Fan Popo is an independent filmmaker, gay rights activist and writer based in Beijing. Originally from Jiangsu Province, he graduated from the Beijing Film Academy and has been a committee member of the Beijing Queer Film Festival, an underground event pushing for LGBT equality in China. His documentary works include Chinese Closet (2010), Be a Woman (2011), Mama Rainbow (2012), and most recently, Papa Rainbow (2016). Born in 1985, Fan is also the author of Happy Together: 100 Queer Films (Beifang Wenyi Press, 2007).
Mama Rainbow is about the real-life stories of six Chinese mothers who speak openly about their love and support for their gay and lesbian children. The documentary proved very popular with audiences, but also raised an important question: “Where are the fathers?” In an effort to answer this question, Fan crisscrosses the country to find six fathers willing to open up about their feelings towards their LGBT children. The outcome is the sequel Papa Rainbow, completed in May 2016. Despite their varied educational backgrounds and cultural differences, the fathers speak emotionally about their feelings after their LGBT children came out to them. Their candor is helped by the inclusion of a cathartic drama workshop in the film, which requires them to perform a play about the daily challenges faced by their LGBT children, allowing them to reflect on their paternal roles and traditional Chinese ideas toward marriage and sexuality.
How did you come to make films as a career? And who was your early inspiration in making queer films?
I came to filmmaking by accident. Growing up as a student I was not very good in math. Friends initially suggested that I take up art, but I didn’t have any traditional art training. Eventually, I decided to give filmmaking a try, as getting in doesn’t require good math skills or a traditional art background.
I didn’t take to filmmaking at the film academy initially. I found the atmosphere there rather off-putting, as the curriculum was still very much based on the Russian model, and making experimental films was frowned upon. However, I discovered that making documentaries is a good way to help change people’s minds. In China, there’s so little information about LGBT. People don’t understand what homosexuality is about. Even mainstream media doesn’t provide any such info. Film is a fast way to communicate to others about this subject. It allows me to communicate with (my subjects) and show films to my audiences, which in turn inspires them and starts a chain reaction to communicate with my subjects and with one another.
As for inspiration, when I was at the film academy, I met with Cui Zi’en, a film director and pioneer LGBT activist who was an associate professor at the academy. Although he didn’t teach much at the time, we became good friends and he inspired me to make LGBT films. Some of his films also had a great impact on me, like Feeding Boys, Ayaya; Night Scene; Queer China, Comrade China.
You made two documentaries about Chinese parents’ relationship with their LGBT children. Why did you decide to focus on the LGBT theme from the parents’ perspective?
I made a documentary called Chinese Closet in 2009, which is about gay people coming out to their Chinese families. Initially, I was hoping to include more of the parents’ viewpoints, but few parents wanted to appear. It was only when I talked about my idea of making a film on this topic at the 2011 PFLAG (Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays) China meeting that I received a really strong reaction. And that paved the way for my filming Mama Rainbow and later, Papa Rainbow. I started filming Mama Rainbow first because mothers of LGBT children, I found, were much more willing to speak openly about their children.
Was it significantly more difficult to find fathers who were willing to talk openly about their LGBT children?
Yes, it was much more difficult to find fathers willing to appear on camera. There are two reasons—one reason has to do with time constraints. In China, women typically retire between 50 and 55, which is about a decade sooner than for men. This means many retired mothers have the time to engage in various causes and charity work. Many fathers however can’t afford the time because of their busy work schedules.
Another reason is that China is still very much of a patriarchal society, and there’s the belief that it’s not macho for a man to engage in activist work, which is seen as more appropriate for old ladies. Many men feel ashamed about doing such work, and they have their face to worry about. Even when we managed to persuade fathers to appear in the film, I found that many of them aren’t good at telling stories. They are different from many of the moms who are not only talkative, but are also very natural when it comes to telling vivid tales about their children. This is why in Papa Rainbow, I decided to change the format and have fathers take part in a drama workshop to help them open up. Of course we were also under a bit of pressure to change the format so the two documentaries didn’t appear too much alike.
Do you see a difference in the fathers’ attitudes across generations, educational levels, income differences, or a north-south divide?
In general, the east coast cities, because of faster economical development, tend to be more accepting of LGBTs. Rural parts of China, particularly the northwestern region, were traditionally more closed about the LGBT community. But the Internet is changing much of that. I also found it really depends on individuals and their upbringings. The six fathers who participated in the documentary are mostly government officials, teachers and in finance. One father even took time off from work in order to participate in campaign work to support his child.
In some studies, I noticed parents with out-of-the-norm children tend to have different responses depending on their children’s gender. In particular, parents tend to be less anxious with perceived problems if their children happened to be female, whereas male children are more likely to stir greater anxiety in parents because of their traditional role as the successor to the family line, etc. Do you find this to be true with parents with LGBT children also?
In Papa Rainbow, it so happens that we have a greater number of female LGBT children experiencing problems being accepted by their families. But I don’t necessarily think that my samples are very representative. I don’t have concrete statistics about the gender differences, so I really can’t say. However, in general, I find the number of parents of gay children engaging in activism is far greater than those with lesbian children. I don’t yet know whether it’s because parents tend to worry more about their sons because of the traditional role attached to the Chinese male, which creates greater pressure for their sons to get married and have children, or because parents of lesbians are less worried about their daughters getting married. Of course this could also be because fewer women feel the need or pressure to come out to their families. Maybe there are many mixed factors involved here.
You made a name for yourself by taking the censorship bureau to court in 2015. Can you explain how you became involved in the lawsuit and where you stand now with the case?
My 2012 film Mama Rainbow is my most popular film to date. It has helped many lesbian and gay people in China come out to their parents. But in December 2014, I discovered it had been taken down from three major video streaming sites. I was later told the sites had received a letter from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) stating that the film had somehow violated its guidelines. When I demanded an explanation from the regulator, they denied they had sent any document asking that my film be taken down. That was when I decided to fight for my rights by filing a lawsuit against the regulator.
Last December, the court ruled the regulator had violated the law on a technical point — it had replied to me using the name of its “general office” rather than its own proper name, even though SAPPRFT was correct in stating it hadn’t released any document to block my film. Although the verdict was vague, my supporters and friends all congratulated me on “winning the lawsuit.” Personally, I think the process is more important than the outcome because, by taking the step of suing the censorship bureau, I let people know that it’s important to fight for your rights.
What is it like to be a LGBT in China these days? Are attitudes changing, given the amount of info about queer communities that we can access now?
I do find compared to other (non-Western) countries, it’s easier to be gay because you don’t have the type of gay bashing that’s motivated by religious causes we see in some of these countries. However, there’s still very little room for LGBT expression in China. And in general, it’s a lot harder to be lesbian, or transgender in China, as they are much less visible than gay groups. Being a woman in Chinese society is already tough, and if you’re a woman that’s out of the norm, then you have a ‘double burden.’
What are you working on right now, and how do you find funding for your projects?
It’s not easy to make independent films, especially queer films. Because of strict censorship restrictions, none of my films can enter commercial film circuits, save for a few galleries, cafes or schools. This means I can never recoup my expenses, not to mention make a profit. Right now, I depend mostly on grants from NGOs, a few international foundations or private donations. I also work as a film translator or produce conference videos to support myself. It’s a hard life, and there were times when I had to buy cheap duck carcasses to help sustain myself. Right now, I’m working on a short fiction film that’s about 15 minutes long. I plan on taking it to various film festivals.
Karen Ma is a US-based independent film scholar and movie critic specializing in Chinese cinema. Her latest book is China’s Millennial Digital Generation: Conversations with Balinghou (post 1980s) Indie Filmmakers. Ma, a former Chinese culture and film lecturer at The Beijing Center of Chinese Studies, China, is also the author of The Modern Madame Butterfly and Excess Baggage, A Novel.