The Interview was conducted in English, translated to Chinese by myself, and published in Chinese on DeepFocus. 9190 views.
Interviewer: Jiexiao Ying
During Tribeca Film Festival in New York, women audience across the world finds the documentary Leftover Women(2019) relatable. It focuses on the life choices of three career women in China’s big cities, under the pressure of the label “leftover women.” Huamei is a 34-year-old Beijing lawyer, and her parents in the rural area expect her to get married anxiously. Min is a 28-year-old broadcast hostess, and she is also under pressure and starts actively participating in dating events, but her parents of government official backgrounds, always feel her date not good enough. Qi is a 36-year-old associate professor, who is on the fast track of getting married and raising a kid, but her parents feel her husband’s family not economically compatible, and her mother-in-law feels obliged to lie about her age in front of relatives and friends. Both parts feel compromised.
Shosh Shalm and Hilla Medalia are two Isareal directors for Leftover Women. Their previous documentary Web Junkie (2013) was also shot in China, selected to World Cinema Documentary Competition and nominated for the Jury Award at 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Now they are concerned about the challenging situation faced by educated women, and focus on the group labeled as “leftover women” in China. This is not only about the conflict between the modern value of pursuing personal achievement and traditional value of fulfilling the expectation of the family, but also a misleading label attached to Chinese women by the government to deal with the gender imbalance resulted from One-Chine Policy. Interestingly, Leftover Women is not only related to One China Nation(2019) in the topic, but also the co-director of the latter participated in the production of the former. On April 27th, DeepFocus interviewed the directors of Leftover Women in order to understand women’s status from a cross-cultural perspective, and know the behind-the-scenes stories.
Vivian: Why did you decide to focus on “leftover women”? When did you have the idea?
Shosh Shlam: We made a previous film, Web Junkie, about the internet addiction camp in China. After the screening in Sundance, I said we have to go back and she said no way, my father will have killed me if I go to make another film.
Hilla Medalia: I had little kids and went to shoot in China. It’s hard to leave. It’s very rare for Israel filmmakers to shoot outside. Most films are shot in the country. We are the only one to work outside the country and go to China.
Shosh: Web Junkie brought us to come back to China to make another film. In 2015, the five activists try to put stickers against sexual harassment before the international women’s day. This was an alert for us and we were very curious to check out women rights in China. It was shocking that they were arrested for 37 days.
Hilla: In China, we came across this phenomenon of “Leftover Women” that we did not know about.
Vivian: You don’t have such anxiety at Israeli?
Hilla: There is, but it is different. It is a lot more pressure to have kids than marriage. But not at 25. It depends on where. Of course, at the ultra-orthodox, the more traditional communities, there is a lot of pressure, there is much matchmaking, etc. In other places, that pressure comes much later when women get closer to 37. When you are 37 and you don’t have kids, that becomes anxiety.
Shosh: But in the ultra-orthodox community, when you are 17, your parents will go to a matchmaker and find a husband for you. It is not about getting married. It is about becoming a mother. If you are not a mother, he will in trouble. They follow their commandment to be fruitful and multiply. This is for the men, but you need a woman to complete this commandment. If you cannot have children, by the way, according to the law, then the man will divorce you.
Vivian: It is interesting the pressure is on children.
Hilla: The difference is that the pressure is from the government. In 2007, the government comes up with a term, “leftover woman,” and added it to the dictionary because they have demographic problems, 30 million more man than women due to the one-child policy. This is a threat to the government in terms of stability.
Shosh: Then there is an organized campaign by the government with sexist messages. This is the revival of gender inequality. It is both the traditional point of view and the political point of view.
Hilla: The traditional point of view always pressure women to get married. There is obviously extra pressure in modern time: a successful and well-educated woman get married later. That is a global phenomenon because they are focusing on their career.
Shosh: In either way, women in the stories are “victims” either to politics and conventions.
Hilla: I want to point out that the pressure on women exists everywhere. For instance, I have two little kids and come to Tribeca and then to Hotdocs in Canada. Everybody else was asking me, what about kids? How do you leave them for so long? But when my husband travels, they never ask. I think this pressure on women in China is exaggerated and of course, the government makes it a lot stronger. A lot of women in other parts of the world like us really relate to Chinese women and their struggle because there are some similarities in what is happening everywhere.
Vivian: I am really impressed by the term “marriage market.” I think you are intrigued by the term too. I wonder how you feel for the subjects when they encounter such hostile terms. For instance, in the opening sequence, the 34-year-old lawyer Huamei encounters the negative remark from a matchmaker.
Shosh: We feel very bad. When the matchmaker told Huamei“you are not pretty enough,” we were shocked. We asked our assistant “what is going on? How can she insult her in this way?” She said, “It is not insulting in China. My mother used to tell me for years that I am not beautiful.” We thought okay, we are from a different culture. But we felt she insulted her by saying “you are not beautiful. You are old.”
Hilla: I think Huamei was under tremendous pressure. I think she is also a winner. She has a very strong spine. She wants to get married and she doesn’t want to compromise. She wants to find someone she loves and loves her. I envy her.
Vivian: The three women you present have different personalities and choices. They present a whole picture of the “leftover women” phenomenon. How did you find them? Did you reach out to other women too?
Shoch: We met many. When we advertised it on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, many came. But some came just to share their stories, they really didn’t want to be filmed. Some wanted to be filmed but their families didn’t agree to be filmed. Because it is a shame. I mean, if you are not married, you are a “failure.” It’s very weird because you are pushed to study, and when you finish your study, you are pushed back to the family.
That’s not enough that you graduate from the university. What is interesting is that Huamei, on the one hand, says “I don’t belong here,” because she was the only one from her family to go to a university; on the other hand, she will listen to her family what they say. She told us she had a boyfriend. She asked him “Do you love me?” He said, “I don’t dislike you.” She brought him home, and the mother said, “if you marry this guy, I am not your mother anymore.” So she broke up with him.
Hilla: The dissonance is interesting. On the one hand, she does want wants. But on the other hand, she really respects and obeys her parents. The complexity of her character is interesting.
Shoch: We heard it more than once that Chinese children “owe their lives to their parents.”
Vivian: I felt that way too. My parents invest so much money and energy on us and even sacrifice their own personal lives for us. So there is no way we can really disobey them. If we do things we like and they don’t like it, it is not blessed. I feel the fight between the mother and daughter in the film are so real, how did you manage to capture that?
Hilla: Huamei has a really strong connection to us I think her mother sees that. Min’s mom always tells her that no one is good enough. Hopefully, she will accept someone.
Vivian: Did you want to interact with the subject and tell her what you think how to be happier and talk to their parents? Or you tried to stay away from it?
Hilla: I mean we give them support when they want.
Shoch: Staying away from it. I don’t think it’s right to be involved, because we come from another culture. Everything we are saying now comes from respect. Huamei is now in Germany. She finished her master and received an offer. She is in Berlin trying to build her life there. We hope she will succeed. For her, the victory is leaving China. “I am two years out of China.” She sees it as a victory.
Vivian: I see that too. There are people who succeeded and who seemed to fail, as the obedient girl.
Shoch: Failure is a strong word. I don’t think she failed either. This is part of judging and telling them what to do. I think our job is to look at them and learn from them. Of course, we are there for whatever they need, but I also think what’s right and successful is based on individuals, and everyone has a path.
Vivian: But I sense that you favor the strong character like Huamei. It’s more interesting to see the development of her characters.
Shoch: It’s not about favor.
Hilla: It’s more about a complete story. We have spent more time with Huamei than others, so her story is more complete and sophisticated. We planned this way: not anyone is getting the same time in the film. We want a protagonist and have two others to complete the whole story.
Shoch: For instance, Huamei comes from the village, and the other two from the city.
Hilla: Min’s parents are government officials, and Qi’s family are intellectuals. You can see different points of views.
Vivian: There is a photographer named Fan Jian in the film. Is he a documentary filmmaker? His name looks familiar to me.
Hilla: Yes! Two years ago he made a documentary, Still Tomorrow(2016), about a very famous poet in China. It was screened at IDFA and won Special Jury Award. He is more known as a documentary filmmaker in China. But for living, he is also filming for others, like us.
Shoch: It was a pleasure to work with him. He is a director and knows where to look at. He was really helpful. Because we don’t understand mandarin, we work with fixers, people who translate. But you cannot translate every single word as they are happening if there is a scene you need to be quiet. We work with a really great Chinese crew who we can really trust.
Hilla: He was leaning forward. You can meet a photographer who would do what you ask him or her to do, but he was more involved. The first time we showed up in the village, they asked us to leave after two hours. The sister got very angry and suddenly she said: “what are you doing here?” She said to Huamei “I want them to leave.” Fan Jian said, “guys, we have to leave.” We said, “what do you mean we have to leave?” We flew from Isareali, 5 hours on the road from Beijing to this village. What do you mean we have to leave? This was the first time that we realized we were not in our own country, and we have to respect the culture. I would say “let’s wait a minute. She might calm down and we can talk to her.”
Vivian: Fan Jian knows the culture and how severe the situation was.
Hilla: Exactly. So we left. Of course, it was a big disappointment of that day. Let’s wait for the next day. The next day we came again and the sister was not there. The father apologized to us, and said: “I am so sorry.” And he brought us fruit and cooked. He felt ashamed.
Shoch: It’s really important to feel these people’s feelings and sensitivity. For us, especially when we were in another country, it was important to have people with this level of sensitivity.
Hilla: In our culture, we can ask “what do you mean we have to leave?”
Shoch: You are exaggerating. Come on!
Hilla: But we have more confidence. We speak the language and we will try to convince.
Shoch: You know how we say as a documentary filmmaker. If somebody doesn’t open the door, we come from the window.
Vivian: I want to know a bit more about how you overcome the language barrier. Do you do an immediate translation on the set? And I heard at DOC NYC some documentary filmmakers just observe people’s body language, forgot about the language, and found subtlety.
Shoch: Sometimes. We have a translator, but you cannot translate everything. We know the general meaning. This is not our first time in China. When we see the footage later with all the subtitles, we really understand the nuance of every word said.
Hilla: On the spot, when the scene started, and we were giving general direction. After a while, we stopped and looked. That was not after every sentence. But after a while, you stopped and wanted to know if they followed your direction, or sometimes you let them go in their own direction.
Shoch: I think the bottom line was working with people you trust. For the years working in China, we have our own people.
Vivian: During the shooting, were you ever afraid that these women did not find a solution? Was it hard to find an ending for the documentary?
Shoch: I didn’t think each of them has to get married. When you were telling the story, there was a moment when you felt some development in their lives could serve as an ending. For example, with Huamei, when she decided to go to study abroad, we felt that symbolized how much pressure she had and she was looking for another lifestyle.
Hilla: With Qi, the woman who got married, she said: “I didn’t think about a happy ending.” Is her getting married a happy ending? Maybe for some, but not for her, because she compromised when she got to marry this boy, 7 years elder than her. He comes from the village. She was born to an intellectual family and she is an assistant professor at a university. You follow their journey and they are still looking for an ending, which is also an ending.
Vivian: I like the question mark put at the end. She didn’t confirm that she had a happy marriage. She said, “I fooled my husband by giving him a baby.”
Shoch: When Hilla and I started filming Qi, things went quickly. She met him, got married, and got pregnant. At first, we were worried. Oh God was it a good thing for our topic? Then we decided to go with it, which shows a bigger picture of the educated, successful career women in big cities in China.
Hilla: What is the ending? This sometimes bothers me. I know that the audience likes a fairly structured story with a beginning and an end. But sometimes, when you leave something that is open, that is not bad. When I saw Huamei going to the bars at night, sitting lonely, for me, it is an end too. That means she is continually looking and pressured by conventions. If nothing specific happens to her and that is the end, I can be fine with it. Now Huamei left because she suffered, but she might go back. Qi got married and Min was still looking for a boyfriend.
Shoch: These three stories together compile this reflection of the phenomenon. It is about China and women in China, but westerners can relate to a lot of stories.
《剩女》纪录片的两位以色列导演Shosh Shlam和Hilla Medalia，曾拍摄中国戒网瘾中心的纪录片《网瘾》（2014），获得圣丹斯电影节世界电影单元纪录片的“评委会大奖”提名。如今中国受教育女性面临的窘境，让她们把目光投向“剩女”群体。这不仅是追求个人成就的现代价值和完成家族期待的传统价值的冲撞，更是独生子女政策导致性别失衡后政府给予的标签。有趣的是，《剩女》不仅在议题上与《独生子女国度》（One Child Nation）相关，后者的联合导演Jialing也参与了前者的拍摄。2019年4月27日，深焦在Roxy Hotel采访了《剩女》导演，了解跨文化视角下的女性处境以及拍摄的幕后故事。
Shosh Shlam: 我们之前在中国拍摄了一部纪录片《网瘾》（2014）。影片在圣丹斯放映后，我觉得要回到中国继续观察。Hilla说不行，家里有两个小孩，离开很困难，丈夫强烈反对。