Review: Dialogue Among Tribes

Brian Hioe
Editor at New Bloom, where this review first appeared.

The documentary “Dialogue Among Tribes” provides a look at the lives of Taiwanese indigenous laborers. Composed of vignettes drawn from a series of indigenous men that grew up after the KMT came to Taiwan, including the father of director Pan Zhi-Wei, the fishermen Du-Ya, the documentary does not have any set focus, except for thematics which can be drawn from the lives of the indigenous laborers whose stories are featured within. The film is highly evocative nonetheless. As the title of the film implies, these are individuals from a number of indigenous tribes, including the Amis, Atayal, and Kavalan.

What emerges from the commonalities shared between the indigenous men featured within the film, then, is the use of indigenous as cheap labor in high-risk industries in urban areas after the KMT to Taiwan, in spite of that these industries are vital for Taiwan’s economy. Such industries include the construction industry, food processing, farming, factories, and the fishing industry.

The men focused upon within the film are all of the same generation and as a result of having grown up after the KMT came to Taiwan, speak fluent, if sometimes accented Mandarin. Nevertheless, unsurprisingly, indigenous workers faced poverty and discrimination.

But Pan also shows that his interview subjects managed to find happiness and begin families despite the hardships they went through. Many of his subjects seem to have come to look at their hardships nostalgically, likely because after having overcome such hardships, these have become pleasant memories.

It is suggested obliquely in the film that the cheap labor of Taiwanese indigenous constituted a crucial part of Taiwanese development in the postwar period, with one interview subject commenting on how indigenous construction workers built thousands of buildings in Taipei. Having relocated to the city or otherwise left their hometowns, pensive shots of urban backdrops, industrial machinery, or fishing boats on the high sea suggest that modern alienation was what Taiwanese indigenous faced during this period of time. Indeed, modern alienation would be one of the major themes undergirding the film, with perhaps greater focus upon modernist alienation as what confronted indigenous workers in urban areas in the postwar period rather than, say, Han colonization–although there is some suggestion in the film that it is ironic for Taiwanese indigenous to made to work for Han to build their homes and provide them with the food they eat on the lands that they once lived on.

Apart from themes of alienation, the destruction of the environment due to industrial development is also connected in the film with the destruction of tradition. Recurrent shots of harbor construction in Taitung is shown to not only disrupt the lives of fishermen today, but can be seen as more broadly emblematic of the destruction of traditional ways of life that took place following industrial development under the Japanese or KMT and the camera at times dwells elegiacally upon shots of mountains or the sea. Several, but not all of the subjects of the film discuss the loss of traditional knowledge regarding hunting or fishing because traditional forms of hunting or fishing were uprooted by modern means of obtaining food. Traditional knowledge about traditional hunting methods has been forgotten in some communities, even by elders, due to long periods of disuse.

To this, Pan’s solution seems the titular dialogue among tribes, something gestured towards obliquely in the film. Because many indigenous tribes share common roots or have been dispersed across Taiwan following Han settlement, traditional knowledge which has been lost in some communities and be recovered through dialogue with communities which have preserved the knowledge lost in other communities. And, as seen in the closing of the film, Pan suggests that it will be a historical tragedy if this knowledge becomes lost and there is no way to gather together a dispersed peoples.

One wonders, then, if Pan’s film is call to action for indigenous youth of his generation. Near the end of the film, Pan rather telling juxtaposes Du-Ya’s children, presumably Pan’s own siblings, to Du-Ya himself. This is seemingly to show that while there has been loss of traditional knowledge from the generation before Du-Ya to men and women of Du-Ya’s generation, children of the generation after Du-Ya are unable to perform the hard labor that Du-Ya routinely does. It remains to be seen as to what a “dialogue among tribes” for young indigenous today will consist of, then.

Watch the trailer for Dialogue Among Tribes.

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Review: Path of Destiny

Brian Hioe
Editor at New Bloom, where this review first appeared.

Yang Chun-Kai’s “Path of Destiny” (不得不上路) would be a deft evocation of the challenges facing preservation of indigenous tradition in Taiwan. Namely, even in those rare cases in which young people actively aim to participate in traditions which may soon be lost, the trend may be irreversible. And given inescapable social tensions between modernity and tradition, adherence to tradition demands great personal sacrifice.

The main focus of “Path of Destiny” is Panay Mulu, the youngest member of a group of Sikaway mediums who carry out ceremonies throughout the year to heal sickness and call upon the gods. The other members of this group are elderly, the much younger Panay having originally joined the group as part of scholarly research into Sikawasay tradition, and subsequently stayed with the group for over twenty years. Seeing as the group of Sikawasay the film focuses upon has already lost many of its members to age over the course of the twenty years Panay has been with the group, it is suggested in the film that Panay may ultimately be the last of this group of Sikawasay.

The challenges of preserving tradition, then, are many. It is not merely lack of interest from young people which leads to difficulties in carrying on Sikawasay traditions. Namely, the religious rites of the Sikawasay are highly demanding, requiring fasting, avoidance of certain foods and avoiding contact with members of the opposite sex during certain parts of the year. As Panay points out, it is very difficult to preserve such traditions in contemporary society, seeing as Sikawasay rites require Panay to spend significant time away from work and few outsiders understand such traditions. Accordingly, although Panay has gone out of her way to document Sikawasay song and religious rites, it seems that there are few who take interest in such matters to as in-depth a manner as Panay, who whose original interest in preserving Sikaway tradition has required a great deal of self-sacrifice.

Panay herself has to balance her teaching duties along with her responsibilities. And although Sikawasay were a quintessential part of traditional Amis religious practices, carrying out rites yearly, and performing ceremonies to heal the sick, Sikawasay rites are stigmatized by Amis who have converted to Christianity, referring to practitioners of Sikawasay rites as “witches.” Panay herself occupies a precarious position with members of her Christian family, who fear that Panay may suffer damnation through adherence to a non-Christian religious practices deemed to be witchcraft. Indeed, this would be a common phenomenon among indigenous young people that become interested in their cultural heritage, seeing as they may face being ostracized from parents who have converted to Christianity, as well as that indigenous who converted to Christianity have in some cases gone out of their way to destroy traces of indigenous tradition and religious practices as idolatry.

Likewise, apart from facing many of the practitioners of Sikaway are in poor health, something which may be exacerbated by their continuing to practice Sikawasay. Despite their age, healing the sick brings them into frequent contact with disease, and some of the religious ceremonies of the Sikawasay are highly physical taxing, particularly for the elderly. Sikawasay rites also require drinking large amounts of rice wine as a way to come into contact with the gods, and such frequent drinking no doubt wears at their health. The members of the Sikawasay group that Panay is part of all freely acknowledge that they have considered giving up Sikawasay many times, but have ultimately stuck with it for decades. Panay herself mentions that she has thought about giving up in order to lead a less physically taxing life. Nevertheless, it is clear from the film, that this shared struggle has also built strong ties between Panay and her fellow Sikawasay practitioners, despite the age difference. And many indigenous, both young and old, cite the importance of Sikawasay to the Amis and the need to support such traditions and ensure that they are not lost.

“Path of Destiny,” then, is able to skillfully balance the many-sided nature of what may otherwise seem like the simple and positive good of attempting to preserve tradition before it is lost. For while it may be the series of historical tragedies wrought by Han colonialism in Taiwan which led to the destruction of many indigenous traditions, it may demand further sacrifice in the present to preserve these traditions. And there is ultimately no easy answers to such quandaries facing those who seek to preserve tradition before it is lost.

Watch the trailer for Path of Destiny.

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Review: The Woods Dreams are Made of

DJ W. Hatfield

Associate Professor of History and Anthropology

Berklee College of Music

On Places of Public Dreaming: Claire Simon’s The Woods Dreams are Made of

In his 1983 novel Crystal Boys 《孽子》Pai Hsien-Yong 白先勇 described Taipei’s New Park as “our hidden kingdom in darkness” 「我們黑暗王國」— at night, with the gates shut, this real space behind walls somehow became a fantasy land of imagined freedoms that could not be entertained, let alone realized, in daylight. Claire Simon’s The Woods Dreams are Made of explores a year in the life of what Simon calls an “accessible form of Paradise Lost,” an urban woods in which various dreams and life projects can take root. As in Pai’s work, the film provides an occasion for us to consider the relationship between space and urban subjectivity.

Simon depicts the Bois de Vincennes as a magnanimous and surprising character, whose changes throughout the seasons and ability to befriend nearly every urban denizen in need of respite give the woods a universal character. Within the woods, we will find tired nannies resting their feet, one eye still on the stroller, as well as tireless cyclists racing about a track (not to mention the exhibitionists itching to flash the cyclists as they pass). The woods will play host to everyone who comes here. A grandmother–you might call her homeless, but it’s not so clear cut–explains how she arranges her life to remain in her tent hidden within the woods, evading intervention of welfare agencies. She prepares for a visit from her grandchildren, who will see her soon, if her encampment is not discovered and removed by park wardens. If she comes to the woods for freedom, others see it as a place of challenge and work. Sex workers wait in the woods for clients. Sport fishermen show off the catch before releasing it. Some who come here celebrate. Others rest. For everyone, the Bois de Vincennes exists within the city, but somehow persists outside. Even as a place of trade, it traffics in dreams. It is both part of the normally expected urban infrastructure and radically other. Like other heterotopias, the woods present us with a paradox. They are a place to escape urban life but also recreate it, both in the diverse texture of park visitors (not to mention those who might not visit), and in the sense that the park functions to maintain urban spatial and class distinctions: Paradise Planned? Does the park ever really deliver on its promise for escape? Let our questions fall silent among the snow covered pathways. Spring will return soon, the cyclists and the exhibitionists await its promise.

The Bois de Vincennes appears as character in the film. Yet Simon is also a skillful interviewer, who allows visitors to the park to describe their relationship to the woods, telling us how their visits connect to the wider fabric of their lives. Although the film never takes us away from the park, we get a sense of the worlds to which the visitors return, some refreshed, others with anxiety. The film also gives us a sense of the woods’ history and fragility. The Bois de Vincennes became a public resource as the result of historical coincidences, they have housed several facilities including a university, and they require a great deal of work to maintain. What is at stake in public investment in this communal escape from the city?

In asking these questions, Simon gives us space to think about urban space more broadly. Those of us old enough to remember that the 2/28 Peace Park was once New Park may also recall Pai Hsien-Yong’s “kingdom in darkness.” Today a light show fountain plays nearby the lotus pond. From the 1960s until the late 1990s, this space was a hidden–but widely known–rendezvous for gay men. Removal of park walls and the creation of the 2/28 Memorial provided public goods. Nonetheless, we might ask what possibilities and histories have been lost as the park changed designations. If places are not just given, but practiced, we could also ask, along with a man cruising the woods in Simon’s film, what kinds of relationships–to other people, nature, and place–are lost when chat and hookup apps displace the practices of ambling, watching, and waiting that once defined a park. Should there be some indication of New Park’s former life? Does a Taiwan which now congratulates itself on its progressive approach to LGBTQ rights still want to remember this hidden kingdom? Do Taiwanese LGBTQ people themselves?

The Woods Dreams are Made of provokes us to discuss the history of urban green spaces, some of which housed communities that have since been demolished and forgotten. The history of the Bois de Vincennes–from royal hunting preserve and palace lands, to military training ground, and finally public park–differs greatly from Taipei’s parks. However, after viewing Simon’s film we might wish to come to terms with the ways that Taipei’s parks have required urban spaces to be “repurposed” or “redeveloped.” What kinds of practices of urban planning, consumption, real estate, and recreation have produced the Taipei we see today? Is there still space in this Taipei for the kind of freedom Simon’s film suggests? Is this freedom purchased with the marginalization of communities that once lived on the grounds of Da An Forest Park and other urban oases? To ask these questions is not to doubt the value of urban green spaces. Rather, Simon’s film encourages us to understand more clearly how we might adjudicate among competing values as we attempt to build a more open and verdant city.

More than posing questions, Simon’s poetic and multivocal film is an invitation to dream along with the woods. Replete with humour and a sense for the varied coincidences that enrich urban life, The Woods Dreams are Made of will encourage those who watch it to be curious about the lives of those they see running the track around Da An Forest Park and to appreciate the work needed to maintain such fragile urban green spaces. Yet–and most importantly–we might dream along with the Bois de Vincennes about a city whose arms are large enough to house all of us.

Watch the trailer for The Woods Dreams Are Made Of.

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