Review: Migrating with Ethnographic Films

Hu Tai-li

(President, TIEFF)

Taiwan, in the bosom of the Pacific Ocean, has not rested peacefully in recent years. After the shock of the great earthquake on September 21, 1999, then Typhoon Nari brought the worst flood disaster in Taipei City in two centuries in mid-September 2001. The First Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival, prepared in a state of great apprehension, opened on September 21, 2001, just as the flood receded, with the MRT still not operating properly and many streets still in chaos. The original venue (the Center for Academic Activities at Academia Sinica) and the film festival office in the Institute of Ethnology were turned into disaster areas without water or electricity. Workers rushed to move the office to National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei. Fortunately, the Majestic Theatre agreed to screen the films, and the festival was quickly moved there. 12 foreign guests arrived on time and big audiences filled the theatre to attend a film festival born under catastrophic conditions. Upon returning home, Rolf Husmann, chairman of Commission on Visual Anthropology (IUAES), and director Jill Daniels wrote an article that was published in the April 2002 issue of Anthropology Today. They used a particular title: “Of Nightmares, Odysseys and Miracles: A Review of the First “Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival.” The article told the story of how the 2001 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival, of which “Island Odyssey” was the main theme, set sail during a nightmarish typhoon.

Stability is a dream, while turbulent Taiwan gives birth to a variety of migration stories. Wave after wave of migrants flow in and then leaves again. Different cultures meet, with some getting lost in the turbulence while other take root and remain. With “Migration” the main theme of the 2003 Second Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival, stories of migration within and outside the island of Taiwan highlight each other with the help of images, letting us learn more about how to respond to changes and growth. We have long wanted the five films selected for the “Retrospective” section, and had to exert a great deal of effort to ensure their participation. Jean Rouch is the most famous director of ethnographic documentaries, and he also developed the cinema verite documentary. The biennial Taiwan International Documentary Festival has previously shown Chronicle of a Summer (1960), set in Paris and made by Rouch and Edgar Morin. However, Rouch’s African films, which are more characteristic of the ethnographic documentary and carry more of his individual style, have never been shown in Taiwan. The three films Moi, Un Noir (Me, a Black), Jaguar and Les Maitres Fous (The Crazy Masters) are classic documentaries representative of Rouch’s work. They are all concerned with the issue of migration from countryside to city in Africa. The imagery, hovering between the imaginary and a dream world, demonstrates Rouch’s surrealistic documentary style. The most fundamental motive behind migration is the quest for an existence. In addition to the migration resulting from urban development, the seasonal migration of nomadic peoples following the availability of pastures and water is movingly shown in the film Grass — A Nation’s Battle for Life. The images of 50,000 people bringing 500,000 head of cattle across great rivers and climbing high mountains make this film from 1925 a classic in the “adventure” documentary genre. The film The Oroqen, made 1960 in the Great Xing’an Mountains by the Chinese documentary filmmaker Yang Guanghai of the Bai minority, recreates culture and customs of a people that throughout the four seasons constantly move their tents in the pursuit of prey as they rely on hunting for a living. When the film was made, the Oroqen had already been settled for ten years on the advise of the Chinese communist party, but they were still unwilling to give up their nomadic hunting life. In making the film, Yang wanted to adhere to “scientific” requirements, but, to show the poetic and idyllic lifestyle of nomadic hunting peoples, he was also meticulous in his choice of scenery.

From the more than 200 films sent to us from around the world, and from almost 100 Taiwanese films, we have selected eight films for the “Migration Story-International” section, seven for the “Migration Story-Taiwan” section, and 13 for the “New Vision” section. The migration stories from Taiwan show the migration experience of the island’s different ethnic groups. Wu Mi-sen’s Experimental Taiwanese and Mayaw Biho’s Coming and Going, Island of Tachen both document the mainlanders who migrated to Taiwan during the Chinese civil war. The former adopts a surrealist style, rarely seen in Taiwan in the past, and tells the story of two old men in Taipei building their illusions and dreams. The latter focuses on people from Dachen island in China’s Zhejiang province, who move between Taiwan, the US and Dachen Island without being able to clear out cultural and nationality conflicts. Tsao Wen-chieh’s Dreaming of Home – Marginal Tribe of the City tells the story of an urban Amis migrant community, where adults and children, adrift in reality, build their dream of a family offering shelter. Chen Rong-shien’s Mountain Keepers – Song of Chung Giao Keng and Ho Chao-ti’s County Road 184 documents migration stories among Taiwan’s Hakka people. Mountain Keepers gives a forceful and penetrating portrait of the grace and solitude of the northern Hakka mountain areas. As the young move away, the old people remain, talking their mother language and singing mountain songs in the sun and the mist. The Hakka youth in County Road 184 follow the road from the city back to Meinung Township. The music they create is a forceful attack on the travelers’ minds as it spreads overseas from Taiwan. Lee Daw-ming’s Shattered Dreams reflects the situation of foreign workers in Taiwan, and also takes us to their home land. Tsai Tsung-lung’s My Imported Wife uses the family drama to show a Cambodian wife and how she fearlessly faces her husband and the media, loudly defending herself. Scenes of quarrels making you roar with laughter pointedly burst Taiwanese hypocrisy.

Leaving Taiwan, we also see the migration between countryside and city in other areas. Alu and His Brothers by Zhou Yuejun from Yunnan Province uses a very intimate camera when following the young of the Hani people as they leave the beautiful terraced fields that are unable to feed them, only to move on to other areas and taste the hardships involved in building a life. Vladimir Perovic’s Vanishing is a beautiful but tragic elegy to a village abandoned due to urban migration. Green Tea and Cherry Ripe by Solrun Hoaas documents the lives of Japanese women who followed their Australian husbands home at the end of the Second World War. They have grown old with time, but time can still not wash away the Japanese arts of tea and flower arrangement. Atsushi “Ucci” Uchino’s Droppin’ Lyrics tells the story of young Japanese descendants in the US expressing their feelings about the war and two former enemies – their mother country and the country they have migrated to – through hip hop music. The sincerity of the rapid, smattering lyrics and rhythms is a moving force. Pea Holmquist’s From Opium to Chrysanthemums and Silent Song by Aine O’Brien and Alan Grossman tell stories of international migration. A complicated political and economic situation has turned the area along the Thai, Burmese and Lao borders — the Golden Triangle — into a hot bed for migration. Many Kurds are tragically spread across the world because they cannot find land to live on and because they are politically persecuted. The only way to highlight this situation is to distribute Silent Song through international media. The village in Wei Xing’s A Student Village, built by parents looking to educate their children, is the most special village in this section of the festival. It is moving to see students cook and prepare their livelihood. The film most unique in style is Jakub by Jana Sevickova. The poetic and riddling images reveal the constantly changing national status and historic changes of the Ruthenian people.

The “New Vision” section shows outstanding ethnographic films outside of the migration theme that have been completed over the last two years. Duka’s Dilemma by Jean Lydall and Kaira Strecker, Indo Pino by Martine Journet and Gerard Nougarol, Letter To The Dead by Eytan Kapon, Alfred Melotu: the Funeral of a Paramount Chief by Peter Crawford, Rolf Scott, and Trygve Tollefsen, Oh What A Blow That Phantom Gave Me! by John Bishop and Harald Prins all project the long-term field work of ethnographic scholars and the mutual focus and interaction between the researchers/filmmakers and the people being studied/filmed. Duka’s Dilemma presents a very sympathetic image of a polygamous African society. In an unforgettable way, it follows Duka as she goes from doubt to acceptance of her husband’s new wife and help her through childbirth and breastfeeding her baby. Indo Pino documents how the female shaman of the Indonesian Wana people cures herself when she turns ill, and her commentaries on the effect of the Western medicine given to her by the filmmakers. The filmmakers’ deep understanding and appropriate display of ethnographic materials are key to this film. With truth and humor, Letter to the Dead describes anxiety and expectations on the eve of the Millennium in an indigenous society in Papua New Guinea converted to Christianity. Alfred Melotu: the Funeral of a Paramount Chief and Oh What A Blow That Phantom Gave Me! both deal with the relationship between the society being filmed and the film camera. The former, with the approval of the chief and under his “direction,” becomes a testimony to the chief’s family history and power. The latter presents experiments made by the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, who brought a film camera with him to indigenous societies in order to explore the effect of visual media on these societies. The New Vision section also includes a few films dealing closely with indigenous cultures. Is the Crown at War with Us? by the famous Canadian aboriginal director Alanis Obomsawin discusses fishing rights of Canadian indigenous peoples under past protective treaties and current legislation. Wuhaliton: Tears of the Moon by the female director Salon Ishahavut of the Bunun people in Taiwan uses animation and a person’s search for his roots as vehicles for telling the Bunun moon legend. Dawu Melody by Lin Chien-hsiang mixes unique chanting with images that seem like the light reflecting off waves to show the experiences accumulated during his many years of participating in the Dawu culture on Lanyu Island. Silent Cello, jointly directed by Chang Han and Shen Ke-Shang, lays a bridge between the Bunun people’s beautiful songs and the cello of a famous Western musician. Chronicle of the Minority Institute by Liu Xiaojin from China documents the efforts a Han musician in love with the rituals, music and dancing of the minorities in Yunnan Province has put into the operations of the Minority Institute. Media Nomads by Donna Ives tells the story of two Australian aboriginal brothers and their efforts to set up a local radio station for indigenous peoples. The New Vision section also includes a very warm and moving film, Daddy & Papa, by Jonny Symons. It describes the joys and sorrows of male same-sex families in California that have adopted Asian and African children. Finally, Forward Forest Dream by Lee Ching-hui brings us back to the great earthquake in Central Taiwan of September 21, 1999. Having survived the destructive disaster, elementary school teachers and students in Nantou walking among the ruins of the old school and dormitories now dream of being able to build an elementary school in the neighboring experimental forest area, managed by National Taiwan University, although difficulties abound. After the film had been selected for inclusion in the festival, the director said there had been further developments regarding the construction of a new school, and that she would change the ending of the film. The story is not yet over, but the film festival is about to begin. As the light hits the silver screen, we will migrate with the images and build a home for our dreams.