When we talk about feminism what are we talking about? Equal rights, physical difference, female sexuality, female subjectivity, subversion of patriarchy, power relations and…? All these words might sound like clichés in the west, where feminism and the women’s movement originated. But thoughts on women’s issues will never dry up as long as women still exist on this planet. The difference is that, whereas feminism has gone through nearly a century in the west, Chinese women’s self-awareness seemingly hasn’t been evoked yet. It doesn’t mean we’ve never heard of the term feminism. Also, it doesn’t mean there was never a feminist movement in the PRC at all. Yes, there was. The women’s liberation movement led by the Communist party was used as one of its campaigns to gain authority and legitimacy in China. Although it granted adult women the right to vote and work, Chinese women were significantly defeminised during the movement. Unfortunately, the examination on whether this western concept really has roots in China, how the abstract theory infuses into Chinese women’s routine life and how Chinese women evaluate their status has never been sufficiently conducted in contemporary China. At the first China Women’s Film Festival, held during late November 2013 in Beijing, film brought women, as well as men concerned with women’s issues, together to see, feel, share and think what means of being a woman and other related issues in China as well as in this world. To talk about feminism at the CWFF was to talk about how women see women, how women film women, and how women see women in films. The festival started a journey of self-reflection for women, digging out the grey zone in between real existence and virtual imagination.
Who Are They?
The Chinese title Zhong Guo Min Jian Nv Xing Ying Zhan literally means China Grassroots Women’s Film Festival. Being aware of the tension between the government and Chinese indie films, they apparently avoided using “independent” to indicate any non-governmental standpoint. But they found it difficult to translate Min Jian into English. Min Jian, which could be literally translated as “among people”, is a neutral word to represent their unofficial and autonomous identity. Grassroots, which indicates non-official identity in English, could also imply lower class in Chinese. In case of creating ambiguity to Chinese audience, the organisers finally decided not to translate it. The agenda of the CWFF is to promote female filmmaking and raise the awareness of women’s rights in China. Surprisingly, this ten-day event showcasing 23 films made by female filmmakers from Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China, Japan, France, the US and Vietnam was set up by three organisers who have nothing to do with filmmaking. It is noteworthy that two of them actually work for NGOs. Organiser Li Dan, director of Dongjen Centre for Human Rights Education, believes that the combination of art and human rights can reify abstract concepts and increase the participation of ordinary people in a way to advocate human rights. Xiao Tie, operations director of Beijing LGBT Centre, is experienced in bringing people into a community as well as political advocacy through public events. Both have a clear idea of how to utilise concrete stories from films to promote a broad concept of feminism and women’s rights. In their festival, ideas such as reproductive rights, sexual rights and suffrage are represented and interpreted through vivid cinematic story-telling to give the audience a better understanding of what women are going through and what kind of rights women are fighting for. Li, as an NGO veteran, fully understands the risks in advocating human rights in China. For him, women’s rights are the safest and most unencumbered issue they could publicise, as it is often related to poverty, education and child care, issues that also concern the Chinese government. Advocating human rights in China does not necessarily mean being an opponent of the government, Li admits, there is a line and they won’t cross the line. From this point of view, one might infer that, as an autonomous grassroots film festival, the perspective of feminism has sheltered the festival from the circumstances of rampant speech regulations under the new leadership, so that it could take place without any interference.
Scholar, Practitioner and Audience: Who Knows Women Best?
Cinema is often utilised as a pedagogical tool to disseminate lesser known issues and relevant thoughts. At the CWFF, apart from the films themselves, academics and practitioners also play an essential role in advocating women’s rights. There is no doubt that film festivals provide a temporary space where people can get together. Apart from facilitating collective viewing, they also connect people and stimulate debate and discussion, particularly when united around a given issue, and different opinions converge. Focusing on women, the CWFF initiated intense discussion and even fierce debates through screenings, forums and audience participation. The day after the opening night commenced not with screenings but a forum discussion where invited guests Hong Kong director Chen Anqi, independent curator Liao Wen, director of Taiwan’s Women Make Waves Film Festival Luo Peijia and young director Wu Man shared their experiences as women in their professions. Chen Anqi, talked about her early career experience in an industry where few female directors are well known. She told the audience women were not allowed to sit on equipment containers on shoots as men believed women would bring back luck to filmmaking. Her experiences received instant responses of recognition from the audience who shared their stories of bias and humiliation encountered as in various industries. As an independent curator, Liao Wen has observed and provided a platform for women’s creativity for decades. After visiting feminist artists, doing research on feminism in the US and programming exhibitions dedicated to women’s art, she concluded that female artists have different modes of expression compared to their male counterparts, deriving from their different ways of thinking and feeling. She stated that female artists were most marginalised in the era of realism as the dominant aesthetic pursuit of art. However, she emphasised that contemporary art, which draws upon diverse media and embraces different aesthetic pursuits, has created a more gender-balanced era for artistic expression. Interestingly, Chen agreed with respect to women and filmmaking in the digital era, despite the fact that the superstition about bringing bad luck still somehow persists. However, the debate rages on. A college girl boldly disagreed with these statements and her opinion immediately stirred up a debate over sexual equality and sexual difference. Everyone on stage remarked that feminism is not about antagonism between men and women but striving for a gender-balanced society. However members of the audience questioned the significance of the forum as large numbers of women who suffer from gender inequality and discrimination actually live in rural areas, not in metropolitan cities like Beijing and don’t have the opportunity to engage in such discussions. It was stated the target audience of the forum should have been rural women and that so-called gender quality should be improved and guaranteed by policies. As the discourse swiftly moved from gender to class, there was no denying that lower-class women do rarely have access to such public events with a strong intellectual voice, but this is not unique to China, nor to issues of feminism.
It was a similar situation the next day in which professor Zhang Zhen from New York University, feminist activist Lv Pin and professor Yang Hui from Beijing Film Academy gathered as part of a public forum to share their research on feminism and personal experiences. When the panelists criticised the bias towards women being culturally constructed as inferior to men, a female audience member expressed her strong opposition to such “academic” views. She stated that physical difference has determined that men are superior to women, which cannot be ignored and changed by academics. She also expostulated that academics should respect facts and be reasonable. Her statement immediately elicited debate and argument. Lv Pin disdained to the woman’s view and said in anger, “if you ask me to admit I’m inferior to men, I would rather die”! It, at once, stirred up more furious argument over physical difference and female awareness between academics and audiences. Finally, the organisers had to interrupt the “conversation” and ask all attendees to calm down to move the forum forward.
The fact that some female audience members strongly reject feminism was beyond the organisers’ imagination. However, they were open to such phenomenon as it reveals the problem that Chinese women’s self-awareness hasn’t been aroused, which also gives them motivation to construct a platform where different voices can be heard and converge, so that policy-makers would give more attention to women’s issues.
Although it is called China Women’s Film Festival, only three short films and two documentaries from mainland China screened. The organisers found out how limited both the resources and the channels where they could find films are in the course of programming. In addition, compared with the feminist films from other regions, it is evident to see the gap in film quality.
Vietnamese American director Trinh T. Minh-ha’s essay film Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) is a historical portrayal of Vietnam through the depiction of numerous women who tell their personal stories. Going through the colonial period, civil war and immigrant life in America, Vietnam’s national history is gradually revealed to the audience through women’s narratives. The film places women, whose voices have been ignored, centre stage to make up an entire national history whose narrative was dominated by patriarchal voices. However the film is not just about women’s narrative. The marginalised women who are removed and repressed within the nation can be seen as a metaphor of Vietnam whose identity articulation is fractured by foreign cultures, colonialism and war. It is also a film about representing identity as the title literally indicates. But Trinh is more ambitious in questioning Vietnam’s identity construction as a Southeast Asian country in the postcolonial and globalised era. The film consists of a series of Vietnamese cultural symbols such as folk dance, song and the traditional Vietnamese female figure, all “interrupted” by graphic subtitles, titles and voiceover (comments). In other words, the established symbols which represent Vietnamese identity are deconstructed or questioned on the screen. With so many elements and intellectual challenges to the audience, it is admittedly a demanding experience for the spectator to take in, although they are granted the freedom to watch selectively and combine the information in their own manner. Either way, the audience is a participant actively engaging in the representation of Vietnamese identity through viewing, thinking and judging. At the film’s Q&A Professor Yang Hui said a Chinese audience might find the film difficult to follow since we don’t have a lot of experience watching experimental or essay films on the big screen. Additionally, she asserted that it is still impossible to see such feminist films in China in terms of either the exploration in film ontology or the thoughts on feminism. Also screened was Trinh’s first video work The Fourth Dimension (2001), a multi-layered travelogue that addresses similar issues (of cultural identity the impossibility of truly seeing, the experience of time) as her earlier film, albeit here transposed to the Japanese experience. These two works were the highlights of the CWFF as they brought a new perspective to the Chinese audience and showed the high standard that a female filmmaker could reach.
Turning to fiction films, a program called Incandescence: Julie Dash’s Third Eye deserves highlighting. Who is Julie Dash? She was the first African American woman to have a full-length general theatrical release in the United States. What is the third eye? It still refers to the marginalised identity of female directors, particularly apt for Julie Dash, who is a woman of colour and works in the white, male-dominated Hollywood industry. The CWFF showed five films, all telling the stories of the experiences of African-American women, the central concern throughout Dash’s work. Daughters of the Dust (1991) which won Dash widespread acclaim as a successful black female director, concerns three generations of women in a family. It shows the conflict between the old and the young, the latter breaking tradition by leaving their hometown Sea Island where their ancestors had been brought as slaves centuries ago. Her 1999 made-for-TV Incognito has an interesting backstory. It was originally a typical genre story of a hero rescuing a beauty, and had been given to a male filmmaker. The film was handed over to Dash halfway through, always a difficult situation for a filmmaker to come into. The film tells of a wealthy young black female executive who is stalked by a criminal who attacks and rapes her. Her father hires a guard to protect her, with whom she gradually falls in love, while her boyfriend cannot give her any support and embezzles money from her company. On the surface, the film is all about heroism and machismo whereas woman is the object that man should protect and save. However in Dash’s version, the female protagonist becomes the leading role whose action guides the story, whereas men become supporting roles. The director concentrates on the character’s overcoming of the psychological phobia the rape left her with, and has her try to recall the details that would provide clues for catching the criminal. The passive woman who was waiting to be saved by men turns into an independent subject seeking self-salvation. Additionally, the film also reflects Dash’s open-mindedness to race. First, she breaks the racist yet traditionally held depiction that the white guy is always good and the black guy is always bad by reversing the roles. Secondly, she incorporates Asian faces into her “black and white” film. In showing Dash’s films, the CWFF raise questions to Chinese audiences and filmmakers about what it means to be a woman of colour and how to construct and represent women’s subjectivity in a non-white world.
In terms of mainland China, apart from the works of two documentary veterans, Ji Dan and Yang Lina, the CWFF also showcased short films of two young female directors. Although at a very young age, Wu Man, who studied in the Netherlands for several years and was trained as an independent filmmaker at Li Xianting Film School, is highly sensitive to her identity and existence as a woman. Her 14-minute film Last Words (2013) is a first-person documentary as well as a monologue in which Wu talks to the camera about being beaten by her boyfriend and her fantasy of suicide since her childhood. Lying in bed, her body is shown in front of the camera as she talks about violence, despair and death. The film in fact consists of a series of close-up shots in which Wu’s body is the focus. But the audience’s focus on her body/femininity is constantly diverted by her disturbing monologue about suicide. The conflict between her feminine body and rational thinking on violence and death appears to claim her subjectivity as a complex existence and resists festishistic construction of women as an object of desire for the male gaze. But it is very regrettable that the jump-cuts, to some extent, affect the continuity of the film. Another young director is Du Xiaoyu who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy. Pork and Moon (2013) is her postgraduate final project and tells of the story between a middle-aged woman and a young rebellious girl. Pork refers to the middle-aged woman who is a single mother and works in a slaughterhouse and Moon is the name of the young girl, who is the girlfriend to the woman’s son. When Moon just moves in with her boyfriend and his mother, the two women appear to be on bad terms. One day, the man suddenly disappears. Nonetheless, it also allows Moon and the mother to get to know more about each other, to learn about the mother’s past and trauma and Moon’s harassment by her boss. As they gradually come to get along with each other, the son suddenly returns with a new girlfriend. Then Moon has to leave though the mother has treated her like her own. The absence of a father figure or the problematic male figure is a recurrent theme in feminist films. Meanwhile female bonding gradually builds up as does self-awareness as the women deal with their troubles. In the screened work of both Wu and Du, their female awareness is striking.
The Status-quo of Distribution of Women’s Films in China
The original mandate of the festival was to provide a platform where Chines e women’s films could be screened and gain recognition. However, the Chinese films that they could obtain were insufficient to support the whole festival. In the course of fundraising and looking for cooperation, more institutions that could provide films emerged, such as the French Embassy, Women Make Waves Film Festival from Taipei and Women Make Movies, giving the CWFF an international vision. Contrasted with the difficulty in searching for women’s films in China, there is more access to international women’s films through such established institutions. But regarding the film selections from mainland China, the organisers had to personally contact filmmakers through Weibo, the Twitter-like social network, on which many filmmakers create pages and post publicity material. There are institutions like CNEX and the Li Xianting Film Fund that finance, collect and distribute independent films in mainland China. But neither of them is especially dedicated to promoting films made by female filmmakers (and the LXFF does not hold copyright on the films it collects). Therefore, basically, it seems there were no established unofficial/grassroots films institutions that CWFF could network with.
However, in terms of screening venues, grassroots organisations such as cinephile clubs play an indispensable part in the formation of the CWFF. In mainland China, especially in Beijing, there are well-organised grassroots cineclubs which were nurtured and grew up against the background of the import of Western art films and independent film culture since the 1990s. In China, since films can only be screened at the cinema by passing censorship, it leaves CWFF no room to work with any cinemas. Therefore, cinephile clubs are their best choice to locate their festival and to gain outreach for a greater audience. The CWFF cooperated with the Qingying Screening and Zajia Club which provided venues in the city centre. In addition, Inside-out theatre located in the west of Beijing and Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art located in the east of Beijing also signed on as the main venues. The fact that screenings are scattered across Beijing resulted in a somewhat geographically-loose connection of all the screenings and events. Different days brought different venues and some festival-goers complained about the changes and remoteness of the venues. Thus, if a film festival is considered a site where a particular community can be built and strengthened through intense meetings across multiple days, viewings and discussions, the dispersed screenings of CWFF weakened the sense of community. Such community building plays an essential part in lower-profile and thematic film festivals, driven by the belief that a shared approach and commitment to social issues requires mobilising public opinion in an intimate context. Without a centralised foundation, the CWFF could end up consisting of a number of individual screenings and discussions, just as a random screening event does.
What is An Audience Supposed to be?
Daniel Dayan (1) points out going to a film festival can be seen as a collective performance that the audience would perform according to norms defined by festival such as “watching films, talking to other spectators, and spending hours trying to figure out the shortest way through the catalog”. This sort of experience can certainly be observed at international festivals such as Rotterdam, Sundance and Toronto. But what is an audience supposed to do at a themed film festival? The closing screening of the CWFF is a good illustration. The closing film of CWFF was Lina Yang’s The Love of Mr An (2007) which tells the story of 90 year-old Mr An, who frequently goes to the Temple of Heaven to dance in the park with his dance partner, 50-something Ms. Wei. Although both of them are married with children, their relationship grows into something more ambiguous as it becomes entangled with money and affection, much to the confusion and annoyance of Ms Wei. When Ms Wei suddenly passes away from a stroke, the sad news is concealed from Mr An for some time. When he does learn of her death, he is devastated and grievously bursts into tears when he pays a visit to her grave. After nearly half year, Mr An picks up a new dance partner, a middle-aged woman, in the park and starts his new life.
The closing screening took place in 706 Youth Space, located in a residential area in Wudaokou, an area that holds several universities. The venue is the first youth space that regularly organises public sessions, salons, readings and screenings about various issues. It is a two-story apartment that has been reconstructed and decorated as a multi-functional space that contains a small library, a hostel-like guest room, a common room and a gazebo. Taking place in such space, the closing screening ran smoothly with a full-house audience.
The CWFF had invited Lina Yang to do a formal post-screening Q&A with the audience. But as her flight was delayed, she didn’t arrive on time. To everyone’s surprise, an informal discussion, raised by the organisers as a tactic to buy time, triggered intense and fierce debates over several issues going far beyond the film’s concerns. It appears that the audience has more “responsibilities” than just watching films at the CWFF.
The Love of Mr An is an observational film in which Yang brings the audience into the private life and love world of elder people through her lens. It is a film full of emotion, passion and drama, which surprised the attendees, most of who were young people and had likely never thought about what it means to be old. It was a coincidence that a film about the old was screened in a youth space, which is supposed to generate discussions about public issues among young people. It was also a coincidence that among all the young attendees there was an old woman named Zeng who turned up in the youth space. The encounter between the young and the old elicited a productive dialogue around issues about elderly people.
As the audience waited for Yang, Xiao Tie, as host, started to talk about her feelings about the film, intending to throw out questions and arouse the audience to discussion. She focused on the affair between Ms Wei and Mr An, and the life of elderly people, expecting the audience to respond. The audience however was clearly surprised and a little bit shocked to see how vibrant older people’s love can be. Meanwhile, they also felt uneasy that Mr An’s affairs involve the exchange of money. After her opening talk and some exchange with the audience, Xiao Tie asked the old woman, Zeng, how she felt about the life of elderly people represented in the film. As it turned out, the question did not just hand over the topic to Zeng but also made Zeng become the focus. Usually activist film festivals also make an effort to invite the subject of the documentaries to attend the post-screening Q&A as their attendance often amplify the stories through their presence. (2) In the case of the CWFF, without the attendance of the subject of The Love of Mr An, who sadly passed away half a year prior to the screening, Zeng, who is 70-something, spoke in front of the young people on this occasion. She first responded to Xiao Tie that the film represented the real life of elderly people who still have passion and vigour. She emphasised that she also saw the real humanity in the film, that people at any age would encounter what Lao An experienced, emotions such as love, jealousy and fragility. Zeng also talked about her own life that she has always participated in cultural events like film screening and salons instead of relying on children and taking caring of grandchildren at home as most old people do. The independent life that she has been pursuing made her happy and energetic. The host, Xiao Tie, immediately echoed Zeng’s speech that the current understanding of old people who are considered to be conservative, useless and senile is entirely culturally constructed. Some attendees even started to discuss how to make more old people engage in cultural event like CWFF.
Turning to the film, some audience members could not accept the extra-marital relations and insisted that having an affair is immoral even on the part of old people. Some of them felt uncomfortable when the film touched upon the sexuality of old people. All different opinions urged more attendees to engage in and further trigger more intense debates over elderly people’s rights and ethics, a debate that far exceeded the confines of what a 90-minute documentary could contain. The post-screening discussion gradually turned into a field where different voices could be articulated and every audience member undertook the responsibility of caring and even engaging in public issues. Evidently, it was the screening of The Love of Mr An that brought the young audience into the awareness of public issues concerning elderly people. Moreover, both the activist organisers and the space, which is casual, compared to a cinema, but still intimate, helped generate a public at the CWFF.
The discussions of this sort had arisen over the days of the festival. Practitioners like filmmakers and activists, academics and audiences reflected on what they have experienced in life and what they saw and heard associated with the themes raised at the CWFF, in fact going beyond issues of feminism, as illustrated above. No matter if it generated argument or constructive dialogue, the encounter between women’s films and general public, with the involvement of academics and practitioners, contributed to elevating all the discussions to a different sphere. The organisers point out either the lack of women’s films in China or people’s misunderstanding about feminism illuminates future directions the CWFF could take. Optimistically, the organisers have started to plan their second edition with its commitment to advocating feminism and women’s films in China.
China Women’s Film Festival
22 November – 1 December 2013
Festival website: http://chinesefolkwomenfilmfestival.weebly.com
- Dayan, Daniel (2000). “Looking for Sundance: The Social Construction of a Film Festival”, in Ib Bondebjerg (ed.), Moving Images, Culture and the Mind. Univ. of Luton Press, Luton, pp. 43–52. Reprinted in Dina Iordanova (ed.), The Film Festivals Reader, St Andrews Film Studies, St Andrews, pp. 45–58.
- Nick Higgins, “‘Tell Our Story to the World’: The Meaning of Success for A Massacre Foretold – A Filmmaker Reflects” in Dina Iordanova and Leshu Torchin (eds), Film Festival Yearbook 4: Film Festivals and Activism, St Andrews Film Studies, St Andrews, 2012, pp. 13-30 , p. 15.