Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia have had films air on international television as well as here in the U.S. on HBO, MTV, Sundance, and PBS (Medalia has received four Emmy nominations and won a Peabody Award), and both women studied in the United States. So how did they end up making a film about the stigma of being an unmarried woman in China?
Leftover Women follows three successful Chinese women who, despite thriving careers, are still labeled “leftover women,” or sheng nu, a derogatory term used in China to describe educated, professional women in their mid-’20s and ’30s who are still single. Despite being in many ways a uniquely Chinese story, “films such as Leftover Women remind viewers the fight for equality is not a problem confined to one country or community, but rather the world,” wrote Stephanie Archer of Film Inquiry. The film is, adds John Berra of Screen International, “an emotionally complex piece of personal portraiture that intimately reveals the extent to which traditional attitudes still dominate Chinese society regardless of its globalised surface.”
Interestingly, both Hilla and Shosh have listed French documentary filmmaking pioneer Agnes Varda as a primary influence for them in their own work. They told Women and Hollywood: “Agnès Varda gave a voice to people that are in the margins of society, to the outsiders that are struggling and completely powerless.”
The filmmaking team checked in with us about what inspired them to make the heartbreaking Leftover Women, and also offer an update on how the women in the film are doing.
Why did you want to make a film about “leftover women” in China?
On the evening of International Women’s Day in 2015, the Chinese government arrested five feminist activists and jailed them for 37 days for handing out stickers against sexual harassment. This aggressive act led us to take a closer look at women’s rights in China [in general]. During our research, we found out about the “leftover women” phenomenon.
This term and its consequences are the result of a government campaign that promotes sexist messages and the revival of gender inequality in post-socialist China. This is what urged us to go on this journey.
How do you think Leftover Women can start conversations with audiences after they see it? Who do you most hope sees it?
Being seen as ‘leftover’ is not a Chinese social phenomenon. In many societies, including our own, women are pressured to conform and if they are not seen as settled by a certain age, there is a sense in which they have failed to reach their full potential. The familiar label ‘Old Maid’ is not so different from being called ‘leftover.’
Our film follows three very strong characters, each battling this stigma, and each undergoing a transformation in front of our eyes. We immediately and intimately identify with the protagonists even though they live in a culture foreign to us. It makes one aware of how much do we actually share and have in common. We think Leftover Women is a great conversation starter.
We hope this film generates discussion and the feelings of solidarity towards Chinese women and a wide discourse about women’s rights, especially in families consisting of first and second-generation immigrants, where the old and new worlds and values collide.
What challenges and obstacles did you encounter while making this movie in China? How did you find the women that became your main subjects?
The way we found the women to participate in the film was interesting. At first, we posted on Weibo, a very popular Chinese social media platform. However, since the issue of marriage is very sensitive, we didn’t only need women who would agree to participate in the film but that their inner circle and close family would agree to take part and give their blessing to their daughters’ participation.
For many of the women we met, this wasn’t the case and their families refused to allow us to document their journey.
Some of the women who came to meet us wanted to speak and share. They were looking for women like them and a place to share their feelings. But eventually, there was a gap between them wanting to share and their willingness to actually be filmed. This was one of the main challenges we faced.
And how did you gain the trust of these women featured in your story?
Trust can be gained only by being truly trustworthy. Being there, and honestly caring about the person in front of you and their story.
When you’ve shown this film in the West, what’s something people have come up and asked you?
We are asked many times about the relationship between children and parents [in China]. The children are obedient to their parents, it’s common thinking in China that the child owes his life to his parents. This is the reason that the parents are so involved in their children’s lives.
Can you give us any updates on how the women featured in the film are doing these days? I’m sure viewers will want to know…
Yes, we keep in touch with Qiu Humei: she lives in Munich. She got married to a German guy and she is very happy. She is learning German and hopes to open her own company. We spent the last weekend with her at the Budapest Documentary Film Festival.
Gai Qi is still married, teaches at Guangzhou University, and raising her daughter (she is 2 years old).
Xu Min is still looking for “Mr. Right.”
What moments in the film had the most impact on you personally? Or surprised you the most?
One might think that the conversation between Qiu Hua Mei and her family is the most striking. However, Qiu Hua Meii’s visit to the matchmaker left a great impression as it reveals the values that make up the idea of marriage and love in Chinese society.
There was almost no talk about personality trades, values etc. Instead, the discussion revolved around the height, salary, family’s origin and occupation of the potential partner.
It was very eye-opening and as someone with a very different cultural background, made me question things I take for granted.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Our best advice is to find strong characters, create a trusting relationship with them, enabling sensitive and intimate access to their point of view, allowing you as a filmmaker to give voice to a silenced issue and to shed light on a dark place.
The Filmmakers Op-Ed in the New York Times: “Where Being a Single Woman Is not Okay“