For their latest film collaboration, documentarian Huang Wenhai (credited as Wen Hai) and activist Zeng Jinyan as co-directors, alongside Trish McAdams’ animation, present a veritable collage of women’s perspectives and experiences on sociopolitical activism across China and Hong Kong, including labour activism. Neither Wen Hai nor Zeng are strangers to documenting labour activism in particular, as their first collaboration (with the former as director and the latter as producer) was the 2017 film We the Workers, an immersive on-the-spot documentary of workers organising and demanding collective bargaining rights. While Outcry and Whisper is more diffuse in its approach as well as result through its range of social actors and the kinds of activism in which they engage, it nevertheless emphatically continues the steely thematic thread of resistance to forms of state oppression and intimidation with which all tiers of activists in China and Hong Kong must contend.
From performance artists to factory workers who do not necessarily consider themselves as activists, to a retired professor and filmmaker to activist, blogger, and doctoral student Zeng herself, Outcry and Whisper is meant less to explain and more to powerfully show just some of the women who are engaging in modes of resistance in their respective corners of the world. Consequently, the film makes no use of voiceover narration that would didactically provide context and/or order to the series of footages of one woman’s fight after another; only occasionally does it make use of captions to give very general information about a particular woman’s conditions of living due to her activism. In place of heavy expository elements, the film overall simply identifies each woman by her name, age, and place of origin and has her speak for herself of the fight in which she is involved, past or present, individually or collectively. One learns of Zeng’s experiences of house arrest and constant surveillance by plainclothes policemen in China, which prompted her to move to Hong Kong in 2012 with her daughter, while her husband Hu Jia (a long-time activist himself engaging in the rights of citizens with HIV/AIDS and environmental issues, among other things) remains in China. The film even includes footage of Zeng’s video diary discussing her daughter, love, and sense of self included at different points in the film. One also gets to know, albeit briefly, Ai Xiaoming, a retired professor and documentarian at whose house Zeng attends a get-together in one sequence. One also meets Xiao Mei, a long-time employee at her factory until she was demoted, put under surveillance, and eventually fired for helping her co-workers organise.
However, there are two exceptions to the film’s identification of the women whose activism it presents, at times through archival footage: the two performance artists whose pieces are found in the beginning and around the middle of the film’s runtime. The piece performed by an unidentified artist outdoors shown during the second third of the film consists of a woman who wraps her head with a cloth, with a knife sticking out from within the folds of the cloth, and drags her head on the ground sprinkled thickly with a powdered substance. Cut to her with the cloth removed and pouring gas on the path that she has traced on the powder, which leads to the aforementioned cloth on one end and a pole with a man whose hand is tied to it on the other end, and lights it on fire. In contrast, the other piece follows McAdams’ opening animation sequence of the faces of the women who feature in the film and is arguably its most disturbing footage: Zhao Yue (unidentified), with her head shaved, steps foot on a dais on which is set a table with a mirror, calmly and wordlessly sits herself in front of the mirror, and proceeds to cut her face with a razor in an equally calm and meditative manner. With chilling atmospheric music that bridges the prologue animation sequence and this footage of Zhao, which further draws out the sheer violence of Zhao’s act despite its quietness, this opening sequence sets a most unsettling tone for the rest of the film and the different degrees of violence recounted and/or shown.
On the surface, the film’s to-and-fro in social actor, setting, and/or issue appears to be completely random, driven only by the logic to have each woman share her experiences in her own words, or gestures in the case of the performance artists mentioned above. And we must add to the footages of the social actors, archival or on-site/contemporary, McAdams’ animation sequences of women found throughout and in fact begins the film. However, this to-and-fro ultimately accumulates a deeper layer that actually brings together these women – separated by generation, geography, background, profession, etc. – in dialogue through the basic act of editing. This layer becomes increasingly prominent in the course of the film, especially in the extended sequence that cuts back and forth between factory workers Zhi Peng, San Mei, Qing Mei, and Huang Jie who had been involved in the same protests against management. Despite consisting of talking heads, this sequence is particularly memorable in the way it literally splices together the individual workers’ experiences to conjure what they felt and experienced during their collective activism and violent encounters with the police and in the aftermath.
This creative, critical tension between the individual and the collective in activism is perhaps most poignantly exemplified at the film’s end with Zeng. After a sequence of highly immersive footages of workers united, marching, chanting, and protesting inside and outside of their factory and of protesters fending off riot police during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the film presents one last time an excerpt from Zeng’s video diary. In this excerpt, she reflects rather frankly upon her experiences and her renewed sense of self and empowerment, as a person and activist. And then cut to her going out to participate in a mass protest.
Outcry and Whisper available as part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.
Rowena Santos Aquino is a Los Angeles-based film lecturer who teaches courses on Asian cinemas, Film History, and Documentary Film. Her scholarship focuses on documentary film histories, productions, and cultures. She has been published in journals such as Transnational Cinemas, Asian Cinema, and LOLA, and in the 2016 anthology Film Music in ‘Minor’ National Cinemas. As a film critic specifically covering Asian cinemas and film festivals. While a Cinema & Media Studies graduate student, she embarked on the path of film criticism by writing for the UCLA-/USC-based Asian/Asian-American popular culture magazine Asia Pacific Arts. After she received her doctorate degree, she began writing for the Toronto-based film website Next Projection and continues to focus on coverage of Asian cinemas and documentary films.