Queer East is an LGBTQ+ film festival aiming to showcase rarely seen queer cinema both from and about East and Southeast Asia and amplify the voices of Asian communities in the UK.
It has been over half a century since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK but stereotyping, discrimination, and misrepresentation still exist. This is especially true for LGBTQ+ people of colour, who are often marginalised both for their race and sexual orientation, and are excluded from mainstream discourse.
Asians are among the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the UK, but it seems that we still lack an understanding about these communities. Hence, we feel that it is hugely important to bring more queer Asian representation to the big screen and make them accessible to the public.
The first edition of Queer East Film Festival launched in 2020 with a programme of 36 films incorporating classic retrospectives and new releases spanning over 50 years of queer filmmaking in Asia. We wanted to take audiences on a journey to explore how culture, law, history, and social norms have shaped the current queer Asian landscape.
Our revisited classics included Japanese maestro Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) and Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (Taiwan, 1993). It also featured Memories of My Body (dir. Garin Nugroho, Indonesia, 2018) and Malila: The Farewell Flower (dir. Arusha Boonyawatana, Thailand, 2017), both of which examine the relationship between homosexuality, traditional cultural and religious roots. Other festival highlights came from emerging talent, including several directors’ debut features such as Tracey (dir. Jun Li, Hong Kong, 2018), Song Lang (dir. Leon Le, 2018) and Sisterhood (dir. Tracy Choi, Macao, 2016), as well as a series of short films, from the rediscovered work Alienation made by Chiu Kang-Chien in 1966, to April Lin’s Reality Fragment 160921 (UK, 2017). These films all demonstrated bold, compelling, and powerful storytelling, and they represent a fresh and modern take on queer filmmaking in Asia.
Queer East was selected as part of Brent 2020, London Borough of Culture and received funding support from BFI Film Hub London, and the UK office of Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture for the festival’s Focus
Taiwan programme. The festival reached partnerships with over 15 leading cultural institutions, independent cinemas, universities, and like-minded festivals nationwide in various forms such as venue support, programme collaborations and cross-promotions.
Altogether, with our two virtual series throughout the lockdown and a hybrid festival, the festival has screened 55 films from 17 countries across the Asian continent and beyond. We managed to stage three in-person screenings at London’s Genesis Cinema and Riverside Studios in autumn and welcomed over 200 people back to cinemas with us. Additionally, we also made the majority of our programme available online for a UK-wide audience by teaming up with partners like Barbican Centre, Iris Prize LGBT+ Film Festival, Rio Cinema and SQIFF. In total, we have received over 5,000 views for our virtual offerings.
Challenges and Learning Outcomes
Queer East Film Festival kicked off at a time when the film exhibition sector was hit extensively by the pandemic, meaning that the first year was undoubtedly very different to what we originally envisaged.
The festival was initially planned in April but had to suspend all screening events when the first national lockdown was imposed in late March last year. Within a couple of weeks after the restriction, we launched our first virtual series, QE: HomeSexual featuring 17 films including award-winning documentaries and five short film programmes. The series was made charitable, and we collected around £1,000 from over 350 donations, which was donated to support the independent cinemas that had previously partnered with us. In July, aligning with the summer Pride Season in the UK, we introduced our second capsule online series, QE: Docs4Pride – a free-to-watch programme of four documentaries that shine a spotlight on grassroots queer activism in China, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The main festival was then brought back in October and reimagined as a hybrid event.
The decision to present our films online had the added benefit of reaching viewers outside London, and even across the globe. Both online series provided great media exposure and social media performance and enhanced our brand awareness, which placed us in a stronger position later when introducing our main festival. The borderless virtual space not only benefited us as the festival organiser but equally the filmmakers, as it unlocked the potential to showcase their works to a broader audience that may not have had the chance to attend physical screenings under normal circumstances.
However, we were aware that we struggled to provide extra elements such as director Q&As, watch parties or networking events. Our main concerns were the significant time differences between the UK and Asia which made inviting filmmakers difficult, and the unfamiliarities of operating those digital platforms and software. We are conscious that such interactive elements are vital in creating a comprehensive festival experience and have been learning and working hard to ensure we can achieve this in our upcoming edition.
Impact and Vision
Global events in the past year, from Covid-19-related anti-Asian attacks to the Black Lives Matter movement, have once again reminded us how vital fair and authentic racial and sexual representation is for our society. Film is one of the most direct and accessible mediums able to shine a light on issues and situations that people just weren’t aware of before. By showing films that people might not otherwise get a chance to see, we can provide a platform for under-represented Asian and diasporic communities to share their history, stories and what it means to be Asian and queer today. In addition, the experience of characters in the films resonates with experiences the audiences may have had, enabling them to construct a more positive and inclusive LGBTQ+ narrative.
Advancing LGBTQ+ rights requires a collective approach, and we think it is important that Queer East plays a part in this, as a joint force together with many other allies. Together, we can work on tackling the inequalities both outside and within the LGBTQ+ communities, and to ensure the full diversity of the queer community is well reflected through the power of films.
The current goal for Queer East in the coming years will be expanding our national reach outside London to build an strong audience community who shares the same enthusiasm about queer Asian cinema as we do, and increasing our capacity to screen more films, especially those from young film talent.
Resources and Links
QEFF 2020 Festival Trailer.
2020 Festival Online Brochure.