Review: Family Variations~The Wonders of the Ethnographic Film Festival~Introduction

by Hu, Tai- Li

(President, Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival)

“Everyone is searching for home sweet home. Should I be any different?” asks aboriginal folk singer Kimbo in the documentary “Kimbo in a Flash” by Taiwan Public Television aboriginal reporters Halugu and Kaleh. Hearing my old friend Kimbo talk about the many setbacks and difficulties in his life, I almost burst into tears.

Family is the undeniable basic building block of human society. The common conception of a family is of one man and one woman who marry and have children. However, if you take a broader view of the whole world, the incarnations of the family are profuse and varied. They challenge our preconceptions of what it means to be a family.

Continuing the themes of earlier years, “Island Odyssey” in 2001 and “Migration Stories” in 2003, this year’s Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival has selected the theme of “Family Variations.” Through films from diverse cultures, the audience can come in contact with and experience the essence of different kinds of families and to ponder the true meaning of family. Below, I have chosen just a few from this year’s selected films as examples of “Family Variations.”

◎ Hunter-Gatherer and Polygynous Herding Families

In the history of ethnographic film, an important and touching encounter of two families occurred in 1951. The Marshall family of Boston traveled to the Kalahari Desert in the west of South Africa, where they met a hunter-gatherer tribe of Bushmen headed by ≠Oma Tsamkxao. John, the 18 year old son in the family, using a video camera that his father had given to him as a gift, began to record this group that had previously been seen as extremely primitive and mysterious. Along the way, he also learned their language.

In 1958, South Africa’s government denied John Marshall entry into the country. He was then separated from ≠Oma Tsamkxao and his community until he was finally allowed to return in 1978. What he found upon his return was startlingly different from previous years. Much of the Bushmen’s land had been taken over by the government and they were moved to a settlement called Tshumkwe and thus stopped their traditional hunter and gatherer life.

Marshall’s films continued to document the lives of ≠Oma Tsamkxao’s family and in 2002 he finally completed his five part “A Kalahari Family” film series that illustrates the changes that occurred over that half century of contact. John Marshall sadly passed away this April 22 of lung cancer. As a remembrance of the man and his contributions to the field of ethnographic film, we are showing two of the five films from his series and also the early short film, “A Joking Relationship.”

How do societies that are based on polygynous marriages operate? The famous husband and wife ethnographic filmmaking team, David and Judith MacDougall, investigate this very question. They lead the viewers into the world of the Turkana, semi-nomadic herders of northwestern Kenya, and explore their polygynous families. In one of their films of the “Turkana Conversations” trilogy, “A Wife Among Wives,” a Turkana man matter-of-factly states, “It’s customary for us to have five wives. A man with one wife is not considered married. He’s called ‘one-vagina. He’s useless.” Th women would complain, “Who will look after the animals all? She might tend the camels…but not the goats…, goats but not camels. Who would build fences? Who would water livestock? Who will do these things?” Wives actively search for additional wives with whom they can share this work.

◎Transsexual and Homosexual Families

For those who do not identify with the physiological classifications that society imposes upon them, the idea of marrying someone of the opposite sex is a very distressing thought. In the Islamic nation of Pakistan, there is a small group made up of men who, while physically male, mentally see themselves as women. There is nothing to distinguish them from women, neither their dress and appearance nor their mannerisms. They come together to form families, which, in turn, make up a larger social group. In this kind of family, with one of the older members playing the role of mother and teacher. The members of the family also do not have sexual relations with one another. In the film “Koran und greller Schminke/Transsexuelle in Pakistan,” we can see how their culture accepts and respects these transgendered individuals. Their main occupation is as dancers at birthday and wedding celebrations and they are thought to bring joy and blessings to the partygoers.

Mickey Chen, in his film “Scars on Memory,” explores the extreme sadness of A-long, a gay man, whose dream of living as a family with his partner A-yen is shattered by A-yen’s death. A-long tells A-yen’s sisters, “Today I would like to thank all of you for being able to accept me. I have been warmed by my contact with your family.” The end is bittersweet; through this tragedy, those who were left behind can come together to form a family.

Can two men start a family and give birth to children? “Paternal Instinct” is a film that gives a vibrant real-life example. Mark and Erik are a couple who plan to use artificial insemination to have a child. They find a surrogate mother through the Internet, who gives birth to their two daughters, first Mark’s then Erik’s. Although they have realized their dream, what kind of moral and legal issues does this method of giving birth and creating a family bring up?

◎ Scarred and Atypical Families

Of the films selected for this year’s festival, the one that was most unforgettable and painful for me was “My Beloved Child.” Family photos appear on the screen, but the father’s face is always cut out of the movie frame. He is a faceless father, whose daughter still carries the scars on her body and soul that he inflicted upon her. This Norwegian documentary examines a tragedy of domestic violence and incest and the ensuing case of patricide. It uses exquisite and ingenious ways to uncover the scars and give the viewer a direct look at a dark side of family.

Families can also be harmed when they come in contact with groups other than their own. The film “Dhakiyarr vs. the King” recounts the story of an Australian Aborigine leader who kills a white constable on aboriginal territory. He is imprisoned and put on trial, but no one knows his ultimate fate. His family is deeply traumatized by his disappearance. Even more disturbing, since his body was never found, his descendants cannot carry out the traditional funeral ceremony and are thereby prevented from returning the power and wisdom of his soul to his people. Seventy years later, a white and aboriginal family search for the path to reconciliation.

What does family mean to young girls who themselves give birth to children? In the Nicaraguan film “Girls to Mothers,” I can see the bewilderment and hesitation in the eyes of the still immature young mothers and fathers when faced with the new life they have brought into the world. At the end of the film,an astonishing fact appears on the screen, “Every day an average of 400 children are born in Nicaragua, 100 of them to adolescent mothers.”

The subjects of the films “Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan” and “Living with Chimpanzees: Portrait of a Family” are quite unusual and a bit difficult to categorize. In the countryside near Kyrgyzstan’s borders with Russia and China, one out of every three girls is kidnapped to become a bride. A woman in the film says, “Get kidnapped, accept it and then move on, that encapsulates our lives. We will slowly get accustomed to each other and our love will grow over time.”

A wholly different kind of family develops when an American couple adopts two chimpanzees. In “Living with Chimpanzees: Portrait of a Family,” the wife says, “On the one hand, they’re incredibly wonderful, affectionate creatures. And they’re just like we are. And on the other hand, they can be very unpredictable. Because they’re so strong, they can also be very dangerous and they are considered to be wild animals.” The funny and heartwarming relationship between these chimpanzees and their “parents” is truly amazing.

◎ Families in Motion, Families at Rest

Taiwan continually produces families made up of new immigrants together with the island’s earlier inhabitants. In his films “Shei-Ting and Her Song” and “They Came from Overseas to Make a Home,” Ping-Hai Wu records the lives of recent immigrant brides from Mainland China and Southeast Asia. Shei-Ting, who married a farmer in Meinung, sighs, “I got married and came over here. I have a family now and I’ve got to face the fact that things are going to be difficult. There was no way that I would just arrive here and live the good life, even I knew that.” A foreign bride studying at Yongho Community College said, “The biggest difficulty for us is that when we arrive in Taiwan we cannot communicate with our mother-in-law, our new family members. Every day at home we just cry and cry.” Immigrants face difficulties in adjusting to a new culture and being torn emotionally between their old and new families. My film “Stone Dream” describes a veteran, Liu Bi-chia, who came with the KMT to Taiwan from China. Following the death of his wife, he agitates to return to the mainland. His adopted daughter comforts him and strongly pleads for him to stay. Her emotions are indisputably genuine when she says, “He keeps saying he wants to settle there. This is also his home, I don’t approve of his going back. Your children are all here, if you go back, you’ll be alone there. How can we not worry about you? ” Viewers are left visibly moved by her sincere concern.

“A Hospice in Amsterdam,” as the title states, is about a hospice in the Netherlands that has been designed as a tranquil home for terminally ill patients. It is different from a hospice located in a regular hospital; it is meant to be a home for the ailing. With its living room, dining room and warm and spacious kitchen, it is a comfortable place for both the patients and their visiting families and friends. The doctors, nurses, and volunteers are still always near to help, so the patients can get the care that they need. This homelike hospice can relieve pressures on both the patient and their relatives would feel if the ill person were to live at home. It causes us viewers to deeply ponder the true meaning of home and family.

◎ Filming the Filmmaker’s Own Family

This year’s festival both opens and closes with a film by a granddaughter about her grandmother. Sometimes when documentary filmmakers point the lens at their own families, they get bogged down in small details. However, these two films use the family’s own story to tell a much more universal one. Anita Wen-Shin Chang, who grew up in the United States, returns to Taiwan in her film, “62 Years and 6500 Miles Between.” Chang’s aunt helped her own mother, Chang’s nearly 100 year-old grandmother, to write a chronicle of her life, recording all of the changes she experienced over the decades of her life and her struggle for democracy. Through old films of her grandmother paired with communication between herself, her mother and grandmother, who suffered a debilitating stroke, the director traces the interlaced history of a woman, a family and a nation, while also searching for her own identity. In the film, with trembling hands, her grandmother writes out the two Chinese characters for “peace,” her deepest hope for Taiwan.

“Forever Yours” is a romance born of the turmoil of war. The director finds a short piece of film footage of her grandmother as a young woman. She always happily tells her own love story, “It was then that I met and fell deeply in love with your grandfather. My fate was sealed.” However, during the Second World War, before their eldest son was born, her grandfather was sent to a labor camp and was never heard from again. The director tries to track down any trace of her grandfather and finds clues that he might have lived in Bombay, India. Her grandmother wants nothing of it and will not accept any evidence that she may have been abandoned. The love and trust she feels for the man cannot be diminished. In her grandmother’s heart, her memories are far more precious than reality. As a matter of fact, all family types revealed in this film festival yearn for love and happiness. The idea of “home sweet home” is one that cannot be defeated.