Filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia sit down with GOOD DOCS Intern Celeste Kirby to discuss their film LEFTOVER WOMEN
Can you tell us a little bit about LEFTOVER WOMEN?
Shosh Shlam: We produced the film Web Junkie in China, and it premiered at Sundance International Film Festival in 2014. We knew that we wanted to come back to China because we were very attracted and fascinated by Chinese society. On the one hand, China is very open to the West with very accelerated economic processes. On the other hand, China is a very conservative society. It is still very conservative and very male chauvinistic, I should say. We knew that we wanted to come back after our first film, and we heard about the social phenomenon of leftover women, and we thought it’s a fascinating story for us as women that care about women’s rights. Leftover women is a derogatory term used across China to describe educated and professional women over the age of 27 who are still single.
Hilla Medalia: Even though we worked in China before, the leftover women phenomenon was very new to me. It also happens in different, mostly conservative, societies globally, each with its own name and set of cultural specific pressures. Growing up in Israel, there is a lot of pressure to get married and have kids, but obviously, it’s very different. On the one hand, I think that our film speaks to people worldwide but also presents the uniqueness of China.
How did you find the three protagonists of LEFTOVER WOMEN?
Shosh Shlam: We put an ad on Chinese Facebook. The ad said that it’s a film about leftover women and many women showed up. They just wanted to share their stories, some of them didn’t want to get filmed. It was complicated to find someone ready to be filmed. It was challenging to find those that would be ready to share. We decided on three that would be different from each other. Their backgrounds are different. Hua Mei was born in the village. Gai Qi’s parents are engineers, and Xu Mi and her parents are government employees. They each come from different places and different backgrounds. We thought that it could be a good variety because the background is very important and strong in their lives.
Many LEFTOVER WOMEN scenes are quite sensitive and personal, such as when Hua Mei gets in a fight with her family. How did you navigate filming these moments in a way that demonstrates how emotionally exhausting the leftover women label can be without interfering in the family’s conflict?
Hilla Medalia: There is a process when you do documentaries like the films that Shosh and I make. You must create this trust with the protagonists, and it’s a process that takes time. I think it’s unlike news where you just come and shoot. This is a long process of creating a relationship and building this trust, which is always very complicated. That’s what allows us, the filmmakers, to be present in this intimate moment.
Shosh Shlam: Also, I will say it’s trust. It’s spending a long time with your characters to know them closely and create the space for them to tell their stories. It’s important for them to tell the story. Otherwise, you cannot succeed in building such intimate scenes; it will not happen. When we came to the village for the first time, we didn’t know what to expect. Hua Mei was certain that it would not be a problem with the family, but we faced a problem the first time. After a while, when we went to the village, her sister asked why she brought us with her. She was very mad, and she asked us to leave. That was very upsetting, but we did. The following day, she was not there anymore, and the parents felt very uncomfortable. We continued to shoot, but it took a long time. It’s a process. It cannot happen very quickly.
Filming in China can often be difficult because of the strict permit, visa, and censorship laws. What was the process of handling these filming laws? Were you in contact with the Chinese government about your film?
Hilla Medalia: When we did Web Junkie, our first film, it was about internet addiction in China, and we actually shot it on a military base. There was no way that the Chinese government would permit us. We consulted with some other Chinese filmmakers and people who were working, and everybody told us don't even ask because the minute you ask, you will have someone following you. In the case of Web Junkie, there was no way we could have gotten permission to film on a military base. With LEFTOVER WOMEN, we worked without permission, with fixers and only local crews. That’s basically how we operated.
How did you work around the language barrier between you and those you were filming?
Shosh Shlam: We worked with assistants, translators, and fixers. It's not easy, but when it’s your second film, you have your system, and you know how to do it. Of course, it makes it more difficult when you don't understand the language because sometimes you feel that you want to stop the scene, and the assistants will say, “Oh no, let it go because it’s important.” As foreigners, we are outsiders, and sometimes we may have more courage to keep a scene while the Chinese probably wouldn’t. You gain something because it takes you out of your comfort zone.
Hilla Medalia: What’s very interesting to me is that sometimes even if you don’t understand the language when you’re there, and you’re present, and you film people that you have been with for a while, you can feel and almost understand what’s happening, obviously not word for word. When we go into the editing room and translate the footage, sometimes, we discover treasures.
Unlike in our first film, where many people didn’t speak English, these women are educated, and outside the scenes that we filmed in Chinese, we could talk to them in English, which was also crucial in creating this relationship.
Shosh Shlam: It took us four years. That’s a long time.
One of the main protagonists in the film, Gai Qi, ends up getting married and having a child. How do you think her story of compromise adds to the overall message of the film?
Shosh Shlam: Gai Qi was the one that fought the social phenomenon. She didn't collaborate with it. She didn’t go to bars, and she didn’t go to the matchmaker. She was the one that wanted to do it her way. It happened that she met this guy that is seven years younger than she is. That is very uncommon in China. It was a secret for his family because she is much older than he is, and he comes from a totally different background. That is also very unusual. She comes from an intellectual family. When our assistant heard that she was getting married to somebody from the village that is younger than she is, she said, “This is a joke.” It’s something that doesn’t happen so often. She was the one to fight it, but she did what everyone wants to do. She got pregnant very quickly, and she got married very quickly. She didn’t say it loudly, but her actions said it: she wanted to run away from the stigma, and that’s what she did.
Where are Hua Mei, Gai Qi, and Xu Min now?
Hilla Medalia: We actually saw Hua Mei right before COVID-19 hit. Shosh and I were in Hungary, and she came to the screening. It was nice to see her in the audience, and she came with her husband. That is the news regarding her. She lives in Germany now, and she got married.
Shosh Shlam: Hua Mei left China because she couldn’t stay there. She suffered a lot, so she went to study in Strasbourg. She did her Master’s there, and then her professor offered her a part-time job in Munich, Germany, and she went there, met a boy, got married, and now she’s building her life there. Since the film was shown in Germany and France, she has been getting many letters, emails, and support.
Hilla Medalia: When it showed in the United States, a lot of people contacted her. It’s quite amazing to see the response of the audience to her.
Shosh Shlam: She’s really very brave. She is hoping to build a future in Germany. Let’s hope that she succeeds.
What advice do you have for other female directors?
Hilla Medalia: First of all, filmmaking is very challenging in general and even more so for women, but it’s hard anyway. It’s a rollercoaster. You need always to push every step of the way. My advice is to follow your dream if you have a story that you want to pursue. I would say that’s advice to any filmmaker, but of course to women as well. I’m very proud of this film. Not only are both Shosh and I women, but we gave a stage to these women to share their stories with the world. I think it’s really important.
Shosh Shlam: I don’t divide it into women or men. It’s really about whether it’s a story that’s important for you, that you want to tell, something that you think is important to put a light on it. We are unique in that we went to China and did two films. I know it’s different in America and Europe, but in Israel, you usually work in your country, so it was unique to go to China and make the films, but we thought it was important. I think we opened a door to China that is still very unknown to the West. Yet, we don’t know how to relate to China. It’s not very easy to discover. You have to work very hard to do it, but ut when you believe it’s important, you go for it. That’s what we did with our dream and our strength.
Hilla Medalia: Someone told me once that filmmaking is not necessarily about how talented you are; it’s about endurance. It’s how hard you can continue pushing and pushing at difficult times.
What takeaways do you hope people will have after watching the film?
Shosh Shlam: I can tell you what happens with the letters that Hua Mei is getting. She is getting many letters saying how brave she is and that she is giving women all over the world strength. She gives them the courage to follow their own pace and way.
Secondly, the film’s message is that ultimately you fulfill yourself only if you’re getting married, but I don't think it’s right. I believe that the message is that this is not the only way to be fulfilled and get your desires and dreams. It’s part of it, but not the only thing. I think this is what Hua Mei tries to say in the film, and she lives this way. She got married, but at her own pace with her own will. Be authentic, be yourself, don’t let this pressure around you get to you. That’s what I think.
Hilla Medalia: It’s also a fascinating window to those educated, successful women in this society that’s linear. Growing up, they are taught that they must be successful and study well, but suddenly there is a problem when they become career women; suddenly, society pushes them to marry and not to excel. I think it’s very interesting. I’m very proud that we gave these women a voice and allowed them to say what they think and share it with the world.
Is there anything you would like to address that I haven’t asked?
Shosh Shlam: The film was shown at the Shanghai Film Festival, and we were worried about how the film would be accepted there. We had four screenings, and they were sold out. Young people said that the film reflects their culture in a very authentic way, and they felt that in the film, there are things that they are not brave enough to say loudly. This was a big achievement to see that we really reflected their culture.
Hilla Medalia: I would like to add that Gai Qi came to the screening in Shanghai. It’s very interesting to see how these women see the film and how they are part of the culture.
One more little thing that I also wanted to add is that we screened the film in New York, in Tribeca, and Canada, so we had the chance before the pandemic to interact with the audience in North America. Many Chinese Americans came to us and said we see ourselves in this film, so I think it speaks to a much wider audience, including the Asian American community.