Written by William F. Schroeder.

Having just been on a discussion panel called “Light Documentaries and Heavy Activism” (“轻纪录片与重行动主义”) at the 7th Beijing Queer Film Festival, I have questions of social movements, organization, and politics on my mind. Such questions take on a special significance as I watch protest actions in Hong Kong unfold from my current position in the capital. But foremost lingers a perpetuating interest in figuring out the best way to treat the looming and sometimes lumbering but ever so elusive concept of “activism” itself in research on queer China. The problem looms because activism—its strategies, organizational principles, ethics, and the like—remains forever on the minds of those involved in trying to improve tongzhi (同志, “queer”) rights in the PRC. It lumbers because movement-internal discussions can seem overly academic and disconnected, heavy with their own logics and quarrels, far from the actual lives of constituents. And it’s elusive because, when pressed, most of us have a hard time identifying just what successful activism might be in the atmosphere of increasingly invasive measures taken by authorities to restrict or interfere in the activities of queer NGOs (more than one of my colleagues involved in the movement has been arrested or called in for questioning more than once this year).

It’s these contradictions—the ways activism can seem so important and so heavy but also so ephemeral and out of grasp at the same time—that fascinated me in our panel’s discussion of the substance of a variety of queer actions. The panel’s title, of course, was meant to be provocative, because documentary films are often anything but “light”, and I imagine the intention behind it was to highlight the ways filmmaking might be considered an important area of activism too. The interesting thing to me, however, is that activism, on the contrary, is hardly ever not considered astoundingly weighty.

The majority of the festival itself proceeded in a rather light manner, in the sense that a group of relatively like-minded folks gathered to watch a host of queer-related films from both China and abroad, and the action was punctuated by pauses for wine and nourishment in a quiet garden, where old friends and new filmmakers and an array of scholars and community organizers could catch up with each other and discuss plans for the future. This lightness, of course, was made possible by the Dutch Embassy, in whose protected confines much of the film festival was held—participants escaped the grinding surveillance of Beijing for a while and retreated by grace of a diplomatic fiction across the international borders of the compound to a calm and technologically functioning, open space in which ideas were freely exchanged. The journey there was not without its reminders of the actuality of gathering in Beijing, however, for entry required the production of a passport and permission from insiders, not to mention that just days before, some events to be held outside the embassy had been forced to change venue and plan. And the recent violence involved in shutting down the Beijing Independent Film Festival occupied everyone’s recollections. Yet Queer Film Festival screenings in a local community center after the embassy sessions went off without hindrance.

None of this is to say that the manner in which attendees carved out the time to attend the festival, or the difficulties and pain that may have come back into focus again while watching any of the films—some of which inevitably dealt with heart-rending  matters of a deep, enduring pain—was necessarily easy. It likely was not. The point I would make is that I don’t think it’s a good idea to exclude the things that seem “light” from considerations of what counts as productive action in the process of seeking social–cultural change. After all, even a film festival could seem too heavy for many potential queer audience members, most of whom were not aware of the event because of the necessary secrecy surrounding its planning, or were not interested. What I’ve found in my own research in the past is that oftentimes people simply want to have fun.

But then again, I don’t think most activists and organizers usually ignore this aspect of queer life. Indeed, a good number of the films shown at the festival, especially the more recent ones coming out of the community-based Queer University, which teaches newcomers how to make documentary films, were downright hilarious, approaching queer issues from a markedly humorous perspective. It’s far more likely that scholars have trouble including the seemingly frivolous in the archive of queer politics—or at least that we’re ambivalent about doing so. Judith Halberstam’s work is a good example of the way we equivocate. Halberstam has over the years called on queer theory “to breed resentment, to bash back, to speak up and out, to disrupt, assassinate, shock and annihilate, and, to quote Jamaica Kincaid, to make everyone a little less happy” (“The Anti-Social Turn in Queer Studies”, page 154), but she has also criticized scholarship for excluding the “ludic” (playful) from studies of social change because it is seen to hinder “the ‘real’ work of activism” (In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, page 5). From my perspective, Zhang Zhen (张真), a scholar of Chinese independent film, explains best how we ought to view activism and the people involved in it. In the article “Art, Affect, and Activist Documentaries” (“艺术,感动力,行动主义纪录片”, 《中国独立影像》第11期) cited in a recent blog, she says,  “Here, the meaning of ‘activist’ is not at all equivalent to someone who defends legal rights and has a meticulously planned program for social action or behaves in an organized way. Rather, it refers much more to someone who acts from a self-motivated position—interactively, with a spirit of empathy, and from an understanding of the facts—to mobilize the power of affect in order to trigger desires for social change”. (“这里‘行动主义者’(activist)并不全然等于‘维权’,即有周密计划的社会方案或者组织化的行为,而更多指向出于同情心的互动关系和主动采取行动的立场,通过了解事实感动力来触发改变社会的愿望。”) This definition covers a range of activities that do not necessarily call for concerted resistance and opens up the possibility that perhaps we won’t need to prevaricate about the lighter side of queer action.

I asked the audience and other panelists at the film festival what we could consider activism and whether there’s as stark an opposition between light and heavy as we imagine. The discussion turned to making documentaries as a form of activism, and I think surely this qualifies in most people’s estimation. It’s not easy to make a film, and making one about non-mainstream and even taboo subjects makes the action involved decidedly more focused and energetic—two qualities that seem normally to be taken for granted as requirements of activism. But then I asked whether everyday activities might count as activism. I suggested that watching queer films might also be a form of activism. I didn’t get the chance to say much more before the conversation turned to another topic, but what I would have suggested are a few things that have preoccupied me during my short academic career. Does queer play count as activism? Does hanging out with queer friends? Is discussing issues over tea a form of activism? Can activism be fun? Or even, perhaps, can fun be activism? I look forward to the debate.

Dr William F. Schroeder is Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Manchester. Image: Shanghai Pride 2009, CC by kris krüg/Flickr