Anyone who has ever been to a gay and lesbian film festival, or nearly any film festival for that matter, knows that they are all about seeing and being seen – in the most personal and the most political of senses. They’re about seeing movies, seeing friends, and if you’re lucky, seeing celebrities. They’re about being seen by film execs, politicians and gossip columnists, and the Weinstein Brothers...if you were lucky in the 90s. And they’re about being seen seeing the right films.
Not to be too reductive – I wrote an entire dissertation on gay and lesbian film festivals, so I can attest to the complexities of the institution– but they are essentially about visibility. They’re about visibility on the screen and in the seats.
Except, in some cases, they’re not about being seen at all, as I learned while researching and writing an essay on gay and lesbian film festivals in China that appears in the Film Festival Yearbook 3. In Beijing, the organizers of the gay and lesbian film festival have had to do everything in their power to avoid being seen...at least within the city limits.
In 2001, the Tongzhi (Comrades) Film Festival was founded with a semantic sleight of hand – Comrades is slang for queer and university officials assumed they were dealing with the communist variety. When they found out what Comrades really meant, they shut the festival down. Four years later, organizers tried again. This time, they kept the details a secret, selling tickets through email. Ten minutes before the premiere, authorities discovered a stack of queer themed festival posters and immediately shut it down again. In the dim morning light, the festival was forced to move to an art space on the outskirts of town, where it went unnoticed by authorities.
Almost a decade later, the festival finally proceeded – in its entirety – without incident. The clip I’m featuring here is an earnest and heartwarming testament to the perseverance of its organizers. But it also suggests that the conventional wisdom that gay and lesbian film festivals are about visibility is challenged bytenuous relationships between the state and the market and the tension between governance and civil liberties in contemporary China. Indeed, ‘Comrades’ seems to have gotten far more coverage outside Mainland China than within, complicating the dynamics between local and global visibility and questioning our assumptions about what visibility means politically.