October 20, 2023
BEIJING – In Spring this year, producer Li Moxiao and director Han Xia engaged in a thought-provoking conversation at a cafe in Beijing. Savoring their cups of coffee, they brainstormed a question: How could a movie tackling the sensitive issue of sexual harassment become more relatable to its audience?
The movie is part of a collaboration between cosmetic brand L’Oreal Paris and the One International Women’s Film Festival, an annual event aimed at supporting women in cinema.
We hope the short movie will raise public awareness and provoke them to think: ‘What can I do if I witness such an incident?’
Li Moxiao, producer of the film, By Your Side
After engaging in extensive discussions, the creative duo found themselves deeply inspired by actress Xin Zhilei’s 120-minute stage play, Prima Facie. The play, originally written by Australian playwright Suzie Miller, revolves around a criminal defense barrister who experiences a shift in her perception of the legal system after becoming a victim of sexual assault.
Managing to invite Xin to act as the lead, they ultimately shaped the plotline of the 8-minute-long short movie, By Your Side. It has recently been released on several streaming sites, such as Bilibili and Youku.
Starting with a group of performers attending a rehearsal, the movie follows Xin’s character, who portrays one of the performers, noticing that a fellow actress appears nervous and uncomfortable after the instructor, a middle-aged man, caresses and pats her shoulder.
The actress is even more uncomfortable when, during the subsequent halftime break, she is chatting with a friend and sharing something interesting on her phone, when suddenly, a male actor approaches from behind, hugs her tightly, and jokingly asks, “What are you guys looking at?” This display of intimacy makes her feel even more uneasy.
After rehearsing for the day, the actress walks home along a path by the river. Two men, who are chatting, notice her and ask in a flirtatious manner, “Hey, beautiful, where are you going?” This catches the attention of Xin’s character, as she happens to be walking home on the same route. Bravely, she steps forward and demands an apology from the two men for their behavior.
At that moment, the actress, who is initially scared and hurriedly running away, stops, with her eyes filled with gratitude. The two young women briskly walk away together in the dark.
“Xin’s character, to some extent, represents the perspective of most of us — a witness of sexual harassment. We hope the short movie will raise public awareness and provoke them to think: ‘What can I do if I witness such an incident?'” says Li, who is also the cofounder of the One International Women’s Film Festival.
A graduate of the Department of Directing at the Central Academy of Drama, Han says she was selected as one of the five winners of a project to support women directors by the festival in 2021 and that, since then, she has developed a friendship with Li.
During the six-month preparation and production of the short film, Han recalls that they drew more fellow creators to join their brainstorming discussion in the cafe, and she was a bit surprised to find that some male members hadn’t realized that even seemingly trivial things to them would make women uncomfortable.
“So, they have started to realize how they should improve their behavior while interacting with female colleagues. For us, that’s inspirational and exemplifies the meaning of this movie,” says Han.
During the movie’s preview screening, held at a Beijing cinema last month, Chang Mengran, an internet influencer better known by her web name of “Alex, Absolutely the Girl”, says that the movie reminded her of a terrible moment in her youth, when she experienced sexual harassment during a bus trip. She felt even more frustrated when she later confided in a close friend, but did not receive the comfort she deserved.
Liu Xiaochen, also an internet influencer, known by her online name “Shining Girl Sisi”, shares her memory of being sneakily followed by a labor worker as a teen, when she was returning home at dusk to her residential building near a construction site. The man followed her up the stairs and even made some inappropriately explicit comments, but at that time, she felt a sense of shame and disgust, so she didn’t dare tell her mother.
When Liu was in her mid-20s, she heard a story about her female friend accompanying an actress returning to her hotel after a day’s filming. In the elevator, they encountered strangers who leered at the actress and made provocative remarks. However, her friend quickly shouted at them to stop.
“When I heard this story, I was stunned. It was the first time I realized that there was a girl of my age who could handle such a situation in this way. I wish more people would bravely stand up to support those who have experienced sexual harassment,” she says.