On Thursday evening, the Columbia School of Journalism invited award-winning documentarian Violet Feng to show part of her new documentary Hidden Letters and offer her perspective on the issues covered in the film.

In a brightly-lit room in Pulitzer Hall on Thursday night, the screening of Violet Feng’s Hidden Letters began by introducing its central character: the centuries-old hidden language of Nushu. Holding a fan with Nushu script written on it, MA student Eason Lu explained that Nushu, translating to “women’s script” or “women’s writing,” is a gender-specific writing system originating in Jiangyong, a county in China’s southeastern Hunan province. The unique form of communication was exclusively confined to women of two specific ethnic groups who resided in certain areas of Hunan until its discovery by anthropologists in 1982. Although the language retains its exclusivity and is only mastered by few, Nushu has garnered fanfare and become more widespread through its display on social media and in workshops that teach participants how to write the characters. Despite its growth in popularity, Nushu remains a language representative of sororal solidarity and continues to give a voice to the voiceless, which Violet Feng artfully demonstrates in her new documentary, Hidden Letters

The clip shown at the screening provided an introduction to two millennial Chinese women, both connected to Nushu, who are the subjects of the film. Both women rely on their unique skill to make a profit while dealing with various personal challenges; one woman showcases her Nushu skills in Jiangyong while emotionally recuperating in the wake of a divorce from her abusive ex-husband, and the other takes to social media to display her skills while contending with traditional gender roles imposed by her partner and the rest of society. 

Although only a small clip of the documentary was shown, the film is meant to tell the story of the modern oppression of women in China and the impact of capitalism and politics on their oppression. Sitting across from Emmy-award winning documentarian and CSJ professor June Cross, Feng explains that the film acted as an outlet for her to discuss the oppression of women in China without blatantly violating censorship rules and social norms. While a film critiquing the social position of women in China would never screen in China, one that tells the story of Nushu, something of a national treasure, would. The film is not slated to be shown in China yet, but Feng is optimistic based on past experience; her 2015 documentary Please Remember Me used a love story to critique the lack of support for those dealing with Alzheimer’s disease in China, eventually leading to a systemic change in treatment. 

Along with sharing the history of Nushu and uplifting the voices of women in China, Feng revealed that Hidden Letters was also partially born from her journey to find a space in China’s male-dominated film industry. After seeing an alarming lack of female directors and producers at a film festival in China, Feng decided to only produce films of first-time Chinese women directors in order to bridge the gap in the film industry. Since then, she has continued to strive for systemic change in her filmmaking pursuits, whether producing or directing. 

The short clip of Hidden Letters shown at the screening event paints the whole film as one that not only shares a fairly unknown piece of history, but that also shines light on an often overlooked struggle and redefines the meaning of bravery. As Feng notes, bravery is being vulnerable in the face of backlash, much like that exhibited by Feng and the two women who defied social norms to share their stories and uplift others. 

Hidden Letters was first shown at Tribeca Film Festival and has received great reviews from its theatrical release in New York City. If you want to watch the whole film, it is available on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play TV, and YouTube. It will premiere on PBS on March 27.

Header via Columbia University