Review: Mayaw Biho and the Indigenous Image Movement

Wen-ling Lin, Associate Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, National Chiao Tung University

In addition to its spotlight on the American director Victor Masayesva, (a member of the Hopi Tribe) the 2007 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival’s Director in Focus program will also highlight local talent. We are delighted to introduce Mayaw Biho, a documentary director and member of the Amei Tribe, and three of his films, Children in Heaven, Carry the Paramount of Jade Mountain on My Back, and Dear Rice Wine, You are Defeated.

The director was born and raised in the tribal village of Chihlo, in Hualien, from which he departed in order to attend high school. As a college student in Taipei, Mayaw Biho began directing such movies as ’Spring Sun’ is Our Name, As Life, As Pangcah, Children in Heaven, and Gi-Lahatzu. Upon graduation, he became an independent filmmaker, working on Formosa Aboriginal News Magazine, Our Island for the Public Television Service, and Words of Life on Super Television.

Interested in more than just the recording of copious images of aboriginal life, over the years Mayaw Biho has also worked actively in the cultural movement for the advancement of aboriginal social status. His films highlight contemporary politico-ethnic issues, such as the Taiwanese First Nation’s mission for the reclamation of the original aboriginal names for people and places. In addition to promoting the world’s general awareness of them, Biho attempts to arouse the consciousness of the island’s indigenous peoples themselves, and harness their collective power through his image-performances. In 2000, Mayaw Biho helped organize Taiwan’s first festival of tribal film, the Real Pang-cah Amei Film Festival. Then, in 2005, he was an instrumental player in the “Get Our Real Names Back” movement, which included commercial film productions, the distribution of documentaries, the launch of a website, and the “One Hundred People Reclaim Their Aboriginal Names” political action.

In this so-called pluralistic society, just how many diverse voices do we hear, how many different faces do we see?

Mayaw Biho uses this question as a jumping-off point, endeavoring to then directly pipeline the aboriginal experience to the audience, conveying aboriginal identity and belief systems via portrayals of tribal society, economics, and politics. Mayaw Biho’s “image-movement” explores the political potential of aboriginal self-representation, using new media as a tool for advancing the community’s political hopes. He shows how aborigines are creating a new sense of self, one meant to withstand the flux of greater political authorities, national identities, and social cultures that swarm around them.

Playing House with the Children in Heaven

Every year, the Taipei County Government sends a wrecking crew to demolish the impoverished tribal village that is situated under Sanying Bridge, due to its violation of the Irrigation Management Law. With police protection, excavators and trucks invade the riverbed land, razing the wooden houses and demolishing the entire village, with not even one patch of asphalt spared from their destructive authority. The debris is then hauled away in an efficient and singularly muscular display of governmental administrative power.

Mayaw Biho’s film portrays these events through the eyes of the village’s children. The children are boundlessly creative in their elaboration of fun and play, despite harsh surroundings. (A small inner-tube propped on a half-open door serves as the hoop in their game of basketball.) After their hamlet and homes are destroyed, the children survey the ruins. Rummaging, they gather random boards, a hammer, and some nails, and fabricate for their beloved dolls a new home, which also serves as temporary shelter for the children themselves.

The world, as seen by the children, is presented through black-and-white photos and color film. The still photos offer a sketch of village life while the color film, on the other hand, uses sound and movement to provide a running commentary. The “voices” of the children are silent, expressed through subtitles. Their unspoken narration and internal monologues, actually written by the director, harmonize with the voice of singer Parangalan on the soundtrack. Experienced together, these silent, sung, and narrated voices are very evocative.

After experiencing repeatedly the destruction and rebuilding of their hamlet, the children know that soon they will once more get to “play house,” —with the nation, police, and administrative powers. The lyrics of Parangalan’s song NoNoNo —“not alive but not dead, not real but not fake, not drunk but not sober, am I in heaven?”— express immeasurable frustration and irony.

Carry the Paramount of Jade Mountain on My Back

Children today probably know nothing of the story of Yu Yu-jen, let alone that of the bronze statue of him that once graced the summit of Jade Mountain.

In their youth, Wu Sheng-mei and Chuan Kuei-mei, from the Tungpu Bunun, were two outstanding mountain guides who had the arduous job of carrying the Yu Yu-jen statue up the mountainside. Aborigines often served as guides and porters, helping climbers lug burdens through the thin atmosphere of high altitudes. Such strenuous activity eventually took its toll on the guides’ health, the excessive burden often resulting in irreparable leg damage.

Wu and Chuan worked together with the China Youth Corps during the 1970’s. In 1978, they were given the responsibility of carrying the bronze statue of Yu Yu-jen to the top of Jade Mountain. The statue, itself, weighing over 90 kilograms, was packed in a wooden crate which brought the total weight of their load to about 115 kilograms. The two also took turns carrying the statue’s base, which was made of concrete .

Ensconced on the mountaintop, the statue of Yu Yu-jen served as a kind of political totem, in line with the country’s Chinese identity and the political ideology of the time. With the lifting of martial law, Taiwanese nationalist feelings escalated and many people were eager to free themselves of everything “Chinese”. During that period vandals removed the head of the statue and, not long after, the rest of it, base and all, was shattered and cast into the valley from its mountaintop post.

When Wu and Chuan learned that the statue which they had so arduously labored to usher homeward had been destroyed, they were saddened and perplexed. Although not clear in their minds about what Yu Yu-jen represented, they knew that the newly aroused Taiwanese native consciousness that had spurred people to destroy his statue had nothing to do with them, either. Aborigines have an outsider’s stance regarding the ebb and flow of the island’s political rivalries. Regardless of who is in power, to the island’s aborigines Jade Mountain is marked with the footprints of their ancestors, a landmark evoking “home.”

Grandfather Says You’d Better Drink That Entire Bowl of Rice Wine

In the film, “Dear Rice Wine, You are Defeated”, a grandfather insists he does not trust the rice wine from the Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Corporation. Suspecting contamination, he is afraid to drink it. Because the brewing process happens behind factory walls, the older generation is wary of rice wine produced by the TTLC. Grandpa knows that his people, the Pang-cah, brew many kinds of rice wine themselves. “Since it’s made by us,” he says, “you can see the people who make the yeast, and those who brew the alcohol, and see what ingredients they add…”

The idea that rice wine is harmful to your body takes on two levels of meaning in the film. One is that rice wine by its nature damages health, while the other is that specific ceremonial rituals stylizing its consumption can be harmful in themselves.

Many Pang-cah are convinced that one kind of rice wine is flawed and objectionable, while the second type of rice wine, produced within the community, is safe and acceptable. However, these two kinds of rice wine are now often confused, because people cannot distinguish them based on appearance. Members of the younger generation who have not been through the relevant tribal rites are especially unaware of the differences between the two.

Grandpa says, “You must finish all of the rice wine in that bowl.” In the tribe’s initiation ceremony, a member who drinks all of his rice wine is thus mature enough to shoulder larger responsibilities. The ceremony also represents resistance to the foreign rice wine because it underlines the differences between the vital tribal wine and —that other wine. The wine takes on ethnic significance, validating the spirit of the tribe and serving as a symbol of resistance to mainstream stigma and political repression.

From this film, we can learn some of the motivating goals of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples’ movement: the return to ancestral tradition, and the protection of tribal soul. In addition, the movement attempts to break through the framework and stigma imposed upon aborigines by outsiders, in order to develop individual and tribal self-confidence, self-determination, and autonomy. Broadcast on television, or shown on a movie screen, these images of indigenous people returning to the tribe and one of its traditions (albeit one that is being interrogated by contemporary value-shifts ), can effectively be turned into political capital, serving as an energy to re-unite the tribe and propel it forward. They can also serve as a bridge of communication with outside social groups, the government, and the future.

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Review:The Subversion of Imagination and Another Kind of Indigenous Voice: Imagining Indians(1992) and Water Land Life-H2opi Run to Mexico(2007) Victor Masayesva

Teng-yueh MA

Adjunct Lecturer,

Department of Anthropology, Fo Guang University

In line with this year’s theme, Indigenous Voices, the 2007 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival chose to include Native American director Victor Masayesva’s films “Imagining Indians” (1992) and “Water Land Life-H2opi Run to Mexico” (2007).

Victor Masayesva is an extremely relevant contemporary American Indian filmmaker who is a member of the Hopi tribe. With the support of scholarships, he was able to attend Horace Mann High School in New York and Princeton University. After graduation, he returned to his home on the Hopi Indian Reservation in northern Arizona. Beginning in 1980, Victor Masayesva began to photograph and film, using this environment and Hopi Indian culture as a backdrop. He has completed 16 films and documentaries about the Hopi Indians, becoming a kind of spokesman for the tribe.

Victor Masayesva insists on using an Indian subjective viewpoint in his works in order to change mainstream American society’s stereotypical impression of the country’s native peoples. Through the art of filmmaking, he tries to create a platform for the Hopi’s own voices and viewpoints in the hope of shattering the stereotypes of Native Americans portrayed in Hollywood’s film industry. His works reveal the complex emotions and viewpoints of his people, expressing subjective voices, striving for recognition and self respect, and articulating their indignation towards the history of settlement and oppression. To understand Victor Masayesva’s films and the works by other Indian filmmakers, you must first understand both the history of the settlement of the Americas and the USA, plus the area’s contemporary circumstances.

Prior to the American continent’s discovery in the 15th century by Europeans, there was no collective noun to describe this area’s native peoples. In 1492, the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus was seeking a new route to the Indies by traveling west. He instead discovered America, but mistakenly thought he had reached his intended destination. Therefore, he called the people living there Indios. Although he was mistaken, the name stuck and the people in that area were referred to as Indians, which became the collective name of the American continent’s indigenous peoples.

Over the past 500 years, the plight of the Indians facing European colonization (including by the Spanish, Dutch, and English) has been tragic. Beginning in the 16th century, due to European interests in the area, North American Indian people were massacred in battles and conflicts and nearly died out. After American independence, the Indians once again faced a more difficult predicament, the passing of the Removal Bill in 1830. In order to protect the interests of the white people in America, all Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi who had not been wiped out in earlier battles were moved to Oklahoma. The Indian people were shackled and bound together in a line, prodded along by the military as they marched to their destination. The Indian people in America were once again massacred in 1860, leaving only 340,000 in the country. In 1910 the number dropped to 220,000, but then began to rise over the rest of the century, to 550,000 in 1960, 1.43 million in 1980, 2 million in 1990. In 2000, the Indian population reached 3 million. Today, there are more than 200 Indian Reservations, most of which were created after the war. This is one of America’s darkest chapters in its history.

In order to illustrate the basic spirit of rule-of-law of the nation after its founding in the 18th century, the US government signed a treaty with those Indian tribes who had surrendered or swore allegiance to America. The treaty affirmed that the government would grant the Indians living on reservations autonomy and provide all the land they needed to survive. In 1871, the US Congress resolved not to sign or recognize any additional agreements granting autonomy to Indian tribes, but existing treaties remained valid. After the wars with the Indian people ended, the white government pursued a “Peace Policy” in its dealing with the Indians, sending Christian missionaries to rule over them and carrying out an assimilation policy. In 1924, Congress passed the Snyder Act in gratitude for the Indian participation in the First World War. The act gave American citizenship to the Indian people living within the country. The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act authorized Indian people to write their own constitution, elect an assembly, recover their culture, and worship as they chose. The government’s assimilation policy had not completely succeeded.

The deplorable situation that faced Indian inhabitants of America and the ignoble history of white settlement, however, are rarely discussed and sometimes outright ignored. In the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian Institution, the history of the country’s settlement is not one of the featured topics. From the origins of photography in the 1840’s to the 20th century’s film industry, Indians are one of the most popular subjects of entertainment in America. In commercial films, the tragic history of white people’s treatment and massacre of Indians is smoothed over or ignored. Instead, Indian people and culture have been taken up in the mainstream culture’s collective imagination. Indians are seen by whites as the vanishing race, so they are often a subject of recordings and the focus of many a camera lens. If the cameraman does not capture their images on film, the group will disappear forever. To members of Europe’s relatively advanced civilization, the Indian’s primitive civilization was a living specimen, the past that societies like theirs had lost. Indians were noble savages, innocent and pure. In Christian culture, however, Indians were seen as cannibals who enjoyed scalping whites, people of the New World who had been forsaken by God.

It is probably very difficult for Americans to imagine Hollywood films without Indians. Audiences would lose out on quite a bit of entertainment. Without the Indian, we would not have John Wayne in “The Searchers” and we would be without hundreds of other heroes in similar westerns. Kevin Costner could not dance with wolves without Indians, nor could Brad Pitt appear in “Legends of the Fall”. The existence of Indians provided mainstream white society with an essential image and supporting character in its construction of the creed and romanticism of the western hero. Savage Indians are sacrificed to the Wild West hero’s six shooter. Indian princesses may be beautiful, but they always fall in love with the white military officer. The Indian soldier galloping on his horse is always closely followed by brave American cavalry. The Indian land is a lost paradise and there are always white explorers who like to live in teepees and are forever sentimentally attached to the tribe. These stories make up the idea of the imagined Indian in mainstream American society and around the world.

No other indigenous people on Earth are like American Indians. They are a Hollywood movie staple, appearing in a wide range of films and becoming an image in the world’s collective imagination. However, most of the Indians portrayed on film play a supporting role, only appearing to let out a whoop as they ride by on their horses and get shot by our hero. Although there are many scenes featuring Indian people, their characters are often silent, serving as a mere prop. Indian people, as they most commonly appear in westerns, should actually be called invisible people.

Indians did rebel against this image exploitation by mainstream society, but because the whites were always in a position of power, their efforts had little effect. In the past, Indian people have resisted when they were forced to perform their sacred ceremonies in front of the camera. For example, in 1904, when Edward Sheriff Curtis was shooting the Arizona Navajo Indian Yabichi ceremony, the masked participants danced with their backs facing the camera, refusing to be filmed. In other similar incidents, Indians often protested by throwing sand and rocks at the camera, destroying the film, or breaking the equipment. After the Red Power movement of the 1970’s, Indians became more conscious of their cultural rights. Attendees of many ceremonial activities were forbidden to make any type of recording.

Victor Masayesva and other Indian filmmakers, on the other hand, choose to actively utilize their own films to counteract Hollywood films, conveying Indigenous voices to fight the mythologized Indian image. Victor Masayesva once said that his most important objective in producing films is to break through the silence of Indians in mainstream American movies. He often chooses reels of film themselves as his medium, using Hollywood’s own films to combat the Indian images portrayed in the industry’s movies.

Victor Masayesva’s other mission is to convey the voices of his fellow Indians. He believes that still and video cameras are important tools that can preserve and pass down culture. Compared with writing, visual representations offer a more effective communication medium within Indian societies. Besides oral histories, the majority of Indian communication, including ritual activities and historical reenactments, occurs visually.

Images stand alone, while words can convey the thread of a story. Therefore, the integration of images with words or interviews has become a characteristic of Victor Masayesva’s photographs and films. This year’s festival features two of his films, both of which revolve around interviews and the statements of the interviewees, creating the axis upon which the story is built.

In his film, “Imagining Indians”(1992), Victor Masayesva opens with a reedited clip from an old Hollywood western. He uses the interviewee’s words to criticize the mainstream Indian images in the film, probe the representation of power and culture in Indian movies, and express Indians’ long repressed unhappiness at being just a prop in Hollywood films and their anger at how Hollywood distorts Indian culture. As the interviewee, Charles Hustito, says in the film, “White people took our land and restricted us to reservations. Now they are invading our lives and using them to make money. This is completely unforgivable. Respect our religion. We never tried to turn white people into Indians, so just let us be.” In the last scene of the film, an Indian woman lying in a dentist chair gets up and pushes away her chattering dentist who complacently believes that he is a friend to Indians. She grabs his drill and turns it on the camera lens and then pushes over the camera. This striking image of violence to the camera being used to combat the violence of the camera and the technique used to represent this idea merits further reflection.

Water Land Life-H2opi Run to Mexico (2007) is Victor Masayesva most recent work. The film is built around the Hopi Indians’ international long distance run to bring attention to water issues. It uses images of the run and interviews of those involved to explore Hopi attitudes towards the environment.

Hopi is an abbreviation of Hopi’sinom, which means “People Who Live in The Right Way” or “People of Peace”. The Hopi people’s most basic belief is that they must respect other people and all things upon the Earth. People must live their lives according to the instructions of Maasaw (the creator). The purpose of religious ceremonies is to increase the happiness and welfare of the entire world.

According to oral histories, the Hopi are among the oldest of the North American Indian tribes. Currently, the Hopi Indian Reservation is located in the northeastern part of Arizona, surrounded on four sides by the Navajo Indian Reservation. The Grand Canyon National Park lies close to the southwest. Not counting the Colorado River Valley, Hopi land measures tens of thousands of square miles. The area is entirely desert, covered with red sand and enormous rock formations that would be familiar to anyone who has watched a western.

Water is this area”s most valued natural resource. In recent years, I have traveled there to perform fieldwork. I was hosted in the home of some Navajo Indians located in the middle of the desert, so remote that there was no running water or electricity. Each week, the family must drive their truck to purchase water. They had to walk over six hours back and forth each day to lead their sheep, the household’s only assets, to a small reservoir. It rains fewer than twenty days out of the year and the number goes down even further during droughts. Such difficulties are almost unimaginable for those who have not experienced lack of water on this scale.

Groundwater is an important source of water, but the land is also rich in coal, gold, and turquoise. Mines extract large amounts of groundwater to wash the ore and process the excavated materials. After use in the mine, the waste water is dumped out, polluting the groundwater. Rational use of the area’s limited water resources is essential to the survival of the area’s Indian peoples.

Rather than resorting to violent protests, the peace-loving Hopi Indians decided to use this long distance run to bring attention to the issue among tribe members and the outside world. Carrying maize to represent life and other ceremonial objects such as branches and ladles, a group of Hopi people started the 2000 mile run south to Mexico. Along the route, they stopped to pray and chant with different groups and organizations that they met. The Hopi shared their message that water is the source of all life and by treasuring water, we can begin to respect others and seek world peace. For those living on Taiwan, which is buffeted each year by flood-inducing typhoons, the Hopi’s reverence and respect for water leaves a very deep impression.

Ethnographic and documentary filmmakers around the world often come in conflict with those they film on moral principles. The majority of filmmakers still respect indigenous voices and native points of view, hoping that through sharing their films they can achieve cross cultural understanding and tolerance. The eternal questions are, “How can we make people understand another culture? Is that even possible?” I believe that it is not only an indigenous person who can understand and express an indigenous voice. However, filmmaking requires technical knowledge and a large capital investment, so often it is an outsider who provides the means for an indigenous person to express his own indigenous voice. This is especially the case when the indigenous people belong to a politically or economically disadvantaged group. After watching many ethnographic and documentary films made by outsiders, Victor Masayesva possibly hoped, as an Indian himself, to give the audience another perspective on indigenous voices and a native point of view. We aim to present viewers with this kind of contrast, the most interesting and introspective experience we can provide at this year’s festival.

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Review: Songs of Pastaay

The Making of Songs of Pasta’ay

Tai-li HU

Research Fellow, Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica

This year’s Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival will show “Songs of Pasta’ay” together with Nobuto Miyamoto’s “Pas-taai — The Saisiyat Ceremony in 1936”, ingeniously bringing together two works that share the same topic, but were filmed 50 years apart.

Reviewing Taiwanese ethnographic film history, although the Japanese government produced several documentaries in Taiwan during the early years of its colonial rule, most of the films were merely propaganda glorifying Japan’s achievements. During the 1930’s, Nobuto Miyamoto, assistant to Taipei Imperial University’s Professor Utsurikawa, picked up a 16mm camera to try his hand at ethnographic filmmaking, producing two films about the island’s indigenous peoples. In 1934, he recorded his first movie, 500 meters of film about the Paiwan tribe’s five-year ceremony. Two years later, he filmed the Saisiat tribe’s Pasta’ay ceremony held in Daai Village. His skill as a filmmaker had markedly improved, as the image clarity and stability of his later film surpass the first. Miyamoto’s pioneering films were forgotten for several decades, but were thankfully rediscovered in the archives of National Taiwan University’s Department of Anthropology in 1994. In cooperation with The National Film Archives, the films were then digitized to preserve them for posterity. The first public showing of Miyamoto’s films during this year’s festival is an important event in the history of Taiwanese ethnographic film.

Exactly fifty years after Miyamoto made his first film, I shot Taiwan’s first color ethnographic film with quasi-simultaneous audio recording, “The Return of Gods and Ancestors: Paiwan Five-year Ceremony”, using a hand-cranked Bell & Howell 16 mm camera. Then in 1986, working with Mr. Lee Daw-Ming, I filmed “Songs of Pasta’ay” about the Saisiat Tribe, also using a 16 mm camera. It was Taiwan’s first ethnographic documentary with simultaneous audio recording.

When I made these two documentaries, I had not yet seen Miyamoto’s films and did not consciously follow in his footsteps, but we had both coincidentally decided to cover the two very same tribal ceremonies. Both of our films chronicling the Paiwan tribe’s five-year ceremony were shot in Daai Village. When shown in succession, the two films reveal the changes that have occurred in this important ceremony over the 50 years that separate our recordings.

It has been 20 years since I filmed “Songs of Pasta’ay”. The date for the Saisiat Tribe’s Pasta’ay Grand Ceremony in 1986 coincidentally fell during the period I directed the Taiwan Indigenous People’s Ceremonial Song and Dance Research Project. I wanted to take the opportunity to record this important ceremony, which is held only once every 10 years (in the past it was normally was held once every two years). The Project’s coordinating researcher, Miss Cheng Yi-yi performed research and filmed at Shiantian Lake (the southern Saisiat ritual group or gaga), while I was in Daai Village (the northern gaga) working on a 16mm documentary film. I yearned to film a documentary with true simultaneous sound recording. After viewing my first documentary, “The Return of Gods and Ancestors”, celebrated cameraman Chang Chao-tang expressed interest in assisting with my next work. With the help of a friend, he got a hold of an obsolete CP16 synchronous camera from a television station. He held the camera himself, while Lee Daw-Ming performed the simultaneous recording using his second-hand Nagra synchronous sound recorder that could operate in coordination with the synchronous camera. He had just graduated from Temple University, where he had received professional cinematography and editing training. Aside from the subsidy we received from the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica, we also applied for support from the Council for Cultural Affairs and the Kodak Company. From a total of 20,000 meters of rough cut film, we produced an hour-long documentary, “Songs of Pasta’ay”, equaling a filming ratio of ten to one.

Before filming began, I performed intensive research, coming across Lin Heng-li’s compelling article, ‘The Songs of the “Pas-Taai”,’ written in 1956. Two months before the Pasta’ay Grand Ceremony, the northern and southern gagas, or ritual groups, hold meetings where they practice the ceremonial songs. These songs are sung in a unique, repetitive way and it takes four to five hours to sing the complete series. Long sections of the songs are made up of function words, while there are about an equal amount of content words, which have meaning. While observing these practice sessions, I systematized the sequence of the verses, repetitive singing method, and functional words. Listening to the songs several times, I was better able to appreciate their strict structure, the alternating content and function words, and the beauty of the songs’ pitch variations. The more I listened and explored, the more captivating the songs of the Pasta’ay became. Could I somehow integrate the unique qualities of the songs with the images I filmed? How should I go about such a task?

Repetitive chanting that is so organized as in these ceremonial songs is quite rare. The repeated rounds of chants represent the incantations of the dwarf people (little people) and reflect the Saisiat people’s ambivalent feelings towards the dwarves. The songs that follow are like poems, separated into verses. Each verse has its own theme and uses a plant name to set the rhyme for the end of each line. Within the songs, there are some particularly important verses that must be sung at the correct time and according to specific rules. Ceremonial songs are separated into two kinds, primary and auxiliary, and the content and functional words play off each other in every song. These characteristics of the ceremonial songs assisted me in assembling and organizing the images in the film. I structured the film to mimic the form of the ceremonial songs as much as possible. Using my own hypothesis, I wanted to extend the complicated feelings that the Saisiat have towards the dwarves to the tribes’ ambivalent feelings about modern day outside influences, such as tourism and the government. Also, I hoped to show that the Saisiat were using the Pasta’ay to organize themselves and work towards alleviating the contemporary crisis facing their people.

Therefore, I arranged the scenes in “Songs of Pasta’ay” as follows:

1.The film is organized into 15 chapters, following the movements of the ceremonial songs themselves, as performed by the northern gaga. Chapter names are based on translations by Lin Heng-li. For example, “role” is the song of Urticaceae, “ayim” is the song of the patroller. Each chapter uses only part of that movement’s song serving to highlight the images in that portion of the film.

2.Just as the songs themselves contain a dichotomy of function and content words, my film is also made up of two parts representing the concrete and the abstract. Within each section, I employed two different methods to match up the songs and images. The concrete portion is comprised of songs with special significance that must be sung during certain portions of the ceremony. When these songs are played during the film, they are shown in sync with the actual ceremony as it is occurring. For example, “Role (the song of Urticaceae)” is sung when the northern and southern gaga meet on the riverbank. The ceremony is officially kicked off with “Raroal (song of invitation)”, which is sung in front of the ceremonial hut facing east to greet the dwarves. “Wawaon (song of the enemy)” is an extremely significant song that must be sung standing up at midnight on the second day, while “Bibilaiyan (song of the Hsiangshan tree)” is a light, spirited song sung on the third night. “Papaosa (the sending home song),” “Arebe, Kokoroy (the road home song),” and “Matano Sibok (song of waiting for the Hazelnut tree)” are all sung as a farewell to the dwarves. While these four songs play, the screen shows the images of the tribe sending away the dwarf spirits. A series of songs also sung on the three nights for the ceremonial dances are simpler than, and not as striking as, some of the other tunes. I, therefore, used them as background music during the abstract chapters of the film. As much as possible, I tried to follow the meaning of the lyrics to convey conceptual, mythical, reflective, reminiscent, and psychological topics. For example, “Kapabalay (song of Calamus)” plays when a young factory worker discusses his feelings about dreaming of the dwarves. When the officiator of the ceremony recounts the legend of the dwarves, “Bə’ə (song of the Arrow Bamboo)” plays in the background. “Ayim (song of the patroller)” is played when someone explains the origins of the handing over of the ceremonial flag. “Heyalo (the raincoat song) ” accompanies the scene where the rain touches off trepidation among the Saisiat. “Awuηə (song of the scarab beetle)” is used to reflect the Saisiat’s complicated feelings towards the pressure to make their ancient rite more attractive to tourists. The song of peril, or “əbəy (song of danger)”, represents their fear of the dwarves’ punishment. During one scene, “Kabtiroro” (the sunshine song) serves to contrast traditional and modern ideas and to describe the tribes’ current economic straits.

3.The interplay of the content and function words within the songs inspired me to contrast images and ideas on screen. The ceremony’s sequence served as the film’s axis, which was then interwoven with images of related tribal activities. Day scenes alternated with those at night and the visible Saisiat people obviously are portrayed differently than the invisible dwarves. Upon the dwarves’ arrival, the Saisiat are thankful and welcoming, but this is paired with caution and fear when they bid the dwarves farewell. These conflicting emotions recur throughout many of the verses. The entire film also employs intense color contrast and the camera intentionally accentuates the contrast between light and dark.

4.No voice over was used in the film in order to encourage the audience to watch the images and listen carefully to the natural sounds of the film. They can concentrate on the songs as they are sung or played in the background, and focus on the interviews without any distractions. Some portions have subtitled explanations, which are less invasive because the audience can decide whether to read them or not.

Some portions, however, did not come out as expected and the content and form were not ideally integrated. Also, not all viewers are able to understand or accept this kind of experiment. Audiences who previewed “Songs of Pasta’ay” were not accustomed to watching a film with no narration because they were used to being fed the filmmaker’s own interpretation. When a filmmaker foregoes authoritative narration, she gives viewers an opportunity to understand and interpret what they see on the screen on their own. In reality, the meaning of the Pasta’ay ceremony is too difficult to completely comprehend, so even I only have an elementary understanding. As I continue to learn and encounter more information, my own interpretations could also change. I hope by presenting these striking images of the Saisiat people in this way, I can provide myself and my audience with more room to imagine.

After the people of the northern gaga watched the film, many requested copies to commemorate the event. “Songs of Pasta’ay” was not only broadcast on Taiwanese TV, but was also shown at film festivals around the world. My Saisiat friends were very gratified that their culture was getting this kind of recognition. At first, some had been upset with the scenes that showed intoxication or tribe members speaking in the Hakka or Taiya languages, because they felt that these exposed some of the tribe’s flaws. However, others believed that, “We cannot fault the filmmaker for recording our shortcomings; instead, this should inspire us to do some soul searching.” It is an important achievement if an ethnographic film can provoke reflection and self-examination among the local aboriginal people featured. We will invite the Saisiat Tribe from Daai Village to attend this year’s screening of “Songs of Pasta’ay” and Mr. Miyamoto’s 1936 film in the hopes that viewing these works will encourage even more reflection.

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Review: Pas-taai – The Saisiyat Ceremony in 1936

A Time Capsule from the Last Century Pastaai — The Saisiyat Ceremony in 1936

Chia-Yu HU

Department of Anthropology, National Taiwan University

As we now live in an age of photography and mechanical reproduction, does that mean, as Walter Benjamin believed, that we are also entering an age when the aura disappears? By viewing the 1936 film of the Saisiyat Ceremony, we can experience the power of film to transport us through time. The images of people and situations captured 70 years ago reappear before our eyes, allowing us to experience an at once real and illusory past; a past where the images are clear, but the message is obscured. “Pastaai — The Saisiyat Ceremony in 1936” is a significant film in several ways, portraying the inauguration of Taiwanese ethnographic filmmaking, interaction between a Japanese anthropologist and Taiwan’s aboriginal community, and changes to the Pastaai ceremony. This information is projected within the context of the film and even faintly among the images portrayed.

1.Taipei Imperial University’s Ethnographic Films

During the 1930’s, few individuals used cameras to record films. The government produced the majority of motion pictures, which served to record events or as propaganda tools. Taipei Imperial University (TIU) was likely the first academic institution to begin producing its own films.

“Pastaai — The Saisiyat Ceremony in 1936” was among those films recorded by the TIU Course on the Study of Local Peoples, now know as the National Taiwan University (NTU) Department of Anthropology. Of the films shot by the Course on the Study of Local Peoples, 17 reels still remain. Nine of these reels record the island’s indigenous peoples – Datung River-Hsinkang (1931), Ilan Lau-lau-a (1932), the Five-year Ceremony in Neiwen Village (1934), Mahoan Village, Patzu Village, Mataian Village (two films, 1935), Pastaai-Saisiyat (1936), Taiya Tribe in Fuhsing Township, Nana Village, while the others include “Anatomy of the Dugong”, “Investigation of Taiwan’s Temples”, “Investigation of Ilan Historical Data” and “A Visit to Xiamen”. Besides the recording of “The Five-year Ceremony”, which had been edited and includes an explanatory script, the films are unadulterated black and white 16mm rough cut silent films.

The Course on the Study of Local Peoples used cameras as tools in their field work. Professor Utsurikawa Nenozo was responsible for performing interviews and his assistant Miyamoto served as cameraman. TIU Linguistics Professor Asai Erin also filmed a few documentaries about Taiwan’s aborigines. Miyamoto’s films, which include “Pastaai — The Saisiyat Ceremony in 1936”, were later transferred to the NTU Department of Anthropology for storage, while Asai’s films were stored in the Center for Asian Studies at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. In the 1930’s, motion pictures were still in their infancy. The new technology was not only expensive, but the quality of the recordings was unstable. Therefore, few films were made and most of those that survive have not yet been organized or presented. For several decades after Japan’s defeat, the films produced by the Course on the Study of Local Peoples gathered dust in a storeroom. They were only found in 1994 after the Department of Anthropology performed an inventory of all its specimens and images stowed away in their storerooms. Time had taken its toll on the films and they were unplayable. In 2000, the National Film Library and Department of Anthropology worked together to conserve and duplicate the films. The following year, in coordination with the National Digital Archives Program, the Department of Anthropology began to study and digitize the restored films and do research on related background information. Thanks to these efforts, the public can finally view Taiwan’s first ethnographic film, made over 70 years ago.

2.Anthropological Investigation’s Role in the Abolishment or Preservation of Aboriginal Ceremonies

This film of the Saisiyat Ceremony in 1936 was one of the best preserved among the department’s early documentaries. The camera technique is relatively mature and the subject matter is profound, but the film is especially significant because its background touches on Japanese colonial rule, anthropological investigation, and changes in aboriginal society. According to surviving records, Miyamoto and Utsurikawa of the Course on the Study of Local Peoples performed fieldwork on the Saisiat people at least twice. They first visited Hsinchu and Miaoli in October 1931 to examine the Saisiat tribe’s migration legends and genealogy. The two returned between November 26 and December 1, 1936, this time investigating the Pas-taai Ceremony held in Taai village near Mt. Wuchih in Hsinchu. These two anthropologists did not leave us any explanation as to why they decided to survey and film. However, the famous headman of the Saisiat, Taro Umao (Tsao Ming-cheng), who took part in the Beipu Incident (1907) and the Syakaro Punitive Expedition (1926), and his family often appear in the film. Some therefore suppose that the headman helped to make arrangements and provided assistance to the researchers. Following the Wushe Incident (1930), the Japanese government intensified programs to “civilize” aborigines and abolish undesirable customs. From 1932-1927, Taiwan’s Governor-General Nakagawa Kenji carried out assimilation and interior land integration policies, which broadened the scope of alterations to Taiwan’s original culture and customs. Japanese authorities categorized many aboriginal ceremonies and rituals along with some religious practices of the Han Chinese people as superstitions that should be abolished. While Miyamoto and Utsurikawa did not leave us any clues, history sheds some light on the motivations for their survey of Taiwan’s ceremonies and temples, which undoubtedly were related to these policy changes.

Interestingly, while the anthropologists’ records do not mention any connection between their work and these policies, the Saisiat people themselves report that the anthropological survey had far-reaching effects on the tribe. Taai Village resident, Mr. Chao Chen-kuei, a teacher, learned from his father’s handwritten journal and tribal elders that his father, Oebay Taro (Tsao Wang-hua, second son of Taro Umao), held the post of sergeant in the 1930’s. His responsibilities included representing the tribe in dispute mediation and assisting the Japanese Government with coordination and communication work. In September 1937, the Japanese government tried to abolish the Pas-taai Ceremony. Oebay Taro advised the governor that the Saisiat would be willing to fight such an order to the death. Upon hearing this, the governor asked Miyamoto and Utsurikawa to investigate firsthand. With Oebay Taro serving as translator, they interviewed the ceremony’s officiant, tribal elders, and Taro Umao to learn aout the Pastaai Ceremony. Miyamoto and Utsurikawa were persuaded by the Saisiat that the ceremony was a valuable part of the local culture and should not be abolished. Following their report, the governor allowed the ceremony to continue, but ordered it shortened to five days from the original seven. When the Pastaai Ceremony was held again in 1938, Hsinchu Governor Akahori personally attended, much to the delight of the Saisiat tribesmen. There are some differences between the academics’ records and the recollections of the Saisiat people regarding the research and filming. There is also an inconsistency in the timing, as the work was either carried out in 1936 or 1937. These details are not so important if we consider the anthropologists’ fieldwork from another angle, from the tribe’s point of view. In their minds, the lead figures were their fellow Saisiat, who had their own expectations and motivations. They could utilize the anthropologists as an outside resource to improve the tribe’s inferior position. If the Pastaai Ceremony was thereby allowed to continue, it is a rare example in Taiwan’s anthropological history and is worth celebrating.

3.Images of the Ceremonial Grounds

We may never know if it really was the anthropological investigation that spared the Pastaai Ceremony, but it has in fact continued over the years. Today it is still one of the grandest, most solemn, and most unique of Taiwan’s aboriginal ceremonies. After reviewing the film, it is clear that the ritual’s structure, taboos, and symbols have changed little over the past 70 years. The ceremony is made up of three parts: the pre-ceremony preparations, official ceremonial activities, and post-ceremony appreciation and celebration. Miyamoto’s film focuses on the seven days of the actual ceremony, including the Welcoming of God on November 27, the speech by the headman at midnight on the 27th, and its official close on December 1. The first full moon after the rice harvest in 1936 fell on November 28 (Oct. 15, Chinese Lunar Calendar), so the tribe followed the lunar calendar to schedule the ceremony. The films opens with a shot of the grass knots hung on the ceremonial hut. A mortar and pestle are pushed out of the hut, while the tribesmen stand outside singing to welcome the spirits. They then use the mortar and pestle to make a glutinous rice cake offering. A series of scenes follow portraying the Saisiat delaying (kish-rinaolan), entertaining (kish-tomal), chasing (papatnawaSak), banishing (papatnaoloraz), and seeing off (kis-papaosa) the spirits after providing them with provisions (papasibilil). Tribe members carry a hazel tree trunk horizontally and symbolically cut it down and then into pieces (mari ka sibok).

The film also reflects some of the unique aspects of the ceremony. Prior to the paksa:o, which serves to welcome the spirits and provide them with food, each participant carries a fish into the ceremonial hut. The kirakil headdress, which can only be crafted around the time of the ceremony, was worn on the head. Today, the kirakil is a heavy flag used in the ceremonial dancing that must instead be carried on the shoulders. In the film, three young mean wearing the kirakil continuously leap and dance. At the center of the ceremonial grounds stand a crowd of singing and dancing Saisiat tribesmen. While some don traditional woven clothing, others are wearing Han Chinese or Japanese style clothing, revealing that the diversification of everyday goods and materials had already begun. The scene is bustling and impressive, with more than 200 people circling the grounds observing the ceremony. In addition to watching the images portrayed on the screen, we can also go a step further to learn about changes that occurred in the ceremony by noting what is missing from the film. The Pastaai Grand Ceremony, which is held every 10 years, should have fallen in 1936, but in we do not see the sinatun, or flag of the grand ceremony, raised high over the festivities. Many of the Saisiat elders mentioned that prior to the Japanese Occupation, the Pastaai Ceremony was held once each year and the entire tribe gathered together on the same ceremonial grounds. Made in 1936, the film shows that was no longer the case, with the ceremony already split between the northern and southern ceremonial grounds. However, it does not tell us whether the ceremony was still held once a year at this point or if the Grand Ceremony was only developed after this time. The film has left behind a few mysteries that have yet to be solved.


This film of the Saisiat Ceremony is a valuable historical document that represents the first time a Taiwanese local cultural event was documented on film. Its value comes not only from the images it conveys, but from the introspection it provokes in viewers. By watching, viewers get a bit of a jolt, not only because of what it does portray, but also because of what does not appear in the film, both of which require our reflection and understanding. What we can perceive from watching the film comes not only from the onscreen images, but from the contemplation and emotion that viewing precipitates. The audience experiences the vitality of human culture through a film that was made over seven decades ago. While the world has swiftly changed around it, the Pastaai Ceremony still survives, illustrating the cohesiveness and dynamism of the Saisiat.

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Review: Dead Birds

Daw-Ming LEE

Associate professor, Graduate School of Filmmaking, Taipei National University of the Arts

Dead Birds—a classic work in early history of ethnographic film—is about the Dani, a people dwelling in the Grand Valley of the highlands of New Guinea. It was shot in 1961 by Robert Gardner, a famous ethnographic filmmaker with an anthropology background who started shooting and editing ethnographic films and documentaries in the 1950s.

In 1960, the Aboriginal Affairs Minister in Dutch New Guinea went to the United States to attract American anthropologists’ interest in field work in New Guinea. Although the Dani had met western culture, they still used stone tools (for the most part) with a few metal tools in their daily life and frequently had ritualized intertribal warfare with spears and arrows as their weapons. Anthropologists and ethnographic filmmakers of course would not let the chance of witnessing or filming this primitive Stone Age way of life slip away. As an ethnographic filmmaker, Gardner thus organized the Harvard Peabody Expedition, which was comprised of film producers, anthropologists, and naturalists, to conduct research and filming in the challenging cultural environment of New Guinea.

There were very few ethnographic films in western countries before Dead Birds was introduced. The most famous among the few was Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, which set the initial style for the genre—focusing on one or two individuals in the film and presenting the culture of the group through footage of their adventurous life. John Marshall’s The Hunters, another classic in the early period, was produced in the same style. Marshall and his family went off to the Karahari desert in southern Africa in 1951 to study the life and culture of the Ju/’hoansi people. After shooting a vast amount of film he completed the first film of a series–The Hunters–in 1958, of which the subject matter was four Ju/’hoansi men hunting giraffes. As Gardner was involved in the film editing of The Hunters, it was believed that this experience would have certain influence over the style of his later creation of Dead Birds.

When Gardner arrived at the shooting scene in New Guinea, the first thing he did was to look for shooting targets. He found Wejak, a warrior, and Pua, a pig herding boy. He spent plenty of time to build relationships with them and their family and to understand their daily life. He used their daily life stories to form the spine of the film combined with battles and rituals. The name of the film—Dead Birds—was inspired by a fable about the Dani. The story said that there was an argument between a bird and a snake about whether man would die like a bird or would live forever like a snake by shedding its skin. The result was in favor of the bird. Since then, all men must die like birds. The terms “dead birds” or “dead people” in the Dani culture also referred to the spoils of war. In Dead Birds, every episode was recorded based on true events. One day during Gardner’s five month stay in the Grand Valley, some children went to a river and played in water while the tribe was having a rite called wam kanekhe. There were no guardians in the area and they were raided by an enemy tribe, causing one to be killed. Once the funeral for the child was over, people in the tribe killed one person from the enemy tribe for revenge to keep the whole tribe away from the threat of the spiteful spirit.

In fact, Gardner and his Harvard partners, including anthropology graduate Karl G. Heider and naturalist Peter Matthiessen, were conducting ethnographic surveys and shooting the film at the same time. As they knew little about the culture of the Dani, each member of the expedition studied and observed the tribe by themselves during the day and exchanged information and ideas at dinner. When Gardner shot ritual or battle scenes, other members were also on the spot but would avoid being shot by the camera. Although Gardner had considered including the field work process as opening or ending footage of the film, he later decided not to do so. It’s a pity that this decision took away the reflexive angle to the film.

In Dead Birds, there is a ten-minute footage of the child’s funeral. One of the Dani customs was that when one person was killed by an enemy the tribe needed to hold a ritual of “fresh blood”. Hundreds of villagers would gather together, and show and exchange a great deal of pigs, fishing nets and cowry shells to pacify the ghosts, especially the spirit of the dead. The film showed a crowd of people sharing things such as cowry shells, preparing the body, burning the woodpile, and holding a ceremony to free the spirit of the dead from the body and send it to the forest. The film production team did not understand the Dani’s culture well and therefore put the emphasis on the emotions around death and the ceremony. Both the images and the sounds, the facial expressions of different individuals in particular, accentuated the atmosphere of mourning and grief. However, the more important part in the one-day funeral, later discovered by Heider, was the interaction between villagers, e.g. greetings, gift exchanging, gossiping, and offering sharing. In every interaction the Dani would appropriately express specific emotions. The film should have focused on the subtle interactions and emotional changes among the Dani to convey ethnographic knowledge more accurately. Of course, Dead Birds did not falsely portray the basic ethnological facts of the funeral (e.g. economic exchange behavior, symbolism, belief in ghosts). The focus of the film in fact reflected the trend of academic training studying anthropology in the 1950s. However, as interaction theory and emotional behaviors have got more and more attention from anthropologists, Gardner would definitely use a different approach to shoot the subject of Dead Birds, if he had another chance.

Dead Birds was produced in 1961 when photographic and sound recording equipment was going through major changes. Long takes became possible and therefore added into the film a flavor of contemporary documentary similar to “cinema verite”, a newly-developed style of film-making at that time. An Arriflex 16mm camera with a magazine holding 400 feet of film, together with a self-made battery, was used for Gardner to shoot a 12-minute sequence, non-stop. It might sound like a significant obstacle instead of an advantage compared with today’s digital cameras which support 2 hours of constant shooting. However, it should be known that before 1960 most motion picture cameras could only take shots of no more than 3 minutes, causing every shot to be very short and making long following shots impossible. Hence, what Gardner achieved in Dead Birds was indeed a milestone in ethnographic film history. Unfortunately, a synchronized sound track was still unachievable at that time. Sounds had to be recorded by Michael Rockefeller, the sound recordist, for post-synchronization. (Yes! He was the youngest son of the former US vice president Nelson Rockefeller who disappeared in southern New Guinea during the study of the Asmat.) In addition, a great deal of narrative monologues were used by Gardner in order to construct the overall narrative structure and to help develop a classic story line—beginning, conflicts, rising actions, turning points, climax, and ending. And it is the usage of the monologue and the dramatic structure that is most often criticized. Gardner would narrate monologues in the present tense to tell viewers what the principals were thinking and the deep philosophical thoughts which the Dani had about death.

In this regard, many anthropologists have harshly criticized the film. Craig Mishler’s criticism may be the strongest among them all. He said, “My judgment is that Dead Birds has been colored by so many subtle fictional pretensions and artistic ornamentations that it has surrendered most of its usefulness as a socially scientific document.” However, David MacDougall thought that Dead Birds was not designed and did not only present the subjective view of the Dani clan. He believed that the film, more importantly, was to reveal issues which human beings had to face immediately. For example, the scene of ritualized battle was to encourage the viewers to contemplate warfare from a different angle while developing a sense of identification with people in other societies through the film. In other words, MacDougall believed that Gardner was trying to philosophize about death and violence by interpreting the Dani experience through mythology, a form of traditional literature. This was the reason that Gardner used some old sayings or even rhymed monologues in poetic form to describe the Dani’s interior thoughts. The usage of monologues in the present tense, from MacDougall’s perspective, created a legendary atmosphere, effects of fable and metaphor, and a more intimate feeling. An example of a monologue is, “This scene always cheers him up even when he thinks about the enemy’s plan of attack.” In MacDougall opinion, applying traditional literature was a style that went beyond what filmmakers would then typically choose. Nor was it used by humanists. Yet Gardner’s approach may be more persuasive 30 years after Dead Birds was first introduced, when various experiments are now being made widely. In short, MacDougall thinks there are a couple of things worth paying attention to: (1) bringing Dani myth into the film marks the beginning of using literary materials to explain human behaviors in ethnographic films; (2) the approach taken in Dead Birds matches the thought of some anthropologists who want to use experiences in other societies to criticize their own culture.

When Gardner was about to finish the production of Dead Birds, he moved his “Film Study Center” from the Peabody Museum to Harvard’s newly established visual arts center to undertake education and training in ethnographic film and filmmaking. It was unfortunate that the Film Study Center was not able to build a partnership with the anthropology department of Harvard to co-develop the theory and practice of ethnographic film. Gardner later started production of other ethnographic films. The subjects of his films include African nomads, Indians, and Columbian aborigines. In his later works, he gradually took away the monologues and directly used images as a means of communication. Although his films seem to be in the form of realism, or even ethnography, they are indeed anti-realist and closer to symbolism. When he was shooting different cultures, he was reluctant to “responsibly” explain these cultures like average anthropologists. As his films prevail, Gardner has been regarded as an influential and controversial heavyweight by western anthropologists. And it is no doubt that a variety of topics inspired by his works will continue to be raised, discussed, and debated.



Devereaux, Leslie and Hillman, Roger, ed. (1995). Fields of Vision: Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology, and Photography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Heider, Karl G. (1976). Ethnographic Film. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Heider, Karl G. (2004). Seeing Anthropology: Cultural Anthropology through Film (Third Edition). Boston: Pearson Education.

Loizos, Peter (1993). Innovation in ethnographic film: From innocence to self-consciousness, 1955-1985. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

MacDougall, David (1998). Transcultural Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


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Review: The Almighty New Vision of Mankind

Pei-Yi KUO
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.

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Review: In Seek of Self and the Meaning of Life

Mei-hua LAN

Associate Professor, Department of Ethnology, National Chen-Chi University

Ching-hui LEE, City of Memories, 101 minutes, 2007.

Chao-ti HO, The Gangster’s God, 49 minutes, 2006.

Hsiu-mei LI, I Am in a Hand Puppet Troupe, 55 minutes, 2007.

City of Memories, The Gangster’s God and I Am in a Hand Puppet Troupe are the three Taiwanese documentaries selected for the New Vision section of the Taiwan International Ethnography Film Festival this year. City of Memories is made from a long-term observation of the elderly people living in an old age home with a focus on their lives and sentiments. The Gangster’s God centers around the gangsters who play the role of Hantan Yeh(寒單爺, a Taiwanese folk deity), being bombed by firecrackers amid the noise and fire of a ritual procession, which is also a process of self-searching. I Am in a Hand Puppet Troupe describes the joy, bitterness and perseverance of the Ping-Deng Elementary School students as they learn the techniques of traditional Taiwanese glove puppetry. At first glance there seems to be no correlation whatsoever between the three films except that all are made in the last two years and meet the festival’s selection criteria. However, after consideration, we can see that there is indeed some common ground shared by the three works. All of them depict the need, aspiration and frame of mind of people of different ages, and point out issues in Taiwan’s society that demand reflection on the part of the government and the public. Besides, all are accessible and entertaining. The directors do not propose precise answers to the various questions and predicaments presented in the films. But after seeing the films, viewers will think for a while and attempt to find meaning in the people and things around them.


According to the data of Taiwan’s Minister of the Interior, the proportion of the elderly in Taiwan is increasing year by year. At the end of 1990, the elderly represented 6.22% of the population. At the end of 1993, they were 7.10%, reaching the standard of an “aging society” as defined by the World Health Organization. In the first half of 2007, the rate rose further to 10.09%. Although it is a well recognized fact that Taiwan has become a veritable aging society, and a set of policies have been set in place to create facilities for the old, people are still adapting at the mental and affective levels; they struggle with the contradictions between new values and old ones. In City of Memories, the old people living in the private old age home are of both sexes; they are from different provinces, they are talkative and silent, resigned and impatient. Despite the differences in sex, origin and personality, they are similarly lonely and helpless in the face of inevitable separation from a familiar home. They cheer each other up, but sometimes quarrel as well. They look forward to seeing their families or friends, but the people they see most of the time are other elders and their foreign caretakers. In the micro-society of the old age home’s diverse communities, we do not see clashes between people of different parties or origins. It is as if what counts the most for them is their health, and what they wish for is love from family and friends.

The protagonist of the film, Chang Chi-Chien came from Shanghai. In her youth, her eloquence and versatility, and her talent in singing and dancing made her the lead performer in an artist-worker troupe ,. She married, had children, and was well off. Unexpectedly, when she got old, she was sent to the old age home. She found it hard to adapt to the great change. Her straightforward temper drove her to a final dramatic act. Some elders there have lost their memories; some lost their ability to speak after a traumatic experience, while some are whining non-stop. Some have families who come to see them frequently, whereas the rest have to ask the staff at the home to call their family to see what they’ve been up to. It is hard to imagine the difficult feelings of the elders who have to leave home and stay in a place strange to them, trying to get along with strangers. Yet the greatest test for them lies in the yearning for their families, which is impossible to dispel. City of Memories evokes in us higher hopes for children, government officials, managers of old age homes and even the elderly themselves. We hope that through our effort the elders in Taiwan can live a life of respect and happiness.


With the trends of localization and commercialization, folk festivities around Taiwan are drawing more and more public attention and interest. Major ones such as Donggang’s Burning King Boat(王船祭)Festival, Tachia’s Matsu Pilgrimage(媽祖遶境)and the Firecracker Festival of Yanshui(蜂炮) can attract up to a million local and foreign visitors per year. Others such as the Sky Lantern Festival in Pingsi (放天燈)and the Grappling with the Ghosts Festival in Toucheng(搶孤)are also annual events. These folk events were originally local activities for praying and exorcism. However, being associated with tourism in recent years, they have become country-wide religious and cultural events. After being restored in 1989, the ritual of Bombing Hantan Yeh during the Taidong Lantern Festival has gradually become one of the most noted folk festivities in Taiwan. Set in the context of Taidong’s Bombing Hantan Yeh activities, The Gangster’s God explores the gangsters who compete for the role of Hantan Yeh as part of their quest for self-identity.

The shirtless gangsters stand on the God’s Chariot in red shorts, taking the bursting of firecrackers coming from all over . On the one hand, it is to show courage and to win reputation for their gangs. On the other hand, it is considered a kind of psychotherapy. The gangsters look for redemption for their crimes. Due to the violence of the activity and the fact that the participating group were mostly gangsters, the ceremony was banned between 1983 and 1988. Some say Hantan Yeh, when alive, was also a local bully. After being enlightened by the gods, he repented and asked to be burnt to death as atonement; hence he got the nickname, the Gangster’s God. Perhaps it is this story that makes the gangsters identify with him. Although it is not always easy for gangsters to leave the gang community, they still live with their own sense of morality, which can be a kind of redemption for them. The transformation of social values also influences people’s self esteem. When the tattoo is no longer a mark of gang membership and becomes a symbol of an aesthetic lifestyle, this reality also changes the image of the tattooing “industry”: people always desire the respect of others.

Local cultural education is one of the programs promoted by the Ministry of Education in Taiwan’s elementary, junior and senior high schools, so that folk crafts can take root in the new generation. Thus masters of glove puppetry troupes are beginning to train schoolchildren to work glove puppets while singing the dialogue. In comparison to the other two films, I Am in a Hand Puppet Troupe has a more relaxed feel. Maybe it is because the subjects are schoolchildren. The protagonist, Tu-Deng Yueh-Sheng’s ancestors came from Tibet. She is fascinated by the glove puppetry performance and decides to invest more time in practicing than the other kids do, so that she can catch up. Besides, she insists on staying in the troupe when most of the sixth grade students decide to quit because of their increasingly heavy homework. The children’s insistence on pursuing beauty and excellence is moving –not only grownups, but youth are able to make an admirable effort as well. The film shows the puppetry students, their interaction with the master, the difficulty that the school confronts in directing local education, and the charm of the glove puppet theater. To be able to perform the glove puppetry, the young Tibetan descendant must learn to speak the local Hoklo dialect. In an age when international immigration is becoming more and more common, this probably doesn’t seem so astonishing anymore. The multi-cultural influences are what makes the world so beautiful. The important thing is how to accommodate oneself to a different cultural setting and appreciate what it has to offer.

Although the topics of City of Memories and of The Gangster’s God are serious, we can still smell a sense of humor in the directors’ approaches which keeps us from falling asleep. In I Am in a Hand Puppet Troupe, we see the lovely nature of the kids, but also see the pressures and choices they have to make in their life. City of Memories talks about the elderly, The Gangster’s God documents young people, and I Am in a Hand Puppet Troupe focuses on children. Although of different ages, they all pursue their dreams for the future. Children study hard under their parents’ encouragement or pressuring; some find learning interesting, some dull. Entering the real world, the young work hard to make a living and win reputations; some succeed and some don’t. Whether staying in the center finding themselves marginalized, the elderly only hope for their health and for care from others; some are content and some feel forlorn.

In the end, it comes down to what we are searching for. How does one judge success and failure?Who decides what’s happiness and pain?In school textbooks, it’s often said that we should live in a meaningful, life-affirming way. Although we arrive in the world alone and will leave alone, we are coexisting with other individuals in the space and time between. But what is our relationships with other people?Are we soul mates in separate worlds, or just strangers who seem familiar?Friends smiling to one another, or enemies glaring at each other?More importantly, what is our relationship with ourselves?Who is the person we really want to be?I believe the three films will inspire further reflection in the audience.

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Review: The Story of Nine Indigenous Voices

Tzu-ning LEE

Chairperson, TIEFF Selection Committee / National Taiwan Museum

1.A Rainbow of Color

At the beginning of this year, when we finally decided that “Indigenous Voices” would be the theme for the 2007 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival, we had no idea from what angle and in what form the theme would be interpreted and presented. The spirit of indigenous voices in this the fourth year of the Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival emphasizes the viewpoint of the “local,” not the “center.” It respects the voices of indigenous peoples and minority groups from around the world and encourages them to exercise their right to speak up. We are no strangers to this theme. In fact, you could say that it has been a recurrent theme throughout the festival’s existence. So we were just a bit concerned that this year’s films wouldn’t do justice to a theme that has remained so important for the festival.

After films were received over the month of June, committee members entered the around-the-clock “film viewing phase” of festival preparation. Films of various themes, forms, and styles came in from all over the world. Some were long, some short, some profound and moving, some sharp and avant-garde. Some would leave you nodding your head in vigorous agreement, while others would leave you scratching your head. The more than 300 films sent in formed a rainbow of diversity so vibrant that we no longer had to worry about whether or not “local” voices would be neglected; rather, we were now concerned about which voices would be heard and which ones wouldn’t.

Due to the objective or technical limitations of the film festival and the subjective biases of the judges, however, we were deeply aware that it would be unavoidable that some wouldn’t be heard. Each film was judged on how closely it adhered to this year’s theme, its technical level, and style. They were also compared with each other. Trimming the list was necessary, but failing to be chosen by no means meant that a film was inferior. Perhaps the one thing that we can be sure of is that following the time-consuming judging process, all the selected films were outstanding in terms of technical style. More importantly, they represented unique, moving interpretations of “indigenous voices”—the festival’s longtime theme.

Nine foreign documentaries were selected as theme films for this year’s film festival. They were from Asia (Thailand, Nepal), the Americas (the US, Canada), Africa (Ghana, Cape Verde), Europe (Croatia), and Oceana (Papua New Guinea). They encompass a wide array of themes, from the lively and sultry music and dance of Africa’s Cape Verde to traditional Kampuchean dancing. Other films include Nepal’s sacred and dangerous version of “Wang Yeh’s Tour of the Land,” female Nepalese dancers who perform a balancing act between the sacred and the worldly, Ghana’s grassroots horror movie industry, a Croatian town’s masquerade festival, the Mlabri, a tribe from Northern Thailand seeking its ethnic identity, the rediscovery of the white man’s culture by the Inuit people of the Arctic, and finally a family burial organized by an anthropologist. In terms of artistic expression, the lineup includes orthodox ethnographic films shot by anthropologists and meta-ethnographic films that have completely overturned and reversed the relationship between researcher and researched, between filmmaker and subject. It consists of faithfully recorded observational films as well as films in which filmmakers actively intervened. Some are humorous and satirical, others moving, and still others solemn. Overall, these diverse films follow no single pattern or style. In terms of depth and breadth of content as well as style and form, they expand the theme and scope of indigenous voices set by the festival.

2.Music and Dance

The theme for this year’s festival is indigenous voices and three of the foreign films chosen to be shown are about music and dance. You could say that they interpret “indigenous voices” from the perspective of music and dance. The film Batuque is about a unique type of music called batuque passed down through the generations by the inhabitants of Cape Verde, a group of 15 islands located in the North Atlantic off the western coast of Africa. It was colonized in the 15th century by the Portuguese who transported slaves purchased from all over Africa to the islands. The first residents of these previously uninhabited islands brought with them the seeds of batuque music which is traditionally performed by female dancers and singers. The singers sit around in a circle to croon and keep time by slapping cloth draped across their knees, while the dancers perform their intense provocative hip movements inside the circle. Batuque was strictly banned by the authorities when Cape Verde was under Portuguese rule, but the tradition of batuque music survived and has continued to this day. This film tells the story of Raiz de Tambarina, one of Cape Verde’s oldest batuque dance troupes. Its members are not professional; rather, they are everyday people from all walks of life, making their livings as drivers, fish mongers, saleswomen, what have you. The one thing that ties them together is their passion for batuque. The film takes us deep into their lives and documents their performance, daily lives, and what performing batuque means to them. Through the film’s documentation of the life, history, and music of the islands, we see how this local music, once suppressed and considered indecent by the islands’ colonial rulers, survived the prejudice and prohibition of the colonial period to become the most distinctive symbol of Cape Verde’s contemporary culture.

Batuque shows how the rhythmic, stirring, and sensual dance helped the people of Cape Verde endure colonialism. Seasons of Migration, however, employs the leisurely and stylized traditional court dance of Kampuchea to portray the mindset of modern Kampucheans forced to leave their country. Long Beach, California has the largest population of Kampucheans outside of their homeland. They come from various backgrounds and emigrated from their homeland during different periods and for disparate reasons. Despite these differences, each immigrant has faced similar psychological dilemmas—striving to blend into their new society, but not wanting to cast aside their traditions. In order to overcome this conundrum, they go through a series of stages in which they must adapt mentally to make their new home truly home. After immigrating to Long Beach, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who received training in traditional Kampuchean dance as a young girl, continued her studies UCLA. She attempts to express the mental changes that new immigrants undergo using the language of traditional Kampuchean dance. Seasons of Migration documents the four stages of mental change that the new immigrants face through traditional music and dance, interlacing the experiences that they undergo during each period. Unhurried music and stylized body language is used to interpret the bleak mental plight of the new immigrants as they waver between their homeland and chosen home, between modernity and tradition, between East and West. Seasons of Migration suggests that sometimes the old and the new need not be mutually exclusive, being born in the West does not mean that you cannot discover the East, that you don’t have to be “at home” to make your “local voice” heard.

The third film that deals with music and dance comes from the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. Like many other nations with long traditions, Nepal’s traditional dance and dancers are facing localization and globalization and the choices and pressures they entail. Nepal’s traditional dance and the rites of its Buddhist and Hindu belief systems are intimately related. One could say that Nepal’s dancing is essentially a sacred performance. Faced with the twin torrents of globalism and secularization, the dancers of Nepal, especially the female dancers, find themselves in an awkward position. On the one hand, they are the sacred interpreters of traditional belief, on the other, Nepalese society is often critical of their performances in worldly venues, feeling that they have compromised themselves morally. This film depicts their struggle in their rapidly changing culture and their search for a way out of their predicament. The film’s director, a dancer with a Nepalese/Czech background, brings her camera deep into Kathmandu—Nepal’s capital and largest city—to record the voices of dancers living at its heart. Some are filled with ideals, others simply drift along. This brief sketch of their lives reflects the significance of dance and dancers in today’s Nepal and the transformation both are undergoing.

3.Old Vs. New

Ethnography and ethnographic films traditionally or ideally encourage the viewer to see the world through the eyes of other individuals or ethnic groups. Over the past century, however, the production of ethnography and ethnographic films has continued to primarily follow an established model that emphasizes division of labor—researchers record, subjects are presented and written about. Although they try to stress the spirit of the “native’s point of view,” in reality, it has all but been neglected. Recent years have seen a gradual change in this situation. Once presented and written about, indigenous peoples are now taking up camera and pen to not only record their own stories, but to turn around and record those who once studied them. Sometimes, like their predecessors, they can’t avoid looking through eyes distorted by bias.

Qallunaat! Why White People Are Funny, being shown at the festival, is a sardonic example of this kind of film. It has turned traditional documentary films on their head. “Qallunaat” is the Inuit word for “white man.” Historically, Inuits, who reside in the Arctic Circle, have been one of the ethnic groups most frequently studied, documented, presented, and written about by the “white people” from the south. The topic and main characters of Nanook of the North (1922), a classic by R. Flaherty—regarded as the originator of documentary films—are Inuits, also commonly known as Eskimos. After a century of being the subject of study and documentation, they decided to take up research materials and cameras themselves to study and record what they consider hilarious about the white man’s culture. Such things as rituals they perform when they meet, the way they suppress natural bodily needs, their awkward courtship ritual, the way they complain about being ignored, their irrational attempts to conquer the world, their bureaucracy, their fascination with wealth, and their need to have police officers serve as nannies. Inuits find these bizarre customs and attitudes both hilarious and worth studying, so they established the Qallunaat Study Institute (QSI) to research and document this peculiar ethnic group. The fact that one of its producers is also CEO and the head researcher of QSI increases the academic value of the film. Anybody who finds the white man’s culture funny will want to watch this film over and over again.

Qallunaat! Why White People Are Funny throws the perspective and image production methods of traditional ethnographic films on its head in a spirit of sarcasm and jest. In the same way, The Turcisce Carnival challenges films that limit themselves to observation. Its subject is the masquerade party in Me?imurje, a village in northern Croatia. In the past, the Me?imurje festival was renowned for simple wooden masks, traditional music and musical instruments, and historical skits, but when a director and camera personnel raced to the village to film it, they discovered that the festival hadn’t taken place there for forty years. Each year, performers prefer going elsewhere to perform the masquerade festival rather than stay in Me?imurje. What’s more, the more deeply the filmmakers dug, the more secrets they discovered, like the fact that the town’s two mask makers—one old and one new, are the center of a dispute. The townsfolk are split into two camps, each uncompromisingly supporting one or the other. What’s more, the locals knew that there would be cameras in the town to shoot this year’s festival and this made them want to break with the “tradition” of performing the festival elsewhere and bring it back to Me?imurje to perform it in front of the cameras. The appearance and involvement of the filmmakers and their cameras served to change how the villagers conducted this ancient tradition. This tested the attitude of locals in regard to their traditions and the idea of the objectivity of documentary films and filmmakers.

The makers of The Turcisce Carnival wonder if it is truly possible for the “omniscient,” objective, and invisible camera people in observational filming to really avoid presenting a world untainted by their own biases. Ghanaian Video Tales is a grassroots tradition that stands in sharp contrast to Hollywood’s global moviemaking industry. Hollywood used its copious funds, advanced technology, and powerful marketing capabilities to dominate the world’s movie markets throughout the second half of the 20th century. The world became little more than Hollywood’s cultural colonies, but in the small African nation of Ghana, the term “movies” isn’t tantamount to “Hollywood.” How has this tiny nation been able to resist Hollywood’s “nefarious” cultural empire? The answer: videos. Since the 1990s, affordable videotapes became commonly available and began to change Africa’s media world. The unique new genre of Ghana’s horror films arose against this background. The popular Snake Man series depicts the snake man transforming women into money-making prostitutes. Despite the bizarre/absurd plots and the primitive shooting and acting, the films seem to strike a chord with the locals. What’s more, with the widespread ownership of video recorders and affordable, easy-to-handle tapes, movies can be hawked on the street. Driven by local tastes and marketing methods, the Snake Man series became an overnight success and laid the way for Ghana’s new and highly popular local horror films. Ghanaian Video Tales documents the rise of this unique genre, including what happens in front of and behind the scenes of Ghana’s local horror films, and the reactions and reflections of actors and directors. In the face of the global barrage of Hollywood movies, Ghana’s locally-made horror films have done exceedingly well and won over the hearts of local viewers.

4.Identity, Religion, and Family

Is there still room for local voices to be heard in the face of globalization? As ways of life, economic lives, religious beliefs, and ideas in general from different areas around the globe integrate at an alarming pace, do local differences mean anything anymore? In recent years, debates have revealed that the desire to belong is another facet of globalization. Despite the trend toward globalization, therefore, geographical boundaries have remained in a state of flux, while, insistence on some kind of demarcation line has continued to be a key characteristic of our current age. Phenomena of this sort have seen increasing resistance between minority groups and outsiders (anthropologists, tourists, etc.) as they fear that their cultural knowledge, identity, and economic resources will disappear as a result.

The Importance of Being Mlabri focuses on searching to belong in a rapidly changing world. In the past, the Mlabrim, an ethnic group that inhabited the jungles of Northern Thailand, survived by hunting and gathering. In recent years, however, the expanding agricultural and logging industries have caused their forests to shrink. Unable to maintain their old way of life, the Mlabri people have been forced to relocate to nearby villages where they do odd jobs or agricultural work for other ethnic groups. But to their minds, their hard life is of secondary importance. What truly concerns the Mlabri is whether or not their traditional culture and the identity that their people have with that culture will continue to exist as they serve outsiders (i.e., Thais and other ethnic groups of the mountains). Their traditional way of life is gone for good, but how can they adapt to their new surroundings without losing their traditions? With a current population of only 320, the Mlabri face this precarious situation and threat on a daily basis. We watch as a group of Mlabri children prepares to go study at a Thai boarding school. The children look excited, but the parents are frightened that they will be assimilated by outsiders. Unable to find any unbetrothed Mlabri girls, young men are forced to seek mates outside of the village where they find themselves in a sea of other ethnic groups. This is a story about how one group of people searches for identity in a changing world. You won’t see main characters shouting until they’re blue in the face about all the wrongs visited upon them. This film focuses rather on touching images and the equally touching sound of the Mlabri tongue to show the tenacity of the Mlabri and their determination not to give in.

Faced with life’s vicissitudes, some people simply bow their heads in acceptance and many turn to religion. On The Road With the Red God: Machhendranath depicts a splendid religious rite performed every 12 years in Nepal. It differs from many other religious ceremonies in that it is “mobile.” Tens of thousands of believers cluster around a tower 19 meters in height set atop a huge wobbly wooden cart. They tour the country on rugged narrow mountain paths for over a month. In addition to zealous veneration of the “touring god” Machhendranath and various rites and sacrifices performed prior to the tour, the biggest test is the actual handling of this wooden cart of Trojan horse dimensions as it proceeds while surrounded by thousands of enthusiastic followers. Believers are all aware of the dangers involved in this sacred journey. The mammoth vehicle, made out of traditional materials using traditional tools, could topple over at anytime—it wouldn’t be the first time. Many people remain traumatized from the last unfortunate episode and the ensuing disaster. This year, as the “Mighty Miracle God” prepares to hit the road again, believers’ hearts are filled with both apprehension and anticipation and the entire nation is holding its breath and watching attentively. According to tradition, this mighty red god evaded pursuing evil spirits to bring blessings to our world. Will he be able to elude them again as they lie in wait for him this year? Will his tour of the land proceed free of hitches? Perhaps it depends upon everyone’s faith.

The success or failure of a religious ritual can impact the emotions of thousands of followers. In the same way, the appropriate handling of a funeral can influence family relations. This is the theme of the film Ngat is Dead: Studying Mortuary Traditions. Danish anthropologist Ton Otto’s godfather passed away. They met when Otto was performing field studies on the Melanesian island of Baluan. Local tradition dictated that he hold a funeral for his dead father, but upon his return from Denmark, he found that a funeral had already been held by another son. Driven by his promise to his godfather and his understanding of island tradition, he decided to hold a second funeral. His decision triggered both positive and negative reactions from relatives. The ceremony finally took place amidst a cloud of contention as both sides cited tradition to support their cases. The controversy continued to spread. Some family members were very pleased; others felt they were treated shabbily. The happy ones praised the success of the ceremony; the unhappy ones went to great pains to show complicated genealogy charts and how they had been slighted. The funeral showed that family relations are not simply some abstract idea—a genealogical chart in an anthropologist’s notebook. It illustrated rather that they are something to be haggled over. Each person felt that they didn’t receive enough and pointed out jealously that others received too much. This social drama between an anthropologist and locals reveals that the concept of “familial relations” isn’t necessarily as abstract and simple as textbooks would have us believe.

5.Them and Us

Nine films, nine local stories. There is no need to force a common theme or profound meaning. If there is, it is the riveting local story that each film tells and the fact that these films have come together to form yet another exciting ethnographic film festival.

The “what” of the stories is obviously important, but how the stories are told is equally important. Just like good ethnography, quality ethnographic films enable us to feel unique cultural experiences as if we were there; they enable us to bridge cultural and geographic gaps. We sigh and praise them as they take our emotions on a rollercoaster ride as the ethnic groups in the films show us things we’ve never seen before.

Perhaps that is the nature of ethnographic films. Maybe this is the unique allure of anthropology. The different stories of the festival’s various films tug at the similarities in our hearts. Watching stories about others teaches us more about ourselves.

Prior to viewing these films, had you ever seen or heard the singing and dancing of Africa’s Cape Verde, Kampuchea’s traditional dance, Nepal’s Machhendranath’s Tour of the Land ceremony, Ghana’s horror films, or Croatia’s masquerade festival? And who knew anything about the crisis of identity of Northern Thailand’s Mlabri people, the Inuit’s study of whites, the family funerals of the people of Papua New Guinea, and the status of women dancers in Nepal? Perhaps you knew nothing about these, but as Taiwanese, we have seen, we have heard, and we understand Cloud Gate, the Nanguan Puppet Theater, Wang Yeh’s Tour of the Land, the veneration of Matsu, Steven Chow movies, blasting Han Dan Ye with firecrackers to dispel evil, the movement among indigenous peoples to use their traditional names, and the dispute raging in Wang Yung-ching’s family. No concrete relationship exists between the two, but it’s hard to deny that there is a certain level of similarity between them. So just how big or small is the gap between things with which we are familiar and those with which we are not, between what is similar to us and that which is different from us, and between “them” and “us?”

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Review: A Dynamic Taiwan, Indigenous Voices

Hung-Min TZENG

Doctoral Student

Graduate Institute of Anthropology

National Taiwan University

“Indigenous Voices” was selected as the theme for the 2007 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival in hopes that indigenous films would offer local perspectives and give indigenous voices the chance to be heard, thereby encouraging reflection and dialog with the rest of the world. The over one hundred documentaries from both Taiwan and abroad that were received had to be sifted through, judged, and films selected to be shown at this year’s festival. In contrast with the nine foreign-made documentaries that were chosen as theme films, familiarity with the content of the 100-plus locally-made Taiwan films made it more difficult for the evaluators to judge them. In the end, the rules stated that only four theme films from Taiwan could be chosen.

The four films selected not only meet this festival’s theme requirements, they share common scenes from local everyday life. Si Yabosokanen, for example, guides the audience into the contented world of Orchid Island’s senior citizens. It was directed by Si Yabosokanen, a nurse who has recorded the lives of Orchid Island’s elderly over a long period of time. Futura C.L. Tsai, who has immersed himself in anthropology and field work for many years, shares the vitality of the culture of young Amis of Dulan Village through his film Amis Hip Hop. God Family, directed by Taiwanese Hakka Shirley Lin, is a record of her grandmother’s world in the village of Meinong. It reveals the everyday spiritual life of Taiwan’s rural Hakka. Finally, in his film Plant Wars, director Asio Liu offers new ideas on what it means to belong from the perspective of the relationship between plants and humans.

I. The Life Song of Orchid Island

Si Yabosokanen, which will be the opening film for this year’s festival, is director Si Yabosokanen’s latest film following her 2001 film And Deliver Us From Evil. Originally entitled Final Resting Place, the film was originally intended to continue the story started in And Deliver Us From Evil, that is, showing the lives of the elderly people of Orchid Island who move to temporary houses to live out the rest of their lives. The diversity of life experiences and growth recorded during the shooting of the new film, however, resulted in it being renamed “Si Yabosokanen.” In addition to representing vast improvement in terms of camera work, editing, and presentation methods, this film is an all-new follow-up annotation for And Deliver Us From Evil.

On Orchid Island, when an older person loses their spouse, becomes ill, or is unable to move around on their own, in order to avoid being a burden to their family, they ask their children to construct a temporary house for them to live in. This “last home” is generally built near or next to the residence of one of their children to make it easier to care for the elderly occupant and deliver meals. This documentary records the lives of some elderly women in three fishing villages, living outside of the homes of their families. The film focuses on their eating to portray their daily lives. It shows the contentment they feel, their indifference to worldly pursuits, and their lack of demands. The director observes through her lens the lives of these senior citizens and re-experiences the intrinsic nature of Orchid Island’s culture. She shows us how the elderly shown in Si Yabosokanen adapt to the pace of Orchid Island to enjoy carefree, quiet lives of ease and happiness without burdening others. This is, in a nutshell, the philosophy of life for the people of Orchid Island. The nickname “Si Yabosokanen” (literally, “Has nothing to eat”) given to the film’s director by these older ladies epitomizes the reserved, unpretentious manner of Orchid Island’s residents. It is their way of praying that director Si Yabosokanen always has an abundance of food to eat.

II.The Humorous Singing and Dancing of Dulan Village

In an atmosphere of merrymaking, Amis Hip Hop presents the new world of singing and dancing of Dulan Village’s young people. This film portrays the “la zhong qiao” age group of Dulan Village and how they incorporate innovative dancing into the traditional dance of the Harvest Festival and their life in general. When I viewed this documentary, I could feel the hustle and bustle and overflowing vitality of Taiwan’s rural villages. Director Futura C.L. Tsai has spent so much time performing field work in Dulan that he has become a “half native Amis.” The subjects of this film are of the same age group as him. The term “la zhong qiao” comes from Zhonghua Daqiao (Literally, “Chinese Bridge”) and is adapted to describe this age group. This fact shows the flexibility of the people of Dulan and how they have stayed abreast of the times. Amis Hip Hop records how the village’s young people assimilate elements of pop culture into the tribe’s traditional dance—how they blend innovation and tradition. Examples include the Amis Harvest Festival dance entitled Three Phoenixes Dance, in which dancers hold small parasols, and the new comic F4 version of a wedding banquet performance. To outsiders, their dancing might appear almost comic, but older members of the audience have a good time and the dances are an important force bringing age groups closer together.

This differs from the traditional dance that we normally witness at Harvest Festivals. To the Dulan villagers, “tradition” is not restricted to the “tradition of form” used to entertain the public; rather, it is the recreation of the cultural core as one seeks to extend the life force of the culture. Diversity and borrowing are necessary if a culture is to continue to grow. In this film, these young people use their rich creativity to put culture into practice and search for a new direction for their cultural traditions. In addition to becoming a way to interpret their culture, Amis-style humor serves as an important force, a glue if you will, for cultural identification. Although this documentary hints at the difficulty these young people experience as they strive to make a living away from their village, this is contrasted to the sense of belonging they feel for their village and their desire to return to “have a good time.” Their vitality and confidence has even become an intrinsic part of Amis daily activities.

III. Making Friends with Deities

The short film God Family does an outstanding job of representing the real world in rural Taiwan. It vividly portrays the folk religious beliefs of Taiwan and the intimate relationships of her people. Director Shirley Lin went to her grandmother’s home for a visit. When she inadvertently discovered that one of her grandmother’s valuable bronze figurines had been stolen from her home, her grandmother unexpectedly tossed “buobuei” (cast lots using half-moon shaped pieces of carved bamboo root) before her deities to determine who stole the statuette. An astonished Lin then began recording her grandmother’s life at home.

Her family resembles other rural Taiwan families in many ways, but it is also unique in many ways—Lin’s grandmother is a believer in her gods; her grandfather likes to buy medicines advertised on underground radio stations; her aunt is a spirit medium; her uncle is an occasional daydreamer; and because he is being raised in an environment saturated in folk religion, her grandmother’s grandchild is afraid of ghosts. From the way she seeks assistance from deities, it is evident that her grandmother feels helpless and has been troubled for years by family problems. It suddenly becomes understandable why her gods have become her psychological counselors. One particularly long scene of Grandmother resting in bed conveys her grief and the love that director Lin behind the camera feels for her. The unhurried pace and the fascinating presentation of the Lin family show the viewer the common needs and spiritual beliefs of people everywhere.

IV. Plants Know No Motherland

In contrast to the other three films, the leading role in this documentary is played by things that have a very close relationship with us—plants. Plant Wars shares the relationships that humans have with various plants. The film introduces indigenous species like the Formosan sugar palm, the camphor tree, and the coral tree, as well as such introduced species as sweet potatoes, cobbler’s pegs, tung oil trees, and white popinac. Others plants include the hard-to-distinguish Formosan weeping forsythia and the royal palm. Each tells a story from a different age. Contemplating the idea of “indigenous” and “introduced” species, the director asks people who raise the banner to protect indigenous plant species, “Has anybody actually thought about how indigenous and introduced species differ?” The phrase “plants know no motherland” gets the point across very clearly—does it really make sense to pigeonhole plants like this? The royal palm, for instance, was introduced by the Japanese colonial government which pictured Taiwan more along the lines of a South Pacific island. These distinctions are oftentimes more in our mind than anywhere else. What’s more, it wasn’t the choice of plants to be taken with humans as they traveled the world.

This film will probably make many people think of ethnic issues in Taiwan. When composing this text, I saw scenes on TV of political opponents in Taiwan holding a standoff in front of the Presidential Palace. You might be curious about how someone in the field of biology views Taiwan’s ethnic relations. The natural environment is selfless as it shares the spark of life, but all species must struggle for room to exist. As plant specialists in the film strive to prevent the spread of white popinac, plant species themselves are creating a new environment in which they can coexist. Perhaps there’s a lesson in there for us.

V. Salute to Life

These four films narrate the vitality of Taiwan. They salute life, but they are also familiar stories to us, chronicles of the things that happen around us. We bear witness to people of an indigenous tribe attempting to find a way to carry on their culture and watch accounts of various plants and their relationships with Taiwan throughout history. Even more moving, however, we see one person after another striving to continue recording the true story of Taiwan. When I think about the shooting and editing of the documentary Si Yabosokanen, I truly understand how these filmmakers have experienced life through the subjects of their films. They are working hard to learn to observe from a local perspective. This reminds me of something I heard during an interview: “When filming, I am most deeply touched by her quiet gaze. Her steady, anticipation-filled gaze is far more moving than those ‘perfect shots’ that I used to want so urgently to capture.”

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Review: Falling through the Cracks: Wedged Between the Past, Present, and Future

Introduction to the Three Films from the Program “Formosa Aboriginal News Magazine” on Taiwan Indigenous TV in the 2007 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival

Cheng-liang TSAI


The Institute of Anthropology, National Tsing Hua University

Seeing is a simple enough concept, but

seeing without understanding is not truly seeing,

seeing without appreciating is not truly seeing,

seeing without respecting is not truly seeing.

Taiwan’s indigenous peoples expect to be truly understood, truly appreciated, and truly respected

They expect that Taiwan can truly SEE the world of the island’s indigenous peoples.

─ Taiwan Indigenous TV【TITV Weekly】

The theme of the 2007 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival is Indigenous Voices. Three of the selected films for this year’s festival were originally broadcast as part of the program “Formosa Aboriginal News Magazine” on Taiwan Indigenous TV (TITV, Asia’s first exclusively aboriginal television network): 《When the Village Encounters the Country》by Pisuy Masou and Vikung LaLegeam,《Conversation of Tali and Yaki》by Halugu Watan (Chang Shu-min), and《Retrospect Days of White Terrors》by Pisuy Silan and Kaleh Kalahe (Kao Chih-chang). These three films, all helmed by aboriginal producers, show how Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are stuck between the past, their current reality, and visions of the future. They feature stories that were overlooked by Taiwan’s mainstream media. While each film may express distinct viewpoints and utilize different techniques, they all share a common sentiment. The viewer can hear a voice urgently struggling to free itself from the space between the present, past, and future. The filmmakers attempt to bring these often untold stories out into the light, which is also the goal of TITV. The station endeavors to expose society to Taiwan’s aborigines, so that people can understand, appreciate, and respect them, so that Taiwan can truly SEE the world of the island’s indigenous peoples. These three films are told in aborigines’ own words, which convey an eagerness to be truly seen by the world.

When the Village Encounters the Country

In its short running time of 28 minutes, this film is able to directly, strongly, and completely portray a case of government sanctioned violence. Different from usual news reports, which are purposely unbiased, this story is told from the point of view of the Taiya people, who denounce the unjust national violence and the government’s slow pace to make amends.

This film portrays the story of three Taiya tribe members, all residents of the Semakuse village in Hsinchu. Following a typhoon, beech trees were uprooted by the storm on what they consider to be Taiya land. After a tribal meeting, the three men decided to bring the fallen trees back to the village, as is customary. However, the Forestry Bureau saw this as stealing national property, and took the men to court for breaking Forest Law. The men were sentenced to six months in prison or a fine of NT$160,000 and two years probation. In hopes of overturning the verdict, the Taiya people in Semakuse launched an appeal, which is still pending in the courts.

The director uses traditional Taiya songs to narrate the film, with vocalist Yi Chen (the head of the Taiya people in Semakuse) expressing the anger and frustration of the Taiya people in Semakuse through song. The traditional chanting paired with the film’s images show the depth of understanding the aboriginal film producers have towards their own culture. Using this unique storytelling technique, it is as if the directors raise up a Taiya headhunting knife high above their heads and scream out against this unjust government-sanctioned violence.

The film cannot be considered a news report in the traditional sense, because it is clear that the filmmakers side with the villagers. As an independent, autonomous aboriginal television station, TITV aims to serve not just as a news source, but as an arena for the island’s indigenous peoples to express their own viewpoints, when for so long, society at large was completely devoid of their voices. Such films want more than to simply show the world of Taiwanese aborigines, but seek understanding from the outside world. By featuring these three selections at this year’s Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival, TITV can reach a larger audience and expose the problems that have occurred when strong and weak groups have collided throughout Taiwan’s history.

Conversation of Tali and Yaki


Unlike “When the Village Encounters the Country”, the film “Conversation of Tali and Yaki” is not a strong indictment of the unjustness that occurs when tradition meets modernity, but it has a kind of inescapable sadness.

Tali and Yaki of the film’s title are members of the Taiya tribe, one young and one old, who have never met. By contrasting their experiences living in different eras, the film portrays the Taiya identity and expresses the struggles, frustrations, and courage of its people. Despite the opposition of other tribe members, young Tali seeks out a Han Chinese tattoo artist to give him a traditional Taiya facial tattoo, which have all but disappeared in modern times. He simply wishes to become a true Taiya person, even influencing his wife and children to help him bring back this tradition, together bravely reclaiming the self-identity of the Taiya. Yaki, on the other hand, is nearly 80 years old. She and Tali have never met, but they have something in common. She might be the last person living to have received a tribally performed facial tattoo. However, it pains her to remember how her parents forced her to get the tattoo as a young girl. Tali’s opinions about the tradition concern and reassure her at the same time. By contrasting the stories of Tali and Yaki, the film conveys the contradictory emotions the Taiya people have felt towards facial tattooing over the years and the conflict between tradition and modernity.

The purpose of the film is not simply to praise Tali for courageously carrying on the tradition while facing pressures from modern society. The director’s technique portrays the struggles, frustrations, and courage of the Taiya, who are caught between their traditions and the modern world. The director clearly knows that if his film just bemoaned the loss of tradition, it could not accurately portray the lives of contemporary Taiya people and their emotions about the facial tattoo tradition. By interweaving the stories told by Tali and Yaki, he skillfully illustrates how tradition and modernity have both conflicted and blended together. The two Taiya are members of different generations who have lived through very different periods in the tribe’s history, but their lives portray the frustration and courage shown by the Taiya as they face the progression of history. These aboriginal filmmakers are not simply using their films to condemn the loss of tradition, but hope to portray a more complete story of the problems and situations that aborigines face living in the modern world.

Retrospect Days of White Terror

While “Conversation of Tali and Yaki” portrays a story of contemporary aboriginal people, “Retrospect Days of White Terror” seeks to retrace history and uncover a story that has nearly been forgotten, the story of the ultimate sacrifice made by early aboriginal leaders Lin Jui-chang and Kao Yi-sheng during Taiwan’s White Terror.

When people discuss the White Terror or the February 28 Incident, they rarely think beyond the conflict that occurred within Han Chinese society. This film tries to sketch in events that occurred during that period, like the sacrifice of these two men, which have been omitted from the history books. The movement to recover traditional names and the land claim movement are generally seen as the initial stirrings of the aboriginal political movement. “Retrospect Days of White Terror”, however, claims that the movement began much earlier, with the sacrifices of Lin Jui-chang (Taiya), Lin Chao-ming (Taiya), Kao Yi-sheng (Tsou) and Tang Shou-jen (Tsou) that paved the way for the next generation of leaders.

It brings to light a long forgotten tragedy that had slipped through the cracks. The filmmakers show that the aboriginal political movement can be traced much further back than most people realize. Taiwan’s aborigines did not wait until the 1980’s, as is often believed, before they began to resist the government that had for so long violated their rights.

Telling Their Own Stories to the World: Taiwan Indigenous TV

The excellent filmmakers who produced these works are also employees of TITV, which first broadcast the three selected films. These stories were saved from oblivion to be enjoyed and understood by the greater Taiwanese society. Although it has been a difficult road for TITV after its founding more than two years ago, more and more talented aborigines are joining its ranks and its operations are getting on track. TITV’s programs are increasingly diverse, but it is still guided by its core principle: to show Taiwan’s society the true aboriginal experience that has long been ignored.

These indigenous filmmakers open a window through which those outside can truly see their world.

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