Assistant Research Fellow, Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica
Every year the Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival chooses non-mainstream ethnographic films produced in the past two or three years for the “New Vision” program. The films in this showcase are from different regions across the world, and each film is concerned with a different topic that reflects the diversity and challenges of the contemporary world. The nine foreign films chosen this year each grasp the texture of a culture through their images, and broaden our vision of the world.
Tradition’s survival in times of national crisis
There are six films that have chosen Asia as a shooting location in this year’s New Vision program. Three of them were shot in China and discuss an important issue: how do minority ethnic groups and individuals maintain their cultural traditions when they are oppressed by the government, and how will tradition survive in this moment of crisis.
Bimo is a word which means the traditional oracle of the Yi clan. This person is familiar with ancient texts and rituals. The Bimo mediates between the human world and that of the supernatural. In modern Szechuan, the Bimo are known as the protectors of culture and knowledge, yet they also face the challenges of a changing political and social environment. “The Bimo Records” documents the story of three Bimo. The film features the spirit of the Yi clan’s traditional wisdom and culture, and it also touches on the intrusion of state power which clashes with the Yi clan and its Bimo culture. The director films in the color tones of traditional oriental painting to show the enormous and powerful scenery of the “ancient” Yi clan. He also uses stylish images to suggest the different worlds of the Bimos. We see the Bimos’ rituals for curing people and reviving spirits mostly through long shots, obscure lighting, and over-the-shoulder shots, we are only allowed to take a peek at this mysterious world. From a closer distance, we see a black magic Bimo under the shades of wooden blinds as he talks about how the government restricts the practice of magic. Most directly, the film talks about a Bimo who is also a cadre in the village, as he tries to use his political power to smooth the situation, but is forced to follow the Communist Party’s orders. “The Bimo Records” portrays the Bimo and the Yi clan with ancient colors. Director Yang Rui from China takes a peek at their struggles and the pain that they are facing.
If “The Bimo Records” touches on heavy topics, then “On a Tightrope” is a more direct portrayal of political pressure. The film looks at how a Chinese minority people live between political interference and religious tradition like walking on a tight rope with no safety net. Uyghur director Peter Lom chose the children from an orphanage as his topic. They lost their blood parents, but through propaganda and education, the government tries to teach the children “The Communist Party is our father and mother”. Everyone must protect China’s unity and progress. “Eighteen Bans” are enforced in the region. They ban people from religious belief, and people under eighteen years old cannot study religion, nor can they wear religious clothing. The country wants children to worship communism and socialism, to worship Mao and Marx as their leaders, and to be anti-separatists. To the children, these slogans don’t have meaning. From their daily conversation, it is still evident that Uyghur people’s belief is still Islamic. One tradition of the Uyghur people is walking the rope. The film tells the story of four children learning how to walk the rope, and see how these people find their own path between religion, tradition, and government propaganda.
Speaking of Chinese oppression, the most infamous case is Tibet. However Tibetan lamas don’t only have one voice. In “Angry Monk”, the film follows the legendary and controversial lama Gundun Choephel, as he travels through Tsing Hai, Tibet, and India. From his birth in the early 20th century, to the arrival of the Communists, his death in 1951, and finally to the Lhasa that has night clubs as well as temples. The film uses archival footage and a modern “road trip” film style to interview Gundun’s travel companions, historians, and the people who snitched on him. The film looks at this lama’s legendary life, and ponders how Tibet struggles between tradition and modernization. Gundun Choephel dug through Tibet’s history and saw the evil of religious politics. He did not follow traditional restrictions, even those on alcohol and sex. He wished to use an open attitude towards reform, and let Tibetans have a connection with modern society and the world. This philosophy was not acceptable to the Tibetan government at the time. Under the accusation of the conservatives, he was imprisoned. Extreme traditionalists and outside authority closed in with great force. Before Gundun passed away, he saw the raid of the Chinese army, and Tibetan history was turned over violently.
The junction of different ethnicities and religions: co-existing, convergence, or violence?
South Asia has many ethnic groups and religions. Besides the largest groups of Muslims and Hindus, there are also Jews and Christians and other smaller religious groups. There are many combinations in their relationships. There are convergences of some religious elements, and there are some groups who are opposing who choose to co-exist, but some are so hostile towards each other that they fall into a vicious cycle of constant revenge.
In Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, a branch of Islamic followers believe that only through love and faith for the saints, through ecstatic trance, will one see the beloved Sufi Saints. “The Ecstatic” documents the enormous ritual where millions of followers flood in to the Sehwan Sharif temple in south Pakistan. They use bodily movement to show their religious zeal, including shaking, self beating, cutting, stabbing, and all sorts of twirling – full body twirling, twirling the head, even heading towards circular racecourses where there are high speed motorcycle and cars in circulation, and walking on Ferris wheels. In the cultural junction of South Asia, do these Islamic followers carry an element of Hinduism in their trances? Through full devotion of body and self-conscious, will they acquire what they are searching for?
In Islamic Afghanistan, Jews are gradually leaving. There are only two Jews left in a synagogue in Kabul. How do they keep surviving in the Islamic environment? These two people who believe in the same religion do not unite in a cabal. Instead, they live individually and quarrel all the time. Zabulon lives upstairs. He has a servant, TV, refrigerator, meat, wine, and fruit for every meal, whereas Isaac who lives downstairs is old and lives poorly. He sells amulets and cures to Muslims for a living. In “Cabal in Kabul”, the director becomes familiar with both men over several years. He follows the two in the streets and markets of Kabul. He listens to how Isaac gives orders, and listens to how they argue and accuse each other. Zabulon suspects that Isaac has betrayed Judaism. Isaac thinks that Islamic followers think of them as unbelievers. But his Islamic clients love Isaac. In this corner of the world, religions co-exist in unequal ways.
However, sometimes different religions and ethnic groups may not find it easy to co-exist. Conflicts can hurt people like explosives. One day, Dharsika’s mother finds out that her only daughter, 12 years old, has left home after her father’s death in the war. After several years, they meet again. Dharsika has joined the Hindu guerilla group, the Tamil Tigers. They fight the Sinhalese Buddhists who control the Sri Lanka government. She voluntarily accepts training for suicide bombing missions. They meet very briefly in the camp, and lose contact after. The sad mother can only pray to Jehovah. Why are there more and more female suicide bombers? What’s their motive and mental state? How do they form a strong bond with their comrades? How do their mothers face this wounding sadness? Female Norwegian director Beate Arnestad spent three years in Sri Lanka researching the relation between war and women, and shot this documentary “My Daughter the Terrorist.” The film was hard to make, in the closest possible distance, looking at the life and training of volunteer female soldiers, their emotional journey and the mission of the guerillas. The two female soldiers Dharsika and Puhalchudar describe their childhood in the war, their reasons for joining the army, their loyalty to the organization, their fearlessness towards death, and their comrade friendship. At the same time, how does Dharsika’s mother face the broken home and family, and the pain of not knowing whether her daughter will survive or not? In the film, we also see that the “terrorist” is just a daughter to a mother; the violence and hatred that circulate endlessly in the society is the real terror.
Writing with Poems, Searching with Poems.
Mahaleo is a famous band in Madagascar, the meaning of the name is freedom and independence. The band started as a group of students, but their music encouraged the people in the fight for independence in the anti-colonization movement. Although the country has declared independence, their songs lived on to become legends. Thirty years later, are these people still well? Other than continuing to sing and let their lyrics touch on social issues such as the environment and poverty, the seven members continue to work hard in different aspects of the society. One practices medicine, one is in politics, one is a scholar, one is helping to develop the villages, and one has returned to the land to speak for the farmers. “Mahaleo” is a film about a band that is going to hold a thirty year anniversary concert. Through the eyes of the seven members, we see the social changes and challenges in the thirty years since the independence of Madagascar. The revolution is not yet successful, we still have to work hard. One of the directors, Cesar Paes, screened his film “Madagascar Islands Legend” at the first International Ethnographic Film Festival. It shows the traditional culture of Madagascar in a poetic style. This time, he collaborates with Madagascar director Raymond Rajaonarivelo. The film uses the music of the Mahaleo band which brings together musical elements from the Madagascar highlands, Africa, and Austronesia, with the socially reflective lyrics as the voice over. It successfully portrays Madagascar in a poetic form.
Another island full of poems and music is Cuba. “Two Homelands, Cuba and the Night”, is inspired by the works of a famous gay Cuban artist, Reinaldo Arenas, and connects five gay men and one transsexual, thus showing several images of homosexuals in Havana. Through Arenas’ old gay men and middle-aged revolutionaries, a macho photographer, drag queens, and young men who hand around in gay bars, we see that other than political freedom, the freedom that the Cuban society is searching for is also sexual orientation and freedom to express oneself. Reinaldo Arenas was full of talent. But because he was publicly known to by gay, he was imprisoned in the 70’s. He escaped to the US and committed suicide. His autobiography “Before Night Falls” was made in to a film. He is full of words searching for freedom and love, which is the same as what the Cuban gay community was looking for in that era: they swung between two homes, Cuba and the Night.
Besides the search for freedom and equality, there is also the search for family love. “Chichester’s Choice” is about the director’s search for her father. The search starts in Canada and ends in Brazil. She is looking for the father who abandoned her at the age of six. She then finds out that he has become a bum on the streets of Brazil. The director knows that this journey is not just a search for her father, but a search for herself. However, the process touches on too many unhappy memories, alcoholism, unfaithful, incest, mother daughter conflict, the ups and downs in this journey and the truth prove hard to face and to grasp.
From children to the elderly, across islands to highlands, across differences in sex and sexual orientation, these films depict very unique individuals, their hardships and choices, their sadness, happiness and courage. In their particular political and cultural contexts, it is the story of their hard work. Looking at the modern world through New Vision, what people care about and their unsolved issues are not new. Human beings continue to ponder and struggle individually and in groups the questions of traditional culture, how to face the state, ethnicity, religion, and the spirit of capitalism, and the oppression and inequality they create.