Director Suing China's Censors Over Alleged Ban of Gay Rights Film

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The case is being closely watched as an example of how Chinese courts will respond to censorship challenges. 

Although his work has been erased from the Chinese Internet, filmmaker Fan Popo has found a new medium for making his voice heard — through the courts. 

The 29-year-old Beijing-based director's struggle began in 2012, when he shot a documentary called Mama Rainbow, which follows six Chinese mothers as they learn to accept and embrace their gay and lesbian children. After a short run on the U.S. and Asian festival circuit, Fan uploaded the film to China's most popular streaming video sites — Youku, Tudou and 56.com — where it attracted over 1 million views during the next two years. 

But last winter, Fan noticed his film had suddenly disappeared from online. According to Fan, when he contacted 56.com to ask what had happened, he was told that SARFT — the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, which oversees China’s media and entertainment industries — had instructed the company to take the video down. Fan then filed an information disclosure application, requesting that SARFT divulge the document that was sent to 56.com ordering his film's removal and explain the grounds. SARFT gave an official reply saying it had no involvement in the censorship of the film. 

In response, Fan has taken the daring step of suing the all-power state media regulator in Beijing court. Last week, his case was accepted. 

"I just want justice and an explanation," Fan tells THR in an interview. "SARFT and 56.com have given me two completely different statements. It's a terrible feeling to see something you worked on for years just suddenly disappear."

By forcing SARFT to clarify its handling of his film, Fan is also illuminating a grey zone in the way China's media regulators commonly respond to LGBT content. China has no official guidelines deeming LGBT subjects specifically out of bounds for Chinese entertainment. In the past, SARFT has used rules banning "pornographic" or "obscene" material as rationale for blocking movies that portray gay stories. Such was the argument when Brokeback Mountain was denied a release in China in 2006, despite the star status of Taiwanese director Ang Lee in the country. 

But given that Mama Rainbow depicts a group of mothers simply learning to love their gay children, it's hard to see how the SARFT's already very loose interpretation of "pornography" could possibly be applied here.

Fan's lawyer, Wang Zhenyu tells THR that if it turns out that SARFT did indeed issue an order to 56.com to remove Fan's movie, it will have broken the law when it later denied doing so in response to his information disclosure application. 

"If SARFT insists that they have never issued such a document, we will be happy to accept that, as it would mean that the homosexual-themed video was not banned, and Mama Rainbow can be restored on the video sites," says Wang. "The case shall also stand as a good reference for video sites on hosting similar videos in the future." 

The Mama Rainbow case is part of broad pattern of mixed messages over the years from SARFT. In August, SARFT, for the first time ever, approved the theatrical release of a film revolving around a gay love story. Co-produced by French and Chinese film companies, Seek McCartney stars popular Chinese singer Han Geng and French actor Jeremie Elkaim in a cross-cultural romance. The film's director, Wang Chao, called China's approval of the movie "a small step for the regulator and a big step for filmmakers."

While many gay rights activists have hailed the Seek McCartney decision as a promising development, most agree that it could very well be an isolated case, given that the censorship guidelines remain vague to non-existent. "It depends heavily on the individual censor's whims," says Fan. 

Fan and his lawyer aren't optimistic that their case will bring about any regulatory reform within SARFT, but they are already encouraged by the public attention it has brought to gay rights issues. Given the weak, highly politicized status of China's courts, getting any suit against the powerful media regular accepted is already something of a win.

"Whether we win or lose, the process is more important than the result," says Fan. Neutral coverage of the case was carried last week by  pro-government newspaper Global Times

"We hope the court will bring justice to the case," adds Wang. "But we also hope that the case will raise public concern over the issue of film censorship in China." 

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