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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Queer Chinese filmmaker Popo Fan discusses work, life


Popo Fan, a queer filmmaker and activist in China, held a film screening and discussion Tuesday, Sept. 20 at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The event was jointly hosted by Fletcher LGBTQA and the Tufts China Club.

Patrick Schena, adjunct assistant professor at The Fletcher School and an associate-in-research at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, introduced Fan as “the most prolific queer independent filmmaker from China.” He noted that Fan’s works were important not only from a filmmaking perspective but also with regards to social politics, and added that this screening was an interesting collaboration between the two student organizations.

From the start, Fan engaged the audience with humor and jokes. He talked about his background in the Beijing Film Academy, saying that unlike his classmates, he did not come in with any experience in filmmaking or even any dreams about being a filmmaker. Instead, he had chosen the program because he did not want to study mathematics but had no other artistic talents.

During his first year, Fan said, he was doubtful if he had made the right choice. However, in his second year, he had a homophobic classmate with whom he shared a television. According to Fan, after the two of them spent time watching films with LGBTQ themes, this classmate changed his mind and became more tolerant.

“This is something I discovered about film: it won’t change your sexual orientation, but it will give you a wider view of the world,” Fan said.

Fan then introduced his first documentary film of the evening, “New Beijing, New Marriage(2009), which he had directed with David Zheng. According to Fan, in 2009, a group of activists organized a campaign to promote same-sex marriage in China, which he recorded.

The short film opens with two same-sex couples, one female and one male, preparing for a wedding. In between putting on make-up and posing for photos, the actors, who were volunteers, talk about how they hope to raise awareness about the LGBTQ community in China. They then travel to Qianmen Street, a famous pedestrian street in Beijing, where they hold a public photo shoot. Passersby are initially mostly disbelieving, with some expressing disapproval while others are supportive. A few people talk about homosexuality as foreign influence that goes against Chinese traditions. The activists then give out flowers and try to engage people in conversation, asking if they would support the two actors getting married. Some say they would, but when asked if they would accept their own children if they came out as homosexual, the answers are far less positive.

At the end of the film, Fan highlights this discrepancy: many people are neutral or accepting of LGBTQ issues, until it concerns their own children. Thus, he decided to make films that focused on the families of LGBTQ people.

The second screening was an excerpt from “Mama Rainbow” (2012). Fan explained that he had originally wanted to feature both fathers and mothers of LGBTQ children in the film, but he could not find fathers who were willing to speak in front of a camera. Thus, “Mama Rainbow” is a collection of six stories about mothers and their gay and lesbian children.

Two of these stories were screened. Each centers on an adult gay man and his mother. The documentary intersperses scenes from daily life -- shopping for clothes, cooking meals, riding the train -- with conversations between mother and son. Common topics included the boy's childhood and coming out process.

Both mothers were involved in PFLAG China, an organization which supports LGBTQ individuals and their families, and which connected Fan with many of his sources.

According to Fan, progress has been made since “Mama Rainbow.” In fact, he is heading to the DC Chinese Film Festival in Washington, D.C., where he will be showing his new film, “Papa Rainbow” (2016). As a complement to his earlier film, “Papa Rainbow” features the fathers of six LGBTQ individuals.

The film screenings were followed by a question and answer session, during which Fan took questions from the audience.

Fan mentioned that in “Mama Rainbow,” five of the six mothers had been divorced, one was in an open marriage and one had remarried. However, he had left that information out of the documentary because of the myth that being raised by single parents causes people to become gay.

“But then I look back and I have a reflection that this was related, in a way,” Fan said. “Those women were brave enough to get divorced [despite the stigma]...and now they are the people who are accepting their children and support[ing] them.”

In response to a question about his own family’s reaction, Fan said that he was lucky he had been collecting stories and doing interviews, as these made it easier to come out to his family. Nevertheless, he initially did not tell them about the political nature of his films.

“They grew up in [the] generation of the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square, so they don’t want me to get involved in anything dangerous,” he said.

Fan said his parents found out about his work after his father learned to use a computer and they were supportive of him.

Fan also discussed the difficulties he faced with authorities and censorship in China. In 2014, he discovered that “Mama Rainbow” had been taken down from all the websites it had been posted on. This made him angry, Fan said, because he was already unable to show his documentary in theaters and now it was being removed from the Internet. However, the controversy led to more people hearing about the film – “so I really appreciate the government,” he joked.

Fan talked about the frustrations of repeatedly calling websites to find out why “Mama Rainbow” was taken down, only to be told that he was violating a rule, but that he could not know what that rule was.

"Now all the websites know my name," he said, laughing.

On a more serious note, Fan added that Chinese citizens do not have access to good systems to communicate with authorities.

Fan talked at length about LGBTQ experiences and activism in China. He mentioned that attitudes varied a lot across different regions, and although there are increasing numbers of LGBTQ characters in mainstream movies, they still portray stereotypes.

“I’m a very weird person but I don’t put that into my film, because I want mainstream audiences to see it and I want to have a conversation with them,” he said.

Finally, Fan discussed how he funds his filmmaking. According to Fan, he started out by using his own money, and had borrowed money from his boyfriend that he took two years to return.

“But I’m very good at saving money and [working] on a budget,” he said.

“Mama Rainbow” and “Papa Rainbow” both received funding from international organizations. Fan has also turned to crowdfunding, and he joked that he has a “sugar daddy in Beijing who pays [his] rent.”

Fan said that his niece, whose mother – his eldest sister – was against homosexuality, also gave him a small personal donation.

“It’s a tiny story, but it’s very beautiful,” he said.