Taiwan’s LGBT Film Festival Underway This Week

Taiwan, which has become Asia’s most liberal territory for Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender rights, is readying for its second Taiwan International Queer Film Festival (TIQFF) beginning on Oct. 23.

The festival, a month-long event which is spread across Taiwan’s three biggest cities, has been so successful at home that its organizers are reaching out to other Asian nations to promote greater collaboration in gaining LGBT rights in a region that remains largely plagued by homophobia, especially among families who are often horrified to discover they have raised a child with different sexual orientation.

Taiwan’s LGBT Parade, Taiwan Pride, which was first held in 2003, has become the largest in Asia. In 2013 its numbers had already topped 67,000. For this year’s parade, whose date falls right in the middle of the film festival, the numbers are expected to reach 80,000.

Jay Lin, Chairman and Co-Director of the festival put the late communication theorist Marshall McLuhan’s dictum – the medium is the message – to the test by advocating that there is no better medium than film and movies to change society’s attitudes.

“Film is a soft medium. In a non-confrontational way, it involves stories that all can relate to,” Lin said. “People are more amenable to listen to and watch such stories.”

Culture, he continued, “takes time to change. For us the festival’s primary goal is to help change society and people’s attitudes; when people’s attitudes change, the regulations follow. If it is the other way around and laws change too quickly, backlash is often involved.”

“Films deal with universal themes of family dynamics, friendship, coming of age etc.,” Tiffany Tsai, a radio show host and involved actress agreed. “They can start the conversation for people to understand and respect each other’s challenges despite their different backgrounds or orientation.”

The festival will run from Oct. 23 through Nov. 1 in Taipei, in Taichung from Nov. 2 to Nov. 11, and in Kaohsiung from Nov. 13 through Nov. 22. Afterwards select films will play throughout some 25 smaller towns to deliver the message throughout the country. It boasts a wide range of films that treat all phases of the human condition and experience from the LGBT perspective. As the theme (#WeAreEverywhere) points out, the festival’s aim is to help people realize that LGBT people can be found in all walks of life and in all cultures.

Legally in Taiwan, discrimination based on sexual orientation was banned in education in 2003 and in the workplace there in 2007. Gays can now also legally adopt children although a bill to legalize same sex-marriages put forth by the Executive Yuan remains stalled in the legislature.

"Since the end of the Martial Law Era in 1987, Taiwan has made huge strides forward to become one of the leading free societies within Asia, said John Eastwood, a partner at Eiger Law. “From 15 years ago when police raids were used to harass the LGBT community to one of tolerance, they swiftly moved to a society in which government sponsorship of Gay Pride events has become the norm."

A definite additional plus for Taiwan is that many of its celebrities have also come out in support. The ambassador for this year’s film festival is Rainie Yang, a well-known singer, actress and TV host. In 2011 another singer/songwriter, Deserts Chang was a Rainbow Ambassador. Additional notable celebrity supporters are A-Mei, Tanya Chua, and Jolin Tsai etc.

What Taiwan needs however, as Jay Lin points out, are more celebrities like Kevin Tsai a popular TV host, who for some time has “been officially out.”

What can be expected at the festival?

The event frames itself between the serious and the light-hearted. The festival opens with Stonewall (2015 version) a drama in which a young newly found gay man in New York learns about the gay culture and gets involved with the police raid on Stonewall Inn that is universally seen as the coming of age in the fight for LGBT rights. The festival ends with the humorous film Queen of Amsterdam where locals plan a heist ala a Dutch Oceans Eleven caper to save their favorite gay bar and hangout “Chez Nous.”

In between are over 100 feature films, shorts, documentaries and animated films, but that is not all. This year’s festival will have a wide range of international guests and speakers. They include Malaysian director Woo Ming-jin, Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan, Japanese director Takashi Nishihara, Korean American filmmaker Josh Kim, and Philippine director Joselito Altarejos. Korea, where same-sex marriages are not recognized, is strongly represented by film producers, Kim-jho Gwang-soo and David Kim whose own wedding documentary, My Fair Wedding, will also be shown.

“Taiwan audiences are in for a real treat,” said LA director/actor Barney Cheng. His film, Baby Steps, a comedy on nontraditional families, successfully premiered in Taipei last May and followed that with a June opening in San Francisco. Cheng speaks from experience as both director and actor and as one who has seen many of the coming festival’s films at other festivals.

“People were not only shocked but thought we were crazy when our NGO decided to take on a festival of this size and scope,” states Vita Lin co-director of the festival who is no relation to Jay. As both a filmmaker and a lecturer at a university in Kaohsiung, Vita has promoted LGBT rights most of her life. On this festival, she takes care of Taichung and Kaohsiung, while Jay handles Taipei.

A mammoth festival like this needs plenty of support and TIQFF has garnered 70- plus sponsors that contribute to it financially, as well as via promotions and services in kind. Government sponsors include Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture, Taipei City and Kaohsiung City Governments, the American Institute in Taiwan and the Bureau Francais de Taipei.

Prize money is offered to encourage up and coming Chinese and Taiwanese filmmakers. A total of NT$100,000 has been divided into three prizes that will go to the top three juried short films out of 10. The money will help cover some costs, but the real benefit is for the winners to showcase their works internationally. Workshops will also be a vital part of the festival, featuring young filmmakers who will be able to present their writing, producing and directing projects to learn from experienced mentors.

Progress is being made, said Jay Lin, whose own company Portico is a prime sponsor. “People’s attitudes take time to change. We must be patient but at the same time continue to fight.” www.tiqff.com

Jerome F. Keating is a Taiwan-based independent academic