Review: Of Nightmares, Odysseys and Miracles: A Review of the First “Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival”, 21-25 September, 2001

Rolf Husmann and Jill Daniels

Imagine you’re organising a large international conference or festival, which you have worked hard on, investing a lot of time and money; three days before its due to start a typhoon hits your city, knocking out the underground, flooding your conference hall and cutting the electricity off in the hotels where your guests are supposed to stay. This was the situation which Hu Tai-li, founder and director of the First Taiwan Ethnographic Film Festival faced, when the city of Taipei was hit by disaster on 18 September. It was little short of a miracle that the Opening Ceremony took place, as scheduled, on the evening of 21 September 2001. Hu Tai-li and her small team of organisers, working round the clock, reorganised everything and with a great stroke of luck found a cinema in the heart of the city. (This meant more people came to the screenings).

This was the dramatic start of a new festival, to be added to the regular schedule of ethnographic film festivals. True, there are well-established events like “Bilan” in Paris, the “Ethno Filmtage” in Freiburg, NAFA meetings in Scandinavia or the RAI Film Festival in Britain, and there are Gottingen, Nuoro, and Sibiu which ring a bell in anthropologist-filmmakers’ ears, but now there’s a new one. Like most of the others, the Taiwanese festival serves the local scene of visually interested anthropologists, filmmakers and students as well as attracting ethnographic filmmakers world-wide.

The Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival will be held biannually, complementing the “Taiwan International Documentary Festival” also held biannually. It uses a wide definition for the term “ethnographic”. This was reflected in the variety of films shown in Taipei ranging from Margaret Mead’s Balinese films from the 1940s and Bob Connolly/Robin Anderson’s modern classic BLACK HARVEST“ to Metje Postma’s recent homage to Dutch horse-breeders “OF MEN AND MARES and new Taiwanese films such as the beautiful LIBANGBANG by Kuo Chen-Ti.

An important step in the realisation of this event was the foundation, in 2000, of the “Taiwan Association for Visual Ethnography” (TAVE), in which, amongst others, all three professors of anthropology teaching visual anthropology in Taiwan, namely Hu Tai-li, Lin Wen-ling and David Blundell, are involved. TAVE was established not only to support the new film festival, but also to take initiatives in the field of ethnographic film in Taiwan. A similar institution in the People’s Republic of China, called CAVA, was founded in 1995 after a “First International Conference in Visual Anthropology”, but soon lost its initial enthusiasm and has seen a varying degree of activity since. We hope, particularly from the perspective of the Chairman of the Commission on Visual Anthropology of IUAES (from which one of the reviewers writes) that such institutional frameworks as TAVE will have a lasting active life, and that similar associations be established in more countries.

TIEFF is aimed to cover a wide range of regions and topics, but will also focus on a few selected special fields and filmmakers. It has a theme, this year’s was “Island Odyssey”, but intends to complement the theme with retrospectives and important new work reflecting the subjects and concerns of international ethnographic filmmakers working today. The screening sessions were a successful mix of films both national and international, bringing together films and filmmakers from Taiwan and from the outside world. This is a recipe tried elsewhere, and it works well. In Taipei, the selection of films had a deliberate slant on films from the Pacific area, a rare thing compared with similar events, in which all too often Australian, and Pacific islands films are under-represented.

The different sections of the programme were not screened separately, but interweaved around themes and countries; there was a “Retrospective” devoted to Flaherty’s “Moana” and three films of Margaret Mead; the main festival theme “Island Odyssey” (with both an international and a national section), with special focus on films about Orchid Island off Taiwan’s south-eastern coast; a section called “New Vision”, which selected single films from a wide range of countries; and finally three films by the special guest, Australian documentary filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke.

Little needs to said here about Mead’s films or “Moana”, they are well known and there was no discussion after the screening. Where filmmakers or producers were present, “Q&A sessions” followed films. Most of the filmmakers were present, and with help of translators, there were short discussions. A downside of the typhoon was that the cinema did not have a meeting place where discussions could continue after screenings. A packed timetable of films also made discussion time short and didn’t help people to meet each other. Formal Q&A sessions always tend to scratch the surface of a film. They are useful to show the audience who the filmmaker is, they are usually pretty arbitrary in content. Most fascinating are the anecdotes by the filmmakers about how their film was conceived, what strange or funny coincidences happened along the way. Audience questions tend to concentrate on content and explanation. Deeper anthropological issues, and filmic ideas around style or methodology tend to be neglected. But in spite of this shortcoming, the presence of a filmmaker at a festival is always an excellent chance to get to know more about the film than just watching it on TV or in a classroom.

What has been said about filmmakers’ anecdotes, certainly holds true for the talks given by Dennis O’Rourke, whose three masterpieces THE SHARKCALLERS OF KONTU, HALF LIFE and CANNIBAL TOURS not only attracted the largest crowds, but were also supplemented by O’Rourke’s revealing and humorous replies.

Of more interest for this review are the recent films, both international and Taiwanese. In the “New Vision” section, seven films were selected on a variety of topics, countries and different styles. Included were, THE LAND OF THE WANDERING SOULS by Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, a portrait of poor and cheated day-labourers in Cambodia , the ethnographically most interesting film A DOCUMENTARY ON THREE MOSUO WOMEN in South-Western China by Chou Wah-shan, and the film on healing of a psychically ill girl called KUSUM in India, presented by Finnish filmmaker Jouko Aaltonen.

The main topic of the festival was the island theme. “Island Odyssey”, which was divided into a domestic section covering six films from and about Taiwan, and an international section containing nine films. Of these PARADISE BENT by Australian filmmaker Heather Croall was probably the most talked about. Produced in 1999 and dealing with the Samoan fa’afafine, boys raised and living as girls, this film has been shown in many documentary festivals; the highly ethnographic topic of gender roles and sexual identity in Samoan society is an excellent example of how a particular culture can see behaviour as perfectly acceptable, which almost everywhere else is seen as abnormal.

Other films in this section of the festival included the beautifully photographed 1989 film by Brazilian filmmaker Cesar Paes on oral tradition in Madagascar: ANGANO ANGANO – TALES OF MADAGASCAR; a portrait of a Sumatran leader who is “THE POET OF LINGE HOMELAND (ACEH) by the young Indonesian filmmaker Aryo Danusiri, and ELMER AND THE FLOWER BOAT” by Oyvind Sandberg about a man in southern Norway who lives alone and spends every summer on the tiny island where he grew up, growing flowers, which he sells by travelling up and down the fjord delivering them to people who seem to have known and loved him for ages. This film, although not dealing with an ethnographic topic in the strict sense, entices the viewer by its wonderful slow rhythm and narration matching the life rhythm of Elmer. CHILDREN OF SHADOWS by American filmmaker Karen Kramer, is set in Haiti, where poor families are forced to give their young children to other families as unpaid servants. Told by the children themselves, as well as their ‘aunts’, the film paints a shocking portrait of a society where the poor exploit the destitute.

The domestic section of the “Islands Odyssey” was proof of the activities of young Taiwanese filmmakers. Most of them were social documentaries rather than films with an ethnographic topic in the strict sense, e.g. on the aftermath of the huge earthquake shaking Taiwan in 1999 or the feelings and aspirations of young Taiwanese baseballers who had won the youth world title. Although made in a curious mix of modern TV-style and sound story-telling, the almost two hour-long film by Yu Kan-Ping on the Taiwanese Hand-Glove Puppetry, a very old tradition which until this very day has lost nothing of its popularity in Taiwan won great attention by the audience. THEATER IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND falls into two parts, the first one an almost propagandist history of the puppet theatre as part of Taiwanese history in general, the second a much more lively portrait of several outstanding artists. The latest development is the incredibly vivid transformation of the puppet theatre from a local presentation to the TV world. Rather than being turned into a fully animated film series, characters have remained hand-glove puppets and have become TV action stars in Taiwan – an amazing way, and an economically very successful one, to uphold an ancient theatre tradition.

Of films devoted to Orchard Island CHING-WEN’S NOT HOME by Kuo Chen-Ti is a moving and thought provoking film which demonstrates how less can be more. Only 30 minutes long, the film tells the story of Ching-Wen who intends to build his family a house. To do this he must go to Taipei to earn money. Each of his family tells their feelings about who Ching-Wen is and through our imagination we build a picture of the largely unseen Ching-Wen and his importance to the family, both emotionally and economically. The film successfully reveals the interrelationship between the subject, filmmaker and viewer in a way many of the other films in the festival, with their emphasis on long takes of activities by the subjects did not.

As with similar reports of such events, only a fraction of the films shown can be reviewed here. Those mentioned, however, give quite a good impression of the diversity and quality of films presented at this first festival of its kind. The organisers are confident that, in 2003, the next one will follow. Let’s hope for it, and for similar – or even more – success. After all, there will not always be a typhoon!

To find out more about the programme or the future activities, either contact professor Hu Tai-li in Taipei under [email protected] or else try the festival website: