"Outcry and Whisper": A conversation between Jinyan Zeng, Trish McAdam, and Gina Marchetti
Transcribed by Ruidi Ni.
We are going to talk with Jinyan and Trish today, Wenhai also sent some remarks but he won't be with us for this particular discussion. Let me begin by introducing the filmmakers quickly.
Jinyan Zeng is a writer, scholar, and documentary filmmaker. You will already know this from the film, which is quite autobiographical. She was a fellow at Colby College in 2017, and she's currently a Post-doc Fellow at the University of Haifa in Israel. I got to know her here in Hong Kong, when she was working on her PhD at the University of Hong Kong, in 2017. Her book Feminism and Genesis of the Citizen Intelligentsia in China came out in 2016, and it won a Publishing Award in the Social Science category of the 2017 Hong Kong Publishing Biennial Awards. She made a film, which she co-directed with Hu Jia, her former partner, called Prisoners in Freedom City (2007). She’s also written a script for the animation short, A Poem to Liu Xia, which she worked on with our other guest Trish McAdam. Jinyan has been a producer on another documentary We the Workers (2017), which I am going to introduce in just a second. Welcome Jinyan.
I would also like to welcome filmmaker Trish McAdam who has worked quite a lot between Ireland and New York in photography and Super 8 filmmaking, as well as animation. We see this in Outcry and Whisper. As we mentioned before, she worked with Jinyan on A Poem to Liu Xia.
Our other filmmaker, who won’t be with us today, is co-director of the film, Huang Wenhai (aka Wen Hai). He was a student at the Beijing Film Academy in the 1990s and is a well-known documentary filmmaker. Among his best-known films are Floating Dust (2003), which received the Prix Georges Beauregard at the 16th Festival International du Documentaire in Marseille in 2005, Dream Walking (2005), and the film We (wo men), winner of the Horizons Special Mention award at the 2008 Venice International Film Festival. He worked with Wang Bing for Three Sisters. His most recent film, besides Outcry and Whisper, is We the Workers, on which Jinyan collaborated, as we mentioned previously.
I want to start with perhaps asking Jinyan if she could talk about the inspiration for this project. Could you tell us about the background of what led you make this film?
Thank you Gina.
This film, basically, is a dialogue with the previous film We the Workers. Wenhai and I met in Hong Kong in 2013. I realized that we had the same research questions for our own projects, that is the relationship between Chinese independent documentary filmmaking and social activism. Around that time, we also made friends with many people who worked on labor issues, like Han Dongfang, Can Chongguo, and our co-producer Valerie Nichols-Han. So in 2013, we decided to make a series of films about labor activism in China. We the Workers is our first feature film focusing on factory labour organizing and labour NGO networking. In this film, you have a very intimate insider’s view about how these tens of labor activists organized themselves and engaged with workers for their basic rights. Outcry and Whisper is the second project of this production design. Firstly, we wanted to focus on women workers. But during the footage analysis processes, Wenhai and I realized if only with the limited footage, only focused on factory working women, the film will be very thin in a way. It was already impossible to go back to make further filming (most protagonists in We the Workers were detained in Dec 2015 and it affected our work afterwards). We decided to extend the theme into women’s struggle, considering other footage and possibilities. During the filmmaking process, Trish, Wenhai and I had different considerations, debates, and contributions to this film. Trish probably will talk about that from her point-of-view later. I will talk both from Wenhai’s written responses and my own thoughts.
For Wenhai, as you have seen, there's a lot of influence from Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, especially Wenhai’s creativity of cinematic language, and his way of thinking about women. Slowly, he had the desire to develop the Outcry and Whisper toward telling the struggle stories through women’s stories, as a director living in Hong Kong with ongoing protests including the Umbrella Movement (2014).
For me, this film, firstly, is about female rebels. How to represent female rebels? According to the footage, as you have seen, for example, for these women workers, they are not highly educated in school or in university like many of you, but they are still self-educated to organize, to fight for their own basic rights. In this point of view, I feel I am one of them, self-educated to deal with problems that aren’t addressed in our education system. The extreme protest voices from them, from the mass production workshop workers, are emphasized by Wenhai and Trish’s animation footage.
Wenhai insisted on presenting factory workers’ suicides, with poems recreated from worker poet Xu Lizhi who committed suicide in 2014, aged 24. The film’s message is “Someone committed suicide, it was not like a screw falling to the floor”. This is one outcry perspective of the film, the outcry representation of workers’ voices.
At the same time, during 2013 and 2014, I experienced harsh and difficult times in terms of receiving sexual and political harassment messages on a daily basis. I couldn't bear that anymore. I talked to camera for trauma healing. The talking to camera prevented me from a breakdown. Only a few friends knew that footage. Wenhai also got to know that footage. He suggested that we should use that part of the footage, which in his view, consisted of part of the whisper in this film. In the film, it’s a whisper to deliver the very determined message about unspoken protest and self-transformation.
In the end with all these footages, we understood what we want to present is what women have to face - what kind of violence, what kind of problems in our life and work; and how do we present this violence, through filmmaking, how do we women find a way out?
Sounds great. Let me go back to my Powerpoint a little bit, so that we have some visuals on some of the issues that you've brought up in terms of first-person filmmaking. Before this, the film that I mentioned Prisoners in Freedom City was also very much autobiographical in its nature. We see a lot of you in Outcry and Whisper in various ways, both through Trish’s images of you, as well as the way you approach the camera. I am wondering if you want to say something about your decision, for example, to box yourself in here in terms of how you’ve used the mat around your face when you're addressing the camera.
At that time, firstly, indeed, I was not considering including my own story into this film. And as you have watched in the film, my video diary was not intentionally made, it’s just the way of my trauma healing. I just turn on the camera and talk to my camera. I hope I can kind of get rid of this memory and trauma, and to focus on my new life. But during the process of watching the Outcry and Whisper's women workers’ footage, I realized that there's more to be included, but we don't have enough footage about these factory women. Wenhai had talked a lot about Miss Sophia's Diary, written by Ding Ling. He believes my video diary and my story can complement this film’s story, which means it could provide a very intimate perspective to discuss these gender issues which usually won't be discussed in public. But still, for me, the whole filmmaking process is very difficult. I don’t see it as filmmaking, I see it as a trauma healing. So just consider, as you have got some background information from Prisoners of Freedom City, basically from 2004 to 2012, most of time I was living under surveillance. And every time I went out, they were like eight guys, strong big guys, followed me everywhere at a very close distance, even when I was, for example, buying underwear, buying sanitary products, giving birth to my daughter, and later having an abortion. It took years for me to speak out these words and emotions. I feel that if I cannot deal with this trauma, I cannot move on.
Especially when the film was being made, when the trauma healing footage was shot in 2013, we anticipated that there would be an Occupied Central Movement. As filmmakers we were preparing for that by filming. We didn’t know what was going to happen to people like us exiling from China to Hong Kong.
Wenhai promised me I’ll have the rights to make the decisions regarding this film’s script. So we put all this footage together, to see what we can do with this footage, that's basically the background.
Maybe let’s go over to Trish right now. I'm going to show just a little bit of her animation. Trish, if you could talk a little bit about your role in the film and what inspired you to animate what you did in the film, and how those decisions were made.
I have been talking to Jinyan for a number of years. I always regarded it as a very exciting cross-cultural, cross generation, also artist/activist debate/dialogue. And it was a really interesting discovery for me to find the connections, the similarities and the differences. In the end you’ll always find the human experience is so similar, despite cultural and gender differences.
I feel that the film is maybe read best as a debate between three filmmakers. Sometimes when you make a film with people, it is a ‘joining together’ that emerges and sometimes it can be a very comfortable maintenance of space, of personal space, finding ways for things to sit together but not necessarily agree with each other, but somehow, the sum of the parts makes a greater whole, than one individual point of view.
There's a lot of that going on in this film. The film really started for me when I saw the footage of the women workers. And I just love these women, I really fell in love with them. I started to see them as so similar to the Irish, because Irish women have gone through this workers movement in 1913 at the beginning of the Irish Rebellion. The early connection between the revolutionaries and the trade union movement, the negatives and the positives, are re- represented for me in this film.
It's a very complex nuanced viewpoint that you get from these women. I love the way they talk about their personal lives or personal hardships, and then their bravery, but all very pragmatic, in a way I imagine the Irish women workers were at that time.
In discussions between Jinyan and myself, I often compared the communist party to the Catholic Church, in terms of the authoritarian aspects of life. It is a great relief to us in Ireland, to be over that today. To breath fresh air, and how nice it is to live in a society where there isn't this kind of overhanging sense of authority saying what's right, or being over dominant, punishing, sort of authoritarian moral position which infiltrates the whole of society and turns people within communities against each other
I'm thinking a lot of parallels, I guess, with the British, the British Empire, the Chinese, Hong Kong, the British, the Irish, all of these things, the Industrial Revolution, from the British point of view, and now the Chinese digital revolution. And considering what the British did with their Industrial Revolution, what will the Chinese do with their digital revolution? It (Outcry and Whispers) started to become a kind of a global discussion (about human behavior).
My role in the film, I felt was as an artist, an artistic intervention. I do think there's a big connection between activism and artists. I think artists tend to have a voice from the outside, they tend to try and see what they see, say what they see, and that is part of our role, to mirror, as well as the activists. Yes, we are working in a different way. But I think we have a connection through motivation.
I was trying to use the animation as a kind of a stylistic intervention, as well. Because I think there is a notable difference between Western and Eastern filmmaking, in terms of its pace. So I just kind of celebrated all that, trying to play a part of, you know, working with two people whose work I admire a great deal.
Now, let me go back here to my presentation, and give a few more images. And we already mentioned the relationship between Cries and Whispers and Outcry and Whisper. And I'm wondering if you could talk just a little bit about the opening performance and your decision, after the beautiful portraits, the beautiful representations of the women workers we see, to move into this performance with the razor blade. If you could talk a little bit about that.
I actually delivered Wenhai’s message first. Wenhai, particularly in our previous film We the Workers, the ending, for Wenhai, is a chapter of the smile of women workers, female workers. And that's the ending of We the Workers. I remembered we had very good sound designer Gary Sze. When we invited him to make the sound design, for We the Workers ending particularly, Wenhai wanted the atmosphere, the message of expressing how a woman has been working in a factory workshop for more than 20 years. She is so sophisticated with everything in the workshop, but it's like, she also is kind of trapped in the factory. So that’s Wenhai’s intention. Wenhai wanted to express a protest in the same message, saying that the women workers weren’t willing to be trapped forever in the factory, by sadly memorizing her youth. At the beginning of Outcry and Whisper, Wenhai insisted on using this face-cutting image, about which actually Trish, Wenhai and I had some debates about this scene, on why to include this image. But just consider, it looks like she is very determined. Also she's really brave, in Wenhai’s word, to use the blade to cut her face and to express her protest against the constraints on her body, on her art or on her as a woman. After carefully studying her personal life history, and also in consideration of the later animation about Foxconn suicide, I understand that, all this violence is a metaphor, a metaphor of what we still experience nowadays. It also is a relief compared to later, the suicide. That’s the message Wenhai tried to deliver. As I mentioned earlier about Linzhao, the young Rightist woman prisoner in Mao’s regime, she used her blood to write and to protest and to write her political novel against all the oppression on her. Lin Zhao was executed by shooting at the age of 36.
Trish had a brilliant idea. Because sometimes seeing the face cutting is still unbearable. So Trish’s animation is kind of giving the scene a little bit mask, right? That's what we originally discussed. In the end, that's what Trish said, compared to suicide, this self-cutting, self-hurting is a relief compared with the worst outcome. Trish, would you like to say more about that?
And yeah, when I saw this, first I was really shocked, you know, and very disturbed. We did have a very long debate, like I said to Wenhai, you have to find out, you know, do you have permission to use this, who is this woman? Does she know the context you're using it in? Because I was really very, very shocked. And I did the animation as a kind of an answer to this somehow, about the damage that sometimes has to be done in order to achieve change. This is a big debate is not only in activism and in art obviously. How far do we go to get attention, how much pain do you have to show? You know, I found the footage of the cutting really, really difficult to watch in the beginning, but it became something very powerful to me. The more I watched, the more I thought she's been quite careful. Watching, you fear she's going to do something worse, but it's not like self-harming, it is art, in a public arena, to make you question.
And also, I think there's so much hidden meaning in this piece about the face, the female face. How much we are judged by it. We don't see our faces the way other people see our faces, and this whole thing of beauty and does a woman's power lies in her beauty? Isn't it? You know how she has permission to do this, to this use this as a tool. I just think it's an incredible piece of work. I sort of, I ended up making a little kind of short film of this sequence, ending which Jinyan in the bathroom – a staged photography connecting to her memories, at a Hong Kong community art space. I kind of see it as a little film, although it's, you know, not all my footage or anything. So it's not my film, you know. I put some words to it, and the words were something to do with what was happening to me when I was making the film. And I felt that this cross-gender dialogue with Wenhai was very much about how there is a connection between women and men, who feel no more or no less fear or power, or creativity or anger or joy, and that the artist, for Wenhai represented that about art activism, it’s a very strong example of art activism, In the end, I really felt it deserved a place in the film, and did have an important thing to say within the overall view of what women are doing in China today.
Thank you. I want to move on a little bit to talk about that opening in relation to the next sequence. Trish sort of opened that up a little bit, and maybe Jinyan you could say a little bit more on the relationship between that performance and then, going into your own story immediately afterwards, with the details of your life in Hong Kong, the details that you include in the film at different points of your daughter, and your mom, I guess, the pain of the separation, and also the way in which it relates to the activism that you show in the next section, with the women and their interviews. Now these are images, of course, from the very opening of the film, but later on all of these women reappear in interview material. Perhaps you could talk about the relationship between the performance and your own personal life as an activist living in Hong Kong, your own personal story and how that segues into the portraits of the women workers. Maybe just start with talking about your own portrait coming in after that very painful performance at the beginning.
I mean, it’s difficult to express and also speak about the pain and the violence. And also, as you have seen in the film, there are some messages that I don’t deliver directly, they’re delivered indirectly. So the opening scene, it's the metaphor to deliver the message, which is so strong in our body, but it's impossible to go into details to say that directly. Just like sometimes when we, for example in the film, also when we present that death, the suicide, I feel like it's offensive if we just show the body, that dead body. So at the beginning, this tone of pain, so much pain, so much unspoken violence, and all is expressed for us want to express in this performance which I had talked about briefly with the performing artist, you know, because there's something impossible to speak out, so she just give her performance, give her footage for open interpretation. That's what I can try to explain.
That's beautiful. Maybe, we can move to talking a little bit more about the individual portraits because I think, if anything, the film illustrates, for me, the relationship between the personal and the political in women's lives in different ways. I was wondering if you could talk to us about how you found the women that you interviewed, and what you wanted to emphasize in terms of visualizing their stories through their testimony. How did you choose them? How did you determine what you wanted to show about them? Some of the issues that come up very clearly are the real hardships of migrant female labor, the sexual harassment that these women face, and the difficulties that they have of organizing, and of working as, women in China. I love this image of the woman next to Liu Yifei, such a well-known celebrity. It really brought home for me, the real differences between the way you're seeing these women workers, the way you're seeing Chinese women, as well as how Trish is seeing the women, and how her view of the women comes through in her portraits, your portraits and the interviews, and how that's contrasted with the international commercialization of some of the women's images. I was wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about those issues. First, the choice of the interviewees, and then the topics, and then the relationship to commercialization.
So, first, all these women, we are very grateful and lucky to have these women workers in our film. During the making of We the Workers, Wenhai basically lived in Guangzhou in the factory area, and lived with workers and worker activists in Guangdong. At that time, these labor activists were working on several cases, collective bargaining and protesting cases. It's very interesting as you have seen in the film, there's a gathering where many women workers, and a few male workers, gathered together to listen to a panel of activists to deliver how to organize the struggle and the collective bargain. There’s one woman, Zhu Xiaomei, she speaks in a corner, right? If you remember the scene. So and that time, even though We the Workers focuses on the labor activists, even though you'll see many successful cases were led, organized by them, by the organizations. But still there are also many women. And most importantly, many cases were won by women, mainly women workers. In this process, Wenhai got to know these factory women, like Qin Qing Mei and San Mei, and Huang Jie, and Xiaomei.
We are really lucky and also sad. Because after we finished our filming in the winter of 2015, most of our protagonists were detained. But before that, our factory women interviewees had experiences such as detention and being beaten up during their actions. So it looks like they experienced so much and at the moment, just at the moment, the camera provided a chance for them to tell their own stories, and Wenhai seized the moment. Because, partially, he lived there and already was part of the network, which is amazing. This is how we got the footage of our women factory workers. But when we tried to follow up their stories, it's almost impossible.
After viewing the interview footage, especially of these four factory women in a dormitory space, we immediately knew that’s the film we want. Their testimony, what they are saying is like, after they experienced a very dramatic crack down on them, and then they find a place to tell their secret life, their inner feelings.
The second question is about… Trish helped do copy editing, I think two or three rounds of copy editing of this film also provides inspiration for Wenhai. Trish is a very determined woman artist, noted, independent filmmaker. She has her own understanding about women and film. Her editing and her animation idea to see these women's faces, like a collective face and an individual's face, and in-between faces, also helped the whole team to improve, helped us to get a better understanding about women's expressions, on how to represent their story.
Beautiful. I just wanted to add something if I could. There's a very small, tiny thing that's very interesting given the point you brought up. Because I also was fascinated by this imagery of the Chinese face, and how it didn't match the idealised faces we see in the west, in the way that you would say there's an Irish Colleen (version of a nice, cliché, Irish woman) face that they (the Irish Tourist Board) use all the time. And that doesn't match the real Irish woman's face. I found the more I watched these women and these fantastic interviews that Wenhai did, the more I came to love the individuality of the faces. It might be interesting for you to know that I had the same thought as you, the same with you, in a strange way. So, in the animation the faces, merge in and out each another. The other face is one that I got online, of the cliché Chinese factory worker, like the Irish Colleen with the perfect Chinese face. So I merged the real factory women's faces in and out of the perfect idea of the Chinese face. It is intended to be a hidden thing, because I didn't want to compare the women workers’ faces with each other. I wanted to bring them through the individuality of their face as compared to the cliché standard. And to show their beauty in that way. I think it's interesting that we both felt that.
I saw that right away. I thought that was so interesting, and then it comes up so beautifully just within the mise-en-scène in the interview itself, particularly when I saw that image next to Liu Yifei, I thought this is part of what the film is really about. It's about the work of the factory and the women's labor that goes into fabricating these things that feed into this larger global culture that then comes back and has an impact on women's lives, both in China and outside of China. It's kind of part of a circle that I thought was quite moving.
Let me ask the next question now about the impact of your film on these women. You began to say a little bit about that, Jinyan, in terms of the fact that you caught them before they were detained, quite sadly. What also really moved me was the fact that they would really reflect on what people said about them. And you could feel, for example, here in this quote, where one of the women said that people thought that they weren't strong enough to be able to do this labor organizing, that people had these views of women workers that really have layers of suppressing their voices. I was wondering if you could talk about it? Because I think that you really put your finger on the fact that being able to talk to the documentary filmmakers about their lives gave these women a certain confidence that perhaps would not otherwise be recorded.
I was wanting to add something, which is related to your question about contrasting the image of the factory workers in a dormitory with Liu Yifei, the superstar being known in Chinese pop culture. In my thinking during the filmmaking process, of course, I had thought a lot about the marginality of women's status, and also importantly, in China now, how the mainstream discourse is very gendered. It's gendered because, first, the public discourse producers, their cultural and intellectual discourse producers, are mostly men, and the way they produce these cultural productions is also very mainstreaming. And, so it's more and more difficult, especially with the tightening space, tightening control of civil society in China, it becomes more and more difficult to present, to talk, to talk about marginal people's stories. Especially, for example, these women workers are on the margins of the marginality.
So, with this thinking, always in my mind, when I firstly saw footages and started to do footage analyzes, I realized it's so difficult even just to get footage about women, women workers. We collected footages shot by at least seven different kinds of cameras and mobile phones. Even though we knew there are some amazing women organizing something, especially in connection with feminism, always bonded together, interacting together in the Guangzhou area, which is very powerful. But still, when I checked the footage, there were very few choices. For example, the footage I mentioned earlier about Xiaomei giving a talk during the training gathering. When she was talking, she is in an invisible corner. The camera was not on her. And you see the male labor activists, mostly, sitting on the panel, a dominated spatial arrangement. When these women factory workers started to organize, as Qin Qingmei also said, people and the boss, think ‘you are not educated, how could you represent?’ She herself also thinks, ‘I'm not educated, I don't know how to speak in front of people. How could you select me as a representative?’ But people say ‘We trust you. Because you are very honest. So we trust you, you are going to be our representative’.
I have to be honest with the footage, which means that these women, they are not educated by any ideology or political ideas, like ‘Yes, I am strong, I have responsibilities for the factory or state, or what.’ They believed in themselves and they were self-educated. When they saw something was wrong, they stood up and did their activism. This is what I get from the footage, which I don't want to put to any social science or academic analytic framework to analyze. I think this is the power I want to deliver. If we carefully study the labor movement, like in South Korea, we will see many successful factory strikes were done by women but led by male leaders. That's the reality. In this film, I want to say actually women can do this by themselves, when in solidarity, in solidarity.
That really comes through so strongly in the film that they have such a sense of themselves as a community of workers, and then as strikers and organizers. Let me just break up a little bit more too on this question of solidarity. Because I think that you have solidarity in two other aspects that come up very powerfully in the film, both with the relationship between the workers’ protests in Guangdong, and then of course, our own protests here, the Umbrella Movement in 2014 in Hong Kong. There are a lot of contrasting images between the different protest movements, and I'd like you to comment on that. But I want to move ahead a little bit in terms of the other type of protest solidarity you show, which is the activist networks, in Guangdong particularly. You've already mentioned Ai Xiaoming who makes an appearance in your film showing her films, which I thought was a very interesting way to broaden out from the center of the circle, which is the Guangdong protests in a certain way, to Hong Kong, to feminist activism in other parts of Guangdong Province, other protests. I'd like you to comment on that before we move on to the Q&A session.
Yeah, thank you Gina for your wonderful questions. I love this part very much. And because actually when we saw the gathering in Ai Xiaoming’s home, it was a gathering of feminists and labor activists.
The context at that time, not now (with 2019 and 2020 protests in Hong Kong), was so different in Hong Kong and in Guangdong.
Ai Xiaoming is a noted scholar and independent filmmaker and feminist. She has been banned from having any public events to discuss her work and present her film since 2009. She changed her home to what I called a semi-public space as, for example screening her films and holding gatherings for marginalized people. In independent film research, we call the semi-public gathering, a dining room theater.
We went to her home. The first day we prepared food. And then we had three days gathering for different people to show the film, to discuss the ongoing issue, and to interview or write. When we went out of the house we had to go back to the institutionalized space which was dominantly controlled by the state, or go back to our own private domestic space where we were not supposed to talk about activism because it will bring political troubles to us.
Ai Xiaoming made so many beautiful and powerful films herself, like Jiabiangou Elegy (2017), a film on labour camp survivors’ testimonies, which was not able to be screened and discussed in China. But we had the premier in Hong Kong and got more than 400 copies sold within one month. But we paid a big political price including people who delivered these copies into China being detained by police in Shenzhen customs. That's another story. I also want to tell you a little bit of the background of Wenhai and me. Wenhai actually moved to Hong Kong because his filmmaking of We. We is a film about underground intellectuals’ activism, including underground intellectual and banned high ranking government officers like Li Rui. Right after his release of We at the Venice International Film Festival, there was a political movement called the Charter 08 in China. The police assumed that that film was a prediction of the Charter 08 movement. Wenhai was detained, homes searched, that footage confiscated, and he has been harassed since then. Since that time he has developed a lot of fear in his body. He went to Hong Kong. I moved to Hong Kong right away the day I regained my passport for international traveling. We both kind of exiled to Hong Kong, along with the other two filmmakers Ying Liang and Peng Shan.
At that time of filming this film, we asked where in Hong Kong was there a place with freedom, that we can make a film about social activism and independent filmmaking. In 2013 and 2014, people were actively talking about the preparation for the Occupy Central movement, which later became the Umbrella Movement. Filmmaking is channel for us to understand Hong Kong as a free place to do social activism and artistic creativity. So in Outcry and Whisper, we have made lots of comparisons. But now, of course in 2020, the situation has already changed radically. But we still want to say, we still want to bring the feeling of the site, the space. And also, in the end, we realized, we have to fight together in solidarity. We have to face no matter we want or we don't want, to face the reality of a post-imperialism and digitalized China. So what do we do? So that’s the context and the message.
Thank you. I think now is a good time. Let me turn things over to our Q&A.
I saw some friends who actually, more or less participated in this filmmaking process. Anyone who wants to share comments or reflections, you are most welcome. Thank you, Gina.
I think one question that always comes to my mind and that people have asked me because I write often on feminist activist films from China and from other parts of the world as well. If you know that the films won't be shown in China, or that they'll only be shown in certain circles in China, what impact do these films have on the political movements that they chronicle? I have my own answers, but I was wondering if perhaps you and Trish could add to that question.
It's a really difficult question. I mean, if you asked me this question, many years ago, I would definitely say, of course, I believe the power of filmmaking or any action which we make change immediately or in the future. For example when Ai Weiwei was in China, during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, also, when Ai Xiaoming was making the Taishi Village and Three Days in Wukan, these films, they were almost released right away as documentations on internet, and they were circulated amongst local Chinese people. People started to recognize each other, to get connected with each other. They saw the images and they were not feeling isolated or lonely or fearful anymore.
That’s the time during Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao. People doing public action with the hope of making a change or impact on public policy. But I'm more careful about this conclusion at this moment. Especially with this film’s aesthetics, this kind of film language, which is not event-based or a journalist-reported film, it is much more uncertain. But I believe in its power in the long term. For me, I still see filmmaking as an intervention, like filmmaker’s intervention, intellectual’s intervention of social reality, especially social problems, most marginalized and politicalized-social problems. It's an intervention of way of thinking and mode of existing but it takes time.
Could I just bring up something tangential? The Russian filmmaker, Tarkovsky said in his book The Sculpting of Time that, when he moved from the Soviet Union to the West, the censorship of politics in the east, was easier to deal as a filmmaker than the censorship of money, in the capitalist West. So when anyone asks that question, why don't we make more commercial films, you could ask the same question of all the filmmakers in the West who are making films for Hollywood, and indeed most of European filmmaking. The truth is that a subject grabs you. And it becomes almost like a duty to make it. If you are a certain type of filmmaker, it's not a career, so much as a passion, a desire to express something that you've seen, a truth. I made a series (Hoodwinked) for TV in 1998 about the history of Irish women since 1922. I interviewed mostly women from different backgrounds, and deliberately created more footage than I needed, an hour and a half interview with each woman, asking them all more or less the same questions. I didn't use all the footage in the documentary, but this year, The Irish Film Institute has been given money to digitize all the original footage and make it available to the public in their online archive.
So, you know, I think these two films We the Workers and this film Outcry and Whisper are both really hugely important not just as finished films but because of the raw footage, which will play a part in the studying of this period. I think it's incredible footage, some not in the film, brilliant interviewing. I think it is important to preserve what these brave Chinese women workers shared, to remind future generations of the struggle for rights and freedoms.
I think there is a value beyond commerce, in non-commercial films.
I just want to add briefly, because when I was writing my book about Genesis of the Citizen Intelligentsia in China, Wang Bing particularly gave his words: I am making films for people who may get to watch my film after 20 years, because it's impossible just now for people to watch my film. And Ai Xiaoming, I just recently have a conversation with her and for Film Quarterly, and Professor Chris Berry is doing the translation. Ai Xiaoming said, No, it's almost impossible for us to do like direct or to present our films, but many people are doing important witness testimony archiving work to make differences for the future. And in the end, when the time is right, people will see a lot of good work. That's what she said.
A couple of questions are coming up in the chat. One of them involves your background in studying here at Hong Kong University and how this has shaped your perspective on feminism and film. Would Petula Ho (Jinyan’s PhD dissertation advisor) like to say a few words first?
Petula, Sik Ying Ho
It's such an interesting experience watching this film. I am able to see Jinyan before she came to Hong Kong University through the film. There was footage about her when she was younger. And then I saw Baobao, Jinyan, your daughter when she was small. This personally makes it more meaningful for me to look at Jinyan and see Jinyan’s life before and after Hong Kong, now in Israel. So that's personally meaningful for me. But also, because I participated in the film and was named as a co-producer, which is actually, you know, just a name. I didn't do much. I have witnessed the whole process of how Jinyan (and maybe because of her exposure to feminism), how she struggled to make this film, as a woman's film, a very feminine version of film, which is a very difficult process. When you watch the film that is so beautifully done, you don't see these struggles. I am fortunate to have this opportunity to witness this struggle.
Wenhai is not here and I want to talk about him. Because I've written something to promote this event on my Facebook and Wenhai shared my article. And then he wrote from the perspective of a male director about his own experience of working with you feminists. So that's what he has written. I think it's very interesting. Let me translate this for you. He said, as a male director working with a group of feminists, ‘I'm surrounded by them, and these feminists, and women and their activism’. He said, ‘Honestly, this is so tough’. He said, ‘If I knew how difficult that is, I don't think I would have the courage to take up this project’. And then, he said, ‘Like all films, it is always done in the midst of a big mess. And you always feel like it will never be done. It’s full of despair, you return to it, and then it is broken again’. But he said, ‘It's under this type of circumstances that miracles emerge’. When I read his writing, I was very touched. I wrote back and said, ‘You know, this is a most challenging time because there is a lot of tension and conflict in life for everyone in Hong Kong’. I wrote, ‘Wenhai, I'm so proud of you, because it's very tough’.
During the process, I didn't know how to respond because we had a lot of correspondence. I didn't dare to say much actually. But I trust that my role is to stand by Jinyan, whatever she wants to do, I will be there for her. I'm amazed that she has a very clear sense of what she wants from this film. And she is so unshakable. Sometimes I was almost tempted to say, maybe you should, soften a bit but I didn't because I think she has her own vision. And then, Trish has always been so supportive. She's just amazing. I wonder if you would think this is an opportunity to talk about this: I mean, working with a male director on a firm that is so strongly, a women film.
Trish do you want to respond first?
Well, from the beginning I absolutely adored Wenhai’s footage. I felt that his footage was extraordinary, and that he had lived through the creation of this footage, and as Jinyan said, he got interviews that he wouldn't have got if he hadn't been there. I do think that there's an equality between men and women. But there's a slightly different perspective. I always felt that rather than supporting anybody in the group, I was supporting the film, and what it was trying to say. Because We the Workers did such a magnificent job about men, I felt it was important that this kind of complex, multi-layered weird worlds of these women deserved it's place, So, you know, if it didn't relate to women, it didn't have a place in film. That was always my criteria. I think Jinyan and I probably had a very similar or instinctive relationship, but it wasn't personal. It was very much about the supporting the women in the film, keeping focus on them.
And when I saw this version, and then I see how your animation and Wenhai’s cinematography merges so well. It was really beautiful and then I thought, wow! I'm so happy to see the final version. Of course, I still remember the earlier version and the process, which was actually quite painful at some point. But I think, as you said, that we really want to see this is the voice of these artists, dissidents, workers more than just women, more than just Chinese struggle. Now we see this version, and your animation has just made the whole thing so stylistic.
Thank you. Yes, the filmmaking process is very creative, and also very tough for Wenhai and for me especially. It's like another Outcry and Whisper story film just for the filmmaking process. I am so happy and I'm so grateful for many things. Of course, we are filmmakers. But in the end, I see the footage, these protagonists, especially these women workers, their sharing of the footage, their sharing of life stories, which makes this film project possible. Also, for example, after New York University internal preview and during the Q&A process of We the Workers, Wenhai has gained more and more awareness about women’s issues and understandings about the human situation, especially female conditions in China, which is really good to help us to improve the film.
Also, yes, I would like to thank Trish in particular. Without Trish’s contribution, her accompaniment, emotional support, and also her presentation of her ideas, understandings, and perceptions on women, how to present Women and Gender, how to present the idea of women's voices is women's voices, no need to respond to men's perceptions or no need to explain by a male voice in the footage. I mean, that's what I insisted.
In the end we have produced this version for the festival and I think the most important thing for Wenhai and me, is we learnt a lot, and with support from different friends. When I was in Hong Kong University doing my PhD, all my work is about Ai Xiaoming’s activism practice and identity practice. In the process, I personally see Ai Xiaoming’s life story and I see all these women's life stories in my book Chinese Feminism, women’s stories being told during my PhD studies and teachings at the University of Hong Kong, and all these women's life stories in Outcry and Whisper, (they) are my resources, my spiritual resources. Sometimes when we're very weak, I gain strengths from there, so therefore I can continue. Yeah, that's how I understand the process.
One last thing I want to say, I think you have also become my spiritual resource. I think, you are a spiritual resource for us women. You remember the trailer, I was so shocked, and it's so comforting to watch the trailer and hear what you said. You know, I have my own filmmaking team and I made everyone recite this part:
I wanted to challenge the world
I wanted to make a statement
Whatever they do
they won’t be able to defeat me
They can’t take me down
I can do whatever I want to do
It is very comforting, I think, to all women or to all women activists who have to face the things that you have experienced. Your story, the workers’ story, and the artists’ story have actually helped us, all of us who have to fight to face all the intra-movement discrimination in a totalitarian regime, all these different issues. What an accomplishment to be able to tell the world that you won't be able to beat me down! I think any woman who has watched this will feel so comforted. I thank you for saying this out loud to the world!
Beautiful summary of our feelings. We still have a couple of questions, though I really would have liked to end on that. We've only got a couple of minutes left. I'm going to give you the topics and then you can comment on what you prefer to comment on. One person has a question about the performance artist again, because we have another piece of performance art on the street later in the film. There was another question about the women who are living in the dormitories who, I think, provide a very interesting contrast. One woman talks about her pretty much arranged marriage back in the village to the man she barely knows, and someone had a question about those women and that group of women living in different circumstance. And then the final question was about financing the film and if you had any difficulties in terms of financing.
It’s a lot of questions.
About the scene, the factory girl, being interviewed about her marriage arrangement. A film for me, in a way it's an activist’s film, but in another way, it's also an opportunity to present the mode of existence of women, which means cases like a young woman in a factory dormitory, it's very common. A feminist might a kind of want to empower her or what, but it’s just a kind of existence. So we want to bring the attention to these young, isolated, and lonely women's life stories a little bit. And she is so sophisticated with everything in the workshop, like to manage this machine. Each machine is more than 10 million Yuan. And if you have watched We the Workers, especially the ending you will realize that this woman probably is going to spend most of her young life in this factory space. And if you listen to the protesters in the factory about women's life stories, you will also get a sense that why she has been working in a factory for more than 10 years, 20 years, likely living in a tiny dormitory, if not going back to her hometown for a marriage. And so, so this is the reality we want to bring attention to this woman's life.
Also, most importantly, the factory girl, in a way, is so innocent and intimate, so beautiful in her way. We all love her very much.
One last question and that is whether you have a particular message to your male viewers?
Hahaha, of course, every story belongs to anyone who watches it. But for me, when I'm making this film, in particular, I address this film to women, especially who have had traumatizing experiences. During the editing, I liked to believe my daughter in future will watch the film again. She has already watched the film so many times, she will watch it again and get something from me, even though at the time I may not be with her anymore. So that's my intention. But for male audiences. I don't specifically distinguish male audiences or female audiences as long as you understand the story. I believe we already have a solidarity. Thank you.
I’ll just say something about the male audience. When I first began to have a dialogue with Jinyan, I was shocked that communism in China, like Soviet Communism, did not recognize feminism as a communist principle. When I saw Wenhai's interviews I was even more shocked to discover that Chinese communism did not have workers’ rights at the heart of its policy. (Again I could draw parallels with women's issues in the Irish Catholic Church, post the Irish revolution, being dealt with in direct opposition to the humanist principles of Christianity).
So to the male audience, I say, this film deals with both those issues, women's rights and worker's rights, because these issues need to be dealt with. Because it seems it's not a given in the animal world that men and women are treated equally, we have to work on it as a civilized people, evolve into that more civilized species. I would say, men need to learn that they have to lose some privilege in order to have achieve equality. But I would also say to them not to be afraid of feminism. It's a freeing thing for both men and women to be of equal value.
Yes, beautiful. Let me ask Trish and Jinyan if you have any final thoughts. We are running over time, thank you for your patience.
Thank you everyone. Thank you, Gina, Trish, Sik Ying and everyone participating in today's conversation. I thought this is a happy party to conclude the film. I saw many friends, my teachers who supported me and protected me. I really appreciate this conversation organized by Gina. I wish that everyone, especially our women friends, will achieve what they want in the future.
Thank you. Thank you particularly to Jinyan and Wenhai for the privilege of working with them. It's been a really interesting for me as a person and a filmmaker. And I look forward to working with Jinyan and we continue to talk all the time. I am sure more work will happen.
Well, I'm looking forward to seeing more films from both of you. Thank you so much for participating. And goodbye to everyone.
 Gina Marchetti, Professor at the Department of Comparative Literature, is the Director of the Center for the Study of Globalization and Cultures, the University of Hong Kong. The conversation was organized by the Center for the Study of Globalization and Cultures, Gender Studies Programme, Women’s Studies Research Centre, and Committee on Gender Equality and Diversity at the University of Hong Kong, and the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel. The conversation is transcribed by dGenerate Films, a company distributes independent film from mainland China to audiences in North America. Outcry and Whisper’s educational distribution webpage is: http://icarusfilms.com/df-outcry  For more information about Prisoners in Freedom City, see https://www.kanopy.com/product/prisoners-freedom-city  For more information about We the Workers, see http://icarusfilms.com/df-wethe  Xu Lizhi’s original verse is “A Screw Falling to the Floor… A Man Falling to the Ground” (“一颗螺丝掉在地上” 一颗螺丝掉在地上/在这个加班的夜晚/垂直降落，轻轻一响/不会引起任何人的注意/就像在此之前/某个相同的夜晚/一个人掉在地上).