Nuala Gathercole Lam chats to the festival’s curator Xie Jingjing and filmmaker Yang Lina who both offer insights into Chinese women in film and on screen
The sixth Chinese Visual Festival (CVF) took place in May 2016, with screenings of independent films from the Chinese-speaking world at the BFI Southbank, Bertha DocHouse and King’s College London. This year saw a particular focus on women’s film and successfully showcased the diversity of female voices in the Chinese film industry. The festival featured two short films from Beijing-based queer filmmaker Da Jing. Her most recent Death of Lesbians (2015) shows the struggle to make queer women the centre of the gay rights movement, as a group of activists carry out a performance piece ‘Homophobia Kills Lesbians’ in various locations around Beijing. Ethnic minority women were also represented at the festival, with guest appearances from Tibetan singer Gongqiu Zhuoma (Tibetan Girl, 2016) and native Taiwanese rights activist Ado Kaliting Pacidal (Panay (Wawa No Cidal), 2015). Female voices contributed to the discussion on a variety of topics including native rights, race relations in China, sexism in the Chinese film industry, censorship and LGBT issues.
It is 13 May 2016, and I’m meeting with festival curator Xie Jingjing and independent filmmaker Yang Lina in a private room at BFI Southbank, before the first public screening of Lina’s latest film, Longing for the Rain. We talk about curating from a feminist perspective, being a woman filmmaker in China, the history of female directors and women’s cinema at CVF and what inspired this year’s focus. Jingjing, who has been the curator at CVF since its inception six years ago, studied feminism at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies and says she has always curated with a feminist consciousness: this would explain the festival’s excellent history of programming female filmmakers.
Still, Jingjing felt that there had been a lack of representation in previous years, particularly of female guests, and that this year “it seemed that it was a hot topic and so we tried to pace with that”. Indeed, the Chinese feminist movement has seen a growth spurt of late, quite possibly connected to the resurgence of traditional gender values in recent years, as documented by Leta Hong Fincher in her book Leftover Women in 2014.
In this particular historical context, this year’s CVF brought together a diverse range of rebellious female voices. In Home Video (2001) director Yang Lina is anything but the obedient daughter. The documentary, which many found unpalatable when it was first screened in China 15 years ago, sees the director interviewing her family, camera in hand, on the very personal subjects of domestic violence and her parents’ divorce. In retrospect, Yang Lina says, “the film is the origin of my challenging patriarchy and the male dominated family structure…it had already started but I didn’t know it yet.”
And she is challenging! The choice of her own family as the subjects makes this an emotionally charged, tender film that gets to the heart of the pain of sexism when dealt by one’s own father. Towards the end of the film, Lina confronts her father with the footage so far – her mother and brother’s testimony. She is unrelenting in her questioning of him, but we can hear the emotion in her voice and her love for him is evident.
Lina says that it was only after she got married and had children that she consciously started making “women’s films”. When I ask her whether she sees herself as a feminist, she answers that the feminist identity is the subject of much discussion within her circle of female artists:
We are all making work about women, but none of us can really say that we are feminists. It’s not that I’m scared to say I am a feminist, it’s that I don’t think I actually understand that much about feminism. There are a few people in China who really are feminists; for instance, a few of the women working for NGOs, they are activists who are starting a movement
The Chinese for feminism, nüquanzhuyi, is the female equivalent of male chauvinism, nanquanzhuyi, leading to much confusion about the term – feminists often have to explain that it is equality that they are seeking, not dominance. The activists Lina refers to have become the visible face of feminism in China and the term has become synonymous with direct action and performance art. In March 2015, one such action infamously led to the 37-day detention of five feminist activists in Beijing.
Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why a filmmaker who cites the challenging of patriarchy as an important part of her work might not identify as a “feminist”. Instead, Lina describes herself as “an artist with female consciousness”. She also defiantly identifies as a “women’s filmmaker” [editor’s note: meaning she engages in what in the English-speaking context is referred to as “women’s cinema”], something she has been advised against by influential men in the Chinese film industry who claim that, “it is not good for her films or her career development”.
Lina complains about “the democracy advocates”: men who “will say to you, ‘What are you doing talking about women’s rights? The human rights issue still hasn’t been resolved and you want to talk about women’s rights.’” Sadly, such an attitude is typical: “They have confused the concepts; they don’t consider that women’s rights are a part of human rights.” She is referring to those students who took part in the protests in Tian’anmen Square in 1989 and who have become something of a political class of their own, due to their radically different experiences to both older and younger generations.
Longing for the Rain (2013), Lina’s latest film and her first fiction piece, has also proved controversial among China’s independent filmmakers. “I have discovered that men don’t like it and women like it very much”, says Lina. The film contains a lot of sex, and yet it is not a gratuitous film. Could this be the difference between sex scenes directed by men and women? Perhaps the fact that Lina shows more explicit nudity in scenes of daily family life than she does in her sex scenes changes something about how we receive them.
The film has never been publicly screened in China. Lina has always been an independent filmmaker which, in the Chinese context, means she has never submitted her scripts to the State Administration of Radio Film and Television and her films have never been officially released in China. She points out that the film’s depictions of sex, ghosts and religion mean it would have no chance of passing official censors and that she never considered submitting it. I put it to her that this must be a sore point for a director who is specifically targeting social phenomena around her. “I hope that more Chinese people will see the film”, says Lina, “because it’s a Chinese story, our own issues, our own situation. If the film was only shared with a foreign audience, well that would be a little too simple.”
CVF will continue to programme regular screenings until the start of the seventh festival in 2017.
You may be interested in our previous articles on independent Chinese cinema and Chinese filmmakers: review of two documentaries at the first London Chinese Independent Film Festival (2012) or review of Xiaolu Guo’s Ufo in her eyes.
We also interviewed Sophia Luvarà, Italian director of a recent feature documentary on a slice of gay community in Shanghai, Inside the Chinese Closet.
First picture is courtesy of Chinese Visual Festival. It’s a portrait of two Chinese women (Yang Lina and Jingjing Xie) in the spotlight against the black backdrop, as if sitting on stage as there are microphones in front of them. Woman on the left has long curly hair, dyed light brown with black roots. She’s wearing long denim tunic (?) and a black velvet jumper over it. She’s smiling. Woman on the right has long black hair with fringe, she’s wearing black and yellow patterned tunic and black opaque tights. She’s also smiling and holding a piece of white paper in her right hand.
Second and third pictures are stills from Longing for the Rain, courtesy of Yang Lina.
Second picture shows a close-up of a woman’s face, as if behind the window with some reflection on it which blurs the image. The woman looks Chinese, has shoulder-length black hair and looks to the left with her lips slightly parted.
Third picture shows two people in bed, with dimmed light getting through red curtains and making the scene reddish. There is a woman on the left, lying on her back with her eyes open, she has shoulder-length black hair and is wearing a sleeveless black top. The person on the right is presumably a man, wearing white tank top, lying prone on the bed with his head towards the window to the right.
This article was amended on 25 January 2017, to credit it to Nuala Gathercole Lam instead of Orlagh Watson Hong (which was a pen name) -Ania.