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On Hidden Letters (2022) & Why Artists Are Forgotten

The population of Haida Gwaii were some of the first people to watch Edge of the Knife (2018), a horror film set in the 19th century recounting the tale of a man changing into Gaagiixiid (a wildman figure common throughout their culture's folklore) after committing an accidental act of violence. This would be the first feature film to use only Haida as dialogue, a language with only 24 native speakers. Many of the actors in the film were not fluent themselves and had to attend a two week language boot camp where elders were invited to teach Haida to younger generations. Not only was this film a milestone in its own right, the production and distribution of the film became a way to prevent the language from being forgotten. As Adeana Young, one of the stars of the film, stated: "Not long after the language is gone, the culture is gone [which] is scary, really scary."

In her second documentary feature, Violet Du Feng, along with co-director Qing Zhao, present a story of a language struggling to stay alive. Hidden Letters (2022) follows three women who all have a passion for Nüshu, a language created and used exclusively by women during a period of time in China where women were confined to the house and unable to communicate openly with one another about their lives. The film connects the three women in their love of the language and its ability to quietly articulate the way women suffered and continue to suffer under patriarchy. Furthermore, it seeks to highlight the methods women have had to take to create art, turning their poetry and songs into this script so that they may be preserved only for the eyes of women more free than them in the future. Altogether, it's a moving and radical portrayal of intergenerational sisterhood, and I was glad to watch during BFI London Film Festival this year.

The process of making art is very hard. It's not just having a good idea, it's having the space, resources, time and energy to dedicate to even beginning the first draft of what could end up being a terrible end result. Many pieces of art get abandoned in the drafting stage, and you feel guilty for even working on what you should have known was a terrible idea, when you could have spent that time thinking and researching something good. 

Making art means having the space to be wrong about your own abilities and work on them. It's about breathing around an idea, sitting with it until it's fully formed. It's about having time. Many artists do not have this. They are working thankless, pointless jobs that leave them exhausted to the point that when they get home, they only have the energy to stare at their phone, lovingly named 'the pain rectangle', until they fall asleep. Creative energy is wasted by capitalism.

And then it is subsumed again in the form of commerce. The film greatly emphasises the way advertisers, most of which are men, have taken Nüshu and supplanted into branding for chopsticks, attire and even smart phones designed to only be used in said language. This is contrasted with Xin, one of the women the documentary focuses on, who, when trying to sell her art at the Macao Expo, is told that her penmanship is not big enough for it be impressive. This is only one of the many examples in the documentary where the art of language, the sincerity of culture is appropriated and morphed to look like nothing but an easily reproducible image. Where Nüshu was created out of a quiet sorrow, railing against gender in whispers behind the wall, capitalism thuds and crashes through art with large yet meticulous strides, bulldozing over artists, flattening out the radical aspects of everything in its path.

The film asks us a prickly and difficult question - is 'selling out' the only way to actually be an artist? If the only way to preserve our ideas is by allowing them to sold off, stripped of all historical context and integrity, is it worth it? 

I think there is an easy answer to this but it's one that come with a cost. Commercialism does in fact kill art. The fact that an advert can be considered short film should be heinous. No one should feel represented by a insurance advertisement. No, I don't care if joining the army is actually a very girlboss thing to do - what about all the war crimes

Capitalism kills culture and by extension, it kills artists. The profit incentive has artists shave down the sides of the work to make those funding it happy - it's the reason why gay characters get cut from story lines and why no one has made a decent movie about #MeToo yet. Those ideas don't appeal to the mainstream, therefore they won't make money, therefore what would be the point?

The penniless artist is a very appealing idea in contrast because there is a perceived purity in the intention behind the art of people who aren't being paid for their work. What this means, however, is that marginalised people's art gets forgotten. It's deliberately obscured or poorly stored or is simply destroyed by the artist because they were too ashamed of the dissenting thoughts they were having about their husbands, their children, their own loneliness. The art of Chinese women had to be hidden in plain sight so that they wouldn't be punished for creating it. For all of history, women have been penniless artists, but they didn't even get the credit of not succumbing to corporate pressure because even that didn't exist for them.

My only saving grace for you is that people create anyway, even if they know they may not be remembered. They make art because the process of putting something, anything, together is communal, even if it's not entirely evident at the time. The filmmakers for Edge of the Knife made sure the actors were learning the language, not just through the process of making the film, but by talking to elders who had their whole lives written in Haida and were finally able to share it fluently. 

Towards the end of Hidden Letters, Simu holds an exhibition where she displays two letters written in Nüshu. One was written a long time ago by a woman expressing her desire for companionship. The other was a letter that Simu had written in response, talking across time to a woman she had never met, expressing her own frustrations with patriarchy and wanting to reach out a hand in a language only they could share. The art of language lies in the arrangement of culture in such a way that time collapses and all that remains are the eyes of recognition, generations of women offering hands out to one another, boundless and aching to be held.


Further reading:

Katie Chambers, In Conversation with Filmmaker Violet Du Feng

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Angelica Jade Bastién, On Being a Woman Artist & Further Notes on Blonde (2022)

Hbomberguy, ROBLOX_OOF.mp3