This article explores the possibilities for activist intervention through documentary media at a time when rhetorics of rights and recognition are increasingly appropriated into nationalist state projects, capitalist expansion, and a Northern hemispheric vision of the “good world.” It asks: How do activist media (makers) respond to the appropriation of liberal values? What language—visual, affective, political—do they use to remain morally and aesthetically legible to a wider public and majoritarian decision-makers while insisting on the need for structural transformation? To work through these questions, the article studies the documentary work of queer-feminist migrant labor activism in East Asia. This work offers particularly valuable insight into a strategy summarized here as sentimental activism: the simultaneous repetition and radical decentering of liberal rights discourse and its sensorium of human legibility. While critiques of sentimental affect as manipulative political instrument are numerous, this article probes under what conditions sentimental aesthetics might refuse to repeat and transform the normative paradigms stipulating who deserves rights and recognition in the first place. In focusing on Lesbian Factory (dir. Susan Chen, 2010), a documentary by the Taiwan International Workers’ Association on the collaborative effort of Taiwanese activists and queer Filipina migrant workers to push for better migrant labor rights, this article tracks how the documentary deploys a sentimental lexicon of rights and recognition for transformative ends: to center queer female migrant workers as historical protagonists in struggles for social justice and transformation and as an inspirational source for radical aesthetics.

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