Review: Entering the New Window of the 21st Century

Lee Chi-Ning

Besides using “migration stories” as its theme, “the 2nd Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival” also chose thirteen joining films into this “New Window” section. Although these 13 films have different topics, show different styles, consist of different regional cultures, from Taiwan, China, Canada, Indonesia, Ethiopia, to Australia, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, in whole, it can be considered a collection of international ethnographic films for the past two thousand years; a world view after entering the 21st century. Many issues or problems roused during the later half of the 20th century, like e-media, race identity, homosexuality, the millennium, and even the 921 earthquake in Taiwan, etc., have been directly or indirectly touched in these films. Also through the lively and unique presentations of these events in the films earned these issues more attention.

To Taiwan, the 921 earthquake in 1999 can be thought of as the century end’s most shocking event. It’s not only a devastating disaster, but the reconstruction afterwards is also an enduring test to Taiwan’s society and mind. Ching-Hui Lee’s Forward Forest Dream is about the rebuilding of a campus after the 921 earthquake. Nei-Hu Elementary School, in Lu-Gu Town, Nan-Tou, faces the dilemma of not being able to reconstruct the campus at its original location after the earthquake. All school faculty, the students and enthusiastic parents hopefully planned to move the school into the forest, make it into an eco-elementary school. But in reality, their “forest dream” has been continually let down due to the inaccessibility of the experimental forest land belonging to National Taiwan University (NTU). Here on one side is NTU, having boundless academic and social resources, objecting the idea of moving the school into its planned spot due to forestation reason; on the other, a little mountain village, with no more than a hundred faculty and students fervently wishing to rebuild their school. Is academic and forestation more important? Or is it the enthusiasm after one’s dream? This deep, sincere film not only records the process of the school’s rebuilding, but also leaves a thoughtful introspection for Taiwan’s society after the earthquake’s reconstruction.

Nei-Hu Elementary School, in Nan-Tou, Taiwan, finally has its “forest dream” fulfilled after several hardships. Holding the same educational enthusiasm and idealism, top composer Tien-Fong, from China’ Central Band, Beijing, started Yunnan Ethno-Culture Minority Institute in Yunnan in 1993 through self-raised funds. But after seven years, the institute had to shut down due to shortage of funds. With the following losing of the lawsuit, Tien-Fong died of lung cancer in June, 2001. Xiao-Jing Liu’ Chronicle of the Minority Institute historiographically records the tragedy of Tien-Fong and his institute. “Seeing the rising of building, and seeing it falling,” as we follow the camera along with Tien into the fields finding ethno artists, chatting with local cultural officials who are after economic development, we are dazzled by the sudden music played by the Hanis and the Biens; stirred by Tien’s persistence and his dream. Later when reality heavily forces on, don’t we also feel the sorrow?

How many Yunnan’ minority ethno music have been lost due to the falling of the Institute? Ethno and music has also been the theme of two other films from Taiwan: Chien-Hsiang Lin’ Dawu Melody and Han-Sheng Chang and Ke-Shang Shen’ Silent Cello. For the Dawus living generation after generation on Lanyu Island, life is often with singing and songs. But in Dawus’ language, there is no word as “music.” Dawus’ “music” is “simply using sound as a media to express the every side of life, not seeking the union between sound and the event of pleasing the ears.” Through the film, Lin uses Dawus’ “music idea” to challenge the music boundaries set by traditional concepts.

The boundary seen in Chien-Hsiang Lee’ Dawu Melody vanished in Chang and Shen’ Silent Cello. The film records the “musical encounter” between David Darling, a cellist of classical musical training, and the Bunun of Luwu Tribe in Taitung. The musician with child’s simplicity and the humble villagers use music to start the interaction and conversation crossing the boundaries of language and culture. Lastly, through this cross-cultural communication, made possible by music as the agent, inspires us that the true key to cultural communication and music conversation is not music or culture itself, but is the attitude of whether or not the parties want to accept and listen to one another.

The cellist in Silent Cello took a long journey into the mountains in Taitung looking for conversation; and for the two near 40 Bunun in Wuhalition: Tears of the Moon, they go into the mountains after the mythical rock that holds the “moon tear.” The long time myth of the Bunun: “Long, long time ago, there used to be two suns. There was this father and son who couldn’t stand the heat and went a long way to shoot the suns down. It took them dozens of years before getting one down. The one shot down become the moon and fell into the valley. It molded rocks to hold its tears. And the tears have been kept and will not dry out.” Anu Takilulun from Dongpu have been hearing this story from his father since childhood. After Anu’s father passed away, he noticed that no one else know the location of the tears. In worry of the lack of energy when aged, he decided to search for the moon’ tears following his father’s descriptions… A simple motivation, with simple plot, structures the touching, symbolic-filled identity-searching modern fable.

At the end of December, 1999, when the world is infatuated with the coming of the millennium, anthropologist Eytan Kapon brought his camera back to Yachaju Village in New Guinea where he’d done field work. To most villagers that already become Christians, the millennium means the coming of the ultimate “moment of the truth.” Will the diseased ancestors and Jesus Christ really come back into lives as prophesied? And the long unseen anthropologist just brings more turbulence into the already stirred village. How, in actual, do the villagers, wandering among tradition and modernity, Christianity and traditional faith, face this cross-century belief crisis? Letter to the Dead calmly but roundly presents this meaningful ethno issue.

The traditional versus modern belief crisis caused by the millennium and the anthropologist in Letter to the Dead has been shown in a different form in Martime Journet and Gerard Nougarol’ Indo Pino: Indo Pino is sick. As the highly respected witch doctor, she is the Wanas mythological doctor. Wana is a tribe of merely 1,600 people, located at the far deserted east coast of the Sulawei Islands in Indonesia. But now this magical doctor is sick, to the point that she can’t get off bed. To all the other witch doctors from afar and to Indo Pino herself, her disease is caused because being hooked by Pue Bulanga’, the god in the world, hook. So a recuperation ritual is necessary. But to this visiting anthropologist, seeing the long-reported sickness, he also faced a painful moral decision: whether to offer his at hand medicine, but breaking the villagers’ belief in traditional medical practice and the great doctor; or leave alone and let the doctor suffer? In the far away mountains, a sickness accidentally triggers the belief crisis in the choice between life and dignity, and between western and traditional medicine.
From belief crisis to racial conflict, the Mi’gmaqs lived generation after generation at Canada’s Miramichi Bay. They are known for their superb fishing techniques and delicate birch bark canoes. Starting from the 17th century, the Mi’gmaqs have frequent contacts with the European immigrants. Many of them become Catholics, but still earn their living mainly by fishing and catching lobsters. But as the development of commercial fishing in the bay area, fiercer competition occurs between the Mi’gmaqs and local fishermen. Finally, in 1993, because a Mi’gmaq was sentenced due to illegal fishing, continual conflicts followed. Although in 1999, the Supreme Court reached a resolution admitting the Mi’gmaq’s fishing right in the area; it also caused the revolt of the other local fishermen, who took fiercer means. And the conflict stretched from the court to violence. The Mi’gnaqs’ livings and lives are threatened; the community is also splitting. Is the Crown at War with Us? honestly records this racial conflict course, and also looking into the historic source of the hundred-year crash.

Homosexual marriages are not unusual, but adopting kids afterwards is. One day, Kelly and Williams, a homosexual couple living in San Francisco, idiosyncratic to the general public, made a “traditional” decision: adopt a kid and become dad. But this isn’t a small issue; it’s much easier said than done. Not to mention other things, how can the kid accept the fact that he has two “fathers” but no “mother?” And more, can the law and the society accept a family like this? In fact, things are much more complicated than they thought. What if one day the couple separated? What to do when “grandma” holds her homosexual son’ “son” knowing not to be happy or to be sad? And also if being adopted is a kid of different race, not only do they face “sexuality” but also “racial” problems. Being afraid that their kid will be discriminated when together with normal families; but taking the kid to homosexuals’ gathering will leave him with no kid’s playing facility, because homosexual group never thought of the possibility of children’ presence. Obviously, this homosexual “parenting manual” is more complicated and twisting than the usual. Daddy and Papa humorously, warmly talks about this “homosexual parenting issue,” alongside make people ponder the flexibility and limitation of the family: man’s oldest structural system.

It is true that we all have our cross to bear. Daddy and Papa talks about the sweet and bitter of homosexual family. And Duka’s Dilemma talks about the Hamar family crisis in Ethiopia, Africa. Duka is the mother of five children. She felt down right after her husband married another young, beautiful wife. Although in Hamar’ tradition, polygyny is allowed, in fact men seldom practice that. Duka’s husband’ remarrying left Duka questioning: Is she old and ugly now? Or is it because of her chronicle sickness? At the meantime, the 2nd wife is definitely becoming a prick to her eye. Who knows what she’s always plotting on her mind? And lately her mother-in-law is also finding faults on her, feeling uncomfortable about the fact that her son married a 2nd woman without her consent… The uneasiness in the family finally openly burst out when the 2nd wife gave birth to a kid. Through the directors’ long-time field experience, the film delicately and vividly outdraws this family crisis in Africa.

Does death mean the end of power? To the paramount chief, Alfred Melotu, of Reef Islands in the Solomon Islands, it is not so. As a typical Big Man in Melanesia, Alfred Melotu had prestige when he lived, he called and people followed. Will the lands, fortune, fame, status he earned vanish and be forgotten along with his death? Alfred Melotu: the Funeral of a Paramount Chief documents the life and the grandeur funeral process of this prestigious Melanesian paramount chief. Then, along the film’s zooming, we slowly realized that the film itself is also the chief’s prearrangement. Although he left and the fine funeral had ended, the chief in the film still wears his uniform, inspects his lands, shows off his badges and fortune. When everybody gathered in the house after the funeral, watching this film, they realized: the paramount chief is still with us!

The Melanesian paramount chief in Alfred Melotu: the Funeral of a Paramount Chief uses modern media to earn eternity; Oh What a Blow that Phantom gave me! further reflects on the relationship between modern media and tribal society. Modern media (recorders, radios, TVs, movies, even the Internet) vastly invading into tribal society has a history no longer than a hundred years. But the impact on world tribal culture is unprecedented: widespread and gigantic. The film is an academic autobiography of anthropologist Edmund Carpenter. In the earlier time in anthropology field, Carpenter is considered idiosyncratic, a very modern anthropologist. Back in the 50s and 60s, he already started to probe into the impact modern media has on tribal society: “The media will conquer all tribal culture in a magnitude we cannot control.” To discover the media’s influence, he boldly made the so-called “upfront” experiments in the fields of New Guinea, like handing the recorder to the villagers who never seen the machine before. The result was not necessarily of the “aborigine’ view,” but the other way around, the media, through powerful means, “galloped” the tribal culture: making the exclusive ritual music into accessible canned music; turning tribal culture into viewable, awing “spectacle.” Carpenter’ “upfront” concept and doings was once rejected by the anthropology field, but today, with the media’ permeability, he seems to be the harbinger, worthy of our contemplation.

Carpenter’ reflection on e-media and the tribes in the 60s can be seen from a different perspective in Media Nomads. The Thaiday Brothers are aborigines born on Palm Island, Australia. Like most other aborigines in Australia, their early days were hard; they watched the upper generations being oppressed; wandered in the cities, addicted to drinking when young; finally found their missions: traveling within Australia promoting aboriginal radio stations, letting the aboriginal voices heard everywhere through the media. In the past, media had unprecedented changed the tribal culture, but today, we finally see the tribal people learning to manifest this power, that once totally changed their tradition, and turning it into the force to change the world.