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William Yung, My Chinese Canadian Boyfriend.jpg
My Chinese Canadian Boyfriend, directed William Yung

On Friday night I attended the opening of the Beijing Queer Film Festival in a gay bar in Beijing’s Gulou bar district. Held biannually, the festival is now in its tenth year, and still thrums with all the intensity of an underground, emergent community. The bar on Friday night was packed, and filmmakers invited from around the world spoke of a time when their own country’s queer community had the same sense of adversity and purpose.

The next day I spoke with the festival’s executive director, Yang Yang, a clear-thinking woman who has been the backbone of the festival since its inception. Yang is neither gay, nor a filmmaker, and so her commitment to Beijing’s queer community is intriguing.

Yang Yang’s preface to the festival program is a beautiful piece of writing that suggests some of the ongoing complexities behind identity – sexual or otherwise. Below is my discussion with Yang about her ten years running the festival, and the potential of film to communicate difference.

Christen Cornell: Where does ‘kuer’, the Chinese word for ‘queer’ come from?

La La Digital Storytelling Workshops Qi Yu.jpg La La Digital, directed by Qi Yu

Yang Yang: It’s from Taiwan, that’s where it started. The 'ku' is the same ku that means ‘cool’ as in hip, but also different – a little bit alternative. In the 1990s in Taiwan there was a magazine called Dao Yu Bian Yuan. That was the first place it was used and from then on ‘kuer’ became the word.

CC: Do you get a sense of the size of Beijing’s queer community from the audience at the festival?

YY: I couldn’t give you any statistics on how many gay people are in Beijing or anything, but I can tell you that we always have an audience. It’s funny, other film festivals spend all their time and energy on promotion, while our biggest concern is keeping the festival quiet so as not to inform the police. But then once the festival begins, the people come. The people just come naturally.

CC: Like last night. The venue was changed at the last minute and that information wasn’t made public, but the room was full.

YY: Yes. It’s always this way, and never stable. The first year the festival was in a section of Beijing University, quite far out West; and then it went to 798, in the city’s East; and then it went even further East to Song Zhuang. Song Zhuang is really far away and we moved there to avoid attention.

CC: So why did you come back?

Doris Yeung, Motherland.jpgMotherland, directed by Doris Yeung

YY: Because in Song Zhuang this year it was not possible. And also I’ve been trying to move the festival into the centre of the city for the last ten years.

CC: Why? Does it feel like that would represent progress, a kind of acceptance?

YY: Sort of. Because when we moved outside the city to Song Zhuang it wasn’t because we wanted to move outside the city – we just didn’t have any choice. So now we’re back in the city, but we have to change the venue everyday.

CC: This is what you call a ‘guerrilla film festival’ in your preface.

YY: [laughs] Dayou jizhan(打游击战)in Chinese. Always changing places, always on the move.

CC: It was interesting last night though to hear Chinese-American filmmaker, Doris Yeung, describe the Chinese LBGT scene as like America 25 years ago; or Indian filmmaker, Sridhar Rangayan, describe it as like India 10 years ago. For each of them this was an exciting thing, as if the underground nature of China’s queer community gives it extra energy.

YY: [laughs] Yes, we’re used to doing this kind of stuff. If there’s no problem it’s not normal.

CC: That’s your normal, the abnormal. [laughs]

YY: I guess so.


Shanghai Rainbow, DIr by Han Chen.jpg Shanghai Rainbow, directed by Han Chen

CC: Could you tell me about this year’s program and how it’s changed over the years?

YY: When we started the festival we only showed films from Mainland China, but in the second festival started to add Taiwanese and Hong Kong films with the hope that we could represent the ‘three Chinas’. The third festival had a similar structure, but the fourth festival was very international.

That said, though, we’ve never tried to present an ‘international panorama’ – both times now the international section has had a very specific focus. So in our Queers from Diverse Cultures program we’ve invited a film festival from overseas to curate this section as a ways of presenting films from their country’s queer community. Last year the focus was on Italy and this year it’s on India and films from the Mumbai International Queer Film Festival.

Another thing is from 2009 we started to include profiles on particular filmmakers. So this year we have profiles on Barbara Hammer and Mickey Chen.

CC: And you also have a focus on queer film from the Chinese diaspora.

YY: That’s right. Previously it was all just Mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwanese Chinese films – we forgot that there was also this overseas Chinese culture and we should consider that as well! So we invited Doris Yeung to curate the overall festival program this year and, as a result, we have an extra section about overseas Chinese filmmakers. These people don’t only have the queer identity but also have all these other questions of identity as well, and I think this is really interesting.


CC: I wonder if your festival provides an opportunity for all kinds of young Chinese people to express their ideas about sexuality. I met a number of young, straight people at the opening last night and they seemed very curious to learn and think about sexuality generally, without feeling the need to ‘fit in’.

YY: That’s one of the aims of the festival. If only I could have attended a festival like this when I was a teenager – something that showed me there were so many different possibilities, so many different choices and ways of being – I would have been so much happier.

I’m not gay, although I find it hard to pinpoint what I am. In the preface to the festival program I call myself a straight gay [laughs], or a ‘zhitongzhi’ (直同志), which is a Chinese word that suggests you’re straight but gay friendly. Or something like that. But I think I’m more queer. Yes. I’d just say I’m ku’er (酷儿).

When I was in my teens, and even throughout my twenties, I experienced so many feelings of uncertainty and confusion. It was a difficult time. I was always doubting myself – I felt like I had too many ideas, too many questions. I used to wonder if I was different from other people, if maybe there was something wrong with me.

SPEAK UP! IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT, Deepika Lal.jpgSpeak Up! It Is Not Your Fault, directed by Deepika Lal

And then I started to watch films, and I realised that there were other people out there who had these same kinds of questions and confusion. I realised that that sense of uncertainty is actually really important in figuring out who you are, and it doesn’t necessarily come to an end. So perhaps I just wasn’t like a lot of those ‘normal’ people, but I wasn’t a ‘gay’ or a ‘la la’ [a ‘lesbian’] either. I didn’t have a fixed identity.

So I think that if I can give these young people the chance to think about these things then that’s a good thing. You don’t necessarily have to be a particular kind of person, you don’t have to look a certain way. Watching these films gives you the chance to see other people’s lives, to ask if you are like that too, or to realise that you are not. It gives you the chance to ask yourself: Who am I, really? If you keep on thinking and living this way then you are free, and that is a very good thing.

CC: The way you’re speaking makes the ‘queer’ in the festival title sound more like a philosophy than an identity. It’s a kind of attitude, a way of approaching life.

YY: Maybe it’s not a bad thing to have someone like me running a festival like this because I’m not a lesbian, I’m not gay, and usually gay and lesbians don’t always get along. They don’t work together so well, so it works quite well to put me in the middle. [laughs] This way I don’t have represent anybody, but just let everybody else speak instead.


Lost in You, Directed by Zhu Yiye.jpgLost in You, Directed by Zhu Yiye

CC: So what next for the festival?

YY: We’re thinking of touring it after this Beijing run – around Beijing, in bars, maybe art centres, different places. There’s a team called Zhongguo Duli Kuer Yingxiang Xiaozu (中国独立酷二影响小组) that’s touring mostly Chinese queer films all over China, and one part of the films are from our festival. This would be the first time our festival would have toured China in this way, and I’m quite excited about that.

CC: But you’re about to resign, aren’t you?

YY: I’m not sure, maybe. To tell the truth, I’m a little bit tired – after ten years the situation is still the same. I’m thinking of starting a women's film festival, because that would be considered a positive subject by the government. And then maybe inside the big title I could put some queer issues, films about gender and sexuality, something like that. It might be easier like this.

CC: And then do you think the queer festival will continue separately?

YY: It would probably continue without me at the head of it, and anyway I think the team needs to be renewed. I’ve been here since the beginning. When you’re the organiser of a film festival it’s like it’s your project – it’s all your thinking. The guy who’ll most likely take over is the youngest on the team, and that’s probably a good thing.

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Artspace China profiles Chinese visual arts, music and literature, presenting an overview of Chinese contemporary culture while also being a resource for specialised research. It is jointly sponsored by the University of Sydney China Studies Centre and Confucius Institute.

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