“Guerilla Warfare”: Between the Countryside and the City

Following the second edition, BJQFF migrated to Songzhuang, an artists’ village in the eastern suburbs of Beijing, joining BIFF as its “queer film unit” in 2007 and 2009. There were pros and cons to this move. BJQFF could be organized without (overly) worrying about being shut down by the police, thanks to Songzhuang’s geographical marginality in relation to the more politically sensitive center of Beijing. This migration was jokingly referred to as drawing on the revolutionary strategies of “retreating in order to advance” (yitui weijin) and “surrounding the city with the countryside” (nongcun baowei chengshi), slogans popular during the Maoist era. But there was also a downside to the geographical marginality of this screening venue: It discouraged the urban queer audience from participating in the event. The queer films were shown to a group of heterosexual- identified filmmakers and artists who had little idea about homosexuality. BJQFF was thus faced with the challenge of how to balance identity and community building with educating a wider public about gender/sexual diversity. It was the organizers’ privileging of “community interest,” combined with external political developments, that expedited the festival’s return to the city center in 2011.

2011 marked the tenth anniversary of BJQFF. However, it was also a difficult year for independent Chinese cinema, exemplified by the government’s closure of the eighth China Documentary Film Festival because of the politically sensitive “Jasmine Revolution.” Songzhuang was no longer a safe haven for independent filmmakers. The BJQFF organizers therefore decided to bring the festival back to the city:

The Plan B was to screen films at three different venues: a book club, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, and a club specializing in documentary films at Tsinghua University.35 In late May, the situation changed dramatically. The new administrative team at Ullens cancelled our screening event.

We had to cancel some films, most of which were made by our friends, so as to keep guest directors’ films in the program. The screening venues were not publicized, but passed on to audience members through online instant messenger after they booked tickets. News spread quickly. State administrative organs such as the Xicheng District Cultural Commission, the police station, and the Ministry of Industry and Commerce began to have “talks” with the film festival organizers. The Cultural Commission said that films about sexual minorities were not permitted for public screening as they had not passed film censorship. The Ministry of Industry and Commerce exerted pressure on the venue providers, stating that they were not licensed to host film festivals. The police emphasized that their permission would be needed for large-scale public events: the festival was illegal and must be cancelled. on the day of the opening ceremony, government officials stayed at the original venue [the Dongjen Book Club]; the venue provider had to keep to his normal work schedule instead of showing up at the event.36 Although we announced to the public that the festival was cancelled, there was no way back: guests from different countries had already arrived in Beijing. For safety’s sake, we refused to allow strangers to participate, except for the 25 audience members who were already in Beijing and whose travels from rural China to Beijing were sponsored by the Ford Foundation. We searched every corner of Beijing for alternative screening locations. We brought screens and projectors to restaurants, cafes, and teahouses. We confirmed venue information and printed screening programs on a day-to-day basis. Each day we had screenings in four different venues. The organizers and the audience members had to travel all around the city. We made it at last!37

As we can see from the above account, in 2011, BJQFF faced severe pressure from the government. Instead of yielding, though, the organizers came up with creative and ingenious tactics to deal with this pressure. Some of these tactics are still in use today. To cope with government closure of screening venues, the organizing committee usually has to prepare several alternative plans for screening times and venues. The festival is usually held at different venues and on different days. If one venue is discovered and shut down by the police, events at other venues will not be affected. These tactics are referred to as “guerrilla warfare” (youji zhan) by the BJQFF organizers, drawing on China’s revolutionary experience. Tactics, according to Michel de Certeau, are attempts by the powerless to adapt to an environment created by the powerful.38 Unlike the strategies of the powerful, which are usually preplanned and static, tactics are actions in a constant state of reassessment and correction, based directly on obser?vation of the actual environment. BJQFF’s “guerrilla warfare” tactics in response to the Chinese government’s repressive “strategy” culminated in a highly flexible and creative form of festival organization and film programming: film screenings on a bus during the festival’s sixth edition in 2013, and on a train during the seventh edition in 2014:

On the morning of 19 September, we boarded the train from Beijing to Huairou from Beijing Railway Station. There were not many passengers on the train. The forty of us, including filmmakers, guests and volunteers, packed into a train carriage. We divided people into groups of two or three. Each group shared a laptop computer. We gave each group a USB stick with Yang Yang’s film Our Story, a documentary about the history of BJQFF, on it. After arriving in Huairou, we travelled to a prebooked venue by bus and held a Q&A there.39

This screening event was humorously referred to as “Political Ceremonies: Caravan and USB” in the seventh edition of the festival catalog.

What are the implications of these organizational tactics? I would suggest that by making strategic use of the “lightness” of digital media,40 and by making explicit reference to a nomadic way of life, BJQFF not only queered such mundane practices as traveling on a state-owned train, but also opened up the question of what constitutes a film festival. Do film festivals need a fixed timetable and venue? Does watching films on a laptop computer constitute a festival screening? In addition, if we consider the plan to stream online shorts in 2015, is online streaming an acceptable form of festival screening? If so, where do we locate the boundary between a film festival and everyday media consumption? All these questions, brought into focus by a combination of new media technologies and the political situation in China, suggest interesting new areas of investigation for film festival researchers and practitioners. While I cannot answer these questions here, I can suggest that the cultural translation of film festivals provides an interesting insight: both these categories, queer and queer film festivals, are in a constant process of formation, reformation, and transformation. Catachresis reminds us that there is no original queer or film festival culture, in the same way as there is no authentic film festival format or organizing style. In places outside of the Euro-American cultural sphere, film festivals are taking on innovative forms and producing unexpected impacts.

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