Flowing Stories: China’s Women Directors
SAMINYA BANGURA>on 16 November, 2014 at 17:55
On October 4th, 5th, and 6th, Brown hosted the second Chinese Women’s Documentary Film Festival and Symposium: a three-day-long celebration of female filmmakers from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. During those three days, a total of nine films were screened, with topics ranging from Taiwan’s matchmaking culture to the first Chinese female director to make a presence in mainland China. In addition to enjoying the films, attendees were able to engage with each director in Q & As after the screenings. Likewise, a symposium at the end of the festival allowed the rare opportunity to place the director’s insight and personal thoughts into an academic context provided by intellectuals from within and outside of the Brown community.
Since I’m currently enrolled in China Through the Lens (an East Asian Studies course devoted to exploring mainland Chinese cinema in all historical contexts), my attendance to the film festival was mandatory. However, I can’t deny that the experience proved to be more valuable than credit for a class. As I had never attended a film festival, my excitement for the experience trumped any reservation I had about spending an entire weekend attending a class-related event. On top of that, the focus on documentaries, as opposed to fictional narrative films, gave the screenings a cultural perspective that was personal and didactic all at once. It was truly enlightening to attend a forum of artistic expression and to leave with critical insight on real-life issues and phenomena.
Of the films screened, my favorite was Farewell 1999 by Taiwanese director, Wu Tajien. One of the few films in the festival to focus on the director’s personal life, Farewell 1999 was a heart-wrenching exploration of Wu’s journey to cope with her mother’s death nearly a decade after her passing. Admittedly, the style of the film was a bit disorienting. There was a lack of dialogue (outside of Wu as the narrator, only two other people talk in the film and do so for less than a minute) and a focus on filming surroundings and hazy patterns instead of people. Nonetheless, the shift away from those expected interactions between individuals and the camera did more to emphasize the film’s point (and her emotions) than to detract from it. As someone who recently lost a family member over the summer, the twenty-five minute clip (short, compared to the other films that all broke 100 minutes) made quite an impact. That isn’t to say that the other films were lacking in any way. Despite the fact that there was no official theme for the festival, all the films meshed together perfectly in their critical considerations of different aspects of Chinese society.
In order to understand why these films were chosen with this particular festival as their platform, I thought it necessary to explore the motivations of the event’s founder and head coordinator, Professor Lingzhen Wang (whose interview I’ve transcribed below). My conversation with Professor Wang highlighted the need for growing interest in more than just market-driven popular culture. Though many members of the Brown community have shown respect and interest in other cultures, the lack of attendance to this festival proves that there is still a long way to go.
It is far too easy to allow one’s interest in another culture to stop at its carefully crafted commercial aspects: the music, movies, literature and art designed specifically for worldwide consumption. But, after my experience watching these films, I’ve come to realize that this just isn’t enough. From the struggle to access basic human needs to such social problems as gender equality, there are many issues shaping the lives of people outside our borders that we never encounter or think about. Being aware of these problems and creating a critical view through which to examine them is a must when trying to understand a culture. Without documentaries like the ones screened in the festival, however, it is next to impossible to get an insider’s perspective on these phenomena. What these films do is crucial: they orient our attention onto the details of other cultures we might misunderstand or even just overlook and frame them through a medium that is easily consumed. The biggest challenge lies in finding ways to draw a larger audience to these filmmakers and their eye-opening films, a challenge that exists even on the Brown campus.
INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSOR LINGZHEN WANG, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF THE EAST ASIAN STUDIES DEPARTMENT
Q: So, what inspired you to start this symposium and film festival?
A: Well, this is the second one now — we organized the first in the spring of 2012 — and it was mostly because I’m doing research on film and gender. Every time I went back to China before 2012, I would go to independent documentary film festivals — now you have a few women’s film festivals but before, there were none. The independent film festivals were mostly dominated by males. Because I’m focusing on gender, I thought it was very important to provide a location for women directors to get together and discuss issues not only with each other but with scholars as well. Of course, there’s also the difference between the festival here and, say, the festivals in mainland China: over there, it’s mostly focused on mainland China and mainlanders. But, so far, we’ve brought over women directors from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Chinese Diaspora. So, every time I’ve had a chance to talk to the directors, they really seem to appreciate the opportunity because, before this, they didn’t get a chance to communicate with those Chinese women directors from other geopolitical locations.
Q: Generally, the Brown community doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to experience or watch Chinese cinema. So, why did you think it was women’s cinema and women’s documentaries in particular that needed to be brought to campus?
A: Honestly, it’s more than just the Brown community. I think for America as a national audience, the films we watch from Chinese film directors are by male directors and you probably couldn’t list one well-known female director. But, in fact, China has a large number of women directors and they provide us with a quite different perception of reality as well as imagination. I think it’s critical to make their visions visible to a worldwide audience.
Q: And would you say that the documentary-making scene in China is more female-oriented? Are the majority of China’s female directors making documentaries as opposed to feature films?
A: I think it’s hard to say. Most women directors in China don’t rise to the level of national fame. Perhaps a lot of women directors are making feature films but the channels for them aren’t there. The industry now is so market-oriented — you need to have networking that can bring you money, not only to make the film but for all the post-production. I think women in China are falling behind in a way, in terms of getting money, access and resources for the feature films [so they do documentary work instead].
Q: Could you talk a little bit about the process you go through when picking films to screen and directors to invite? Do you have a specific criteria?
A: For the first film festival, we actually did have a theme, which was ‘Gender and Market’. In general, the point of these documentary film festivals is to bring contemporary China to the Brown campus. Feature films can be found anywhere at any time; but films about what’s going on and what people’s lives look like in contemporary China cannot. So, in terms of the process of selection, I may know of a handful of important films made in recent years before I invite anyone. For example, with Ji Dan, her film (When the Bough Breaks ) was actually known for a long time and I invited her for the first film festival but she couldn’t make it. And the same goes for Louisa Wei’s film (Golden Gate Girls ) — It was a newer one, but it received a lot of public attention.
Along with those films that get attention, I also go around asking for particular recommendations for emerging new directors. With our festival, we try to provide a platform for those who are going to become a critical voice in filmmaking history but at this point, they are just emerging — like Jessey Tsang (director of Flowing Stories ) as well as Wu Tajien, from Taiwan. Those two belong to the younger generation. They are very energetic and have already made some kind of impact on women’s filmmaking. And, they are highly recommended not only by other filmmakers but also by film scholars in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Q: What are your hopes and goals for the symposium in the future?
A: Well, more than anything, I hope we can continue it. It’s not something definite, as it is a struggle to get funding. And even though we seldom have events like this —humanities-oriented events about China— we don’t draw a big audience. Hopefully, by continuing this, we can make more people interested in what’s happening in East Asia in general and China specifically. I hope to bring to the Brown community an in-depth understanding about what’s happening in other parts of the world, which to me is very urgent. Only with a collective effort from students and faculty we can make that happen.