Monday, July 7, 2008

TIL&GFF Going for Gold!

The Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival has a lot in common with the Beijing Olympics: it’s hot, it’s Asian, and there are lots of hurdles to jump over! Putting on a festival of this kind requires the surmounting of more than a few obstacles, some of them typical of film festivals and large events, others specific to Japan. Creative problem-solving ability ranks high on the list of skills required of our volunteers. So here are just a few of the challenges our veteran staffers face, and fend off, to bring you the world of queer cinema over eight glorious days in July.

For better or worse, English is the default language of international communication, so to make the festival accessible to as wide a range of visitors and participants as possible, the festival staff strives to present a fully bilingual program – English and Japanese. This is no mean feat, since many of these films would never reach the Japanese market if the TIL&GFF weren’t bringing them here. That means commissioning, coordinating, and projecting professional-quality Japanese subtitles for many films, all on the tiny budget of an all-volunteer operation.

Of course, many of the films shown will be from the English-speaking world, and/or from Europe. This year, all but two non-English-language films will be presented with English subtitles, and all non-Japanese films will be screened with Japanese subtitles as well. Translators will also be on hand for all special events involving the filmmakers and performers, which it will be my job to attend and report faithfully back to you!

The festival receives government funding through the Agency for Cultural Affairs, and is supported by the Japan Foundation and corporate sponsors – even foreign embassies and cultural agencies get into the act (yay, Canada!). But that doesn’t mean we have the resources to mount a huge ad campaign, or to host any number of international guests in the sort of luxury that Tokyo is renowned for. This year, we were fortunate in that more than 20 guests, including filmmakers and performers from our opening and closing films, were able to accept the invitation to attend the festival. So there will be no lack of excitement at the screenings. But we still depend a great deal on word-of-mouth, the support of the bars and clubs of Shinjuku-Nichome (Tokyo’s queer district), and the informal promotion system through local cinemas, to fill our seats with beautiful bums!

For the past three weeks, volunteers have fanned out across Tokyo each Saturday to distribute our elegantly designed festival brochure (thanks, Hideaki – otsukare sama desu!). Thankfully, amidst the humidity and unpredictable weather of Japan’s rainy season, we had good weather all three weeks. And we all doubtless improved our muscle tone somewhat lugging those heavy packs of brochures around, on Tokyo’s excellent public transit system no less!

Japanese film culture has, of course, a long and rich history, and can stand toe-to-toe with any other world cinema culture. Last year, in fact, Japanese films out-grossed foreign (that is, largely American) movies in Japanese cinemas for the first time in decades. But aside from those major films that can afford big ad campaigns, Japanese films depend on a remarkably informal (and cordial) method of promotion. Cinemas agree to display dozens of small posters and flyers for films showing at competing cinemas, in exchange for the display of their own materials at those other cinemas. It makes going to the movies feel a bit like going to see some obscure band that only you and a few friends know about. Cinemas are small, numerous, and sometimes difficult to find here, and they have a charming café-like atmosphere that suggests the existence of a real culture of cinephilia, outside the pre-packaged blockbuster system that dominates the larger, more conspicuous cinemas.

Queer foreigners may be surprised to know that in greater Tokyo-Yokohama, a sprawling metropolitan area of 30 million people, the gay pride parade attracts a mere 3,000 visitors. It is one of the odd paradoxes of Japan that while there is no indigenous religious tradition that is particularly hostile to homosexuality, and violent homophobia is virtually unheard of, the level of queer visibility in daily life remains surprisingly low. Chalk it up to Japanese modesty and circumspection, perhaps. Even public displays of heterosexual affection are reasonably rare. People tend to be quite private and undemonstrative. So while there are lots of gay personalities on TV (Ikko, Akihiro Miwa, and others) and an increasing number of out celebrities in music and film (singer Hirai Ken being one of the most visible), you nonetheless get the sense the average Japanese person wouldn’t know who in their midst is gay unless we walked up and kissed them! So, this low level of queer visibility presents a particular challenge when trying to (quite publicly) promote a queer film festival.

For the most part, the informal system of promotion through cinemas works well, and many cinemas – large and small – have been happy to support us in years past. This year is no different, and you’ll see the small posters and flyers that we accepted from them, in grateful reciprocity, on display at the festival. But there were a few, even small art-house cinemas, that politely declined to display our (really, very sober-looking!) brochure. It’s a small reminder that there is still some distance to go before being queer is just an accepted part of daily life, even in as otherwise tolerant and safe a country as Japan.

It’s also a reminder of why something like TIL&GFF is so necessary. It’s not only a chance for the queer community to gather, socialize, and celebrate our stories at the cinemas, but also a chance for those with a little curiosity to come and find out a bit more about what queer life – not just in Japan, but around the world – is all about. I’m sure there will be more than a few surprising encounters between friends, coworkers, and perfect strangers who didn’t realize they both shared an interest in same-sex fun and frivolity!

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