Fan Popo - a post-80s LGBT moviemaker

Post-80s LGBT moviemaker Fan Popo. Photo provided to

While being a gay was a secret in the middle school, coming out in the college was not that hard. It was in 2004 when Fan Popo told his roommates that he was a gay, also his first year to learn the art of moviemaking at the Beijing Film Academy (BFA), an art school in Beijing which has produced many famous artists, like Zhang Yimou.

Reacting to the view that art schools are more tolerant and open toward LGBTs, Fan said that was a stereotype, and the education philosophy in the film academy still needs to be improved.

He recalled one of his teachers who was homophobic and used to say something “discriminatory” about LGBTs during the class, sometimes even targeting him.

Yet, he also saw the bright side, as many of his friends were supportive of LGBTs and he could always feel being part of a community by making “like-minded” friends.

“The good thing about studying in a film school is that you can always find someone who loves films. We saw many movies, and through the movies we came to know about a lot of things which we might have never experienced in life,” Fan told the at a café in Beijing.

In 2007, the year he graduated from the BFA, Fan published his first book, Happy Together: Complete Record of 100 Queer Films, also the first book in Chinese mainland to give a complete introduction of queer films. In the same year, he joined the Beijing Queer Film Festival, an underground and the only film festival in Chinese mainland which not only screens LGBT films but also advocates LGBT rights.

So far Fan has made several documentaries about LGBT people in China including his first work New Beijing, New Marriage (新前门大街) in 2009, which showed a gay couple and a lesbian couple holding their wedding ceremony in one of Beijing’s most crowded streets; and The Chinese Closet (柜族) in 2010 which tells the story of young people coming out to their parents.


Committee members of Beijing Queer Film Festival were holding the closing ceremony of BJQFF on June 23, 2013. Photo provided to

Spontaneous career development

In middle school, Fan was a fan of Chinese literature, and the thought of learning moviemaking in college had not come to his mind until he realized that his mathematics performance would hardly get him into an average university in China. And he never thought about making films on LGBTs when he was in college because the documentary class for him was just a “sleeping time”. It was when the end of the college life was just around the corner he came to realize that he really needed to do something.

By then he had published his first book, and with the remuneration he bought a camera. “But I didn’t know what to shoot with that until I came across an American exchange student who wanted to make an LGBT documentary. I felt lots of fun during the process of shooting, and it was from that moment I thought I could make my own documentary,” Fan recalled.

As movies about LGBTs are not allowed on China’s mainstream screens, the first step was not easy, and it was important for the LGBT moviemakers to become independent and learn to survive under the government’s censorship. Luckily, Fan gained support from some foreign foundations like the Ford Foundation and OXFAM.

Despite having made several LGBT documentaries, he still doesn’t have his own production team, and in many of his previous works he played multiple roles. “Sometimes I was the cameraman, the editor, the sound technician and also the producer,” he recalled.

Yet, Fan didn’t have an inherent mission to change the society, though his works had been shown at some LGBT film festivals outside mainland China like the Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and had gained popularity.

“Sometimes I feel confused about the so-called social mission, and it feels like being pushed by an ‘invisible hand’. For example, the shooting of the New Beijing, New Marriage was just by chance, and I didn’t expect so many people to say good things about it. Many parents of LGBT friends come to see it, and sometimes it was used as teaching material at a sex education class. Maybe that’s when I began to realize the value of my works. I also gained satisfaction from it.”

Same-sex marriage recognition

While people have become much more tolerant and open-minded toward LGBTs, same-sex marriage in China is still not recognized by law. And for Fan the legitimacy of same- sex marriage not only helps protect the legal rights of LGBTs but also rebuild the traditional Chinese family structure.

“Since heterosexual marriage is legitimate in China, why is it not for homosexuals? The law of a country and people’s conscience should complement each other, because the law will be outdated when it cannot keep up with people’s conscience; on the other hand the law will make no sense if people do not accept it. I believe many homosexuals will choose to marry if they are allowed to.”

“If same-sex marriage is allowed some day in the future, traditional family notions like ‘men playing a key role in the society while women confined to housework’ will change, and the definition of ‘home’ might also change. Where there is love and responsibility, there is home.”

However, Fan himself is not an advocate of the marriage system and he never thinks marriage is the final destiny for his life.

“I don’t want to get married, but it doesn’t mean one will die alone if not married because one can have a companion, make lots of friends, or even adopt a kid. People used to think their own kid will always stay by their side till the end, but it’s not always the case. There should be more imagination of what a homosexual or a single person’s life could be even without marriage.”


Poster of Mama Rainbow. Photo provided to

True equality

While many people believe Fan is an advocate of LGBT rights and an artist with a sense of social responsibility, he doesn’t think he could represent every individual in this group.

“Every individual in LGBT group is different. I cannot ask others to paint their nails like me,” he joked while wiggling his fingers, “I don’t like people who judge others’ sexual orientation and sometimes I just intentionally ignore what they say. I don’t understand why people like to judge others’ sexual orientation so much? Maybe someday in the future, gender will not be a parameter on which people are judged.”

“Only when people come to see that everyone in this group is different and never judge the characteristic of the whole group only by some individuals’ behavior, can true equality be achieved.”

While in Mama Rainbow, made in 2012, Fan had six mothers tell their stories with their homosexual children, the new work which will be finished later this year focuses on six fathers who act as homosexuals. “In this case it is not just about recording; it is a way to let people see the social pressures that LGBTs are facing.”

As a post-80s artist characterized by some media as “a new generation activist”, Fan thinks Chinese art should be more diversified. “While there are directors who make movies with social value, there should also be those who make something more creative and experimental. No matter what kind of art it is, it will help people to understand the world in the end. This is an ideal future that I long for.”

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