Queer Movies, Queer Community
Scott E. Myers
Scott E. Myers
Queer Cinema, Queer Community
When Ang Lee’s film Brokeback Mountain was released in the United States in December of 2005, the conservative Christian Right in that country launched a series of protests. They pressured theaters not to show the film, sent a petition to The Oscars decrying the film’s eight Academy Award nominations, and even supported a lawsuit against the Board of Education when the movie was shown in a high school classroom. What was it about this film that they so feared? Part of the answer lay in their belief, shared by anti-gay bigots from Moscow to Kampala, that gay movies have the power to make people, especially children, gay. Most LGBTQ people scoff at this idea, holding tightly to the view that we were “born this way” (recent scientific findings as well as Lady Gaga support this view).And yet, the hetero-supremacists are not entirely wrong. As LGBTQ people, we choose our queer identities and communities, and movies are a part of the cultural context that makes this choice possible.
In China, cinematic representations of queerness have since the mid- to late-1990s become increasingly accessible to people of different ages, classes and ethnic groups. While viewing queer works of art may be possible only for a relatively small segment of the population, the growth of queer filmmaking and spectatorship in urban areas has helped create a context for LGBTQ people to honor and express a wide range of non-normative desires. The Beijing Queer Film Festival’s scholarship fund has allowed people from different parts of the country to participate in festival events. Members of the China Queer Independent Films group have travelled the country bringing independent films to a number of cities and schools. Queer Comrades has created an independent webcast making it possible for half a billion Chinese Internet-users to view documentary films that cannot be shown through authorized channels. All of these represent milestones in the ability of ordinary people to gain access to something that is not just a form of entertainment or high art—though it can also be these—but is also a powerful avenue for exploring new ways of living, new possibilities for our relationships, and new approaches to understanding who we are.
Emerging in the second decade of reform after Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour,” China’s independent queer cinema movement today faces the multiple and overlapping pressures of censorship, the market economy, queerphobic attitudes, illegal evictions and demolitions of art zones, forced shutdowns of film festivals, and the continuing legacy of the shadow that fell on experimental artists in China after 1989.As such, it is a response to a concrete set of historical circumstances as well as a force with the potential to act on and shape circumstances of the future. A legal framework that defined all LGBTQ people (and some heterosexuals) as “hooligans” was offset from the early 1990s by a handful of sympathetic academics and journalists who advocated for greater understanding of gay people. And yet, these well-meaning specialists often missed the mark when it came to understanding the lives of LGBTQ people and the pressures they faced. Queer cinema offers an authentic take on queer Chinese lives from a great variety of aesthetic, political, and erotic perspectives, employing visual languages and touching affective dimensions that can never be fully accounted for by extra-cinematic modes of representation, including film criticism.
Just as representations of queerness have begun to disseminate through China’s cultural landscape, filmmaking itself has become increasingly democratized as camera and digital technologies have become more accessible. New institutions such as Queer University have started giving people with an interest in movies the opportunity to undergo training in documentary filmmaking. The Beijing Queer Film Festival, first launched in 2001 as the “Chinese Homosexual Film Festival,” has instituted a radical practice of media democracy by accepting all domestic films submitted for screening. Meanwhile, informal and non-official channels such as the Internet and independent artist networks have compelling implications not only for the impact of new technology on the way films are produced, subtitled, and distributed, but also for the diffusion and decentralization of the processes by which they are (or are not) established as “classics.” Indeed, “Chinese queer cinema” may be a noun, but it is anything but an object. It is, rather, a process of engagement, an anchor for community, a set of social relations with the potential for radical democracy, and a mirror that helps us see who we are and aid us in the forging of individual and collective identities.
If queer cinema acts as a mirror, however, for many of us the first moments of the self-recognition it offers are painful ones. A quote from Jean Genet shown as an intertitle in Todd Haynes’1991filmPoison (the film I chose when asked to select a non-Chinese work for this year’s festival) conveys the sense of pain many of us experienced not when encountering the first stirrings of desire (which were often experienced as pure) but when our eyes were opened to the way in which that desire has been named by a world that continues to interpret it through the lens of the legal, medical, and/or religious frameworks in which we have, in uneven and differing ways, been defined. Genet writes: “A child is born and he is given a name. Suddenly, he can see himself. He recognizes his position in the world. For many, this experience, like that of being born, is one of horror.”
Queer cinema offers a counter-narrative to this horror, not because it gives a “positive” depiction of queer life (often it does not, and as an example we may look no further than East Palace, West Palace, the opening film of the Festival’s inaugural year), but because it gives a depiction that is generated from within our own communities. Like our reclaiming of the word queer itself, queer cinema is an assault on narratives about us, with the weapons of that assault being rooted in a combination of anger and love. For many of us, picking up those weapons—even if we are not yet sure how to use them—is an important step toward self-validation, which in turn can lead to action. Falling in love, coming out to friends and family, taking steps to know one’s HIV status, participating in cultural events, making movies, and organizing direct actions are all instances of actions LGBTQ people have taken in different parts of the world, not only to transform their lives, but in some cases to transform the societies in which they live.
The films being shown at the 7th Beijing Queer Film Festival attest to the diverse social and aesthetic concerns of Chinese queer filmmakers, as well as to the organizers’ commitment to showcasing this diversity in all of its complexity. Far from recoiling from the challenges of this complexity, Chinese queer cinema embraces it, for complexity—of identities, experiences, desires—can itself be a source of pleasure and a basis for personal and community growth. Queer cinema does not have the responsibility to depict queerness in any particular way; it only has the responsibility to be honest in its perspective. It is this honesty that some people fear, but which we know lets us see who we are.
[中译: 吴丹 Chinese Translation: Lydia Wu]