Curve: Our Films, Our Selves

Friday, April 1, 2005

Written by: Diane Anderson-Minshall

Almost 3 million people watched Sambal Belacan, Madeleine Lim’s award-winning documentary about three Asian women making a home in the United States. The attention was nothing new for Singaporean-born, San Francisco-based director who runs the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project. The wildly successful QWOCMAP trains women of color to make films and then helps get those films in front of viewers. Lim talks to CURVE about her work and fostering the careers of other queer women.

What has surprised you most about your QWOCMAP experience?

I’m definitely surprised by how successful QWOCMAP is. We have expanded exponentially from year to year. The demand for the training program has been incredible, to the point where we maintain a waitlist for interested participants. By the end of this year, a total of 35 short films will have been completed through the training program. That’s 35 films made by and about queer women of color, going out to film festivals all over the world. Our screenings are packed. Which is why we’re expanding our exhibition program to weekend-long screenings. The training program was awarded the 2003 Best Video Program by the San Francisco Community Media Festival. Last week, I was awarded — as artistic director of QWOCMAP — a certificate of honor by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in public recognition of distinction and merit for outstanding service to the people of San Francisco. The level of excitement generated by community and funders alike has been phenomenal.

Besides Sambal Belacan and Shades of Grey, you did a film on homelessness, right? What other films have you done?

The video on homeless youth was called Youth Organizing: Power Through Art. In 2002, I made a documentary that traces the history and development of San Francisco’s Chinatown called A Vision of Smart Growth. I made an experimental short, which world-premiered at the San Francisco lesbian and gay film festival this year called Dragon Desire. I’m currently editing a documentary on the experiences of Afghan youth living in California. I’m also seeking funds for several documentaries. One project is about the experiences of newly arrived immigrant Chinese mothers and their daughters. Another project documents the lesbian of color movement in Europe, starting with a French group called the Sixth November Group. I also have a narrative script in development about the experiences of lesbians of color living in 1850 gold rush era California.

Can you tell me a bit more about QWOCMAP?

The objective of Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project is to build a vibrant and diverse community of queer women of color filmmakers in the San Francisco Bay Area. The lives and experiences of queer women of color — lesbians and bi-sexual women who are Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, Latina, Chicana, Native American, African American — are seldom heard or seen in mainstream cinema. Who will tell our stories if we don’t? So what QWOCMAP does is put filmmaking tools into the hands of queer women of color so that we can tell our own stories, and address the social and political issues pertinent to our diverse communities. The more films there are, the more images that reflect our real lives, the better.

How do you do that?

QWOCMAP promotes the creation and exhibition of films and videos by queer women of color through our two programs: the training program and the exhibition program. The training program is a free 16-week long digital-film production workshop that is offered to queer women of color. I believe in demystifying technology for my students. Because of economic issues, and survival issues, queer women of color don’t think to go into film or media, or we don’t have access to that technology. Participants learn major aspects of screenwriting, directing and video production, from conception of project idea to movie distribution — lots of hands-on exercises. The workshop culminates with individual projects that are written, directed and edited by the participants. Topics covered include development of idea, writing a script, storyboards, creating a shotlist, cinematography, continuity, lighting, sound, directing actors, managing crew, editing, film festivals and distribution.

Called the Queer Woman of Color Film Night, our exhibition program showcases the completed video projects annually during the San Francisco Queer Arts Festival every June. The screening is free and always packed, with standing room only, typically over 300 people. The atmosphere and sense of community is really incredible — watching new filmmakers experiencing public acknowledgment and love for their creative work from an extremely supportive audience! For 2005, we hope expand our one evening of film screening into the first [annual] Queer Women of Color Film Festival, a weekend-long affair. Fingers crossed on getting funding for it.

You have a very multicultural background — how does that work to your advantage in filmmaking?

Ethnically, I’m mostly Chinese, with some Malay, Indian, and Portuguese mixed in. I was born and raised in Singapore, with a stepfather who is German. My own journey in self-acceptance definitely informs my filmmaking. I definitely do not shy away from exploring the complexities in our society, and subsequently to convey those same complexities through film by interweaving different elements that can best tell that story and the issues involved. My films tend to be mixed-genre and pushes at traditional filmic boundaries. I find the traditional narrative form or the traditional documentary form somewhat limiting in terms of fully expressing my experiences. I weave scripted scenes, found footage, poetry and dance into a documentary, so that the final mixed-genre form is more able to fully express my vision.

What was it like coming out in Singapore?

Hard and challenging. I attended an all-girls convent school. I had my first girlfriend when I was 15 and I almost got expelled from school at 16, in 1980, for being a lesbian. I was constantly pulled out of my class and interrogated by the teachers and the principal about how unnatural lesbianism was, how I should use make-up, how I should date boys.

My girlfriend and I were literally forced to break up. There were no women’s support groups, no LGBT support groups, no books, no information, nothing. I literally had to re-invent the wheel for myself. I finally came out to my mum at 19. At 21, I ran an underground lesbian feminist newsletter for two years and tried to organize a lesbian community. That effort really came from trying not to feel isolated and alienated as a lesbian. After the Singapore government arrested dissenting citizens, I left for the U.S.

Do you have to struggle to get your lesbian identity validated in Singapore? How about your Asian identity among American lesbians?

Being a lesbian in Singapore today is very different than it was in
1980. Young lesbians, especially the butches, are very visible everywhere. There are organized sports for lesbians, lesbian nightclubs and email listservs for lesbians. Information is available literally at the tip of your fingers through the Internet. The last time I was in Singapore in 1999, I didn’t have to struggle to get my lesbian identity validated.

I’m extremely fortunate to live in San Francisco where a third of the population is Asian or Asian American. The community that is closest to my heart is of course the Asian Pacific Islander queer women’s community. There are tons of API queer women’s ethnic organizations here: Japanese, Mandarin speakers, Vietnamese, Singaporean and Malaysian, Filipino, South Asian, Middle Eastern — the list goes on. Asian American lesbians have been extremely supportive! So I feel totally at home here in San Francisco. The issue for me is less about being an Asian than it is about being an immigrant in the U.S. and feeling like I belong and included here.

What are your hopes for lesbian filmmaking in the future overall?

Film and video is such a powerful medium — visually and emotionally. It is the means by which we see reflections of ourselves. It is the means through which we understand our quests for self, community, the tangible and intangible world around us.

Films are all about fantasies. Fantasy of the perfect romance.
Fantasy of the ideal parents. Fantasy of the best childhood. The question is, “Whose fantasies get to go up on the big screen?” I personally have never been able to identify with any of the characters in most films. My hope is to see the lives of queer women of color reflected on the silver screen. I want to see films that tell the stories of lesbians of color from center stage, instead of having our experiences relegated to the sidelines, or worse yet, completely non-existent. I would love to see a sexy, sizzling, romantic comedy between two lesbian of color characters! Soon!