In the midst of this year’s 22nd Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (HKLGFF), a sharing session was arranged to discuss the difficulties of running an LGBT film festival. We in Hong Kong have one of the longest running lesbian and gay film festivals in Asia, so I never would have thought this could be a luxury. Yet at the sharing session we heard from two film festival organisers from other countries who had faced death threats and whose events kept on being suspended and harried by the government. I’m honoured that I had the chance after the session to talk to Fan Popo, this year’s HKLGFF Prism Award winner and one of the faces behind the Beijing Queer Film Festival, and John Badalu the founder of the Q Film Festival in Indonesia. They gave me more than a glimpse of the obstacles they face.
Compared with the problems faced by China and Indonesia, the issues worrying the organisers of Hong Kong’s festival, such as not having enough Asian queer films to show, seem almost trivial.
Jakarta is the most populated city in the world where Islam is the predominant religion, so it might not be a surprise that a queer film festival would provoke opposition, but what may surprise is the level of violence and intimidation that has arisen. It takes a brave set of people to encounter religious protesters and to receive death threats. John Badalu is one such, for despite the dangers, he has never stopped running the festival; last year was their tenth.
In the first few festival years, Badalu managed to organise everything with a budget of just under US$200, screening films at different cultural centres with DVD projectors. Everyone could come and see the movies for free. Programmes were selected to conform to expectations of modesty, meaning there were no sex scenes or any subjects Islamic fundamentalists would have immediately found to be objectionable. As time went on the festival matured and the envelope expanded; now in every festival there will be a programme under the name of “surprise movie”, which are mostly more unconventional and provocative films which meet the demand of the more adventurous movie-goer.
Spreading the word about the festival was not easy, Badalu told me, as they dared not publicise it through the mainstream media. What they could do was adopting more modern means of promoting their festival, like website and twitter. However, this effort had to be scaled back after the foreign press picked up the sites and ran a story about an Islamic country showing gay films. This put the festival under the spotlight not only of the world’s press but of Indonesia’s own religious people. These fundamentalists could attack the site as pornographic and apply for them to be shut down; though homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia, anything like semi-naked bodies or items which could arouse sexual desire, can be considered pornographic and against the law. Badalu quickly responded to this threat by making their web site a members-only site. Visitors to the site have to register and check the terms of agreement, acknowledging that they accept the adult content, before browsing.
The organisers however faced more severe issues including death threats. At the same time threats were made that venues would be burnt down if they continued to host the festival, causing six out of ten of their venue partners to withdraw. Luckily, many of the venues were foreign culture centres, relatively immune to fundamentalist threats, and these continued to host the film shows.
With funding from abroad, the support of foreign cultural centres and their new web site policy, the festival organisers surmounted the death threats and carried on. So successful is the festival now that the tenth festival had more than eighty screenings last year. Badalu believes that nothing can stop them now from organising the festival.
It’s a different set of problems facing the organisers of the Chinese festival, a struggle with government rather than religion. And when officials are dead set on stopping an event, it is really hard to move forward. The festival in China constantly has to run from place to place, playing hide-and-seek with the government, avoiding having venues come to official notice soon enough for the police to arrive and close them down before the film is shown. Sites as disparate as universities, bookstores and even countryside shacks were their temporary sanctuaries.
Official opposition caused immense problems in negotiating venues. Emails are monitored. So at first they had to be really smart with their festival’s name, discreet enough to shield the activity from government eyes whilst remaining recognisable for their gay audiences. Now, though, they have got past that phase and stick with the name “Beijing Queer Film Festival” (BJQFF).
In earlier days, they called it the Tongzhi Film Festival. Tongzhi was the word used for ‘comrade’ in communist China, though for some time it has been adopted to also refer to homosexuals. This caused continual confusion amongst those turning up to watch the films, many of whose political expectations were not quite met by the bodies they saw on the screen, so the organisers switched to the title “Queer Film Festival”, which proved very useful for deception as most of straight people in China are not familiar with the word “queer”. The title of “Festival” was at one stage also altered to “Forum” in order to avoid stirring up too much attention.
In the very first year of the festival they arranged screenings at a university under the cover of the theme of HIV protection, as this was a subject which did not attract so much official opprobrium. However, once one of the university staff found out that what they were actually doing, they were told to stop immediately or face a report to the police. They had no option at that stage but to relocate their venue to the countryside.
As Badalu found in Indonesia, Fan and his team encountered problems publicising their programmes. Since the government was keeping a watchful eye on them, having a website was never an option. They could only use weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) to let people know the time and venue of their screenings . The constant changes of venue made it really hard for audiences to keep track of their schedule. In spite of this, the numbers of people showing up for screening nowadays was still very satisfying, said Fan.
The demand for queer movies in Asia is high now. More and more Asian directors are making gay-themed films and foreign imports are growing. In China, for example, you can easily find pirated foreign gay movies on DVDs with Chinese subtitles. At least one gay movie is made in Indonesia every year. Other countries are developing gay film festivals, including Japan and Taiwan, and they all help each other out.
Asian LGBT audiences are lucky to have people like Badalu and Fan to fight for their right to see queer film and to engineer the processes by which they can do so, whatever the odds against them. Their struggles will eventually mean that having a gay film festival will no longer be an issue in this part of the world.