The Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival (TIEFF) is the oldest and longest running festival of its kind in Asia. This year’s festival consists of forty two films from twenty countries, selected by our judges from over one thousand five hundred submissions — sent to us from one hundred and eleven countries. The directors include both established names with international reputations and first time directors making their film festival debut. There is also a remarkable diversity of cinematic approaches on display at this year’s festival, including personal, observational, experimental, reflexive, and sensory styles of ethnographic filmmaking.
Films chosen for the festival were included in one of two tracks: films related to this year’s theme, “Beyond the Human,” could have been made at any time, while films in the New Vision category were restricted to ethnographic films made in the last two years. What makes a film ethnographic? There is no one singular definition, but rather a grab bag of criteria shaped by the discipline’s long history. A film might be considered ethnographic if it was made by an anthropologist as part of their research, but it also might include experimental films that betray a deep cultural sensitivity, or films made by indigenous peoples about their own societies. With so many films to choose from, our judges looked for films that could offer our audience a unique cinematic experience. The films we picked are capable of entertaining and delighting the senses even as they open a door on to humanity’s cultural diversity and the pressing problems faced by contemporary societies.
This year’s theme “Beyond the Human” seeks to challenge human exceptionalism: the belief that we humans can dictate the terms of our relationship with the non-human. Moving “Beyond the Human” does not mean leaving humanity behind; it means expanding our definition to include even more of that which makes us human. The three festival sections devoted to this theme each explore a different set of interconnections: “Beyond the Human: Animals” looks at how our humanity is shaped by our relationship with and dependence on animals and how that relationship itself is changing as a result of globalization and industrialization. “Beyond the Human: The Material World” looks at how human cultures both shape and are in turn shaped by technology and the material world. And, “Beyond the Human: Spirits” explores how humans come to understand themselves through their relationship with the spirit world, as well as how the forces of modernity are changing these relationships.
There are also five sections in our New Vision category, each focusing on a different contemporary issue: “Family Troubles” explores how families face the crises associated with aging, dying, and mental health, but also asks the question “Can we choose our relatives?” “Indigenous Lives” brings together films that meditate upon issues of cultural loss and revitalization, while “Righting Wrongs” focuses on historical justice and human rights. The last two sections “The Places We Live and Work,” and “The Places We Go” each explores the relationship of humans to geography and the environment. The first looks at people who have chosen, or been forced, to live or work in hostile environments, as well as the role played by urban environments, such as city parks, in shaping ordinary lives. The second section, in contrast, explores people on the move. Some had no choice but to leave their homes, while others make travel a way of life.
Each festival TIEFF seeks to highlight the work of two directors (one international and one from Taiwan) who have made a unique and important contribution to the genre. This year’s featured international director is Lucien Castaing-Taylor. Castaing-Taylor is an award-winning anthropologist and artist whose work has constantly pushed the boundaries of visual ethnography. His work, often produced collaboratively, has included the editing and writing of key texts in the field of visual anthropology, the production of internationally acclaimed documentary films, the creation a body of artworks and photography which have been exhibited and housed in some of the world’s top museums, and teaching and directing at Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab — an important center for the training of the next generation of visual anthropologists.
The two films of Castaing-Taylor included in this year’s program are both part of the “Beyond the Human: Animals” section, with each film’s style shaped by a very different human-animal encounter. Sweetgrass (2010), made together with Ilisa Barbash, documents the difficult mountain trek of over three thousand sheep and a handful of ranchers, while Leviathan (2012), made with Véréna Paravel, documents the North Atlantic commercial fishing industry. These films are both exemplary of the “sensory” approach to ethnography espoused by Castaing-Taylor. This approach seeks to capture the immersive experience of long-term fieldwork and de-emphasizes spoken language in favor of the visual and auditory aspects of the ethnographic encounter. As a result of this approach, these films are deeply aesthetic experiences that have deservedly been as celebrated in the art world as they have been by academics.
This year’s featured director from Taiwan is Etan Pavavalung. Etan is an indigenous artist from the Paiwan community of Paridrayan in Pingtung county, located in the mountains of southern Taiwan. The two films by Etan included in this year’s festival, Encounter, in That End of the Forest (2016) and Mountain Tribe, Sea Tribe (2015), both draw from Etan’s own Paiwan artistic vision. Etan’s work is grounded in the concept of vecik, a Paiwan word which expresses a number of symbolic activities which he has translated as “trace-layer-carve-paint.” This reflects both the diversity of Etan’s own artistic output, which spans multiple media, including drawing, painting, engraving, printing, and installation art, as well as his vision of art as an inscription of nature. His documentary films are no different and are best seen as an extension of vecik into yet another medium.
The relationship between people and their environment is central to both Etan’s artwork and his films. Encounter, in That End of the Forest introduces us to Etan’s artistic vision, not only showing how he deploys vecik to transform nature into an aesthetic experience, but also how he transforms traditional Paiwan culture into contemporary art. Mountain Tribe, Sea Tribe extends these reflections on the relationship between aesthetics and the environment through a dialog with another indigenous Taiwanese artist: Iyo Kacaw. Iyo is a Pangcah artist from the East Coast village of Makota’ay. Etan’s Paiwan ancestors made their home in the mountains, while Iyo grew up in a community that faced the Pacific ocean and their art reflects not only these different environments, but also the different aesthetic traditions of their respective cultures.
In picking the films for this festival we have tried to pick films that talk to similar themes or use complementary approaches to filmmaking, thus creating a dialog between the films through the experience of watching the festival. That effort extends to this catalog as well. As we do each year, we have invited a number of respected local experts to write about the films for this catalog. Each writer has taken on one of the festival’s eight sections, drawing out the commonalities between the films as well as the disjunctures. We have also invited many of the directors and writers to attend the festival in Taipei this October, offering an opportunity for the audience to join the discussion. We hope that festival participants will come away with an expanded notion of what it means to be human and how our definition of humanity is shaped by our culturally mediated encounters with the world around us.