Many attendees of the Shanghai Intl. Film Festival likely know little about the ShanghaiPRIDE Film Festival, the other event in town every June. Unlike the government-sponsored fest, ShanghaiPRIDE operates in a legal gray zone because of its celebration of LGBTQ content, which is frowned upon by Chinese censors.
This year, ShanghaiPRIDE’s nonprofit event ran June 8-16 and showcased more than 60 films, half of them short works, over the course of a packed week to about 80 people per screening. “We are pretty out. The problem is we don’t know just how out we can be,” said organizer Raymond Phung, who explained that though the volunteer-run festival has been allowed to continue into its 11th year relatively unmolested by authorities, there’s always a possibility that circumstances could change without warning.
This year, it opened with the Chinese-Spanish feature “A Dog Barking at the Moon,” directed by Lisa Zi Xiang. But none of its films has gone through China’s draconian and opaque censorship process, which bans LGBTQ content from online platforms and TV but has never issued a clear stance on it for the big screen. “We don’t even apply; we know it will not pass,” Phung said. Instead, the festival works through foreign consulates, in what appears to be a tolerated workaround. “If [authorities] see this as a foreign consulate cultural event, then it shouldn’t be a problem,” Phung said. “If they see it as a public or private screening without censorship,” that’s when you run into trouble.”
The film festival has always been a part of ShanghaiPRIDE’s broader agenda, but started out much smaller, with just a few screenings one evening at a bar, before expanding to four nights and finally its current, week-long form.
In the early days, “screenings were very secretive – very small-scale, with 20 or 30 people at most. You wouldn’t know the venue until a few hours before,” said Phung. But things ramped up in 2010 and 2011 because of the Shanghai World Expo, which sparked interest from international consulates in supporting the event. They began to provide financial support for the screening fees of certain titles, venues, and often their own cultural section’s libraries of LGBT-related titles not normally shown to the public. Pride organizers began making their own film selections and bringing in other works in 2015, when those libraries ran out of new options.
“The LGBTQ community here isn’t allowed to watch these sorts of amazing films in public cinemas, so we go online, because that’s the only safe space we can find. But with these offline events, there’s a lot of positive energy,” Phung said. “Our films look more at relationships, community, and family than at political or explicit content. Gender, self-discovery and the relationships between parents and children are some of the key issues that the local community would like to learn more about.”
ShanghaiPRIDE has not formally approached the much larger SIFF about collaborating, despite it taking place — by coincidence — within days of each other or concurrently each year.
In past years, the larger Shanghai festival has shown some LGBTQ films, including the gay coming-of-age story “Love, Simon” and Japan’s “Close-Knit,” the country’s first mainstream film about a transgender woman. But this year, there appear to be none in the lineup, presumably because it is a time of heightened political sensitivity due to the upcoming 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, which has occasioned stronger censorship.
China screened both “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” in theaters this year, but with significant cuts to their gay content. The latter was a particular disappointment to Phung and his collaborators. “A lot of us wanted to write to the Chinese distributor to say they’re doing a bad job — they bought the rights and want to monetize it, but it’s not doing the film any justice, so what’s the point?”
Nevertheless, he remains optimistic as the global industry trends towards content featuring LGBT characters in ways that make their gender identities impossible to censor, because it won’t be a simple matter of cutting out a kiss.
“It’s been 50 years since Stonewall, and it took Australia 40 years of activism to achieve marriage equality, whereas at most Shanghai has had 15 years of an LGBT movement,” Phung said. “The gap’s not going to just close within the next year. There’s a big difference between 40, 50 years and 15 years. If cutting it in half is possible, that’d already be huge.”