Reporter’s notebook: An interview with documentary producer Kristofer Rios

Fusion: What’s The Naked Truth: China Queer about?

Kristofer Rios: It’s about the growing LGBTQ community in China and the societal, cultural and political challenges they face for recognition. This community is basically invisible, not only in its own country but outside as well. There’s a growing, vibrant LGBTQ scene in China, but most people associate this movement as happening in the West—the fight for gay [and lesbian] marriage in the United States, throughout Europe or Latin America. So we’ve taken a look at the LGBTQ activist community in China and the innovative things they do to push for rights in a country where any conversation about human rights or civil liberties is basically impossible to have.

We’re also showing what it’s like to be gay or lesbian in China. This community is finding ways to be who they are within a traditional society where there’s a lot of pressure to continue the family name and to be loyal and dutiful to your parents.

Fusion: How did you find this story?

KR: A Fusion colleague told me about it. He was reporting on a different story when he learned about The Los Angeles LGBT Center training foreign LGBTQ activists. And to me, two things stood out: that one of the largest and most prominent LGBTQ organizations in the United States was training other LGBTQ people in China. The other thing that really struck me was the innovative ways that they were talking about their organizing. They go through these workshops and they learn how to run an NGO, how to fundraise, how to organize infrastructure and it gives them a chance to talk about the things they’re facing in China.

They learn about everything from the way of being engaged with police when they come to question them, to the ways to do outreach to a mostly closeted community. Only about 5 % of Chinese gay[s] and lesbians are out [according to a report by the United Nations Development Programme UNDP].

They have to find the community that they are organizing. They have to find creative ways to provide services to them, or to have them gather and connect with each other, because in China you’re not allowed to do that. You can’t mass organize because you get in trouble with the police. And so it’s that kind of conversation that the organizers were having that we thought was pretty cool.

Fusion: How did you find the characters in the documentary?

KR: We were able to find some of the bigger stories like the one about gay marriage in China or like the filmmaker whose film was banned, because they were covered by the media.

But the nuanced stories were found on the ground when we arrived in China.

Once we got there, we talked to the people at the Beijing LGBT center who didn’t make the cut but were a huge resource, going to their events, speaking to them and having them say “oh you should talk to so-and-so.” They were all pretty open and ready to tell their stories. We went to where the community was, and that’s where we found the folks.

Fusion: What were some of the difficulties reporting in China?

KR: I mean the first thing is the language. I don’t speak any Mandarin, which doesn’t mean you can’t produce it, but I had to listen a lot and follow the lead of the rest of the team that was much more familiar with the subject matter.

Also, you can’t really be a foreigner in China without drawing attention. There was sort of an understanding that being a foreigner reporting on a community that isn’t very visible was a liability—one for the production team in the field, and two for the people that we were interviewing and talking to—so we took a lot of precautions about where we did the interviews.

Fusion: And what was the risk?

KR: When you’re doing journalism in China, you can be reporting on something innocuous, and if someone finds that to be a sensitive story and reports it to the police, you can get into trouble. And so the risks for me was that I get kicked out of the country, and I can’t come back. But I was really concerned about my team, their livelihood depends on being able to have access to China. It depends on not not being surveilled by the government. It depends on being able to come in and out and do the work that they do. That’s how they earn their living. So I think that’s a risk. Even if they don’t get thrown in jail, or they just get a warning from the police, now they’re being watched, and now it’s harder for them to do their job. And that’s a liability that I didn’t want.

Fusion: What scene stands out the most for you in the documentary?

KR: I think the scene that for me speaks to the core of everything is where Yi’s parents express acceptance for her. Yi and Ou are two people who are about to launch a company that is supposed to help gays and lesbians stay in the closet—not because they’re promoting staying in the closet but because they want to give gay men and women a way to be themselves within Chinese society. In China, there’s this reality that we have to be respectful to our families. In the scene, Yi is telling her family that she is going to have a convenience marriage to satisfy the social pressures that her mom and dad are facing. But they’ve already accepted her, and she didn’t know it because she actually hadn’t had the conversation with them.

And in a lot of ways [that scene is] proving what people like Ah Qiang, the director of PFLAG, are saying. He believes that every family can now come around to accept their gay sons and [lesbian] daughters. But if you have a conversation about same sex marriage, it might be different. If you have a conversation about Ou and Yi being openly affectionate in public [or about transgender people] it might be a different conversation. So, it’s a really complex scene. But it really connects a lot of the things that the people in the film are saying both on an individual level and sort of a larger contextual level.

Kristofer Rios is the producer of Fusion TV’s The Naked Truth: China Queer. The feature-length documentary explores the difficulties of being LGBTQ in China and the battle activists are waging to get both the government and society to accept them and recognize their equal rights.

The Naked Truth: China Queer premieres Sunday, June 25th @ 9PM on FUSION TV. Channel listings here. More on The Naked Truth series here.