Review: Introduction: Looking Beyond Prejudice to a New Vision

Wen, Tien-Hsiang

(Film Critic)

This year’s first-ever Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival (TIEFF) features classic and new works of ethnographic filmmaking from Taiwan and beyond. Although this year’s theme is “2001 Island Odyssey,” TIEFF’s New Visions program will transport audiences to more continental destinations with its program of uniquely expressive films on Tibet, Cambodia, India, Holland, Macedonia and China’s Yunan Province.

The first of these New Visions is The Elders, a film by documentary filmmakers Ji Dan and Sha Qing. Fans of the documentary form should be familiar with the work of Ji and Sha, who have been living in and filming the Tibetan village of Rikaze since 1994. While the two filmmakers completed work on The Elders in the same year that they finished Gong Bu’s Happy Life (shown at the 2000 Taipei International Documentary Film Festival), The Elders at first appears to be a less focused work. In it, Ji and Sha introduce us to a group of elderly Tibetan Buddhists, but offer us no subtitles or narration to explain either these people or their activities. Instead, the film follows them at their own leisurely pace, recording them as they walk, work, chat, hold gatherings and chant sutras. We are thus startled when we realize that these seniors are driving the reconstruction of a temple destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. The filmmakers show as that though their subjects are old in body, they remain very capable and are a powerful force for stability within their community. Seeing a group of old women console a young lama with their chattering, viewers cannot help but think that perhaps it is just this simple and deep faith that allows Tibetans to endure in spite of the enormous political and religious pressures to which they are subject.

Ancient traditions live on not just in the “mysterious East” of the Western imagination. Men and Mares shows us that there is more to the Netherlands than windmills, tulips and wooden shoes. In the province of Zeeland, a few farmers continue the tradition of using draft horses to plow their lands. The short, stocky, thick-mane animals are true workhorses, patiently pulling their plows back and forth across the fields. Why have these farmers resisted more modern methods of tilling their land? Each of those interviewed in the film has his own reasons, but all clearly share a love of their horses-the interdependence and mutual understanding of man and beast is apparent in every frame of the film.

When the draft horses appear in the same scene with the tractors of neighboring farms, it makes for a startling contrast. These are most certainly not the purebred racehorses made familiar to audiences by films such as National Velvet and The Black Stallion. While director Metje Postma does show us the horses with their tails braided for shows and holidays, she has not given us a film in which pretty young boys and girls gallop all day through grassy fantasylands on the backs of rampant stallions. Instead, she presents us with the whole cycle of these draft animals’ lives. They mate. They birth foals. They work. They even die. Two scenes late in the film-one depicting a Caesarian section on a mare, the other the brutal final scene in which a horse is put down with a bullet to the head-are shockingly powerful and at last make clear the film’s introductory warning: “Some content may be inappropriate for children.”

The New Visions program also presents us with documentary work by several well-known directors of dramatic films. On such work is Mira Nair’s The Laughing Club of India. Nair’s first film was Salaam Bombay!, a realistic portrait of the lives of India’s street children that was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and won a Golden Camera at Cannes. After directing three films in the US-Mississippi Masala starring Denzel Washington, The Perez Family with Anjelica Huston, and an English-language version of the Indian classic Kama Sutra-Nair returned to India to make The Laughing Club of India, a gem of a short documentary. On the surface, the film consists simply of interviews with a group of people who promote laughter as a path to health and fitness. Club members offer no scientific evidence of the benefits of laughter to their health, but rather reveal how this group activity has provided them with a release from the internal burdens they bear. But Nair’s footage does something more. In it we see members of India’s various castes all coming together every day to practice natural, unrestrained laughter. In this way, Nair reveals that the club members’ pursuit of better health has been far more effective than any social theory or movement at bringing down the barriers created by India’s rigid caste system.

While The Laughing Club of India documents the rise in the popularity of alternative medicine in India in the last few years, Kusum shows us India’s long-held faith in traditional spiritual healing. The film tracks a family’s quest for a cure for their 14-year-old daughter Kusum’s bizarre illness. Kusum is suffering from a number of symptoms-severe hot flashes, fits and screaming nightmares-of unknown origin. During these attacks, she neither eats nor drinks. Although her family sends her to a hospital for evaluation, the doctors can find nothing wrong, and their consolation all too obviously provides the quiet little girl with no relief.

The girl’s father finally decides he has no choice but to take her to a faith healer. This healer, a man possessed by the gods and reminiscent of the dang-gi often seen outside Taiwan’s own temples, appears in several scenes. In his presence, the wide-eyed Kusum whimpers and cries, though it is unclear whether her change of mood is due to the surroundings or the presence of a god. The healer attributes the girl’s illness to evil spirits plaguing the family, presenting the deaths of several members of their extended family as evidence supporting his diagnosis. While Taiwanese audiences will likely find the phenomenon and its explanation familiar, the Finnish director and his crew were clearly shocked. Nonetheless, they manage to create a moving film that catches both the family’s poverty and the strength of their feelings for one another. The audience can’t help but feel the family’s pain-the silent father at a loss as to what to do, the mother agonizing over her child’s future, and Kusum herself, who accepts everything and somehow leaves the impression that she feels guilty for her illness.

Six months later, the film crew returns to Kusum’s home to find her in good health and growing up. Her pretty face lit by frequent smiles, she tells the crew that she is no longer plagued by nightmares. Does the film prove the efficacy of faith healing? Perhaps not. But should the audience focus on this incomplete proof or on the improvement in the life of Kusum’s family? That’s a question those who have been moved by the film must ask themselves.

French director Rithy Panh, born in Cambodia’s capital, Phenom Penh, is another leading international filmmaker whose work is being shown at the TIEFF. Panh, who previously presented his 1994 film Neak sre (“The People of the Rice Field“) at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, became a refugee while still a child when the Khmer Rouge took over his hometown. He spent his youth in a Thai camp before finally arriving in France where he studied film. Critics are fond of referring to Panh as “Cambodia’s Tran Anh Hung,” perhaps because the ethnic-Vietnamese director also grew up in France before achieving international fame. But, in fact, Panh’s style is far removed from Tran’s meticulous formalism.

Prior to filming Neak sre, Panh had made several critically acclaimed documentaries on refugee camps, including Site 2. His most recent work is The Land of the Wandering Souls. Filmed on video in 1999, it chronicles the construction of Southeast Asia’s first fiber-optic cable. Cambodian laborers did most of the digging work for the cable, which passes through Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Some of these laborers were youngsters who had been abandoned by their parents. Still more were adults who brought their entire families, from elderly grandparents to infants, along with them for the duration of the project. The workers’ paltry salaries barely provided for the most meager of existences, yet they were expected to take up a vagabond lifestyle, relocating again and again as the project advanced. Panh tell their story with skill and charm. In one scene, he shows us an elderly woman who is working on the project attempting to trade for rice. The old woman she is attempting to trade with, who herself has nothing, instead gives the rice as a gift. The second woman tells the film crew of her own terrible poverty during Cambodia’s civil war. She says she remembers it as if it were just yesterday, and tells the crew you help others if you can. As she speaks about the past, tears stream down her cheeks. Panh also shows us children catching crabs and weather loach in a muddy pond. But the children are not playing; they are gathering everyone’s lunch. We also discover that even ants go done well with noodles. Panh also makes us appreciate to what extent the shadow of war still lingers over this land and its people, showing us one digger removing an artificial limb, and other diggers’ frequent discoveries of unexploded ordinance. Yet he also shows us a wife and husband who, although they don’t have enough to eat and are too poor to buy shoes or see a doctor, flirt naturally as she washes his hair in a stream. This gift of the strength to carry on makes an appropriate footnote to the film.

Ironically, throughout the film people are constantly trying to explain the wonder of fiber optics to the laborers, telling them that the cable will advance technology and communications to new heights. But what does this mean to workers who have spent seven to eight months away from home and who will, after all their work, go away with empty pockets? Panh seamlessly blends poetry and observation as he interweaves social ills and human dignity. This is a superbly made film with a great deal to say.

Next Year in Lerin, also filmed on videotape, also deals with the shadows of war. Although the film’s structure, which intersperses informative footage with interviews, makes it somewhat two dimensional, it nonetheless presents the audience with a tragic and largely forgotten bit of war history. During the Greek Civil War that followed World War II, a group of ethnic-Macedonian and Greek children were taken away from their parents and sent to live in a Romanian orphanage. When the war ended, the Greek government allowed only the ethnic-Greek children to return. Unable to go back to their villages, the ethnic-Macedonian children were forced to take up residence in other countries. Meanwhile, their villages in Greece were gradually abandoned. Filmed in 1998, Next Year in Lerin documents the 50th reunion of the children expelled from Greece. In interviews with the director, these now gray-haired “children” describe the difficulties and homesickness they experienced in exile. Even now, with the Greek Civil War a distant memory, these ethnic-Macedonian Greeks only dream of returning home. As a tour bus bearing a number of the expatriates back to Greece reaches the Greek border in the final scene (some of the ex-pats had finally secured visas), I was suddenly reminded of Theo Angelopoulus’ films Voyage to Cythera and Ulysses’ Gaze.

Recently, Chou Wah-Shan, previously well known within the Chinese-language movie community for his open homosexuality and his writings on gay issues, did what so many sociologists and other have done-he picked up a camera and made a movie. Like many of the films at this year’s TIEFF, the resulting film, Tisese: A Documentary on Three Mosuo Women, addresses the issue of conflict between foreign and indigenous cultures. In fact, in its general thrust, the film is similar to Paradise Bent (being shown as part of the Island Odyssey-International program), a film that thoroughly explores traditional Samoan views on gender that may seem bizarre to outsiders.

Although Chou reveals unexceptional formal filmmaking skills in Tiese, he does succeed in turning the camera into an objective observer. By allowing three generations of Mosuo women to speak for themselves, Chou, who lived in the remote Mosuo Mountain District for more than a year, makes his points very clearly. On the one hand, he presents China’s only matriarchal society’s views on family and gender, and shines a light on the misunderstood Mosuo “walking marriage.” He shows his audience what a society whose members live their whole lives with their blood relatives and who have a great deal of sexual freedom-fringe behaviors from a mainstream perspective-looks like in practice. At the same time, Chou also addresses the changes being wrought within traditional Mosuo society by foreign cultures and increasing tourism. Although the response to Tisese’s first run at Taiwan’s airports was enthusiastic, few people actually saw the film. Happily, those who missed these earlier screenings will now have a chance to see the film at the TIEFF.

In summing up these seven films, I have no desire to seek out their points of commonality. There is no need. If audience members are moved by even one of these films, then the New Visions program will have achieved its goal of opening our eyes to different perspectives. And isn’t this presentation of other views the very thing that makes documentaries interesting? As I interpret these filmmakers’ interpretations, I can only attempt to explain the effect their diverse efforts have had on me. I sincerely hope that enthusiasm for documentary film events such as the current ethnographic film festival continues to wax stronger in Taiwan.

(Translated by Scott Williams)