao in Conversation with Cui Zi’en.’ In Radical Film, Art and Digital Media for Societies in Turmoil, edited by Ursula Böckler, Julia Lazarus and Alexandra Weltz-Rombach, 223-227, Berlin, K Verlag.
Hongwei Bao. 2021. Queer Media in China. London: Routledge.
Hongwei Bao. 2020. ‘The Communist International of Queer Films: The Radical Culture of the Beijing Queer Film Festival.’ In Contemporary Radical Film Culture: Networks, Organisation and Activists, edited by Steve Presence, Mike Wayne and Jack Newsinger, 190-202. New York: Routledge.
Hongwei Bao. 2019. ‘Guerilla-Taktiken. Das Beijing Queer Film Festival und Radikale Filmkultur.’ Montage AV 28 (2): 143-162.
Hongwei Bao. 2017. ‘Queer as Catachresis: Beijing Queer Film Festival in Translation.’ In Chinese Film Festivals: Sites of Translation, edited by Chris Berry and Luke Robinson, 67-88. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Chris Berry and Luke Robinson, eds. 2017. Chinese Film Festivals: Sites of Translation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Luke Robinson. 2013. Independent Chinese Documentary: From the Studio to the Street. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Paula Voci. 2010. China on Video: Small Screen Realities. London: Routledge.
Beijing Queer Film Festival website: https://www.bjqff.com/
Beijing Queer Film Festival on the CIFA website: https://www.chinaindiefilm.org/beijing-queer-film-festival/
CIFA Launch report:
CINEMQ website: https://www.cinemq.com/
He Xiaopei’s report on the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Queer Film Festival:
Our Story: The Beijing Queer Film Festivals 10 Years of Guerrilla Warfare (dir. Yang Yang, 2014) in CIFA collection:
Queer Lens’ interview with Fan Popo on BJQFF:
Queer Lens’ interview with CINEMQ: