Review: Preface Visual Exploration of the Body and Soul

Hu Tai-Li (Festival President, TIEFF 2009)

Launched in 2001, the biennial Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival (TIEFF) is holding its fifth installment this year. Previous festivals explored the themes of Island Odyssey, Migration Story, Family Variation, and Indigenous Voices, while TIEFF 2009 will delve into the central theme of Body and Soul.

This year’s festival director and I have both dealt with the recent losses of loved ones, so we share a deep understanding of illness and death. When she proposed physical healing as a potential theme to the film festival organizing committee, I suggested that the theme also incorporate the soul as well. In cultures around the world, the soul is always involved in discussions of physical illness and death. We received a total of 300 submissions of various themes from Taiwan and countries around the world. 19 of the final 34 films chosen for screening at TIEFF 2009 fit into the theme of Body and Soul.

Arguably, the most difficult events people face in their lives are illness and death. Each culture has its own traditional views on illness and healing practices, with many relying on shamans who can communicate with spirits to drive out illness and deal with souls. At TIEFF 2009, five engaging films feature shamans. First, in the Looking Back section of the festival, A Balinese Trance Séance is a collaboration between the late ethnographic documentary director Timothy Asch and anthropologist Linda Connor filmed in Bali. The pair also worked together on Releasing the SpiritsA Village Cremation in Bali to document a mass cremation ceremony held to release the spirits of the deceased to be reborn in its next body. We have also invited famous visual anthropologist Karl Heider to head the post-viewing discussion session.

In the four other films (BetweenFate of The LhapaThe ShadowLiving with the Invisibles), we meet Korean shamans, Tibetan shamans exiled to Nepal, Indonesian Wana shamans, and Moroccan spirit mediums who all chant and beat drums to cure their patients. Even in modern society, when western medicine seems to be at a loss, people still look to their traditional cultures and seek out the power of alternative healing. Continuing in this year’s theme, the festival also features three extremely moving films about facing death, FAMILYHard Good Life and Trekking in Wind and Rain. Although their loved one may be gone, surviving family and friends continue to talk to the spirit of the deceased as they sing and seek comfort in funeral and burial ceremonies. FAMILY, one of the festival’s opening films, depicts bereaved parents who decide to donate their beloved son’s body to serve as a teaching cadaver at a hospital. Their love spurs them to make this sacrifice, allowing their son to contribute even after his death.

Films selected to represent this year’s theme reflect many types of disabilities and illnesses, including leprosy (Korea’s Lady Camellia and Taiwan’s Leprous Life), cancer (Transparent Time, Hard Good Life 2), deafness (Voices from EL Sayed), blindness (Bilal), Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a.k.a., ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, (Seeing Freezing Life-The Most Intimate Computer Family), mental illness (People Say I’m Crazy), HIV and AIDS (Native Canadian The Long Walk and Swaziland’s Today the Hawk Takes One Chick). Although some of the sufferers were separated from their communities due to their illnesses, they ultimately created an unbreakable bond not only with their own families, but with society as a whole, influencing all those they met. The opening film, Today the Hawk Takes One Chick, struck us with its portrayal of the high mortality rate in some African villages caused by HIV, while the majority of children orphaned by the disease must rely on their grandmothers as they face a precarious future.

Aboriginal society always is a major focus of TIEFF and we also hope to see more native people pick up video cameras to record their own cultures. Following the introduction of Hopi director Victor Masayesva and Taiwanese Amis director Mayaw Biho at the last TIEFF, this year we are presenting two works by Pilin Yabu, a member of Taiwan’s Atayal Tribe. The Stories of Rainbow depicts elders with tattooed faces and ancestral spirits, while Through Thousands Years (one of the festival’s closing films) is a new film describing the experiences of a non-aboriginal Han Chinese film crew as they interact with the Atayal Tribe. Featured films also include Orchid Island (Lanyu) ’s Tau Tribe member Hsieh Fu-mei’s (謝福美) first film Men’s Ocean, Women’s Calla Lily Field, which will be screened together with Rowing the Cinat. While also about Orchid Island, the second was filmed by a Han Chinese director providing a different perspective. Additional films featured at TIEFF 2009 chronicling ethnic minorities directed by members of those groups include Mu Xiaoqiao’s (木小橋) outstanding Trekking in Wind and Rain about the Nakhi of China and Ellen-Astri Lundby’s Suddenly Sami about Norway’s SamiFilmed by local residents, The Lost Buddha, explores the culture of the Northern Shaanxi province, while truly capturing the unique spirit of the area. Also, a Hakka cameraman chronicles Taiwan’s Hakka culture in Small Steps on a Long Road.

French director Martine Journet (filmed Indonesian Wana shaman) and Australian director Tom Murray (filmed the ceremonial culture of Australia’s Yolngu people), accomplished filmmakers who have both spent long-periods of time living in aboriginal societies, once again have films featured at TIEFF and have again been invited to attend the film festival. Tom Murray’s new film In My Father’s Country (one of the festival’s closing films) shows the assault from the outside world faced by Australia’s Yolngu culture and the elders’ touching battle to teach the tribe’s young people their traditional rituals and culture. The Taiwanese selection, Sing It!, records a school principal of the Bunun Tribe who works to pass on traditional Bunun songs to the tribe’s children. The Sixth Resettlement, a work from mainland China, interweaves black and white footage from a 1960’s documentary with modern footage to document the lives of the Kucong people in their traditional hunter-gatherer society caught up in a wrenching cycle of repeated resettlement and escape back to their original homes as they face their sixth resettlement. In Search of the Hamat’sa: A Tale of Headhunting, uses Anthropologist Franz Boas’ 1894 witnessing of the Canadian Kwakiutl hamatsa, or cannibal dance, and Edward Curtis 1914 film as a jumping off point to research the history and significance of the dance. The film shows how interaction between anthropologists, museums, and native peoples led to the development of the modern ritual.

Two films in this year’s festival touch on how traditional culture can affect and restrict women. Desert Brides depicts the difficulties faced by Israel’s Bedouin women living in a society where polygamy is still prevalent. Menstruation is a look at how Nepalese women living in Himalayan mountain villages are viewed as being unclean during their monthly period and are traditionally forced to live apart from society in unsanitary huts.

Ethnographic film festivals often serve as a forum to discover and highlight a director’s first work. When an individual first picks up a video camera, it is often easiest to point the lens at his or her own family. However, producing an intimate, relevant film is not easy. At this year’s film festival Hsieh Fu-mei (謝福美), a member of Orchid Island’s Tau Tribe, used her parents as subjects of her first film Men’s Ocean, Women’s Calla Lily Field. Chen Hsin-yi’s The Captive exposes her father’s secret—he once fought for the Communist army and was a prisoner of war. The film is a moving depiction of the conflict and mutual support between father and daughter and husband and wife.

There are two films that lie outside of this year’s theme that are nevertheless especially rich in cultural significance, Jerusalem(s) and Patrasche, a Dog of Flanders, Made in Japan. In a world where travel has allowed people from different backgrounds to shuttle across the globe, these two films show us the variety of ideas and interpretations that different cultures and religions can have on the same subject. When Belgians change the appearance of Patrasche and his owner to better fit Japanese tourists’ image of the characters gleaned from a popular animated feature, they blur the line between cultural reality and fantasy. TIEFF 2009 features a variety of films that will expand our horizons while nourishing our bodies and souls.