The 17th annual International Queer Women of Color Film Festival advances social change through daring representation
People and stories featured in the 17th annual International Queer Women of Color Film Festival are by turns tender, taunting, enchanting, fearful, indignant, proud, articulate and musical. Among the portraits are teachers, teenagers, middle-aged indigenous women delving into native languages and cultures, children discovering courage while exploring biodiversity in nature, dancers drawing energy from their natural surroundings, and activists laying claim to housing and joining in unity to withstand gentrification and economic forces that threaten displacement. The filmmakers display artistic diversity and technical sophistication and are queer women of color, nonbinary, gender nonconforming and transgender people of color.
Executive/Artistic Director and founder Madeleine Lim says in a phone interview that maintaining the centrality of BIPOC and queer, nonbinary or trans women filmmakers and their perspectives has for two decades been the organization’s primary focus and priority. This year’s theme, “Molten Connections,” was selected in part to shatter stigmas and reveal lived truths, but also in reaction to conditions everyone experienced during Covid-19, regardless of gender identity, age, race or other differentiators.
“After a year of pandemic distancing, connections are even more important,” Lim says. “We feel a hunger to connect with each other. How do we connect to old and new traditions and relationships? As an immigrant, a non-binary Asian woman in America, I am already feeling isolated. Then, during this year when everyone is being alienated and isolated for health reasons, that feeling is exacerbated. When you’re at the margins of society, you feel it even more.”
Lim is an award-winning filmmaker whose films have been screened in theaters, on television and at film festivals worldwide, including the Vancouver International Film Festival, Mill Valley Film Festival and Amsterdam Amnesty International Film Festival. Her work has also been featured at museums and universities, and been broadcast on PBS to over 2.5 million viewers. She has a bachelor’s degree in cinema from San Francisco State University and founded the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project (QWOCMAP) to support and showcase the work of queer women filmmakers and the communities they represent. In 2005, KQED-TV awarded Lim the LGBT Local Hero Award in recognition of her leadership of QWOCMAP. A training project she developed under the organization’s umbrella supports upcoming young filmmakers who are queer women of color, gender nonbinary and transgender people of color.
This year’s virtual, free festival premieres 19 films in three different programs. Importantly, and reflecting the organization’s commitment to equity and accessibility, Lim says all of the films are subtitled for hearing-impaired audiences. ASL Interpretation and CART/live open captions are provided for the interactive filmmaker Q&As.
The primary feature distinguishing the festival from others in the Bay Area, she says, is holding QTBIPOC filmmakers and films center stage. “It’s like a cupcake,” she says. “We aren’t sprinkling on a white cupcake. No, we are the cake, we are the center.”
More directly, Lim says mainstream film festivals often have one or two films with the queer perspective presented. That positioning leaves the people, communities and social justice issues the QWOC festival highlights on the margins. “We, as queer people of color, are not a majority,” she says. “Even when we come out, we continue to be apart. I can’t stop being Asian any more than I can stop being queer. How do I embrace all of my identities?”
Lim says that social change that leads to acceptance, greater understanding, unified and progressive movements for queer women filmmakers and the topics they address in their work comes with time and through partnerships with other grassroots community organizations. “In our filmmaker training program, we partnered with San Francisco Women Against Rape. During a workshop, the ideas that arose were all about healing, hope, empowerment,” she says. “You might think it’s only rage and grief—and there was that, but there was also joy and resilience. All of our allies are included in our audiences. Why are we inclusive? Because our family members include everyone. We want everyone to come—with us as the center.”
This year’s festival includes eight films by queer Asian filmmakers. “Given the documented rage and hate waged against Asian people—it’s always been there, but this past year there was a rise and more news coverage,” she says. “It was atrocious, especially against older people. It was important we feature Asian queer filmmakers voices this year.”
We Make This City, a world premiere, touches on social justice issues in San Francisco and the ways in which gentrifications affects queer people in the city. To Ma: A Dedication to Frontliners, a film by Filipinx photographer and videographer MK Veniegas, was made during the pandemic. The film speaks of nurses, doctors, medical technicians and medical aids who are Asian. Lim says, “Throughout the country, Asian and Pacific Island people in hospitals are the people taking care of patients. But you never see that in [mainstream] films. In this one, you hear an intimate, personal, internal conversation the filmmaker has in the voiceover. You see people appreciating their mothers.”
Lim says Of Self-Blessing, a film included in the closing night program, involves the Black Lives Matter movement and events following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer. “It touches on all the violence and murders that we hear about,” she says. “It reaches into how we are not all one identity. The documentary is a journey and asks the question: How do we find joy, healing and love to thrive?”
If the answer is to come through films made by underserved or marginalized artists, large obstacles loom, as well as opportunities. The difficulties range from typical, all-filmmaker experiences to challenges faced particularly by people low on the economic scale or members of marginalized communities.
“There is definitely technology that has changed—anyone can film and do editing on a phone—so one positive is that access to filmmaking skills is more available,” Lim says. “Tik Tok is all about editing short videos, so that kind of skill is emerging. People are more savvy with technology in general and that adds to the sophistication of the films. But film schools are still very, very expensive and competitive. The trajectory, when our community is given access, is amazing and allows us to make powerful films.”
Emerging from the pandemic and presenting films focused on connection, Lim suggests relationships with other Bay Area film festival organizations during an event-packed Pride month continue to require trust, cooperation and respect. “You check in with everyone,” she says. “That’s how we talk and walk our social justice values.”