Review: Family Variations: The Communication of Images Across Class, Gender, and Cultural Lines

Lin, Wen-Ling

Festival Director

(translated by Chris Findler)

The 2005 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival (TIEFF) is being held with the goals of using images to popularize ethnography and to educate the viewers about this intriguing subject. This year, we continue in the spirit of past festivals in our planning and implementation to achieve the objective of using the media of film to introduce and further understand the people and cultures of our world. In order to make the viewings and resulting discussions have a cohesive direction, the third biennial Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival has the theme of “Family Variations.”

The theme of “Family Variations” was chosen because, from the past to the present, most cultures have relied on the family to give organization to their societies. Relationships created through blood, marriage, or geography are the most important factors that connect groups of people. In order to understand the societal construction in any location, you must start with the individuals and their relationships with others. Especially within family structure and marriage, you must recognize how individuals and the group associate with each other in order to maintain organization and achieve the goals of that society.

This year’s film festival gathers together films from all parts the world that all depict many facets of the family and its individual members.

Under the “Family Variations” theme there are four subprograms, which include “Director Spotlight,” “Other Families,” “Alternative Families,” and “Diversity and Family”

Director Spotlight

This program focuses on three prominent and well-known directors of ethnographic films who all shot outstanding documentaries about the form and composition of the family. These directors will guide us with their works into the heart of this year’s theme. The three directors are the Australian husband and wife team David and Judith MacDougall, and the American director John Marshall who sadly passed away on April 22 of this year.

In this year’s festival we would like to present two of the films from the MacDougall’s 1970s Turkana Trilogy, introducing the Turkana people of Kenya and their polygamous culture, and Judith MacDougal’s film about the Aboriginal funeral rites in Australia’s Aurukun Shire.

The MacDougall’s films, Lorang’s Way and A Wife among Wives, investigate how the Turkana people’s society adapted to natural, geographic and societal conditions to develop a polygamous marriage structure, where men take several wives. Here, the meaning of “family” is not simply the family unit most are accustomed to; it binds together gender roles, relations within a marriage, and religious faith. The family group is also further affected by government, economics and societal factors.

In Judith MacDougall’s film, The House-Opening, the narrator is Geraldine Kawangka, a recently widowed woman. Through Geraldine’s eyes, the viewer is guided through a ceremony held by her family, extended relations and friends to purify the deceased man’s soul, and as a result also brings cohesion back to her clan.

In the unit dedicated to director John Marshall, we are proud to be able to present the films “A Far Country” and “End of the Road” from the Five Part “A Kalahari Family” film series he completed in 2002 and his short but vivacious film, “A Joking Relationship.”

In 1951, John’s father brought a research team and his son and daughter to the region called Nyae Nyae in the north of South Africa’s Kalahari Desert. There, they encountered a tribe of Bushmen: ≠Oma Tsamkxao and his band who called themselves the Ju/’hoansi. From 1952 to 1962, John and his family followed the lives of ≠Oma Tsamkxao and his tribe. In those five years, the Marshalls and the Ju/’hoansi established a remarkable friendship. By the 1980s John had become even more deeply involved in the Ju/’hoansi people’s political fight for the survival of their culture. The Marshall family’s first contact with ≠Oma Tsamkxao and his band in the 50s not only changed the lives of most members of both of the groups, but their meeting influenced the future of the entire Ju/’hoansi tribe.

Other Families

What exactly is “family”? The meaning, composition and form of the family are influenced by the characteristics of location, history and society, which lead to the development of varied and divergent forms of marriage.

The top prize in the 1990 Royal Anthropological Institute, Manchester Film Festival was awarded to The Memoirs of Bindute Da filmed by two French scholars, Michèle Fiéloux and Jacques Lombard. The film depicts in detail how the recently deceased Bindute Da’s nineteen wives along with his sons adhere to tradition by holding two funeral ceremonies for their departed husband and father. The other film in this series is Petr Lom’s Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan and as the title states, it shows how men in that country literally take young women off of the street to become their wives. Of those girls who are “chosen,” some tearfully struggle against their prospective husband, others try to reason with him, while some, in the end, simply nod their agreement.

These two films in the “Other Families” program focus on the customs and traditions of other cultures to explain the characteristics of marriage, family and social groups of these different societies.

Alternative Families

The nuclear family has now become the prevalent marriage system and building block of most societies. Although it is a system built upon the foundation of one husband and one wife, in reality the family is closely connected with all types of systems in our modern society. For example, the ability to procreate and rules surrounding inheritance and succession also affect the form of the family. A family’s living arrangements also are affected by these rules and relations between the genders within a society.

As a result of changes within society, we gradually begin to see the occurrence of non-traditional family structures such as interracial, intercultural and intergenerational marriages and single parent families. Because of new ideas and freer attitudes towards gender, homosexual family groups are also more common.

A gay couple has always yearned to raise a child together. When the time is right, they use the Internet to find a surrogate mother to realize their dream. The film, Paternal Instinct chronicles the lives of these two men in New York in their quest to have a child and shouldering the responsibility of bringing up their new daughter. Mit Koran und greller Schminke/Transsexuelle in Pakistan, produced by Germany’s NDR Television, follows the lives of the Pakistani Khusras, a group that cannot be classified as either male or female in the traditional sense. They leave their families and come together to create their own cross-gender family group, looking after and taking care of one another.

Another film, directed by Mickey Chen, The Scars on Memory, is an account of loss, as a middle aged Taiwanese gay man finds himself suddenly without his partner. He looks back at his past and harbors a pain in his heart that cannot be concealed. However, surrounded and comforted by the warm company of his friends, he again has a feeling of being home.

Girls to Mothers draws attention to adolescent girls in Nicaragua who face the unplanned birth of a child. In poverty and without the support or help from the father, what is the future for these uneducated young mothers and their children? The experiences of these Nicaraguan girls are common to innumerable other young women from all over the world. The phenomenon of adolescent girls taking on the responsibility of bringing a child into the world alone is disturbingly common, and many children are not afforded the luxury of two parents sharing the responsibility for the family that is stressed in most cultures.

Sung Ming-Chieh’s Hey Jimmy is a short 15 minute film about Jimmy, born of an African-American and Taiwanese mixed race relationship, and how he lives as a drag queen in Taiwan, revealing how his vitality can shine through under the intense pressures of race, gender and social status

Diversity and Family

In Taiwanese society, cases of domestic violence are often seen in the media. In this year’s festival, we present a more personal look at this tragedy in the Norwegian film My Beloved Child. It chronicles the incest case that shocked the country and the difficulties faced by the abused girl, now a woman, as she tries to move on from her stolen childhood and function as a wife and mother. The film is narrated by the woman herself, whose calm voice, intermittently flushed with emotion, leaves the viewer moved.

Also from Norway, the documentary Forever Yours is about the differences between in one grandmother’s own recollection of her lost love and the actual reality. The grandmother’s perfect love for her deceased husband and everlasting yearning begin to show cracks when her granddaughter looks abroad to discover what exactly happened to her grandfather. In The Perfect Dream the focus is turned to the foreign youth who migrate alone to Germany with no home or final destination. In their travels, they meet up with others in their situation to form their own “families.” The film was directed by and portrays the young people themselves, depicting their everyday life and their thoughts and expectations about the concept of family.

Living With Chimpanzees: Portrait of a Family makes the viewer realize that chimpanzees are not just pets living with a family, but are actual full-fledged members. A Hospice in Amsterdam shows us the loving care extended to the elderly and terminally ill in their last days at a hospice created by neighbors and friends.

In the film Children by Remote Control we meet a Thai family, separated when the parents travel to Israel to become laborers while the children remain in Thailand. The family relies on international phone calls to maintain their relationship. The film was directed by Israelis who followed Thai laborers in Israel and their return to their home towns. The viewer can deeply feel the laborers emotions living in a foreign land and a mother’s loss at having no choice but to leave her children behind. Taiwan can use this film as a mirror, to take a good look at itself and the situation of the foreign workers here. We can empathize more with the workers’ experiences and the recent protests and see this film as a tool to learn how to become a better host to these workers.

In comparison to the Thai workers who leave their homeland to sell their labor, Wu Ping-Hai’s films Shei-Ting and Her Song and They Came from Overseas to Make a Home are more like stories of dandelions spreading their seeds and taking root. Shei-Ting is from Meizhou in mainland China. The year she turned 27, she met Mr. Chen, a matchmaker from Meinong. Within a week she had agreed to marry a Taiwanese man and immigrate to Taiwan. After arriving here, she began a life that even she could not have imagined; one more difficult than she had ever experienced in her village in China. “They Came from Overseas to Make a Home” chronicles a group of Southeast Asian women who also arrived in Taiwan as brides. Although they came from different cultural backgrounds, their same fate brought them together. They created the TransAsia Sisters Association, rewriting the meaning of family in Taiwan.

The films chosen for the “Family Variations” series give the viewer an international perspective and use images to interpret how people in different places under different historical conditions and social environments develop varied family (or clan) structures, inter-family relationships and marital and extended familial systems. The films also discuss how having the two sexes as the foundation of society create bonds among people and the basic social environment among different groups and in different places around the world.

We hope to using the theme of “family” and related metaphors: the household, family members and one’s roots to show how these many facets of the family create boundaries, limits and paths for both individuals and groups. Additionally, the films also explore how the family itself changes and transforms under the influence of globalization, relocation, immigration and multi-nationalism.

In addition to “Family Variation” the festival also offers the “New Vision” series. This collection of films contains outstanding documentaries from around the world produced within the last two years. You can look forward to enjoying stories from different viewpoints, perspectives, time periods and frames of mind. This series includes the three programs “Indigenous Perspectives,” “Human Rights and Autonomy,” and “Migration and Settlement.”

Indigenous Perspectives

In the process of globalization, the native peoples in all parts of the world bear the imprint of time and scars caused by world’s development. In The People of Angkor, the director’s highly skilled hands guide us through the lives of people of differing fates, who meet and interact at this remote relic. Through many years of hardship, every tile and every brick of the ancient city is entwined with stories of suffering and hope, past and present, the heavenly and the human.

Thinking of the village of Inukjuak in the frozen North of Canada, the image of the ancient culture of the Eskimo people may come to mind. However, in the film Inuuvunga: I am Inuk I am Alive, a young man picks up a video camera to film himself and the family and friends around him, interviewing his elders about the many facets and varieties of their people’s traditions.

These teenagers whoop and speed along on their snowmobiles, making tracks through the frozen tundra, just like their Taiwanese counterparts race in their cars, leaving tire marks on the highway like they too are saying, “I am alive!”

Betelnut Bisnis tells the story of the betel nut in Papua New Guinea, were the small, narcotic seeds of the betel palm are closely bound to the people’s everyday lives. To many families, the betel nut has always held a special place in their culture and even today the betel nut maintains an important role in economic life, as a key source of income to maintain the family livelihood. The locals’ dependency on the betel nut is reminiscent of Taiwan, where the people’s passion for the betel nut has not been diminished despite the government’s education program warning of the seed’s carcinogenic properties.

In Trakis na bnkis director Baunay˙Watan and his people, the Taya, use the traditional methods of cultivating millet to search for the traces of their ancestors, hoping that the vanished culture of millet can be reincorporated into modern life.

The Solicitude for the Takasago Volunteer by Watan and Oloh discusses the over 90 year old Tomohide Kadowaki who forged strong relationships with the surviving members of the Takasago Volunteers, made up of Taiwanese Aborigines who fought for Japan in WWII, during his many visits to Taiwan. In the current state politics in Taiwan, with strident opposition between supporters of independence and reunification, between friends and critics of Japan, how can these former soldiers for Japan who then suffered under the cold war and colonization find their own voice?

Kimbo, the godfather of Taiwanese Aboriginal folk music, was not only a musical pioneer, but in the whirlwind of democratic freedom that enveloped Taiwan, he was able to use his songs to convey the plight of the nation’s aborigines. Halugu and Kaleh’s film Kimbo in a Flash , traces the footsteps of the early generation of the Aboriginal movement and concludes with Kimbo finally releasing his first solo album, for which this film was named.

Dhakiyarr vs. the King similarly describes how aborigines and majority ethnic groups interact and the friction that sometimes develops between the two. It chronicles the mysterious disappearance of an Australian aborigine, Dhakiyarr, after he was convicted of the murder of a white constable. Seventy years later, his descendents attempt to clear their forefather of this crime and return to him his wrongly besmirched honor. The film also discusses the relations between, two families, one white and one aboriginal, living in two different cultures with two different value systems. How can these two families, and whites and aborigines in general, face the conflict and injustices of 70 years ago and ultimately reconcile in the present?

Human Rights and Autonomy

How do people within in their own homeland interact and to what level can they live in harmony and strike compromises with each other? The Indian film Final Solution documents the violence in 2002 between the Hindus and Muslims and ensuing massacre in Gujarat caused by political and religious disagreements. The film probes how different groups used politics to work against each other and consequentially, how those groups were no longer able to live peaceably together. The institutionalized hatred that it catalyzed created huge changes in the interactions between the different groups and the society as a whole.

Sometimes, however, people living within their own community also are unable to completely to put into practice their beliefs or preferred lifestyle. The film What Remains of Us chronicles Kalsang Dolma, a Canadian of Tibetan heritage, who from 1996 to 2004 crossed through the Himalayas into Tibet several times, facing danger in her quest to broadcast a tape of information that the Dalai Lama wanted to communicate to his people. The camera is fixed on the Tibetan people as they are absorbed in the words of their spiritual leader. Their expression of true emotion and reactions at the moment of viewing makes this film extremely moving and poetic. Perhaps if a camera was turned on the viewers of What Remains of Us, which touches on homeland and exile, religion and politics, human rights and hope, we could see a another example of the effect a poignant film can have on its audience.

Lin Li-Fang’s Buddha’s Sons films a young lama at the Mirk Monastery Temple high in the Himalayas following his teacher, Lama Chinlek, learning from him how to become a good lama. The film opens a window onto the young man’s life as he studies at the temple, his happiness and tears, his return home during the New Year holiday and the short, valuable time he shares with his mother and father.

One of the opening films of this year’s festival is 62 Years and 6500 Miles Between by Anita Wen-Shin Chang. Through her grandmother’s eyes she tells story of Taiwan’s democratic development and examines the complicated situation today created by fractious relations between groups with differing backgrounds and other historical and political factors. Chang’s grandmother uses expressive and fluid Taiwanese to vividly describe her experiences. Especially after watching her dramatic recounting of the February 28th incident, the audience is infused with courage and hope for the future.

In this program we also present another Norwegian film, Easy Life. It examines FTM (female to male) transgender individuals and how they, using their physical body, gender identity, social safety and everyday life, pursue their goal of becoming a normal citizen with totally equal rights. Between the possibility and impossibility of achieving this goal, the film probes the important issue of human rights for transsexual individuals within their own homeland and community.

Migration and Settlement

In this program we are exposed to the diversity that exists within Taiwan itself, the various social systems and multi-faceted lifestyles that have developed through the intersections between its past and present inhabitants. After the KMT government’s arrival on Taiwan, soldiers who had fought the Communist Party in China and then had to make a new life on this island are the subject of Hu Tai-Li’s Stone Dream. Farmers in the City by Hung Chun-Hsiu chronicles farmers living and tilling the soil in Taipei’s Beitou district. Other than the hard work of cultivation, they must also face the effects of the developing capital city on their farming lifestyle. The Story of Wai San Ding Island directed by Hung-Zhou Je  documents the inhabitants of a sandbar and how their lives and outlooks change as their home slowly begins to erode away.

The “Family Variations” and “New Vision” series in this year’s festival use the medium of film to convey cross-cultural perspectives and to explain how varying historical conditions and social environments cause groups of people from different lands to develop their own distinct lifestyles and cultural perspectives. These films were chosen for the 2005 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival with the purpose of breaking through the barriers of race, class, and gender, in order to better connect with the world’s plethora of cultures.