A Brief History of BJQFF
Founded in 2001, BJQFF is the biggest and most successful identity- based independent film festival in mainland China. Eight editions have been held thus far, first at four-year intervals, then biennially from 2005, and annually as of 2014. The festival primarily features queer films produced in mainland China, but it also showcases queer films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, diasporic Chinese regions, and non-Sinophone spheres. The festival program varies from edition to edition, but it mainly consists of units such as opening and closing films, feature films, documentaries, shorts, Hong Kong and Taiwan productions, overseas productions, panel discussions, and student works. In 2014, the streaming of online shorts (wangluo wei dianying) was added to the program, and an edited collection of articles written by film studies scholars was included in the film festival catalog. Each edition attracts film directors, film festival curators, film scholars, and audience members from all over China and abroad, who travel to Beijing to attend the festival.
If the above account suggests that BJQFF has developed without incident, that would be misleading. The festival has from the outset faced a variety of pressures including those from the Chinese government, sometimes to the extent of being shut down. The first edition, held at Peking University in 2001, had to close earlier than planned. The second edition, held in 2005, had to shift its screening location from the Peking University campus in northwest Beijing to the 798 Modern Art District in northeast Beijing overnight. The third and the fourth editions, held at the Songzhuang artist village on the east outskirts of Beijing in 2007 and 2009 as a unit of the Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF), went relatively smoothly, albeit at the expense of participation from the LGBT community. The fifth, sixth, and seventh editions, held in 2011, 2013, and 2014, respectively, had to adopt “guerrilla warfare style” tactics by reducing publicity to a minimum and constantly shifting screening venues to cope with the risk of forced closure. Before the seventh BJQFF in 2014, several of the festival organizers were called in for questioning by the police. However, BJQFF has continued to run despite all these pressures and difficulties; its mere existence is a more telling political statement than the kind of films it screens and the number of people who attend.
Different festival organizers have given varying accounts of BJQFF’s aims. Cui Zi’en—the openly queer independent filmmaker, writer, and former professor at the Beijing Film Academy who is also one of the events most senior organizers—explicitly labels BJQFF as a form of social activism, even coining the term “digital video activism” (yingxiang xingdong) to describe the role of queer films and queer film festivals in contemporary China’s social movements: “We advocate the type of social activism that aims to change the society with filmmaking. Films can be directly linked to, and to transform, the hard world and times we live in.”8 Yang Yang, another BJQFF organizer, locates the significance of the event in its contestation of dominant ideologies in China: “To question and to challenge the dominant ideology, isn’t this the value and the objective of the Beijing Queer Film Festival?”9 Jenny Wu Man and Li Dan, codirectors of the festival in 2014, emphasize the importance of queer films in changing ordinary citizens’ perceptions of homosexuality: “The Beijing Queer Film Festival aims to expose mainstream audiences to queer themes, and will increase the presence of queer cinema in mainstream media.”10 They also articulate their concern for and belief in a culturally diverse China:
Each of us hopes to live in a culturally rich country; this is key to leading a happy life. At the present moment, China’s economy is flying sky high, but its culture is crawling on the ground. Diversity is a necessary precondition for cultural development, and the Beijing Queer Film Festival exists to uphold China’s diversity and to plant the seeds necessary for a culturally rich tomorrow. We believe that day will come.11
As can be seen from the above, each organizer frames the aims and objectives of BJQFF in relation to their own subject positions and preoccupations. They all, however, link the festival to patriotic sentiments and a commitment to praxis. The latter reminds us of the Confucian literati tradition of junzi (a noble person) serving the nation and tianxia (all under heaven), and the Marxist/socialist intellectual tradition of zhi- shi fenzi (intellectuals) participating in material and cultural production to transform themselves and society. The mentality of “worrying about China” has been shared by many intellectuals and social elites in Chinese history.12 What is particularly striking here is that although the work of the queer activists has not been officially recognized at home, they share similar concerns with mainstream, mostly heterosexual, public intellectuals in China. Instead of exploring the “trouble with normal” and imagining a radically different queer future,13 their political ideals and cultural imagination seem rather normative from a Western perspective. However, as Yau Ching reminds us, normativity should be understood in different ways in various social and cultural contexts.14 At times, the BJQFF organizers seem to identify more as public intellectuals than as members or supporters of the sexual minority community; in these circumstances, a national or patriotic agenda is thus prioritized over identity politics. Seen in this light, the BJQFF organizers’ “obsession with China” becomes understandable. However, this agenda has framed the different ways in which the festival has translated the concept of queer into a Chinese context.