Review: “Island Odyssey” International Selections-A Brief Introduction

Yu, Jane H. C.

(film critic)

The scope of the 9 films selected for the “Island Odyssey” International Selections program span islands across the globe: New Guinea, Samoa, Sumatra, Madagascar, the Canary Islands, Haiti of Hispaniola, Canada’s Saltspring Island, a Norwegian isle, and the Cape Verde Islands. The material covered is expansive as each film has its own unique theme and serves as a model ethnographic film introducing other cultures.

You Can’t Live With Your Mouth Shut deals with a “butt-shaking ritual” from the Cape Verde Islands. Lucha Canaria-Sport and Identity in the Canary Islands introduces local wrestling. The Poet of Linge Homeland shows us a people of Sumatra moaning chant rituals. The program also displays some works that do not correspond to most viewers’ expectations of ethnographic film. In particular, Elmer and the Flower Boat takes the life of a Norwegian flower farmer and offers a personal sketch of his life while dealing with broader issues of social responsibility all at once. Ah… The Money, The Money, The Money: The Battle for Saltspring describes the long war of resistance that Canada’s Saltspring Island residents have sustained in fighting against capitalists and politicians over forest preservation. Children of Shadows tells of the phenomena of children coming from poor families being sold by their parents to more affluent families who raise them and use them as long-term laborers.

There are some excellent works in this program that deserve to be properly introduced. The film Paradise Bent produced by Australian female director, Heather Croall, has not only secured a measure of significance in the world of ethnographic film but must also be important as an example of research into sexual identity. The work treats as its subject a gender type besides that of male or female generally accepted in Samoan society: fa’afafines are born biologically male, but recognized as female. Croall begins speaking from her own “discovery” in Samoa of this unique gender type. She then goes on to introduce several cases through interviews that allow the viewer to form a special understanding of fa’afafines. Subjects ranging from their normal dress as females and work at home, their emotional affiliations (as they see themselves as female, see each other as sisters, and find male partners, but don’t see themselves as homosexual). Their position in society, and at home, and the dilemma between this custom and foreign cultures (including the drag shows that have been popular recently and the prejudices of heterosexuals towards transvestites…) are presented in the film. Many questions are raised that reach beyond what we learn from the film that may me investigated later when more people continue to focus on this topic. The film also raises the way that past research on Samoa almost totally overlooked the existence of fa’afafines and creates a strong feeling for the blind spots that exist between different ages and societies. It would useful to compare this film with other ethnographic films investigating Samoan society such as Robert Flaherty’s Moana: A Romance of the Golden Age. Also take into account the research written by Margaret Mead on Samoan society as comparative reading.

A film by French director Cesar Paes is a beautiful and moving work entitled Angano Angano… Tales of Madagascar, completed in 1989, is a film that successfully represents the importance of oral history in cultural dissemination. In this island’s history and the living wisdom of society continues to be passed down through the generations by legends, chants, and myths recanted by elders. The film employs interviews with elders and their spoken performances. It starts with the legend of the genesis of Madagascar. It continues by using the elders’ words to tell of individual lives; and the beliefs connected with their ceremonial activities. The film elegantly expresses the intimacy and interdependence of daily life with myth and legend in Madagascar.

Children of Shadows, by veteran American ethnographic filmmaker Karen Kramer, reveals the phenomenon of a house slave trade in Haiti. If some rural farming people are unable to take care of them themselves, they could sell their children to more economically advantaged households. This could happen when the child is about the age of ten. Usually these advantaged households are in the city and the task of the children is doing housework. The subject of this film is reminiscent to the traditional Chinese system of field laborers or the Taiwanese custom of raising future daughter-in-laws in the household as institutional serfdom-a social of societies where the distribution of wealth is terribly unequal. The director seeks to bring forth the perspectives of the people involved through interviews with the traded children, family members receiving them, and the parents of those children sold to avoid leaving the viewer with a one-sided opinion on justice.

This program still holds another film that shouldn’t be missed: Black Harvest. It describes the highly dramatic life of Joe Leahy, the son of a Papua New Guinean and a Caucasian. He lives as a highland coffee plantation owner. Due to the global coffee market trend, his coffee business is not earning as anticipated. The plantation workers both seek to negotiate better pay and courageously enter in other tribe’s battles. The film shows how the tribesmen take up spears to fight in the highlands. The injured are treated by traditional healing arts much the same as it was for their ancestors, centuries ago. The leaders among the employees of the plantation continue to work without stop but haggle with Lai-qiao over the rights and interests of labor and capitalist market system. Old and new value systems are juxtaposed bearing out absurd results revealed in the story of a man existing between two very different cultures.

Apart from the film The Poet of Linge Homeland Western directors coming from the deep tradition of ethnographic filmmaking made the other ethnographic films dealing with the islands outside of Europe and America. This bears out the dominating presence of Western society’s history of anthropological study and ethnographic filmmaking. Yet, it is interesting in this regard that among the Taiwan domestic filmmakers of the “Island Odyssey” selection, motion pictures by outsiders and self-filmed ethnographic works are represented. A film shot by Orchid Island’s own people closes the festival showing the importance of the direction coming from self-produced ethnographic films. At the first Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival, the problems in making ethnographic documentary films vis-a-vis their position and outlook will be explored. These films demonstrate the very different sorts of themes and materials presented to help general audiences break free of the narrow view many have of ethnographic film and give broader meaning to the genre.

(Translated by Peter Vlach)


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Review: Island Odyssey - Domestic

Wang Weitsy

(lecturer, Department of Mass Communication, Tam Kang University)

It is a challenging task involved with a lot of thinking when choosing six films to review true to the spirit of ethnographic documentaries as well as to the main theme – Island Odyssey – from 62 visual ethnographic works. From fieldwork through filming, to post-production, the making of an ethnographic documentary strongly emphasizes participation and observation in the hope of creating an emic commentary to the people, and ” for, by, and with” incidents or things being visually documented. The maker of the documentary will hopefully also be able to take up a vantage point above the subject being documented, and based on in-depth observation, exploration and research discard what is unimportant and select the essential; to move from the superficial, and comment on the subject according to his, or her, own opinion. Regardless of whether a maker of documentaries or an anthropologist, the subject being documented has to be understood according to these points of view. A particular function of ethnographic documentaries is the responsibility to explain a culture, to members of another culture. Based on these criteria, we have chosen a multitude of topics such as indigenous peoples, earthquake disasters, cross-strait marriages, misled youths, and the history of glove puppetry tradition in Taiwan.

In remembrance of how the people of Taiwan lived through the hardships of the earthquake disaster on September 21st, 1999, Tsao Wen-chieh has documented the disaster-struck local people in the central Taiwan county of Nantou in the film Heavenly Peace in a Small Town, illustrating the courageous facing the great difficulties of life and death. Even though this documentary, made for Taiwan’s Public Television Service (PTS), follows a standardized pattern, it deals with the tenacity of the disaster-struck people. Dong Chen-liang’s The Second Spring of The Strait documents a married couple, where the woman is a widow from Xiamen in China and the man a widower in Kinmen, Taiwan. In 2000, these two middle-aged people, having lived through the flames of war, stand in front of the 8/28 (August 28th, 1958) Artillery War Victory Monument arguing over the war as they remember it, over which side really suffered the more tragic loss. Separating politics and history, this film brings attention to the hopes and future of people with family and relations on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The Last Chieftain, a film made in cooperation with documentary specialists and Sakuliu Pavavalung, a Paiwan sculptor and artist, has been three years in the making. Entering the Shantimen Township in Pingtung county, the film is made in the spirit of ethnographic documentaries: filming its subjects for an extended period of time. It displays an accurate understanding of the conflict between traditional Paiwan culture and the larger society foreign to it. It genuinely documents the contradictions between old and new in Paiwan society. Factors such as religious beliefs and changes in political structure, differences in economic status, and the fading status of the chieftain vis-a-vis the common people have made the tribe become ripe for polarization and crises. This is a work researched by documentary filmmakers and anthropologists to help us gain a deeper understanding of modern Paiwan society.

After the Championship, a story of growing up, tells of three indigenous Peinan members of the Taiwanese youth baseball team that won the 1998 world championships and their return home to Taitung and middle high school studies. From a life of never-ending baseball practice we get to see the confusion and ignorance of the three youngsters regarding their futures. Their individual life goals are sacrificed while their families and coach as strive for the interests of community and nation. In relaxed daily-life interviews, the boys show the frustration and pressure brought by their reality, thus forcing the viewer to consider what meaning there is to their lives. These boys have sacrificed their youth in the pursuit of the illusory world championship title, they have suffered torment of body and soul. The film pursues with detail and a sense of purpose, and lets us see the real picture hidden behind the baseball youth wonders when they have shed their glorious uniforms. It truthfully shows the indigenous dream of achieving fame in one stroke through sports and competition: as in the elegy remembered by Hong Yeh changing with time, but is constantly heard, in a low voice.

Theatre in the Palm of Your Hand – Glove Puppetry in Taiwan is a film made for the Government Information Office (GIO) by filmmaker Yu Kan-ping, who has also been paying close attention to indigenous video documentaries over the past ten years. Yu has spent three years attempting to illustrate the relentless vitality of the Taiwanese people via the flow of changes and styles over the past several hundred years of glove puppetry. Even during the Japanese period and under martial law in Taiwan, the vitality of glove puppetry made it a developing art form in response to political suppression creating a lebensraum. Masters and scholars base the film on oral historical accounts. Developing from classical Lung-ti theatre, through Pei-kuan glove puppetry, Huangminhua glove puppetry, Fangung-kang’o glove puppetry, Chin-kuang glove puppetry, TV glove puppetry and Pili glove puppetry, this portable theatre has grown together with the people of Taiwan, through different ages. It’s memory is stretched out like the incense burned for its performance. GIO documentaries are mainly directed at a foreign audience. Therefore, an emphasis comes to bear on the folk culture, and a search for an appealing imagery.

She is Sometimes a God a film by Chiang Mei-ju who studied at the Graduate Institute of Sound and Image at the Tainan National College of the Arts is only 36 minutes long. It documents a shaman of the pingpu people (plains indigenous tribes) in Kuantian Township in Tainan County, believing in the Ali Ancestor. A 35-year old ordinary-looking woman, it is very difficult to believe that she took up the life of mislead youth at an early age. She stands among a group of men, holding a pingpu ceremony. She believes that the Ali Ancestor resides in her body by chanting and working magic is the way she makes a living. She has given her life to the god that will use her body for his words. How does someone of her destiny come to walk this road? What does she really think after she has shed her make-up? What was her original life like? Without hesitation, the maker of the documentary displays all her confusions and curiosities before the audience.

I hope that the choice of these films made by three female and three male directors will succeed in displaying the special characteristics of life and cultures in Taiwan. The cultural phenomena of a nation or a regional culture and the society, history and special cultural traditions it relies on for its existence are inseparable. Even though these six films have their shortcomings, they display the behaviour and particular concepts of the people of a region in a delicate manner. If these valuable subjects are not rapidly documented, we will soon be loosing valuable first hand sources of information. Concepts, techniques and ethics of Taiwanese ethnographic film making all need more practice and study. I hope that this 1st Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival will initiate more discussion and reflection, and set a new milestone.

(Translated by from Perry Svensson)

(Edited by David Blundell)

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Review: Introduction: Looking Beyond Prejudice to a New Vision

Wen, Tien-Hsiang

(Film Critic)

This year’s first-ever Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival (TIEFF) features classic and new works of ethnographic filmmaking from Taiwan and beyond. Although this year’s theme is “2001 Island Odyssey,” TIEFF’s New Visions program will transport audiences to more continental destinations with its program of uniquely expressive films on Tibet, Cambodia, India, Holland, Macedonia and China’s Yunan Province.

The first of these New Visions is The Elders, a film by documentary filmmakers Ji Dan and Sha Qing. Fans of the documentary form should be familiar with the work of Ji and Sha, who have been living in and filming the Tibetan village of Rikaze since 1994. While the two filmmakers completed work on The Elders in the same year that they finished Gong Bu’s Happy Life (shown at the 2000 Taipei International Documentary Film Festival), The Elders at first appears to be a less focused work. In it, Ji and Sha introduce us to a group of elderly Tibetan Buddhists, but offer us no subtitles or narration to explain either these people or their activities. Instead, the film follows them at their own leisurely pace, recording them as they walk, work, chat, hold gatherings and chant sutras. We are thus startled when we realize that these seniors are driving the reconstruction of a temple destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. The filmmakers show as that though their subjects are old in body, they remain very capable and are a powerful force for stability within their community. Seeing a group of old women console a young lama with their chattering, viewers cannot help but think that perhaps it is just this simple and deep faith that allows Tibetans to endure in spite of the enormous political and religious pressures to which they are subject.

Ancient traditions live on not just in the “mysterious East” of the Western imagination. Men and Mares shows us that there is more to the Netherlands than windmills, tulips and wooden shoes. In the province of Zeeland, a few farmers continue the tradition of using draft horses to plow their lands. The short, stocky, thick-mane animals are true workhorses, patiently pulling their plows back and forth across the fields. Why have these farmers resisted more modern methods of tilling their land? Each of those interviewed in the film has his own reasons, but all clearly share a love of their horses-the interdependence and mutual understanding of man and beast is apparent in every frame of the film.

When the draft horses appear in the same scene with the tractors of neighboring farms, it makes for a startling contrast. These are most certainly not the purebred racehorses made familiar to audiences by films such as National Velvet and The Black Stallion. While director Metje Postma does show us the horses with their tails braided for shows and holidays, she has not given us a film in which pretty young boys and girls gallop all day through grassy fantasylands on the backs of rampant stallions. Instead, she presents us with the whole cycle of these draft animals’ lives. They mate. They birth foals. They work. They even die. Two scenes late in the film-one depicting a Caesarian section on a mare, the other the brutal final scene in which a horse is put down with a bullet to the head-are shockingly powerful and at last make clear the film’s introductory warning: “Some content may be inappropriate for children.”

The New Visions program also presents us with documentary work by several well-known directors of dramatic films. On such work is Mira Nair’s The Laughing Club of India. Nair’s first film was Salaam Bombay!, a realistic portrait of the lives of India’s street children that was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and won a Golden Camera at Cannes. After directing three films in the US-Mississippi Masala starring Denzel Washington, The Perez Family with Anjelica Huston, and an English-language version of the Indian classic Kama Sutra-Nair returned to India to make The Laughing Club of India, a gem of a short documentary. On the surface, the film consists simply of interviews with a group of people who promote laughter as a path to health and fitness. Club members offer no scientific evidence of the benefits of laughter to their health, but rather reveal how this group activity has provided them with a release from the internal burdens they bear. But Nair’s footage does something more. In it we see members of India’s various castes all coming together every day to practice natural, unrestrained laughter. In this way, Nair reveals that the club members’ pursuit of better health has been far more effective than any social theory or movement at bringing down the barriers created by India’s rigid caste system.

While The Laughing Club of India documents the rise in the popularity of alternative medicine in India in the last few years, Kusum shows us India’s long-held faith in traditional spiritual healing. The film tracks a family’s quest for a cure for their 14-year-old daughter Kusum’s bizarre illness. Kusum is suffering from a number of symptoms-severe hot flashes, fits and screaming nightmares-of unknown origin. During these attacks, she neither eats nor drinks. Although her family sends her to a hospital for evaluation, the doctors can find nothing wrong, and their consolation all too obviously provides the quiet little girl with no relief.

The girl’s father finally decides he has no choice but to take her to a faith healer. This healer, a man possessed by the gods and reminiscent of the dang-gi often seen outside Taiwan’s own temples, appears in several scenes. In his presence, the wide-eyed Kusum whimpers and cries, though it is unclear whether her change of mood is due to the surroundings or the presence of a god. The healer attributes the girl’s illness to evil spirits plaguing the family, presenting the deaths of several members of their extended family as evidence supporting his diagnosis. While Taiwanese audiences will likely find the phenomenon and its explanation familiar, the Finnish director and his crew were clearly shocked. Nonetheless, they manage to create a moving film that catches both the family’s poverty and the strength of their feelings for one another. The audience can’t help but feel the family’s pain-the silent father at a loss as to what to do, the mother agonizing over her child’s future, and Kusum herself, who accepts everything and somehow leaves the impression that she feels guilty for her illness.

Six months later, the film crew returns to Kusum’s home to find her in good health and growing up. Her pretty face lit by frequent smiles, she tells the crew that she is no longer plagued by nightmares. Does the film prove the efficacy of faith healing? Perhaps not. But should the audience focus on this incomplete proof or on the improvement in the life of Kusum’s family? That’s a question those who have been moved by the film must ask themselves.

French director Rithy Panh, born in Cambodia’s capital, Phenom Penh, is another leading international filmmaker whose work is being shown at the TIEFF. Panh, who previously presented his 1994 film Neak sre (“The People of the Rice Field“) at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, became a refugee while still a child when the Khmer Rouge took over his hometown. He spent his youth in a Thai camp before finally arriving in France where he studied film. Critics are fond of referring to Panh as “Cambodia’s Tran Anh Hung,” perhaps because the ethnic-Vietnamese director also grew up in France before achieving international fame. But, in fact, Panh’s style is far removed from Tran’s meticulous formalism.

Prior to filming Neak sre, Panh had made several critically acclaimed documentaries on refugee camps, including Site 2. His most recent work is The Land of the Wandering Souls. Filmed on video in 1999, it chronicles the construction of Southeast Asia’s first fiber-optic cable. Cambodian laborers did most of the digging work for the cable, which passes through Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Some of these laborers were youngsters who had been abandoned by their parents. Still more were adults who brought their entire families, from elderly grandparents to infants, along with them for the duration of the project. The workers’ paltry salaries barely provided for the most meager of existences, yet they were expected to take up a vagabond lifestyle, relocating again and again as the project advanced. Panh tell their story with skill and charm. In one scene, he shows us an elderly woman who is working on the project attempting to trade for rice. The old woman she is attempting to trade with, who herself has nothing, instead gives the rice as a gift. The second woman tells the film crew of her own terrible poverty during Cambodia’s civil war. She says she remembers it as if it were just yesterday, and tells the crew you help others if you can. As she speaks about the past, tears stream down her cheeks. Panh also shows us children catching crabs and weather loach in a muddy pond. But the children are not playing; they are gathering everyone’s lunch. We also discover that even ants go done well with noodles. Panh also makes us appreciate to what extent the shadow of war still lingers over this land and its people, showing us one digger removing an artificial limb, and other diggers’ frequent discoveries of unexploded ordinance. Yet he also shows us a wife and husband who, although they don’t have enough to eat and are too poor to buy shoes or see a doctor, flirt naturally as she washes his hair in a stream. This gift of the strength to carry on makes an appropriate footnote to the film.

Ironically, throughout the film people are constantly trying to explain the wonder of fiber optics to the laborers, telling them that the cable will advance technology and communications to new heights. But what does this mean to workers who have spent seven to eight months away from home and who will, after all their work, go away with empty pockets? Panh seamlessly blends poetry and observation as he interweaves social ills and human dignity. This is a superbly made film with a great deal to say.

Next Year in Lerin, also filmed on videotape, also deals with the shadows of war. Although the film’s structure, which intersperses informative footage with interviews, makes it somewhat two dimensional, it nonetheless presents the audience with a tragic and largely forgotten bit of war history. During the Greek Civil War that followed World War II, a group of ethnic-Macedonian and Greek children were taken away from their parents and sent to live in a Romanian orphanage. When the war ended, the Greek government allowed only the ethnic-Greek children to return. Unable to go back to their villages, the ethnic-Macedonian children were forced to take up residence in other countries. Meanwhile, their villages in Greece were gradually abandoned. Filmed in 1998, Next Year in Lerin documents the 50th reunion of the children expelled from Greece. In interviews with the director, these now gray-haired “children” describe the difficulties and homesickness they experienced in exile. Even now, with the Greek Civil War a distant memory, these ethnic-Macedonian Greeks only dream of returning home. As a tour bus bearing a number of the expatriates back to Greece reaches the Greek border in the final scene (some of the ex-pats had finally secured visas), I was suddenly reminded of Theo Angelopoulus’ films Voyage to Cythera and Ulysses’ Gaze.

Recently, Chou Wah-Shan, previously well known within the Chinese-language movie community for his open homosexuality and his writings on gay issues, did what so many sociologists and other have done-he picked up a camera and made a movie. Like many of the films at this year’s TIEFF, the resulting film, Tisese: A Documentary on Three Mosuo Women, addresses the issue of conflict between foreign and indigenous cultures. In fact, in its general thrust, the film is similar to Paradise Bent (being shown as part of the Island Odyssey-International program), a film that thoroughly explores traditional Samoan views on gender that may seem bizarre to outsiders.

Although Chou reveals unexceptional formal filmmaking skills in Tiese, he does succeed in turning the camera into an objective observer. By allowing three generations of Mosuo women to speak for themselves, Chou, who lived in the remote Mosuo Mountain District for more than a year, makes his points very clearly. On the one hand, he presents China’s only matriarchal society’s views on family and gender, and shines a light on the misunderstood Mosuo “walking marriage.” He shows his audience what a society whose members live their whole lives with their blood relatives and who have a great deal of sexual freedom-fringe behaviors from a mainstream perspective-looks like in practice. At the same time, Chou also addresses the changes being wrought within traditional Mosuo society by foreign cultures and increasing tourism. Although the response to Tisese’s first run at Taiwan’s airports was enthusiastic, few people actually saw the film. Happily, those who missed these earlier screenings will now have a chance to see the film at the TIEFF.

In summing up these seven films, I have no desire to seek out their points of commonality. There is no need. If audience members are moved by even one of these films, then the New Visions program will have achieved its goal of opening our eyes to different perspectives. And isn’t this presentation of other views the very thing that makes documentaries interesting? As I interpret these filmmakers’ interpretations, I can only attempt to explain the effect their diverse efforts have had on me. I sincerely hope that enthusiasm for documentary film events such as the current ethnographic film festival continues to wax stronger in Taiwan.

(Translated by Scott Williams)


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