Review: I See Red People

Maybe learning about the past is like learning to drive. Although the RMV gives you a handbook of applicable laws and procedures, much that you need to know only comes as you absorb tacit rules of the road: in Boston, you’d know turn left just before the light turns green, but elsewhere that might not be a good idea. When one confronts the past, how does one know when to go forward and when to yield? Who gets to set the rules, particularly when new technologies and systems come into play?

In Bojina Panayotova’s I See Red People (Je vois rouge), the film maker, who grew up in France, returns to Bulgaria where she witnesses mass demonstrations against remnants of the previous communist regime. She discovers that she can request to see her family’s secret police dossier. Overtaken by curiosity, Panayotova begins to navigate the transitional justice, seeking out the truth of her parents’ former lives in communist Bulgaria. Her parents, particularly her father, disagree. She discovers, perhaps more than she would wish, about how to discover historical facts. Thirty years after the regime, how can one understand these facts, and who gets to control them: the media, protesters on the street, the state, the persons themselves?

Panayotova skillfully takes viewers toward these questions by employing a split camera, which allows her to show her own face as she observes, listens, and reacts, as well as the faces of her interlocutors or the scenes that her camera views. This experimental device adds to the film’s visual interest and reflexivity, but also serves her well as she documents her many arguments with her parents. Panayotova also brings archival footage from Bulgarian media and her family’s home movies and media appearances into the film, in order to show the changing contexts in which we understand the authoritarian regime. At times, the film becomes almost a detective story, with Panayotova seeking the whereabouts of a former political police officer for whom Panayotova’s mother may have acted as an informant. In a particularly stressful scene, her mother argues with her the entire ride to find the retired officer, but nonetheless feels compelled to confront him. In its allusion to the Hollywood blockbuster The Sixth Sense, I See Red People reveals that those who collaborated with the authoritarian regime might be beside one all the time. However, knowledge of this truth never exorcises the spirits of this regime. Will we ever arrive at a place beyond recrimination?

Throughout the film, a driving instructor guides Panayotova as she learns the rules of the road in today’s Bulgaria and also begins to understand the norms that conditioned her parents’ lives as intellectuals living under the authoritarian regime. In addition to filling the film maker (and the viewers) in on the way things were done before political liberalization, his cynicism and humor make him a perfect foil for the young film maker’s idealism and earnestness. Together, they make a compelling and entertaining cinematic pair as Panayotova tries to piece together her parents’ story. They also offer two takes on transitional justice. If Panayotova must always pursue the clearest facts, her instructor is willing to let the past alone. Of course, he has an understanding that Panayotova’s parents could hardly have avoided compromise with the regime. Each driving lesson unfolds Panayotova’s discoveries as a shared document, facts on the way to becoming matters of public knowledge, mediated by the rules of the road that she learns with her driving instructor as tutor.

Not lost on the film maker is the way that current neo-liberal regimes in Bulgaria and elsewhere create even more knowledge of their citizens through a variety of technological means, including CCTV surveillance, cell phones, and social media. Those of us living in relatively democratic surveillance societies condone these technologies while condemning the means of surveillance—personal and often face to face—practiced under authoritarian regimes. Thus, her film features footage that Panayotova acquired from surveillance cameras in the archival offices she visited to access her parents’ secret police dossiers. At one point in the film, Panayotova also covertly films a former political officer. If we feel discomfort, is it because such scenes point out the danger of our pursuits individually or collectively to create knowledge? Should we remain anxious about how we produce and distribute truth?

Discussions of transitional justice often consider truth as a salve, the first step in healing trauma remaining from an authoritarian regime. In a sense, we think of transitional justice as overturning a large, rotting log in the forest: by turning it over and exposing everything to light, we can stop the corruption and come to terms with a troublesome past. Of course, those of us who seek to come to terms with the authoritarian past have a legitimate desire to see the archives; when, as on Taiwan, these desires have not been met adequately, suspicion results. As a public, we may even have a duty to uncover the truths of the everyday manifestations of authoritarianism, as well as significant instances of White Terror, such as the February 28th Incident. Such a process would reveal the workings of the party-state as both connected to forms of privilege and also intensely personal. In showing the family psycho-drama resulting from the director’s attempt to discover truth, I See Red doesn’t dismiss the idea of transitional justice as much as it complicates what it might mean to know. Approaching these questions of justice, truth, and social control with a measure of self-deprecating humor, Panayotova has created an amusing and provocative film.

Watch the trailer for I See Red People.

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The “American Dream” in Melanesia: Island Soldier

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be an American … soldier”

The absent protagonist of Island Soldier, Sappuro “Sapp” Nena, replied to this question while in uniform, riding an armored personnel carrier in Afghanistan. He died in action before he could return home. Although enlisted in the U.S. Army, he was not an American citizen. Perhaps his answer, “I want to be an American … soldier” was a joke among the tight group of platoon mates filming each other as they traversed dangerous territory. Yet it seems to capture the ambivalence veterans and their families feel in Kosrae, part of the Federated States of Micronesia, former U.S. colony and U.S. military “recruiters’ paradise.” Through a close look at families in Kosrae as they mourn, wait, or send off young men, Island Soldier causes us to ask whether “sovereignty” can account for the complicated reality of Micronesia and other post-colonial nations.

In its attention to everyday practices of getting by in Kosrae, the film shows us a mobile population who are as likely to be packing for deployment in Afghanistan or filing papers at an understaffed Veterans’ Affairs Office as they are gardening, fishing, or processing taro. Repeated scenes of U.S. flags and large marble tombstones in front of houses add to our sense that attachments to the metropole remain. In part, these attachments to the U.S. endure because of outstanding security and economic treaties, such as The Compact of Free Association; however, the film suggests that in a deeper sense, people in Kosrae cling to a set of promises that the U.S. offered but has never delivered. Although the U.S. formally decolonized in 1983, the sense of unfulfilled promises remains, much like the coral encrusted tanks in Kosrae’s lagoon. Showing us these ghosts of colonial history, Island Soldier suggests that pride in one’s national independence does not always mean a complete rejection of the colonizer’s ideals.

Although Island Soldier shows that economic insecurity motivates young Melanesians to sign up in the U.S. military, the film explores what Yarimar Bonilla, writing about the French Caribbean, calls “non-sovereign futures.” If discourses of sovereignty generally depict autonomy as the goal and outcome of decolonization, the vision of sovereignty presented in Island Soldier suggests that the departure of the colonists—partial because of U.S. military control of Melanesia’s vast ocean territory and provision of some necessary government services—does not automatically lead to autonomy. The film shows us how Melanesians express commitments to, and pride in, their nation in discourses of “island culture” and in the islander networks Melanesians have formed in the U.S. military. Shared military service, Veteran’s Day observances, funerals, and fishing all create conditions for an imagined Micronesian nation. These conditions ultimately lack the possibility of resolution into an untroubled national identity, however. While some activists work for sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty, tastes for cheeseburgers and awareness of the looming end of U.S. economic assistance fill the thoughts of those in the film. The men enlist in order to help their families economically, but also to stake a larger claim: Do not abandon us.

From another perspective, the film shows us the human costs of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the perspective of families in Kosrae. The film follows the Nena family’s attempts to commemorate Sapp, who died in Afghanistan, but also shows their frustrations in securing veterans’ benefits. When the flags are folded after funeral’s end, those in the community can turn to each other and to the land for sustenance. But with most of the island’s young people off island to seek economic opportunity, who will remain to tend taro and banana gardens? And with the cost of gasoline, is it still worth it to fish? These questions touch on how Melanesia’s (non-)sovereign realities are personally felt.

Island Soldier relates these questions through a wide variety of archival and social media footage, as well as sensitively filmed scenes of life in Kosrae and on military bases in the United States and Afghanistan. Contrasts between Kosrae’s lush maritime landscape and the dry expanses of Colorado show the distance between home and the army bases where one of the recruits prepares for deployment. Weaving scenes of family gatherings with informal interviews, often conducted in boats or automobiles, the film presents disparate perspectives on military recruitment and service. Giving further depth to these perspectives, scenes of both public and relatively private commemoration, including local string band and gospel music, highlight the many ways that they are lived and felt in Kosrae. In this sense, the film puts a human face on an otherwise abstract set of questions.

In its depiction of U.S. military recruits in Kosrae, the film might cause us to reflect on colonial nostalgia elsewhere. Micronesia, Pelau, and the Marshall Islands may seem to be the opposite of Taiwan’s condition. These Pacific Island nations have UN recognition, but many key functions of their governments are performed by the United States. Taiwan, of course, has all of the functions of a fully sovereign government but lacks formal recognition. By appealing to shared sacrifice and ambitions, U.S. military veterans in Micronesia express desires for a kind of normal nationality that might only be possible if they were “American.” Yet in their military service these men also stress their commitments to an impossible but deeply felt homeland. Hence the gap in Sapp’s answer, “I want to be an American … soldier.” In its attention to how this gap is experienced in Micronesia today, Island Soldier resonates with post-colonial desires for national identities that can account for the unfinished business of colonial relationships. It is a beautiful and thought provoking film.

Watch the trailer for Island Soldier.

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Family Variations & New Vision 2005 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival Press Conference

Time: 2005, September 6, Tuesday, 1:00pm
Venue: Spot Cinema, Film House
Address: 18, Sec. 2, Chungshan N. Road, Taipei
Tel: 02-2511-7786
Organizer: Taiwan Association of Visual Ethnography


Tai-li Hu, President, Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival (Fellow Researcher, Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica)
Wen-ling Lin, Festival Director, Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival (Professor, Department of Communication and Technology, National Chiao Tung University)
Sponsoring organizations:
Council for Cultural Affairs
Government Information Office
The Ministry of Education
Council of Indigenous Peoples
The Commission of Mongolian
and Tibetan Affairs
Joint Organizations:
Zhi-Peng Tsao, Director, Museum of Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica
Chinese Taipei Film Archive (CTFA)
French Institute
Canadian Trade Office in Taipei
Domestic Directors and Producers:
Tueng Chuen Qin (Taiwan Public Television Service, the producer of the Formosa Aboriginal News Magazine )
Watan & Oloh (The Solicitude for the Takasago Volunteer)
Halugo Watan & Kaleh Kalahe (Kimbo in a Flash)
Li-Fang Lin (Buddha’s Sons)
Mickey Chen (Scars on Memory)
Hung-Zhou Je (The Story of Wai San Din Alluvion)
Ping-Hai Wu (Shi-Ting and Her Song & They Came From Overseas to Make a Home)
Chun-Hsin Hung (Farmers in the City)
Ming-Chieh Sung (Hey Jimmy)
Baunay Waton (Trakis na bnkis)
Tai-Li Hu (Stone Dream)
Activity Content:


Speech presentation of Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival,
Sponsoring Organizations & Joint Organizations
2. Screening the 2005 TIEFF preview trailer
3. Brief Introduction of festival theme and selected films.
Founded in 2001, biennial TIEFF (Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival) is the first international ethnographic film festival in Asia. With the media of ethnographic films, TIEFF aims at improving the communication and understanding between different cultures and ethnic groups. With 37 selected domestic and International films, this year’s TIEFF will hold in Chen- Shan-Mei cinema in Taipei (Sept 30 to Oct 4).
The theme of 2005 TIEFF is “Family Variations.” 2005 TIEFF has organized two major programs – “Family Variations” and “New Vision.”Under the category of “Family Variations,” there are four sub-programs – one retrospective program respectively pays homage to David and Judith MacDougall and John Marshall, and three theme subprograms –“Other Families,” “Alternative Families” and “Diversity and Family.” Moreover, in “New Vision” category, we feature three subprograms – “Indigenous Perspective,” “The Human Right and Autonomy” as well as “The Migration and Settlement.”
The selected film list will be announced in the press conference (There are more than 250 domestic and international entries.) TIEFF will also introduce above-mentioned programs and present some of the best films.
4. Presentation of selected domestic films and entry certification

5. Presentation of TIEFF’s official website and posters as well as ticket sale points
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