By Katie Chambers
Violet Du Feng’s Hidden Letters tells the story of Chinese women trying to balance their lives as independent women in modern China while confronting the traditional identity that defines but also oppresses them. Connected through their love for Nushu—a centuries-old secret text shared amongst women—each of them transforms through a pivotal period of their lives and takes a step closer to becoming the individuals they know they can be.
The film is an ITVS co-production, and received funding through the ITVS Diversity Development Fund (DDF) and ITVS Open Call Initiative. It’s set to premiere on PBS’s Independent Lens in Winter 2023.
“Hidden Letters transports us back decades and centuries to reveal the inner lives of Chinese women who responded to systematic sexism and oppression by creating Nushu, an ancient, secret woman-only script that gives us a deeper understanding of female emancipation,” said NYWIFT Member Lois Vossen, Executive Producer of Independent Lens. “In her stunning directorial debut, Violet Feng creates a spiritual quality to capture the intergenerational relationships of the characters. Almost dreamlike moments immerse us in history while showing why this story is undeniably relevant in today’s struggle for gender equality. Motivated by her own desire to better understand the contradictory and sometimes competing roles of being a woman, mother, wife, and filmmaker, Violet made a film that shows all women ways to navigate their path forward.”
Hot off her 2022 Tribeca Festival premiere, Director Violet Du Feng, an Emmy-award winning documentarian, spoke to us about Nushu, modern-day China, women’s equality, and her filmmaking process.
Congratulations on your premiere! What does inclusion in the Tribeca Festival mean to you?
I am a New York-based Chinese filmmaker. On June 11th, I was sitting with the audience for the first time to watch Hidden Letters. In the Tribeca Festival promo video, I surprisingly saw the photo of my residence’s building manager in the montage showing how New Yorkers thanked medical staff during COVID.
My film is about an ancient women-only language from a far-away Chinese village that most people here have never heard of. But being in Tribeca, it almost feels like I am introducing a story of my one family to the other family. It’s really wonderful.
Women’s experiences, and women’s rights, have certainly improved since Nushu was first developed, but we still have a way to go for women’s equality, especially within Chinese culture. How has Nushu continued to develop as a lifeline for women in China?
When I started the project in 2017, the regression of women’s rights in China was still kept as a political taboo. The English #MeToo hashtag only had a fleeting moment in China before the online censors swooped in to block it. Even the word “feminism” was largely denounced. But every time I had conversations with female friends and relatives, or women I met at places like nail salons or bank appointments, everyone shared the same sense of frustration, anger, or suffocation against our entrenched gender roles. That was when I realized the urgency of using this film to provide a shared platform for women to start the conversation, just as what Nushu did to those women in the past.
Throughout making the film, I came to know many women that Nushu continues to make an impact on, besides Hu Xin and Simu. One of the groups I met was called Nushu Shanghai, led by Amber Akilla, a Chinese Australian now living in Shanghai, who teaches young women to become DJs. They’d meet and gather regularly, to share their challenges about this male dominated profession, and to grow together in their sisterhood.
Because Nushu is far more than just a written language — it embodies the power of sisterhood and safe spaces to self-actualize identity. Through Nushu, women expand one another’s worlds as they read the stories of others. Nushu wove a landscape that spoke to women’s subtle, vulnerable, yet resilient selves. In these marginalized forms of expression, women found their own way to negotiate with the dominant social structure of their societies.
It is also interesting to see how men are getting involved with Nushu too (for better or worse) and I would love to hear your take on that.
In the scenes where men are involved, I am interested to reveal their perspectives about Nushu because that’s very much connected with how they perceive women. Most of the time, the camera was really just there to observe their interactions with the women in Nushu.
Being a film that centers the perspectives of women, patriarchy is an easy target. However, my intention is not to pit men against women, but rather add nuance to the conflict by bringing the larger societal pressures and norms into the light through the experiences of the men in the story.
You show some of the documentary subjects at some very emotionally vulnerable moments. How did you work with them to gain their trust?
I moved back to China in 2010. I was in China for seven years, producing films for emerging first-time female filmmakers from China. So I was more in the Chinese industry, where I understood how patriarchal it was, and that also was the time that I got married and became a mother, and I suddenly felt that I was betrayed by the society I was brought up in.
I grew up in China during the Communist time. It was a time when the state provided free daycare. I was raised mostly by my dad and I never thought that I could dream any less than a boy, just because I’m a girl. My dad always gave me that kind of hope, and my mom was the first-generation medical staff in our family and she took great pride in her career.
It was really after I got married and became a mom that I suddenly felt that the whole of society’s expectations on me were to be a good wife and a good mom. I felt stifled in a way, and all my girlfriends around me felt the same. That was around the time I met both Hu Xin and Simu, two young women also at the crossroads trying to navigate their lives. As women, when we are at the same stakes, the empathy and care can only be mutual and deep, just like those women in Nushu.
As a first-time director, what were some key takeaways that you learned while making the film?
I have been a documentary film producer for many years. Deep down, I always thought I was not creative or talented enough to direct because most established film directors from China are men. This is the first feature documentary I had the courage to direct. It was because the women from hundreds of years ago to today in Nushu gave me the courage. It was also because all those women, and some men, who supported me on this journey gave me the courage.
Under the most impossible circumstances of suppression, women in Nushu found a way to show who they were. They taught me never to make decisions based on fear again.
What was the biggest challenge making Hidden Letters? And favorite moment?
After working as a producer for so long, I really want my films to be seen both in the West and in China. It’s not easy to do. It’s almost impossible. You have to really draw a fine line. I wanted to introduce this film to an audience in China and enable women to have a place to talk about where we are right now. It’s very easy to have the government as the scapegoat for everything in China (and here, too), because the government now owns the rights to Nushu, they’re certifying all the practitioners, and they’re the ones behind the commodification, because local governments are so poor. But to me that’s not the most important thing. It’s where men are. How do I draw the line, and also protect my protagonists? That’s very delicate to maneuver, a lot of choices to make. That’s the most challenging part. Singling out the government as the sole antagonist would neither be factual nor fair, and it’s not my main focus.
My favorite moment was when He Yanxin read the Nushu letter Hu Xin wrote to her alone, after Xin left. Chinese people don’t say “I love you” or like to show their emotions. But after Hu Xin’s divorce, Yanxin guided her a lot, asking her not to see herself as a mere steward of this feminist practice, that Hu Xin herself is worthy of the same care and respect that she gives to Nushu, and the destinies of herself and Nushu are intertwined, if not the same. Yet she only released her love for Hu Xin when reading this letter after she left. That moment always gets me.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
To me, Nushu is not just a language. It is art. It is a voice embedded in that art. And in that sense, as long as we carry the legacy of it, as long as it lives in the heart of every woman, I don’t think it will ever die.
What is next for you?
I am developing a series about dating coaches in different countries and how culture, politics, capitalism, and big data have affected gender balances in each territory, especially in the post-pandemic era.
About the Filmmaker
Violet Du Feng is an Emmy-winning independent documentarian and a 2018 Sundance Creative Producing Fellow. Her producing credits include Singing in the Wilderness, Confucian Dream, Maineland, and Please Remember Me. She directed the most recent PBS/CPB special program Harbor from the Holocaust, which had a national premiere in September 2020 with music performed by Yo-Yo Ma. She started her career as a co-producer on the critically acclaimed 2007 Sundance Special Jury winner, Peabody- and Emmy-winner Nanking, which was distributed theatrically around 30 countries throughout the world, and was the highest grossing documentary in China. Violet is the producer of the forthcoming films People’s Hospital, Dark Is Not Black, and Running with the Prime Minister. Violet is a consulting programmer for Shanghai International Film Festival. Born in Shanghai, and based in New York, Violet holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and received her MFA in journalism from University of California at Berkeley.
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