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Interview with filmmaker, writer & activist Popo Fan

Last Updated on 2021/06/09

Popo Fan is a Berlin-based filmmaker, writer, and activist from Shandong, China.

Popo Fan is a queer filmmaker and activist. His films featured topics such as same-sex marriage (New Beijing, New Marriage), transgender (Be A Woman), feminism (The VaChina Monologues). His trilogy Chinese Closet, Mama Rainbow, Papa Rainbow, focusing on LGBT families in China, had made a strong impact on Chinese society. His tireless work on LGBT visibility also includes serving as an organizer for the Beijing Queer Film Festival for more than a decade, as well as the founder of Queer University Video Training Camp. In 2011, he received Prism Award from Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Since 2016, he has concentrated on scripted, sex-positive shorts. In 2016 he also won the best short film at CHOUFTOUHONNA, Tunis International Feminist Art Film Festival (The VaChina Monologues). Additionally, he participated in Berlinale Talents 2017 and was a jury member of the Teddy Award in 2019.

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What motivated you to become a documentary filmmaker?

Well, first, I need to clarify that I’m not only a documentary filmmaker. In 2016 I started to concentrate on more fiction and script products. Actually, my beginning was almost a cold incident, because when I was in high school, I was very bad at math, and I heard that if you go to study film, you don’t need to study math. And so there was the beginning of my motivation to study film. Back then I was very interested in literature. Films have this kind of connection with literature. I love writing. So I entered the writing department of film school. But at the beginning of my film school, I was quite confused. I found I wanted to be a filmmaker only until the third year of my University. One of my classmates was very homophobic, so I kept on recommending him Queer films. Those films changed his mind and after a couple of months, he started really understanding what it is like to be LGBT. And what are the challenges of LGBT. This was very inspiring for me. So when I graduated, most of my classmates started working in the mainstream film industry. While I started to think, if that is life, I want to. Then with my savings from my University part-time job, I bought a camera. And I decided to use this camera as a method to explore and discover society. Because in Chinese University, the education system is like you are locked within the campus. And also at that time, we didn’t know what was going on in society. This reason moved me to documentary filmmaking. I managed to see a lot more rather than what I knew about University. Then I started to talk about the issues that I’m more interested in, especially gender, sexuality, and LGBT.

Popo Fan is a Berlin-based Chinese filmmaker. His films include queer activism documentaries and scripted, sex-positive shorts

Why did you choose to move to Germany? From your point of view, do Asian creatives have equal professional opportunities in Germany, or do they experience the filter of prejudice?

This is a very interesting question. This has been asked of me a lot. Firstly, the reason I moved to Germany, in the beginning, was because I hate Beijing so much since 2014. I was thinking of moving out because Beijing had changed so much in a way that I don’t really like. Secondly, when you’re living in a city for more than 14 years, you’re sort of tired of it. So I eventually made the decision in 2017. And, back then there was an opportunity for me to do a script research project in Berlin, I applied and I got it. So I was enjoying the atmosphere of the art scene, and club music, and since I’m queer also the queer community. And honestly, it’s a kind of when I’ll be old, I can tell people “Oh, I have been there, done that … I was in Berlin when I was around 30 years old. But after a year, I realized that it is still not enough. Especially because I’ve got so many great collaborators in China, which was really amazing. I miss them. I work with other filmmakers, and we have a lot of language in common. I don’t mean English, but I mean also, that common sense about what we understand about art, and what kind of film we want to make, and what issues we are interested in society. So I decided to stay longer, but honestly, it is not easy to be an artist who doesn’t look like the mainstream population. I mean, you have a different skin color, I’m not white, and I don’t have good German language ability. Also, I don’t have that good connection with the industry. A lot of time you realize that, as you mentioned in your question, there is an invisible filter in the industry. Moreover, I’m not making traditional Chinese artworks, like Guzheng or Qigong, or those kinds of stuff. When you want to make something contemporary, it is also hard for society to recognize it. “Oh, we want filmmakers and video artists who talk about LGBT issues but we already have so many queer artists who are born in Germany, and grew up in Europe”. So, I had received so many rejections of funding applications, collaborator requirements, and from Film Festivals. I feel that somehow I want to make those kinds of rejection to be a motivation that I will just continue my creativity. I don’t care if you want to collaborate with me or not. If you will accept my submission or not. Because making art in my theory is also satisfying yourself in the first place. And I feel that this year, my recent works have really expressed myself a lot, which I’ll talk about later more. So I have targeted orderings that I think are very important. So I just want to encourage people who are answering a similar situation like me, not to give up just because of rejections from the institution but to continue their creativity.

Director Popo Fan’s debut work New Beijing New Marriage recording a campaign on Valentine’s Day in 2009, when a gay couple and a lesbian couple chose to have their wedding photos taken on the Qianmen Street in Beijing. On this beautiful spring day in Beijing, a lot of interesting conversations were made.

Racist episodes towards people of Asian origin have been in focus following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Were you surprised by the violence and hate speech?

Honestly, I’m not surprised! I mean when I was facing it, I was shocked, but when I look back to History I’m not surprised. I honestly don’t have high expectations of German society, because before I moved here I already knew that. It is quite a racist country and there are a lot of problems within this society. I was not hurt by, I didn’t have this hurtful feeling by those racist and hate speech against directly against me because I know that they’re not smart, they are stupid. What surprises me I think, most of the time, I will mostly feel hurt by friends who were not supportive. For example, you know someone you think are your friends and could understand you or even someone you have intimacy with, and when you tell them about your experiences and that you have been offended, when you complain about your experience with your racist encounter to your friends, especially German white friends, very often the reaction is “Really? Is it really connected with your skin color? I think you’re a little bit too sensitive. I’m white and I also got this kind of feedback. I have also been shouted at by people on the street. I don’t think that it was really connected. Don’t be sensitive. Be happy, go-lucky!” Happy lucky my A**! You’re not in my position. How could you judge my feelings? This was not expected before I moved here.

Mama Rainbow

When it comes to racism, some people decrease the episodes that don’t end in violence, and neglect that microaggressions have a significant weight in an individual’s daily life. What can you tell us about this topic?

Actually, I recently wrote an article about micro racist embed ignoring discourse, in love or sexual relationship. I was talking about the fetish of Asians or other people of color. A lot of time in the German society is not only about “Oh, I was discriminated.” It’s about “Oh, I’m so confused.” I was told this so many times. I’m tired of it. And why they only see me as just a certain typical kind of person. And when you satisfy the official stereotype, they would make a joke out of it. Or if you don’t certify that, this would disappoint them. For example, I’ve been told so many times that I look younger than my real age. But maybe people who are saying that they see it as a compliment. In the beginning, I thought “Oh, that’s nice, and this person wants to be nice to me.” But at the end of the day, when you hear it 10 times, and some people could even say like “Oh, you’re Asian, you never age.” and “you will suddenly become very old when you are 40 or 50 years old”, what is that? Oh, wow. Where did you hear about this? Those two sentences are hardcore racist. I want to avoid those speeches. But I can’t identify when people just don’t tell me that I look younger if that is racist, or micro racist, or just an annoying discourse. So those kinds of small things happen 1000 times to me. It is quite annoying, and together they become even a bit aggressive on me. I’m trying to get rid of it. But somehow I really want to question: Why are those stereotypes high upon people of color? Is because the society is still so Eurocentric. Do they judge you from a very wide perspective? Why do we look younger than we should suppose to be, than our real age? Why is it not just that you look older than your real age. So sometimes I just fight back saying: “Oh, thank you, but you look really old as someone of 30 years old.” It’s definitely offended someone by this. But I think that person should accept my feedback. I still don’t have a certain answer about the solution, how it should be, how we identify this kind of behavior, and how we should fight back or shall we fight back, but somehow I made my decision to be and to have my own way of reaction depending on my mood, the attitudes, and the context.

The VaChina Monologues is a documentary about the self-awakening process as well as a public-accepting process.

Compared to 20 years ago, thanks to movies and literature productions there is an opportunity for greater knowledge of Asian lifestyles and traditions. In Europe, the last generations grow up side by side: Asians are neighbors, classmates, co-workers, etc. Why, after all this time, some still consider Asians to be foreigners?

I think it’s also a topic about Eurocentricity, and it happened not only in Europe but in the whole of globalization. When you look at foreigners, I mean ex-pats that come to China, they feel they are foreigners, but they feel themselves in a higher position in society. This power dynamic is there. I can’t say it has changed in recent years, but this power dynamic is still there when the media is also still promoting those white supremacy and when the film industry is still mostly dominated by a few European film festivals. I don’t really have an answer. I’m not an expert. It’s a really hard question. Why are Asians still foreigners? Maybe I can go back to this question a bit later. Because a few other questions are also related. So to summarize my answer, I think it is still the issue of the media and they didn’t represent people of color properly in the mainstream media.

Words create unions or separations. When referring to compatriots who move abroad, terms such as ex-pat or “human capital flight” are used in Italy. On the contrary, to indicate those arriving in Italy from Asia or Africa is used “economic migrants” marking a diversity for the same phenomenon. How is the debate of migration addressed in Germany?

I can’t talk about the whole German and German situation broadly, I can only talk about my own experiences and about the people who I know: for example, in Berlin, migrant groups are so divided. It is related to the whole phenomena, the whole atmosphere of the city. Honestly, I don’t know if it was organized by authority or just developed naturally from the culture. For example, in Berlin, even before World War 2, gays who were living in Schönenberger and Scheunenviertel were considered to be upper class. Nowadays, queers also spread out in the city in Kreuzberg. If you’re an artist, you live in Kreuzberg or if you have kids you live in Prenzlauer Berg and Middle Eastern migrants are mostly in Neukölln or in Wedding. Those divisions I found are very fascinating. I was talking with a friend about the fact that in Berlin, most of the people, when you are Middle Eastern, very often you are guessed by people “Oh, are you a refugee?” or they think you came here seeking a better life, seeking a shelter. But in recent years, the Asian migrants of the new generation are very often also being seen as “Oh, you’re from China, you must be rich!” because China is a rich country now and people are buying a house. But I want to emphasize that there are a lot of Chinese migrants who are also poor. And there are Middle Eastern migrants who are not refugees, who are creative, artists, who could be engineers and I think for us, as artists, what I can do, or what I feel myself should do or what I have done so far is to bring more solidarity between minorities. For example, I organized a film screening called “How can we see each other” featuring the common knowledge and common art sense of Chinese and Middle Eastern North African artists. So we hosted six screenings featuring artists from both sides. This is a project we aim to bring to find a community together and to see each other and also be seen by the society. And I feel those events should happen more often because this doesn’t happen very often. There is a lack in the society of events bringing minorities together in solidarity. This is very important because we can only satisfy our goal when we stand together with each other.

Papa Rainbow

In Italy, when it comes to racism and hate crimes, rarely the offended people are invited to dialogue on the issue. There is no shortage of young adults to consult in the debate, but they mostly have a voice in art, cinema, and literature, they are invisible in traditional media and news. How is the situation in Germany? Do Asians have a voice in the news?

Well, I would say it’s becoming better. I can tell you that I had two racist encounters. First of all, I tried to contact the media, but they don’t seem to really care back in 2019, and I was shouted by people on the streets: “Fuck China, fuck you”. And actually, my second encounter at the beginning of 2020 was directly caused by COVID-19. I also wrote to a few media about it, but I still didn’t get any feedback. But then the pandemic continued going on and I was reached out by RBB, a Berlin local broadcaster, and then Deutsche Welle, different televisions, and newspapers. And it was actually because of COVID-19. So COVID-19 is related to the perception of those phenomena. The media started to have an awareness of the existence of the Asian community. On one hand, I’m happy about it. But on the other side, it is also so sad. Without people dying, society would never have worried about it. There are always Asian organizations, in Germany, who are trying to speak for the community, who try to address more awareness, but the society just doesn’t hear it. Now, this is just another wave after the Atlanta shooting. It was another wave of interviews. It just came to me and I remember that day, after the gunshot, I was so busy I accepted three interviews. It is so sad that this topic was only addressed when people died. No matter that I don’t have a direct connection to those people who died in Atlanta, but I feel so sensationally, very sorry for what is going on. Another topic is Is this topic really addressed people’s attention? And how long will it be? How long will people keep in mind that there is a racist attitude against Asia? And this #stopAsianhate, how long will people hold it? I really hope it won’t be just people forgetting about it after a year or even a few months. As an artist and a filmmaker, I hope to address this in my works and remind people about the injustice of society, raising more visibility of the community, while also exposing myself from an artistic point of view.

Are prejudices and Anti-Asian racism also in the LGBT+ community?

Don’t get me started. Even though we say LGBT community, there are so many different groups in the community. There is L, there is G, there is B, there see T, there is Q. How many letters are on it? But also different groups with different intersections with the people of color: there are Asians, there are blacks, some from Middle Eastern and from Latin America, there are also people who are at home with a disability, people who have a special need, etc. Unfortunately, there is not a whole community. I somehow feel it is so divided. As I mentioned, if you’re a middle-class gay living in Schöneberger, if you are a poor living in Neukölln, if you meet at the same party, you’ll see people who are judging you about how your body looked like and what is your skin color. I mean, this happens not always on the surface but this dynamic suddenly starts to be there. Once, I talked with a trans friend and he just finished some of his surgery and went to a man-only party for the first time. And somehow when he was at the party, people were looking at him like “Why are you here?” They didn’t say this, but the attitude was like “Why are you here?”. Sometimes I also go to a party, they look at my skin color thinking “Why are you here?” So, I think one issue is that for a very long time Asian men were projected on the screen, not enough in a sexual way. And, you know, in Hollywood, you can see James Bond has so many girlfriends who have always been sexing in the film, but Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Lee really didn’t have any kissing scenes in their Hollywood action movies. And this is because the rest of society doesn’t believe Asian men are desirable, or they have their own desire. So we were asexualized and so with my film, I also want to change this image. I want to represent desirable Asian men and this desire. I want to empower Asian men in my film, this is just one of the plans. But of course, there are also a lot of other issues to be addressed within the LGBT community. When it comes to if you’re lesbian and Asian, living in Germany, you can imagine yourself being people of color and also being a woman and also being a sexual minority at the same time. It is not easy. I also want to share a Korean lesbian friend experience. She works in a bar, and she was working out the door because the bar was so crowded, and they had to stop people. When she was doing her job, she was pushed so hard by those who wanted to get in. Those would not act that way with her white colleagues. They did it just because she is Asian, lesbian and people trying to place their anger on her.

Your queer documentary films have made a notable impact. What about your new projects? Are your new works influenced by the current circumstances?

I have been talking about it almost all the time in the previous question. So, I have one project going on, featuring the love relationship of Chinese men and Middle Eastern men with intersectionality about migrant Islamic people of color. Also, I want to show sexy, hot, fun, love stories on screen and I want people to enjoy the story while they can. So the script is now in development. I’m also in the process of pitching to different companies. But as I mentioned, it is not easy because of the language abilities and my skin color. I hope after the recent situation people should get more advantageous about it. And a short film talking about racism, loneliness, during the first lockdown in Germany, about queer loneliness, set in April 2020, set in this specific time. I continuously work on a film festival screening series, Queer Asian Film Festival in Berlin this summer. If everything goes OK, we’ll have some outdoor screening and workshops for filmmakers. So I really look forward to moving back to creativity because it has been a very long time. I enjoyed it, but I can’t wait to sit in the cinema or be on set shooting with the other creatives.

Photos courtesy of Popo Fan

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