Review: Forward

Hu Tai-li
President of TIEFF, Research Fellow of Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica

As ethnographic film festivals are becoming increasingly popular worldwide, Taiwan has joined this trend with the premier International Ethnographic Film Festival, the first of its kind in Taiwan and Asia. For years I have been bringing self produced ethnographic film documentaries to international ethnographic film festivals in Europe and North America. A hope has been growing inside of me to arrange an international ethnographic film festival in Taiwan. Finally, with the birth of Taiwan Ethnographic Film Association last year, my hope is being realized with the first Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival from September 21st to 25th, 2001, in the Center of Academic Activities, Academia Sinica. This east Taipei venue in Nankang is located near the mountains, an environmental niche with white egrets, rice fields, and water lilies. Since ethnographic film has its roots in the lives of people placed in mountains and along coasts, in cities and villages, the ideal location for showing these films here includes mountains and water, with space to breathe, walk and contemplate.

The first Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival, starting its journey from the beautiful island of Taiwan with its theme: “Island Odyssey 2001.” On one hand, we have sent out invitations film submissions both domestically and internationally, setting out on a worldwide odyssey. At the same time, we have been actively planning the special “Retrospective” and “Orchid Island in Focus” themes, as well as exploring the “New World” outside of island films. The films accepted by the festival primarily represent ocean islands. The islands portrayed are distributed throughout the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic belonging to the continents of Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. These films portray the vivid and captivating tales of island cultures, legends, and the sea.

The Pacific islands represent our closest brothers and sisters, and for the “Retrospective” theme, we have selected works representative of three periods in the history of Pacific ethnographic filmmaking. The most dazzling work of the first period is Moana: A Romance of the Golden Age, filmed on the Samoa Islands in 1926 by the master of motion picture documentaries, Robert Flaherty. Displaying feelings of both romance and determination, it follows his Nanook of the North as yet another film of historic ethnographic character. For the second period, we have selected a work by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, filmed in Bali and New Guinea from the 1930s to the 1950s. The films explore the character of the cultures through the camera lens by looking at child development (Kaba First Years, Childhood Rivalry in Bali and New Guinea) and rites and dances of spiritual possession (Trance and Dance in Bali). For the third period we have a presentation of the outstanding Australian documentary director and photographer Dennis O’Rourke who has from 1975 onwards concentrated on filming the Pacific islands, documenting the transformation in New Guinea and other islands after colonization. We are very honored to have been able to invite Mr. O’Rourke to Taiwan to participate in this festival and introduce three of his films. The festival opens with O’Rourke Cannibal Tours, a humorous and satirical comparison of past cannibal traditions of Papua New Guinea with the “modern tourist cannibal culture.” The Sharkcallers of Kontu and Half Life: A Parable for the Nuclear Age are two other films deeply concerned over the meeting of islanders and foreign cultures, showing the invasion of aborigines culture and their right of existence.

Apart from the island of Taiwan, Orchid Island is the island with its own culture that has received the most attention. The island has been the location of the largest number of ethnographic documentaries over the past hundred years. We have therefore created a special “Orchid Island” theme for this festival. From my Voices of Orchid Island made in 1993, to Huang Chi-mao’s Dishes of an Afternoon Meal, Lin Jian-Hsiang’s Rayon, Kuo Chen-ti’s Libangbang: Ching-wen’s Not Home, and the just finished And Deliver Us From Evil (the film closing the festival) by Si-Manirei, a nurse on the island, we are able to observe important cultural transformations. Documentary filmmakers are continuously expanding their work on Orchid Island, allowing the island Tao tribe to communicate through the camera in dialogue with people off the island. The meeting between the traditional concepts of Orchid Island Tao and modern civilization has created contradictions and struggles, joys, and tragedies. The happiest development over the last few years is that the people on Orchid Island themselves have learnt to pick up the camera and start documenting their own lives. The first work by Si-Manirei brings us close to the people of the island and to their lives. On the one hand, she wants her filmmaking to help her start up home care activities for the elderly, but also she worried that the “truth” shown in the documentary will hurt the tribe.

After completing the domestic and international island odyssey, we will leave the single island concept to a comparative outlook for a sensitive and deeper understanding of the characteristics and problems of island cultures. When I made Voices of Orchid Island, for example, I had not seen Dennis O’Rourke’s films, but by coincidence I documented a similar phenomena. Black Harvest, directed by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, The Last Chieftain by Lee Daw-ming along with Sakuliu Pavavalung of the Paiwan tribe depicted in the film, and You Can’t Live With Your Mouth Shut by Joao Nicolauare all moving and rich portrayals of tribal political, economic, and religious transitions. We can also compare Karen Kramer’s Children of Shadows with Tseng Wen-chen’s After the Championship to understand what it is like to grow up on an island; Robert Flaherty’s Moana, and Heather Croall’s Paradise Bent are both brilliant documentaries of the Samoa Islands. If we look at Aryo Danusiri’s The Poet of Linge Homeland, Cesar Paes’s Angano Angano…Tales from Madagascar, Yu Kan-ping’s Theater in the Palm of Your Hand–Glove Puppetry in Taiwan, and Rolf Husmann & Petra Engelhardt’s Lucha Canaria–Sport and Identity in the Canary Islands together, we can enter the history and spirit of the island through poetry and songs, legends, theatre and sports. Oyvind Sandberg’s Elmer and the Flower Boat and Mort Ransen’s The Money, The Money, The Money: The Battle for Saltspring in different ways express the love and care for the island environment. These films are interesting if seen alone, but if comparisons are made, they will provide another experience. We hope to excite even more sparks through this island odyssey.

The “New Vision” section consists of some outstanding ethnographic films outside of the main island theme completed over the last few years. During the process of selecting the films for the festival, we were all deeply moved by the rich content and special cultural expression in these films. Jidan & Shaqing’s The Elders, for example, and Metje Postma’s Of Men and Mares are both very simple and profound, showing the continuity of life and tradition amidst calm and quiet. In the film The Land of the Wandering Souls by Rithy Panh we hear the breathing and cries of working laborers. In the film A Documentary on Three Mosuo Women by Chou Wah-shan we feel the confidence and talent of Mosuo women; in The Laughing Club of India by Mira Nair we explore the ways to a satisfying and happy life. Jill Daniel’s Next Year in Lerin and Dong Cheng-liang’s The Second Spring of the Strait from the “Island” section both uncover the ruthlessness of war and the innocence of ordinary people. A film made in India entitled Kusum by Jouko Aaltonen could be shown together with the Taiwanese film She Sometimes A God by Ciang Mei-ju to reveal spiritual possession in different cultures

Beginning on September 21st, the second anniversary of a devastating earthquake in Taiwan, the festival brings back memories of that disastrous event. How have the sons and daughters of Taiwan created a new life after this great disaster? Tsao Wen-chieh represents us all in Taiwan by offering her deep grief and prayer in her touching Heavenly Peace in a Small Town.

(Translated by Perry Svensson)