Review: Forward

Hu Tai-li
President of TIEFF, Research Fellow of Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica

As ethnographic film festivals are becoming increasingly popular worldwide, Taiwan has joined this trend with the premier International Ethnographic Film Festival, the first of its kind in Taiwan and Asia. For years I have been bringing self produced ethnographic film documentaries to international ethnographic film festivals in Europe and North America. A hope has been growing inside of me to arrange an international ethnographic film festival in Taiwan. Finally, with the birth of Taiwan Ethnographic Film Association last year, my hope is being realized with the first Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival from September 21st to 25th, 2001, in the Center of Academic Activities, Academia Sinica. This east Taipei venue in Nankang is located near the mountains, an environmental niche with white egrets, rice fields, and water lilies. Since ethnographic film has its roots in the lives of people placed in mountains and along coasts, in cities and villages, the ideal location for showing these films here includes mountains and water, with space to breathe, walk and contemplate.

The first Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival, starting its journey from the beautiful island of Taiwan with its theme: “Island Odyssey 2001.” On one hand, we have sent out invitations film submissions both domestically and internationally, setting out on a worldwide odyssey. At the same time, we have been actively planning the special “Retrospective” and “Orchid Island in Focus” themes, as well as exploring the “New World” outside of island films. The films accepted by the festival primarily represent ocean islands. The islands portrayed are distributed throughout the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic belonging to the continents of Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. These films portray the vivid and captivating tales of island cultures, legends, and the sea.

The Pacific islands represent our closest brothers and sisters, and for the “Retrospective” theme, we have selected works representative of three periods in the history of Pacific ethnographic filmmaking. The most dazzling work of the first period is Moana: A Romance of the Golden Age, filmed on the Samoa Islands in 1926 by the master of motion picture documentaries, Robert Flaherty. Displaying feelings of both romance and determination, it follows his Nanook of the North as yet another film of historic ethnographic character. For the second period, we have selected a work by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, filmed in Bali and New Guinea from the 1930s to the 1950s. The films explore the character of the cultures through the camera lens by looking at child development (Kaba First Years, Childhood Rivalry in Bali and New Guinea) and rites and dances of spiritual possession (Trance and Dance in Bali). For the third period we have a presentation of the outstanding Australian documentary director and photographer Dennis O’Rourke who has from 1975 onwards concentrated on filming the Pacific islands, documenting the transformation in New Guinea and other islands after colonization. We are very honored to have been able to invite Mr. O’Rourke to Taiwan to participate in this festival and introduce three of his films. The festival opens with O’Rourke Cannibal Tours, a humorous and satirical comparison of past cannibal traditions of Papua New Guinea with the “modern tourist cannibal culture.” The Sharkcallers of Kontu and Half Life: A Parable for the Nuclear Age are two other films deeply concerned over the meeting of islanders and foreign cultures, showing the invasion of aborigines culture and their right of existence.

Apart from the island of Taiwan, Orchid Island is the island with its own culture that has received the most attention. The island has been the location of the largest number of ethnographic documentaries over the past hundred years. We have therefore created a special “Orchid Island” theme for this festival. From my Voices of Orchid Island made in 1993, to Huang Chi-mao’s Dishes of an Afternoon Meal, Lin Jian-Hsiang’s Rayon, Kuo Chen-ti’s Libangbang: Ching-wen’s Not Home, and the just finished And Deliver Us From Evil (the film closing the festival) by Si-Manirei, a nurse on the island, we are able to observe important cultural transformations. Documentary filmmakers are continuously expanding their work on Orchid Island, allowing the island Tao tribe to communicate through the camera in dialogue with people off the island. The meeting between the traditional concepts of Orchid Island Tao and modern civilization has created contradictions and struggles, joys, and tragedies. The happiest development over the last few years is that the people on Orchid Island themselves have learnt to pick up the camera and start documenting their own lives. The first work by Si-Manirei brings us close to the people of the island and to their lives. On the one hand, she wants her filmmaking to help her start up home care activities for the elderly, but also she worried that the “truth” shown in the documentary will hurt the tribe.

After completing the domestic and international island odyssey, we will leave the single island concept to a comparative outlook for a sensitive and deeper understanding of the characteristics and problems of island cultures. When I made Voices of Orchid Island, for example, I had not seen Dennis O’Rourke’s films, but by coincidence I documented a similar phenomena. Black Harvest, directed by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, The Last Chieftain by Lee Daw-ming along with Sakuliu Pavavalung of the Paiwan tribe depicted in the film, and You Can’t Live With Your Mouth Shut by Joao Nicolauare all moving and rich portrayals of tribal political, economic, and religious transitions. We can also compare Karen Kramer’s Children of Shadows with Tseng Wen-chen’s After the Championship to understand what it is like to grow up on an island; Robert Flaherty’s Moana, and Heather Croall’s Paradise Bent are both brilliant documentaries of the Samoa Islands. If we look at Aryo Danusiri’s The Poet of Linge Homeland, Cesar Paes’s Angano Angano…Tales from Madagascar, Yu Kan-ping’s Theater in the Palm of Your Hand–Glove Puppetry in Taiwan, and Rolf Husmann & Petra Engelhardt’s Lucha Canaria–Sport and Identity in the Canary Islands together, we can enter the history and spirit of the island through poetry and songs, legends, theatre and sports. Oyvind Sandberg’s Elmer and the Flower Boat and Mort Ransen’s The Money, The Money, The Money: The Battle for Saltspring in different ways express the love and care for the island environment. These films are interesting if seen alone, but if comparisons are made, they will provide another experience. We hope to excite even more sparks through this island odyssey.

The “New Vision” section consists of some outstanding ethnographic films outside of the main island theme completed over the last few years. During the process of selecting the films for the festival, we were all deeply moved by the rich content and special cultural expression in these films. Jidan & Shaqing’s The Elders, for example, and Metje Postma’s Of Men and Mares are both very simple and profound, showing the continuity of life and tradition amidst calm and quiet. In the film The Land of the Wandering Souls by Rithy Panh we hear the breathing and cries of working laborers. In the film A Documentary on Three Mosuo Women by Chou Wah-shan we feel the confidence and talent of Mosuo women; in The Laughing Club of India by Mira Nair we explore the ways to a satisfying and happy life. Jill Daniel’s Next Year in Lerin and Dong Cheng-liang’s The Second Spring of the Strait from the “Island” section both uncover the ruthlessness of war and the innocence of ordinary people. A film made in India entitled Kusum by Jouko Aaltonen could be shown together with the Taiwanese film She Sometimes A God by Ciang Mei-ju to reveal spiritual possession in different cultures

Beginning on September 21st, the second anniversary of a devastating earthquake in Taiwan, the festival brings back memories of that disastrous event. How have the sons and daughters of Taiwan created a new life after this great disaster? Tsao Wen-chieh represents us all in Taiwan by offering her deep grief and prayer in her touching Heavenly Peace in a Small Town.

(Translated by Perry Svensson)

Full Post

Review: Of Nightmares, Odysseys and Miracles: A Review of the First “Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival”, 21-25 September, 2001

Rolf Husmann and Jill Daniels

Imagine you’re organising a large international conference or festival, which you have worked hard on, investing a lot of time and money; three days before its due to start a typhoon hits your city, knocking out the underground, flooding your conference hall and cutting the electricity off in the hotels where your guests are supposed to stay. This was the situation which Hu Tai-li, founder and director of the First Taiwan Ethnographic Film Festival faced, when the city of Taipei was hit by disaster on 18 September. It was little short of a miracle that the Opening Ceremony took place, as scheduled, on the evening of 21 September 2001. Hu Tai-li and her small team of organisers, working round the clock, reorganised everything and with a great stroke of luck found a cinema in the heart of the city. (This meant more people came to the screenings).

This was the dramatic start of a new festival, to be added to the regular schedule of ethnographic film festivals. True, there are well-established events like “Bilan” in Paris, the “Ethno Filmtage” in Freiburg, NAFA meetings in Scandinavia or the RAI Film Festival in Britain, and there are Gottingen, Nuoro, and Sibiu which ring a bell in anthropologist-filmmakers’ ears, but now there’s a new one. Like most of the others, the Taiwanese festival serves the local scene of visually interested anthropologists, filmmakers and students as well as attracting ethnographic filmmakers world-wide.

The Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival will be held biannually, complementing the “Taiwan International Documentary Festival” also held biannually. It uses a wide definition for the term “ethnographic”. This was reflected in the variety of films shown in Taipei ranging from Margaret Mead’s Balinese films from the 1940s and Bob Connolly/Robin Anderson’s modern classic BLACK HARVEST“ to Metje Postma’s recent homage to Dutch horse-breeders “OF MEN AND MARES and new Taiwanese films such as the beautiful LIBANGBANG by Kuo Chen-Ti.

An important step in the realisation of this event was the foundation, in 2000, of the “Taiwan Association for Visual Ethnography” (TAVE), in which, amongst others, all three professors of anthropology teaching visual anthropology in Taiwan, namely Hu Tai-li, Lin Wen-ling and David Blundell, are involved. TAVE was established not only to support the new film festival, but also to take initiatives in the field of ethnographic film in Taiwan. A similar institution in the People’s Republic of China, called CAVA, was founded in 1995 after a “First International Conference in Visual Anthropology”, but soon lost its initial enthusiasm and has seen a varying degree of activity since. We hope, particularly from the perspective of the Chairman of the Commission on Visual Anthropology of IUAES (from which one of the reviewers writes) that such institutional frameworks as TAVE will have a lasting active life, and that similar associations be established in more countries.

TIEFF is aimed to cover a wide range of regions and topics, but will also focus on a few selected special fields and filmmakers. It has a theme, this year’s was “Island Odyssey”, but intends to complement the theme with retrospectives and important new work reflecting the subjects and concerns of international ethnographic filmmakers working today. The screening sessions were a successful mix of films both national and international, bringing together films and filmmakers from Taiwan and from the outside world. This is a recipe tried elsewhere, and it works well. In Taipei, the selection of films had a deliberate slant on films from the Pacific area, a rare thing compared with similar events, in which all too often Australian, and Pacific islands films are under-represented.

The different sections of the programme were not screened separately, but interweaved around themes and countries; there was a “Retrospective” devoted to Flaherty’s “Moana” and three films of Margaret Mead; the main festival theme “Island Odyssey” (with both an international and a national section), with special focus on films about Orchid Island off Taiwan’s south-eastern coast; a section called “New Vision”, which selected single films from a wide range of countries; and finally three films by the special guest, Australian documentary filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke.

Little needs to said here about Mead’s films or “Moana”, they are well known and there was no discussion after the screening. Where filmmakers or producers were present, “Q&A sessions” followed films. Most of the filmmakers were present, and with help of translators, there were short discussions. A downside of the typhoon was that the cinema did not have a meeting place where discussions could continue after screenings. A packed timetable of films also made discussion time short and didn’t help people to meet each other. Formal Q&A sessions always tend to scratch the surface of a film. They are useful to show the audience who the filmmaker is, they are usually pretty arbitrary in content. Most fascinating are the anecdotes by the filmmakers about how their film was conceived, what strange or funny coincidences happened along the way. Audience questions tend to concentrate on content and explanation. Deeper anthropological issues, and filmic ideas around style or methodology tend to be neglected. But in spite of this shortcoming, the presence of a filmmaker at a festival is always an excellent chance to get to know more about the film than just watching it on TV or in a classroom.

What has been said about filmmakers’ anecdotes, certainly holds true for the talks given by Dennis O’Rourke, whose three masterpieces THE SHARKCALLERS OF KONTU, HALF LIFE and CANNIBAL TOURS not only attracted the largest crowds, but were also supplemented by O’Rourke’s revealing and humorous replies.

Of more interest for this review are the recent films, both international and Taiwanese. In the “New Vision” section, seven films were selected on a variety of topics, countries and different styles. Included were, THE LAND OF THE WANDERING SOULS by Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, a portrait of poor and cheated day-labourers in Cambodia , the ethnographically most interesting film A DOCUMENTARY ON THREE MOSUO WOMEN in South-Western China by Chou Wah-shan, and the film on healing of a psychically ill girl called KUSUM in India, presented by Finnish filmmaker Jouko Aaltonen.

The main topic of the festival was the island theme. “Island Odyssey”, which was divided into a domestic section covering six films from and about Taiwan, and an international section containing nine films. Of these PARADISE BENT by Australian filmmaker Heather Croall was probably the most talked about. Produced in 1999 and dealing with the Samoan fa’afafine, boys raised and living as girls, this film has been shown in many documentary festivals; the highly ethnographic topic of gender roles and sexual identity in Samoan society is an excellent example of how a particular culture can see behaviour as perfectly acceptable, which almost everywhere else is seen as abnormal.

Other films in this section of the festival included the beautifully photographed 1989 film by Brazilian filmmaker Cesar Paes on oral tradition in Madagascar: ANGANO ANGANO – TALES OF MADAGASCAR; a portrait of a Sumatran leader who is “THE POET OF LINGE HOMELAND (ACEH) by the young Indonesian filmmaker Aryo Danusiri, and ELMER AND THE FLOWER BOAT” by Oyvind Sandberg about a man in southern Norway who lives alone and spends every summer on the tiny island where he grew up, growing flowers, which he sells by travelling up and down the fjord delivering them to people who seem to have known and loved him for ages. This film, although not dealing with an ethnographic topic in the strict sense, entices the viewer by its wonderful slow rhythm and narration matching the life rhythm of Elmer. CHILDREN OF SHADOWS by American filmmaker Karen Kramer, is set in Haiti, where poor families are forced to give their young children to other families as unpaid servants. Told by the children themselves, as well as their ‘aunts’, the film paints a shocking portrait of a society where the poor exploit the destitute.

The domestic section of the “Islands Odyssey” was proof of the activities of young Taiwanese filmmakers. Most of them were social documentaries rather than films with an ethnographic topic in the strict sense, e.g. on the aftermath of the huge earthquake shaking Taiwan in 1999 or the feelings and aspirations of young Taiwanese baseballers who had won the youth world title. Although made in a curious mix of modern TV-style and sound story-telling, the almost two hour-long film by Yu Kan-Ping on the Taiwanese Hand-Glove Puppetry, a very old tradition which until this very day has lost nothing of its popularity in Taiwan won great attention by the audience. THEATER IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND falls into two parts, the first one an almost propagandist history of the puppet theatre as part of Taiwanese history in general, the second a much more lively portrait of several outstanding artists. The latest development is the incredibly vivid transformation of the puppet theatre from a local presentation to the TV world. Rather than being turned into a fully animated film series, characters have remained hand-glove puppets and have become TV action stars in Taiwan – an amazing way, and an economically very successful one, to uphold an ancient theatre tradition.

Of films devoted to Orchard Island CHING-WEN’S NOT HOME by Kuo Chen-Ti is a moving and thought provoking film which demonstrates how less can be more. Only 30 minutes long, the film tells the story of Ching-Wen who intends to build his family a house. To do this he must go to Taipei to earn money. Each of his family tells their feelings about who Ching-Wen is and through our imagination we build a picture of the largely unseen Ching-Wen and his importance to the family, both emotionally and economically. The film successfully reveals the interrelationship between the subject, filmmaker and viewer in a way many of the other films in the festival, with their emphasis on long takes of activities by the subjects did not.

As with similar reports of such events, only a fraction of the films shown can be reviewed here. Those mentioned, however, give quite a good impression of the diversity and quality of films presented at this first festival of its kind. The organisers are confident that, in 2003, the next one will follow. Let’s hope for it, and for similar – or even more – success. After all, there will not always be a typhoon!

To find out more about the programme or the future activities, either contact professor Hu Tai-li in Taipei under [email protected] or else try the festival website:

Full Post

Review: Moana

Moana : A Romance of the Golden Age — The Love-Hate Relationship between Robert Flaherty, Hollywood, and Samoa

Wang, Yae-Wei

Planning Department Manager, Public Television Service Foundation

Robert Flaherty’s classic Nanook of the North received enthusiastic reviews and huge box office success at Metropolitan Theater in New York in June 1923, and the film then went on to do very well nationwide and overseas propelling the previously unknown Flaherty to instant stardom in the movie industry. Nine months later Paramount Pictures Corporation approached Flaherty with an enticing offer to “Go off somewhere and make another Nanook. Go where you will, do what you like. We’ll foot the bills. The world’s your oyster.”Being tapped by a major Hollywood studio confirmed Flaherty’s unique technical prowess and box office appeal. It was virtually impossible to refuse such a generous offer. The only question was where to film.

Given the suddenness of the offer, Flaherty had not thought at all about where to make his next film, but his natural impulse was to do the same thing he had done in Nanook of the North-a film richly showing an indigenous way of life that was being threatened by the encroachment of outside culture. After discussing the matter with friends, Flaherty decided on Samoa. He was especially excited because a camera equipment company pledged to provide newly developed cameras, telephoto lenses, and films for his experimentation.

In May 1923, Flaherty departed for Samoa with his wife Frances, their three children, his younger brother David, and the family’s nursemaid. Their final destination was a village called Safune. The setting was idyllic-a beautiful island, moderate weather, and an ample food supply that only required gathering. The environment stood in complete contrast with the frozen north where the Inuit lived on the edge of starvation and ate the raw flesh of their caught prey. In Samoa, survival was never in doubt, and even the act of food gathering involved a good deal of frolicking. Flaherty immediately realized the challenge he faced. With his previous film, all he had to do was record the struggle of the Inuit for survival in an unforgiving environment. The story told itself. In contrast, the paradise of Samoa offered no similarly moving experience. And Flaherty’s own background threw up an even more fundamental stumbling block. When he filmed Nanook of the North, he was working in that arctic region already nearly 20 years. He was very knowledgeable about the Eskimo way of life, and had developed a special feeling for the people after having spent so much time with them over the years. With his second film, however, he knew very little at all about the South Pacific peoples, and because he was now being bankrolled by a motion picture studio, he was under deadline pressure that left him with less time than he really needed for the task at hand. He was required to finish filming in one or two years, all the while taking into account the prospects for box office success.

After a few months in Safune, Flaherty proposed a romantic story for a film entitled Moana based on traditional lifestyles that no longer existed in Samoa. The film’s subtitle-A Romance of the Golden Age-hinted at Flaherty’s purpose. Samoan traditions had already by that time undergone significant change due to the influence of British colonial rule and the Christian missionaries among the islanders. Some aspects of Samoan tradition had already vanished, but Flaherty resurrected them in order to spin an entertaining tale.

From the local villages Flaherty recruited six people to act as a family living out a traditional lifestyle. The main character was a young man named Moana who was preparing to go through his coming-of-age ceremony. The characters in the story were his older brother Leupenga, his younger brother P’ea, his mother Tu’angaita, his bride-to-be Fa’angase, and a tufunga (tattoo expert). One aspect of the film depicts a “happy-go-lucky” people living in a land of plenty. The other focus is the application of a tattoo to young Moana in his coming-of-age ceremony. The early part of the film shows the gathering of items that will be needed for Moana’s coming-of-age ceremony. His family members are seen collecting taro root, banana, mulberry bark, and coconut. They also catch fish and a wild boar. The middle part of the film shows traditional Samoan methods of cloth making, cooking, and various other exotic looking vignettes. In the final two scenes we see flirting between Moana and his bride-to-be, the beautiful dances by the two, and the highlight of the film-the application of the tattoo.

In reality by the 1920s the tattoo culture was already past heritage in Samoa. Flaherty had to pay young Moana a considerable sum to get him to undergo the painful ritual. It took six weeks to film the tattoo ceremony because young Moana had a hard time putting on the brave expression that Flaherty was looking for. The filming progressed only a bit at a time.

As Flaherty was busy spinning his romantic tale, the people of Samoa were groaning under the pressure of British colonial masters and Christian missionaries seeking to do away with their traditional culture. At the time the islanders were prohibited from dressing in their traditional attire including their hairstyles. Witchcraft rituals were naturally not encouraged, and animism was replaced by a transplanted monotheistic belief in Christianity. Flaherty still continued with his original agenda even after many months on the island, choosing to ignore the social problems swirling all around him. According to Flaherty’s methods, he paid the villagers who took part in the making of his film, then asked them to depart radically from the pattern of their daily lives in order to fit into his story.

Richard M. Marsam, a historian of documentaries, stated critically “There might seem to be no big harm in doing something like that, but it is symptomatic of a deep-seated indifference to social, psychological, and economic realities, as if one need not be at all concerned about other people’s problems.” Another authority on documentaries, William T. Murphy, points out “Flaherty didn’t realize that even though a primitive society may seem quite simple at first glance, its complexity and rituals reflect needs and anxieties that are just as acute as those seen today in any modern civilization.” From today’s perspective it seems clear that Flaherty, having agreed to cooperate with a major Hollywood studio, had little choice but to adopt the methods that he chose. Operating under time and box office pressure, Flaherty could only operate within the confines of the romanticism with which he was familiar in order to create a fictional protagonist, and to use this figure’s ordeal as a means of creating a transcendent message of universal resonance, one that people throughout the world could sympathize with and understand. But Flaherty ignored the real nature of the personal and social interactions in Samoa and chose to simplify their complex relationships with their culture and the surrounding environment. Flaherty attempted to bend reality to fit his story. He rejected anthropological and scientific techniques of observation and verification, and reveled instead in his own subjectivity and his ad-lib style of filmmaking. He went to great lengths to create a “noble savage” image of life in Samoa. The results did not hold up to scrutiny, thus it detracts from the value of the film.

As a pioneer of the documentary genre, however, we should see Flaherty indeed as a product of the time in which he lived. And, if someone objects to the limitations thereof, after all, when documentary motion picture director John Grierson coined the term “documentary,” he did so after viewing Moana. The aesthetics, ethics, and theory of documentary filmmaking have gradually developed since then. It was only after the anthropologist Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa two years later that people began developing ideas about the significance of scholarly principles in discerning a culture as a guide the making of ethnographic documentaries. Flaherty was the one who did the initial spade work.

Full Post