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Popo Fan on running China’s biggest queer film festival

Prompted to leave China’s capital by anti-gay media censorship, film director Popo Fan now curates the country’s longest-running queer film festival from his Berlin apartment.

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Berlin-based film director Popo Fan (pictured here with Matthias Delvaux) has been a curating member of the Beijing Queer Film Festival since 2013. Photo: Yuan Yuan

“In China everybody told me that if you want to realise your queer projects you should go to Berlin. But I was hesitant to leave,” reflects film director Popo Fan. Born in 1985 in the Shanghai area, Fan has been part of China’s queer artistic community since studying film in the mid 2000s, and has been a curating member of the Beijing Queer Film Festival since 2013. While he is now based in the German capital, for this script writer, actor and director, moving here wasn’t an easy decision. “I didn’t want to give in to the notion that you can only do queer, sex positive art in Europe.”

Fan was first introduced to the Beijing Queer Film Festival by a keen film studies professor. Now he has been helping manage the festival – which is China’s oldest, having launched in 2001 – for more than a decade. But in a country where portraying homosexual relationships in a positive way is banned, circumventing censorship means taking risks. Fan himself has experienced this pressure: venue owners who host film screenings are harassed by the police and universities are told to not host Fan’s events. In 2013, Fan and his colleagues screened the festival’s films in a bus because they weren’t able to find a location willing to host them. “The following year, the bus company was told not to rent their buses to the festival makers,” he says.

Despite the pressure, Fan is undeterred. “Homosexuals simply don’t appear in Chinese films and media – except for very campy gays that no one takes seriously. But we still find ways and niches to let queer culture flourish,” he says. Mama Rainbow, a documentary that Fan made telling the story of how Chinese mothers come to love and accept their queer children, was taken down from one of the biggest Chinese streaming platforms. “I didn’t even try to get it onto the big screens,” he says. “Most of my own screening events were censored as well. I felt so useless in a city where I wasn’t allowed to screen my films.” This censorship – and pollution – are what finally prompted him to leave Beijing in 2017. 

I felt so useless in a city where I wasn’t allowed to screen my films.

When he first arrived in Berlin on a language visa, Fan felt relief. He soon gained permission to stay as a freelance artist and took an acting job in a video installation. The artist simply told him to act drunk and dance. “That was easy,” he laughs. He is impressed with the capital’s lively queer scene as well as the body and sex positive attitude many people have. “The queer scene here is so active, on non-Covid days it’s hard to decide which events to go to. I found many great collaborators with whom I share artistic points of view, life attitudes and values. I even met my last set designer at the Ficken 3000 gay bar.”

Yet the move to Germany didn’t make discrimination a thing of the past for Fan. “Being Asian in Germany is quite similar to being queer in China: You stand out but at the same time there is very little representation in the media or films. You’re not seen by society.” In addition to the lack of representation of Asian people in Film und Fernsehen Berlin is far from the tolerant utopia of popular portrayal.

Since the pandemic hit, Fan has experienced harassment because of his appearance, and says he was spat at on the U-Bahn in the early months when the virus was emerging out of China, with his attacker shouting “Corona, Corona.” Fan has encountered racial discrimination in queer spaces too: “Asian men are often conceived of as non-sexual. Take Jackie Chan: he’s a super hero but never kisses. It’s the same thing at sex-positive parties,” Fan says.

Still, he is “more than happy with his choice to move to Berlin” even though he spends his evenings scrolling through TikTok looking at authentic Chinese food, something that he desperately misses in Berlin. The ties to Beijing continue despite the distance: Fan remains curator of the Queer Film Festival and is planning the 2021 edition not in fear of the authorities but via video calls from the safety of his flat in once-edgy Neukölln. “It’s the centre of the gentrification universe,” he jokes.