Review: Preface Visual Exploration of the Body and Soul

Hu Tai-Li (Festival President, TIEFF 2009)

Launched in 2001, the biennial Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival (TIEFF) is holding its fifth installment this year. Previous festivals explored the themes of Island Odyssey, Migration Story, Family Variation, and Indigenous Voices, while TIEFF 2009 will delve into the central theme of Body and Soul.

This year’s festival director and I have both dealt with the recent losses of loved ones, so we share a deep understanding of illness and death. When she proposed physical healing as a potential theme to the film festival organizing committee, I suggested that the theme also incorporate the soul as well. In cultures around the world, the soul is always involved in discussions of physical illness and death. We received a total of 300 submissions of various themes from Taiwan and countries around the world. 19 of the final 34 films chosen for screening at TIEFF 2009 fit into the theme of Body and Soul.

Arguably, the most difficult events people face in their lives are illness and death. Each culture has its own traditional views on illness and healing practices, with many relying on shamans who can communicate with spirits to drive out illness and deal with souls. At TIEFF 2009, five engaging films feature shamans. First, in the Looking Back section of the festival, A Balinese Trance Seance is a collaboration between the late ethnographic documentary director Timothy Asch and anthropologist Linda Connor filmed in Bali. The pair also worked together on Releasing the SpiritsA Village Cremation in Bali to document a mass cremation ceremony held to release the spirits of the deceased to be reborn in its next body. We have also invited famous visual anthropologist Karl Heider to head the post-viewing discussion session.

In the four other films (BetweenFate of The LhapaThe ShadowLiving with the Invisibles), we meet Korean shamans, Tibetan shamans exiled to Nepal, Indonesian Wana shamans, and Moroccan spirit mediums who all chant and beat drums to cure their patients. Even in modern society, when western medicine seems to be at a loss, people still look to their traditional cultures and seek out the power of alternative healing. Continuing in this year’s theme, the festival also features three extremely moving films about facing death, FAMILYHard Good Life and Trekking in Wind and Rain. Although their loved one may be gone, surviving family and friends continue to talk to the spirit of the deceased as they sing and seek comfort in funeral and burial ceremonies. FAMILY, one of the festival’s opening films, depicts bereaved parents who decide to donate their beloved son’s body to serve as a teaching cadaver at a hospital. Their love spurs them to make this sacrifice, allowing their son to contribute even after his death.

Films selected to represent this year’s theme reflect many types of disabilities and illnesses, including leprosy (Korea’s Lady Camellia and Taiwan’s Leprous Life), cancer (Transparent Time, Hard Good Life 2), deafness (Voices from EL Sayed), blindness (Bilal), Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a.k.a., ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, (Seeing Freezing Life-The Most Intimate Computer Family), mental illness (People Say I’m Crazy), HIV and AIDS (Native Canadian The Long Walk and Swaziland’s Today the Hawk Takes One Chick). Although some of the sufferers were separated from their communities due to their illnesses, they ultimately created an unbreakable bond not only with their own families, but with society as a whole, influencing all those they met. The opening film, Today the Hawk Takes One Chick, struck us with its portrayal of the high mortality rate in some African villages caused by HIV, while the majority of children orphaned by the disease must rely on their grandmothers as they face a precarious future.

Aboriginal society always is a major focus of TIEFF and we also hope to see more native people pick up video cameras to record their own cultures. Following the introduction of Hopi director Victor Masayesva and Taiwanese Amis director Mayaw Biho at the last TIEFF, this year we are presenting two works by Pilin Yabu, a member of Taiwan’s Atayal Tribe. The Stories of Rainbow depicts elders with tattooed faces and ancestral spirits, while Through Thousands Years (one of the festival’s closing films) is a new film describing the experiences of a non-aboriginal Han Chinese film crew as they interact with the Atayal Tribe. Featured films also include Orchid Island (Lanyu) ’s Tau Tribe member Hsieh Fu-mei’s (謝福美) first film Men’s Ocean, Women’s Calla Lily Field, which will be screened together with Rowing the Cinat. While also about Orchid Island, the second was filmed by a Han Chinese director providing a different perspective. Additional films featured at TIEFF 2009 chronicling ethnic minorities directed by members of those groups include Mu Xiaoqiao’s (木小橋) outstanding Trekking in Wind and Rain about the Nakhi of China and Ellen-Astri Lundby’s Suddenly Sami about Norway’s SamiFilmed by local residents, The Lost Buddha, explores the culture of the Northern Shaanxi province, while truly capturing the unique spirit of the area. Also, a Hakka cameraman chronicles Taiwan’s Hakka culture in Small Steps on a Long Road.

French director Martine Journet (filmed Indonesian Wana shaman) and Australian director Tom Murray (filmed the ceremonial culture of Australia’s Yolngu people), accomplished filmmakers who have both spent long-periods of time living in aboriginal societies, once again have films featured at TIEFF and have again been invited to attend the film festival. Tom Murray’s new film In My Father’s Country (one of the festival’s closing films) shows the assault from the outside world faced by Australia’s Yolngu culture and the elders’ touching battle to teach the tribe’s young people their traditional rituals and culture. The Taiwanese selection, Sing It!, records a school principal of the Bunun Tribe who works to pass on traditional Bunun songs to the tribe’s children. The Sixth Resettlement, a work from mainland China, interweaves black and white footage from a 1960’s documentary with modern footage to document the lives of the Kucong people in their traditional hunter-gatherer society caught up in a wrenching cycle of repeated resettlement and escape back to their original homes as they face their sixth resettlement. In Search of the Hamat’sa: A Tale of Headhunting, uses Anthropologist Franz Boas’ 1894 witnessing of the Canadian Kwakiutl hamatsa, or cannibal dance, and Edward Curtis 1914 film as a jumping off point to research the history and significance of the dance. The film shows how interaction between anthropologists, museums, and native peoples led to the development of the modern ritual.

Two films in this year’s festival touch on how traditional culture can affect and restrict women. Desert Brides depicts the difficulties faced by Israel’s Bedouin women living in a society where polygamy is still prevalent. Menstruation is a look at how Nepalese women living in Himalayan mountain villages are viewed as being unclean during their monthly period and are traditionally forced to live apart from society in unsanitary huts.

Ethnographic film festivals often serve as a forum to discover and highlight a director’s first work. When an individual first picks up a video camera, it is often easiest to point the lens at his or her own family. However, producing an intimate, relevant film is not easy. At this year’s film festival Hsieh Fu-mei (謝福美), a member of Orchid Island’s Tau Tribe, used her parents as subjects of her first film Men’s Ocean, Women’s Calla Lily Field. Chen Hsin-yi’s The Captive exposes her father’s secret—he once fought for the Communist army and was a prisoner of war. The film is a moving depiction of the conflict and mutual support between father and daughter and husband and wife.

There are two films that lie outside of this year’s theme that are nevertheless especially rich in cultural significance, Jerusalem(s) and Patrasche, a Dog of Flanders, Made in Japan. In a world where travel has allowed people from different backgrounds to shuttle across the globe, these two films show us the variety of ideas and interpretations that different cultures and religions can have on the same subject. When Belgians change the appearance of Patrasche and his owner to better fit Japanese tourists’ image of the characters gleaned from a popular animated feature, they blur the line between cultural reality and fantasy. TIEFF 2009 features a variety of films that will expand our horizons while nourishing our bodies and souls.

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Review: Viewing Images of Mind, Body, and Soul

Lin Wen-ling (Director, TIEFF 2009)

Reflections on body and soul

Over the past 20 years, the body has shifted from a fairly peripheral social fact to a core idea in the fields of anthropology and sociology. Knowledge and discourse pertaining to health and healing have come to hold an increasingly significant standing. In the past, sociologists and anthropologists theorized the body and healing based on their own disciplinary presumptions. In sociology, the body was primarily understood as subject to social structure, while in anthropology it was examined through the lens of culture as formed amid the interaction between the individual and the collective. The ways that each field developed to view the body taught us how to better understand human beings, unlocking a wealth of knowledge, but it also resulted in significant constraints. Viewing the body from social structural or cultural perspective, individual perception and subjective experience have by contrast remained relatively unexplored.

In recent years, we have continuously reflected on the topics of the body, health, and healing, especially with the prevalence of the Western medical system. Under the value system created by the medical model, people are seen as the sum of their parts. Illnesses are caused by bacteria and viruses, so doctors destroy these invaders or defend against them in order to repair the body. The physical and mental are compartmentalized and the body is seen as a machine that can be repaired.

Scholars in the humanities and social sciences have recently turned their attention to questions of the body, probing into the effects of the modern medical system on the body, mind, and soul. Examining this convergence in modern society encouraged us to propose Body and Soul as the theme for this film festival and its learning activities. We succeeded in attracting exciting documentaries from around the world, featuring different cultures, beliefs, medical systems, and ideas about illness. Through screenings, study, and lectures, we can discuss, research, and examine the profound subjects of the body, health, and healing in very understandable terms. On a premise that covers both holistic observation and individual experience, we can lead attendees on a deep exploration of all aspects of the topic.

TIEFF 2009’s cross-cultural perspective aims to show the variety of different treatments that have been developed by different cultures and societies to promote a healthy body and soul. These treatments include shaman healers in aboriginal societies, traditional remedies, modern medicine, alternative medicine, and spiritual healing. During this year’s festival, we hope that through the prism of the various cultures featured, we can increase our understanding of our bodies and souls and gain insights on how to best keep them healthy.

Seven Screening Categories

While the theme of the fifth Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival is Body and Soul, we also welcomed the submission of outstanding new cultural documentaries on any subject completed within the last two years (2007–2009). A total of 34 vivid and moving documentaries were chosen for screening. We hope that these selections can give our audience a deeper understanding of body and soul as well as the development of medical treatments. As we reflect on these topics and empathize with others, we can in turn pay increased attention to the body and soul and have more respect for those around us. At the same time, we hope that these films can expand viewer knowledge of the rich cultures of the world’s diverse ethnic groups and societies.
The variety of exciting films chosen for the festival, on and off-theme, led to the following seven categories of films in TIEFF 2009:

Directors in Focus:

Directors in Focus introduces two films by the highly regarded team of American ethnographic filmmakers Timothy and Patsy Asch and anthropologist Linda Conner. The two classics, A Balinese Trance Seance and Releasing the Spirits: A Village Cremation in Bali, are part of the filmmakers’ series on the beliefs and rituals of Bali.

TIEFF 2009’s Directors in Focus section also introduces Bilin Yabu, a member of Taiwan’s Atayal Tribe, and his two films that delve into Atayal culture and aboriginal identity, power, and conflict: The Stories of Rainbow and Through Thousands Years. These two films were produced 10 years apart. From them, we can examine how the director pierces the surface, digging deep into the varied intertwining relationships between cultural exchange, communication, and conflict the Atayal people face.

An Imperfect Life:

There are nine films in this section that explore the body, our senses, and the soul through different physical and mental conditions, portraying how misfortune and unfavorable living conditions affect people’s lives. The following nine stimulating films are featured in this section: Seeing Freezing Life—The Most Intimate Computer FamilyLeprous LifeTransparent TimeLady Camellia, Bilal, The Long Walk, Today the Hawk Takes One ChickVoices from El Sayed, and People Say I’m Crazy.

Along the Path:

Birth, aging, illness, and death are major challenges faced in life, especially when we are not prepared. During our pain and sorrow as we see others go through these experiences, or we do so ourselves, we must still face reality, as we continuously yearn for and remember those loved ones who have already gone. FAMILYHard Good Life 2, and Trekking in Wind and Rain are three moving films that deal with life and death, the most basic issues we face.

Shaman Healing:

This section includes BetweenFate of the LhapaLiving with the Invisibles, and The SHADOW, four films bursting with vibrant culture that explore how the shamans from different cultures shuttle between the realms of good and evil to prevent disasters and remove adversity. These films are rare treats that should not be missed.

Local Viewpoints:

Rowing the Cinat; Men’s Ocean, Women’s Calla Lily FieldDesert BridesIn My Father’s Country; and Menstruation have been placed in the Local Viewpoints category. These five films use different topics as jumping off points, but have a common purpose of getting closer to the viewpoints, thoughts, and concerns of the people involved. By getting so close to their subjects, we are privy to the interactions between the group and the outside world, and between members of different classes and genders within the group. From this perspective, we can get a unique viewpoint on how people in each culture themselves view the issues.

Roots and Routes:

Small Steps on a Long RoadThe Sixth ResettlementThe Lost BuddhaSuddenly Sami,In Search of the Hamat’sa: A Tale of Headhunting and Jerusalem(s)portray stories common to almost every society: Those separated from their culture search endlessly and walk down innumerable roads before they can once again return home, literally or figuratively. Only after such a journey, can their origins begin to become clearer.

Rhapsody in Reel Life:

Sing It!The Captive, and Patraschea Dog of Flanders, Made in Japan show us the many intricacies of life. The joys and sorrows we experience crystallize into the power to ignite a multitude of wonders and expand our horizons.

A Variety of Activities

2009/10/02 (Friday)
On the afternoon of TIEFF 2009’s opening day, we will hold an international forum to try to answer the question: “Just how close can a filmmaker get…?” We have invited directors and experts in visual images to discuss how filmmakers, in a world of the physical, mental, and spiritual along with illness and sensory experience, captured these subjective personal experiences through the lens and then turned into a visual story for others to view? How close can the camera get? We discuss how the development and extension of emotions, feelings, and mutual understanding that grow from the relationship between the filmmaker and their subjects eventually crystallize into the film that appears on the screen. Through holding this forum, TIEFF 2009 will earnestly look at these thought-provoking stories and also at the paths taken to create them.

During the festival, a variety of people involved in filmmaking from around the world will be on hand for face-to-face exchanges and conversations with the audience. They will share the various perceptions, understanding, and actions different societies and cultures have towards the body, soul, the five senses, and how they experience the world. During the festival, we have also set up a special space where attendees can both view and interact. We have invited various groups and organizations dedicated to healing and care of the body and mind to set up booths to provide services or consultation to attendees to allow for interface between images portrayed to the viewers and the real world.

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