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Complicit author Winnie M Li: ‘There’s an assumption in film that it’s going to be men who have the skills and talent’


Winnie M Li is working on a screen adaptation of her debut novel, Dark Chapter

Winnie M Li is working on a screen adaptation of her debut novel, Dark Chapter

Author Winnie M Li. Credit: Grace Gelder

Author Winnie M Li. Credit: Grace Gelder

Complicit by Winnie M Li

Complicit by Winnie M Li


Winnie M Li is working on a screen adaptation of her debut novel, Dark Chapter

In Complicit, Winnie M Li brings an insider’s eye to the misogyny and abuse in the film industry.

If every work of fiction has a grain of truth, the film producer turned writer says a lot of her own experience and thoughts about the industry and survivorhood are present within Complicit.

“For me, it’s important to know it’s connecting with readers, and it can be thought provoking and helps them think about the problems in the world and how we can maybe fix it,” says Winnie via Zoom.

Chilling in its realistic portrayal of ambition and split-second decision making that can have long-term consequences, the novel focuses on Sarah Lai, a once former producer so close to stardom. She has earned her dues, has photocopied and stapled pages, and is all too familiar with coffee runs.

But instead of seeing her name in lights, her life takes her to education, and teaching students about the world she so desperately wanted to inhabit.

So when a journalist asks her to discuss her experience of working with a noted producer, it’s time for Sarah to break her silence.

Complicit deserves every superlative that has been lavished on it from authors such as Liz Nugent and T M Logan. While a reader could view the novel as concerned with legacy, for turning a blind eye or not speaking out and the consequences of doing so, for Winnie, it’s a conversation starter: is there a different way for women to be working ideally together in a male dominated industry and reforming an industry.

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“Because it’s been decades, and if you look at other industries, centuries, of really male dominated work and male leadership, which can be quite faulty, and quite abusive towards women,” she says.

“There must be other ways to structure workplaces or to structure filmmaking to really celebrate female talent. I think that’s what I was hinting at.

“In a scene [towards the novel’s end] where she’s [Sarah] speaking to her female student [who wants to break into the industry], on one hand, she’s super conscious, ‘Oh God, should I encourage this eager young student knowing that the filmmaking world is so rough’, and then she’s like, there’s initiatives out there now to promote diverse voices.

“We can be a bit cynical about that, but it does have an impact. I think if you look at film now, you’re certainly seeing more work by people of colour, and by women of colour, than you did 10 years ago, so I think there has been change in that sense.”

Equality, plain and simple, is all that is being asked for.

“But there is such an assumption in film and in other industries of course, that it’s going be men who have the skills and the talent and men who are celebrated like filmmaking geniuses,” says Winnie.

“When obviously there’s a lot of really talented female filmmakers out there and a lot of these men have benefited from women as agents and women as producers kind of promoting their career.

“Obviously, there’s a huge gender inequality in that way but I’m hoping it’ll change.”

From her previous career in film making — something she is revisiting with writing the adaptation of her debut novel, Dark Chapter, with which she’s working with Northern Ireland Screen — Winnie explains there is an expectation that some work up the proverbial career ladder in order to make more of a contribution or be recognised.

“I guess for me, I often see men, at least for my experience which was 10 years ago, are being given much more of those opportunities to direct the film or to be doing the big things in film, whereas women had always been expected to make photocopies and bring tea and coffee,” she says.

“I think a lot of the problems with the industry is that it is such a closed shop in some ways. It is so hard to get in there. You can’t really fill out job applications; at least in this side of the Atlantic you don’t fill out job applications and then get a job in film.

“It’s all networking and if you’re an outsider to that world, if you don’t have the social connections or the cultural connections or whatever to get your first ‘in’, then it is actually so hard to get your foot in the door. And once you do then you don’t want to let go of that rung of the ladder that you’re on.”

Part of the reason she wrote Complicit was because she missed film, having stepped away from the industry after being violently assaulted and raped in Belfast in 2008.

The attack left her unable to work for two years.


Author Winnie M Li. Credit: Grace Gelder

Author Winnie M Li. Credit: Grace Gelder

Author Winnie M Li. Credit: Grace Gelder

Winnie was attending University College Cork under the Mitchell Scholarship programme when she was attacked in Colin Glen Forest Park by Edward Connors (15). He was sentenced to eight years in jail and released after four years.

She spent five years undergoing therapy and wrote about the impact of that afternoon in Dark Chapter, which was published in 2017.

She talks about the trauma that can be hidden behind the perceived glamour of life in the film industry and the strangeness of life immediately after what happened in 2008.

“My rape actually happened the day before the red-carpet premiere of a film I worked on,” she says.

“The rape happened on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday morning I still had the police statement to do in Belfast.

“I went to the airport, missed my plane but got another plane, and then a friend of mine met me at the airport in London.

“I went straight back to my flat, got into a dress I borrowed from a designer and put on make-up and everything like that and then went to this red-carpet premiere.

“It was a complete change of worlds. It’s weird for me to even talk about it, and think, ‘God, did I actually do that?’”

“Because I went from speaking to the police, and I had just been raped in the 24 hours prior, to operating in this world where it’s speciality cocktails that were themed on the film that we had just made and red-carpet photo flashes happening at you.

“It was just so weird. That was my experience; it’s probably quite extreme in some ways but strange to think that all that glamour is so manufactured, right?

“And behind that glamour, there could be trauma. There could be lots of hidden stories and lots of people trying to recover and really struggling to put up that facade.”

That facade of how outsiders view Hollywood and its industry as glamorous interested her.

“But you know, they just roll out the red carpet and you put in a nice dress but what does that mean? Does that mean the people that are on the red carpet are inherently better or more talented than people that aren’t?” she says.

“And if you look at actors: obviously there are a lot of actors now but so many of them started off as nobodies.

“The film that we had made that got shown the day after my rape had Daniel Craig in it.

“At that point, he had been James Bond in one film, and so there was all this huge buzz about him being in this film, and he’s obviously there on the red carpet.

“But at one point, you know, 20, 30 years ago, he was a struggling actor too.

“So there’s a strangeness that somebody can be incredibly talented and unknown and then plucked through circumstances, and their talents, to become this god or goddess, and equally other talented people might never have that career.

“The sort of injustice of it and just the bizarreness of this, it’s not really a meritocracy in a lot of ways. I’m not saying that Daniel Craig and lots of other actors aren’t talented but there’s people that don’t get to have that career.”

Winnie describes a Complicit launch event in London which included a panel of women activists and researchers. One of them was Rowena Chiu, a former assistant of Harvey Weinstein and one of his victims.

“Her story is very widely publicised, and I didn’t learn about her story until after I had written Complicit,” says Winnie.

“I’d written about three drafts of it and then her story broke. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, there’s a woman who worked as production assistant who is Chinese and was assaulted by Weinstein’.

“We’ve since actually become friends. She spoke at my event, and she did say it was hard for her to even see the book as fiction because it was so close in some ways to her own experience, not the actual [content] because what happens to Sarah is quite different from what happened to her.

“Some of the scenes that I recreate are so similar to this kind of atmosphere that she’s working in when Weinstein was her boss.

“That means a lot to me to have somebody with that actual lived experience feel like the book resonates.”

Though Complicit has only been published within the last few weeks, it has also resonated with readers.

“In terms of what I’ve seen on social media, people have been saying, it reminded me a lot of experiences I have working,” says Winnie.

“I think even if you don’t work in film, just that constant casual sexual harassment that happens, all that kind of stuff…

“I think it’s quite hard to go through this world as a woman, trying to be professionally ambitious in male dominated industries, because let’s be honest, most industries are male dominated, and not feel like an older man is going to try to invite you out to a drink and see what he can get out of that in some ways.”

It’s double standards, we say, even when we aim to be progressive and living in modern times.

“You always get men saying, ‘Oh, if I had all these women hitting on me, asking me out for drinks, I would feel flattered and you’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s a totally different situation,’” says Winnie.

“I find it’s one thing to have people hitting on you, but underlying that as a young woman is, I suppose, that fear that sexual violence is something that’s out there. And if you do go back to someone’s hotel room, something bad could happen.

“I don’t think men when they’re hit on by women quite have that same fear. There isn’t that constant fear of sexual violence. Maybe that sounds a bit sensationalist when I say constant fear of sexual violence, but you know, any girl, woman, growing up, we know about rape. We know it’s out there and something that can happen.

“For me, I never actually thought it would happen to me,” she continues.

“I lived 29 years, travelled a lot on my own, and then it did and then you realise it can happen that quickly in situations that you never expect.

“You want to be empowered as a woman, independent and doing all the things that men are doing, and then on the other hand, there is this awareness that sexual violence is something that can happen to you.

“You don’t want that to prevent you from being ambitious and exploring the world, but it does.”

Complicit by Winnie M Li, Orion, £14.99, is available now


Complicit by Winnie M Li

Complicit by Winnie M Li

Complicit by Winnie M Li

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