Jamie Chi On Filmmaking, Racism and Building Community

Jamie Chi is an independent filmmaker and LGBT+ rights activist of Filipino and Chinese heritage. Jamie’s most recent project is a documentary called ‘Safe Distance’ which explores the lives of queer Chinese people living under lockdown in the UK. In this interview, Jamie talks about the inspiration behind their documentary, the challenges of filming in lockdown and making the film industry more inclusive.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I’m a queer film-maker who grew up in Hong Kong, but I’ve lived in different places all over the world. Before the pandemic, I was working as a stunt performer, but the pandemic put a stop to that. Working as a stunt performer, I was interested in learning more about film-making so I’ve been learning how to make films in my own time.

What inspired you to make the documentary ‘Safe Distance’?

When I first came to London, it was easy to settle because it’s such a diverse place so I never felt out of place. However, when the pandemic began, people like me started being targeted just for our appearance and ethnicity. I was suddenly made to feel very aware of my ‘otherness’ and I became quite angry at the situation thinking, “What did I do to deserve this treatment?”. It wasn’t just happening to me, but to my loved ones and my community. That’s when I felt like I needed to speak up and let people know that this is not okay.

I wanted to make a documentary to shine a light on the double marginalisation of queer Chinese people during the pandemic because these stories weren’t being told in mainstream media outlets. One day, I heard that three queer, androgynous Chinese friends were  attacked on the same day, including a close friend. There was not a lot of news coverage of these attacks. And that’s only on one day. What about the other days? And were they targetted because they were Chinese, or because they were queer, or both? These incidents made me realise I had to do something to raise awareness, especially outside of our community.

Since Brexit and the beginning of the pandemic, there has been more tension and discrimination in British society. Perhaps because life is becoming more difficult, people think it’s easy to blame and scapegoat minority groups. To address this, I’m trying to promote kindness and empathy by highlighting different experiences and encouraging people to connect with experiences they might be unfamiliar with.

What challenges did you face whilst filming during lockdown?

The production began in February, so most of the interviews were filmed during lockdown. This was a massive challenge for us, as it meant I could only have a tiny crew, consisting of the interviewee, me and another camera operator. Because we could only film outside, we were at the mercy of British weather and sometimes members of the public came up to make uncomfortable comments. Even though it was really difficult, my mindset was that I had to make the most of what we had and the project had to go on, no matter what obstacles might appear. This was such a huge commitment, I used up my annual leave at my day job to film the documentary and later quit because I realised that I needed to devote my concentration to editing the film, which was much more time-consuming than I initially expected.

At first, I thought it would only take two or three months to finish the film, but I’ve already been working on it for 6 months. I thought I had finished the filming part when I had recorded 32 interviews, but when the lockdown rules were relaxed in spring, important protests (such as Reclaim Pride and the Stop Asian Hate Rally) kept on happening so I couldn’t help but continue recording these important events.

Making a documentary is very different from a scripted film, you know where you’re going. With a documentary, it’s always a surprise, you never know what it will bring you and nd the surprise is where the magic happens.

Jamie Chi Image credit: Wayne Lee

What were the most interesting or unexpected stories you came across whilst filming?

I was planning to film a protest in London, but it got cancelled so I ended up going to a small LGBT+ exhibition. It was a total coincidence that the people exhibiting at the event were LGBT+ elders, such as Andrew Lumsden, who were founding members of the Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s. Although they weren’t Chinese, they readily sympathised with the experience of being discriminated against because of being unfairly associated with a disease. In the 80s, AIDS was seen as a ‘gay virus’ and today, covid-19 is depicted as a ‘Chinese virus’. Both these stereotypes dehumanise and stigmatise marginalised groups in society. It was really touching to meet people who had already been through similar experiences and the Gay Liberation Front members were very supportive of our project and empathetic towards our experiences as queer Chinese people in the UK.

When I first started the project, I put out an open call to see who was interested, but in the end we had 32 interviewees! There’s a really diverse range of experiences, from a Chinese Singaporean lawyer trying to overturn colonial-era laws banning gay sex, to a queer martial arts teacher who was physically attacked during lockdown. Quite a few interviewees told me that lockdown gave them a period of reflection which made them deeply question their purpose and direction in life. Some found lockdown liberating because it blocked out outside voices and social expectations. For one transgender interviewee, going through lockdown made her realise that she had to start living her life authentically as a trans woman, otherwise she would live a life full of regrets. Other interviewees told me that lockdown made them realise that they wanted to be more involved in anti-racist activism and spend more energy uplifting creatives of colour.

What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Filmmaking isn’t something you can do alone. If there’s a particular story you’re passionate about making into a film or documentary, reach out for help because there will be people who are willing to support you. I’m lucky that I had a talented team of filmmakers, animators and researchers to collaborate with me on this project, and offer me emotional support when I felt down.

Secondly, just start, don’t wait. If it’s a really urgent problem you want to raise awareness of and tackle, timing matters. Although, of course, it’s different for each project and everyone has their own pace. Something that worked for me might not work for everyone.

Lastly, it’s important to overcome perfectionism. At first, I was hesitant to make a film because I felt like I had to be more ready, but then when the time came, I just took a leap of faith. Learn to be kind to yourself and have space for mistakes in order to grow.

Do you think the film industry is becoming more inclusive? How could the film industry be more diverse and inclusive?

In the UK, there’s lots of people in the film industry saying they’re going to prioritise diversity and they release a lot of statements about standing in solidarity with various marginalised groups. But there’s not a lot of sustainable, long-term action that follows these statements, instead we’re given empty promises. Major players in the film industry need to put their words into concrete actions. Like, what have you done and what changes have you actually implemented to support people of colour and LGBT+ people in the industry?

There needs to be more funding for QPOC films. TV networks and film companies also need to be more willing to green-light projects that focus on QPOC experiences.

Outside the UK, it can really vary by country. For example, in the Philippines I’m doing a script-writing course where they’ve chosen a very diverse cohort to open up more opportunities to filmmakers from marginalised communities. But in other countries, it’s the opposite. In some countries, they are putting up more barriers and conservative social attitudes make it difficult to screen films about certain topics, such as LGBT+ issues, as they see difference as a threat.

What inspired you to create the Queer Chinese Arts Festival, and what challenges do you face?

Because of structural issues and discrimination, there’s very few queer people of colour in senior positions in the film industry. There’s not a lot of funding either. Because of the lack of opportunities and spaces for queer artists of colour, we need to support each other as a community and create our own art festival to showcase our works. This is especially important because of lockdown, many artists have been denied the opportunity to showcase a lot of their art.

For a long time, Qiubai, the founder of Queer China UK, and I had wanted to hold an event celebrating the art made by our community. And then all of a sudden everything came together in the short span of a month. We were lucky to meet Aisha Shaibu, one of the members of UK Black Pride and key organisers behind London’s new sober, queer venue, Glass House, she let us use the pace for our event.

I’m really glad that I got to do a test screening of the documentary at the Queer Chinese Arts Festival because it gave me a chance to show contributors the final result and engage with members of our community to see how I could improve the documentary with their feedback.

It was really great to be able to bring the community together in a physical venue after lockdown and celebrate art made by queer Chinese artists. Growing up, this is something I always wished I had, but didn’t have access to. This project is so much more than just my documentary, it’s a collective effort to bring together the queer Chinese community, and create long-term awareness, social support networks and records of our experiences. There’s only so much we can do as individuals, but when we come together, we can achieve so much more.


Jamie Chi’s documentary, ‘Safe Distance’, will be screened at Bishopsgate Institute in London on 16 September – Book free tickets 

You can follow Jamie Chi’s ‘Safe Distance’ project on Instagram 

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