Review: Island Odyssey - Domestic

Wang Weitsy

(lecturer, Department of Mass Communication, Tam Kang University)

It is a challenging task involved with a lot of thinking when choosing six films to review true to the spirit of ethnographic documentaries as well as to the main theme – Island Odyssey – from 62 visual ethnographic works. From fieldwork through filming, to post-production, the making of an ethnographic documentary strongly emphasizes participation and observation in the hope of creating an emic commentary to the people, and ” for, by, and with” incidents or things being visually documented. The maker of the documentary will hopefully also be able to take up a vantage point above the subject being documented, and based on in-depth observation, exploration and research discard what is unimportant and select the essential; to move from the superficial, and comment on the subject according to his, or her, own opinion. Regardless of whether a maker of documentaries or an anthropologist, the subject being documented has to be understood according to these points of view. A particular function of ethnographic documentaries is the responsibility to explain a culture, to members of another culture. Based on these criteria, we have chosen a multitude of topics such as indigenous peoples, earthquake disasters, cross-strait marriages, misled youths, and the history of glove puppetry tradition in Taiwan.

In remembrance of how the people of Taiwan lived through the hardships of the earthquake disaster on September 21st, 1999, Tsao Wen-chieh has documented the disaster-struck local people in the central Taiwan county of Nantou in the film Heavenly Peace in a Small Town, illustrating the courageous facing the great difficulties of life and death. Even though this documentary, made for Taiwan’s Public Television Service (PTS), follows a standardized pattern, it deals with the tenacity of the disaster-struck people. Dong Chen-liang’s The Second Spring of The Strait documents a married couple, where the woman is a widow from Xiamen in China and the man a widower in Kinmen, Taiwan. In 2000, these two middle-aged people, having lived through the flames of war, stand in front of the 8/28 (August 28th, 1958) Artillery War Victory Monument arguing over the war as they remember it, over which side really suffered the more tragic loss. Separating politics and history, this film brings attention to the hopes and future of people with family and relations on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The Last Chieftain, a film made in cooperation with documentary specialists and Sakuliu Pavavalung, a Paiwan sculptor and artist, has been three years in the making. Entering the Shantimen Township in Pingtung county, the film is made in the spirit of ethnographic documentaries: filming its subjects for an extended period of time. It displays an accurate understanding of the conflict between traditional Paiwan culture and the larger society foreign to it. It genuinely documents the contradictions between old and new in Paiwan society. Factors such as religious beliefs and changes in political structure, differences in economic status, and the fading status of the chieftain vis-a-vis the common people have made the tribe become ripe for polarization and crises. This is a work researched by documentary filmmakers and anthropologists to help us gain a deeper understanding of modern Paiwan society.

After the Championship, a story of growing up, tells of three indigenous Peinan members of the Taiwanese youth baseball team that won the 1998 world championships and their return home to Taitung and middle high school studies. From a life of never-ending baseball practice we get to see the confusion and ignorance of the three youngsters regarding their futures. Their individual life goals are sacrificed while their families and coach as strive for the interests of community and nation. In relaxed daily-life interviews, the boys show the frustration and pressure brought by their reality, thus forcing the viewer to consider what meaning there is to their lives. These boys have sacrificed their youth in the pursuit of the illusory world championship title, they have suffered torment of body and soul. The film pursues with detail and a sense of purpose, and lets us see the real picture hidden behind the baseball youth wonders when they have shed their glorious uniforms. It truthfully shows the indigenous dream of achieving fame in one stroke through sports and competition: as in the elegy remembered by Hong Yeh changing with time, but is constantly heard, in a low voice.

Theatre in the Palm of Your Hand – Glove Puppetry in Taiwan is a film made for the Government Information Office (GIO) by filmmaker Yu Kan-ping, who has also been paying close attention to indigenous video documentaries over the past ten years. Yu has spent three years attempting to illustrate the relentless vitality of the Taiwanese people via the flow of changes and styles over the past several hundred years of glove puppetry. Even during the Japanese period and under martial law in Taiwan, the vitality of glove puppetry made it a developing art form in response to political suppression creating a lebensraum. Masters and scholars base the film on oral historical accounts. Developing from classical Lung-ti theatre, through Pei-kuan glove puppetry, Huangminhua glove puppetry, Fangung-kang’o glove puppetry, Chin-kuang glove puppetry, TV glove puppetry and Pili glove puppetry, this portable theatre has grown together with the people of Taiwan, through different ages. It’s memory is stretched out like the incense burned for its performance. GIO documentaries are mainly directed at a foreign audience. Therefore, an emphasis comes to bear on the folk culture, and a search for an appealing imagery.

She is Sometimes a God a film by Chiang Mei-ju who studied at the Graduate Institute of Sound and Image at the Tainan National College of the Arts is only 36 minutes long. It documents a shaman of the pingpu people (plains indigenous tribes) in Kuantian Township in Tainan County, believing in the Ali Ancestor. A 35-year old ordinary-looking woman, it is very difficult to believe that she took up the life of mislead youth at an early age. She stands among a group of men, holding a pingpu ceremony. She believes that the Ali Ancestor resides in her body by chanting and working magic is the way she makes a living. She has given her life to the god that will use her body for his words. How does someone of her destiny come to walk this road? What does she really think after she has shed her make-up? What was her original life like? Without hesitation, the maker of the documentary displays all her confusions and curiosities before the audience.

I hope that the choice of these films made by three female and three male directors will succeed in displaying the special characteristics of life and cultures in Taiwan. The cultural phenomena of a nation or a regional culture and the society, history and special cultural traditions it relies on for its existence are inseparable. Even though these six films have their shortcomings, they display the behaviour and particular concepts of the people of a region in a delicate manner. If these valuable subjects are not rapidly documented, we will soon be loosing valuable first hand sources of information. Concepts, techniques and ethics of Taiwanese ethnographic film making all need more practice and study. I hope that this 1st Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival will initiate more discussion and reflection, and set a new milestone.

(Translated by from Perry Svensson)

(Edited by David Blundell)