Ethnographic films from Taiwan

The 2009 Taiwan Ethnographic Film Festival (台灣國際民族誌影展) took place from 2-6 October. I attended several sessions and saw an interesting selection of ethnographic films from Taiwan.

The first film I saw was Sing It! (唱歌吧!) directed by Shine Yang (楊智麟). It tells the story of how the principal of Dongpu Elementary School in Chiayi County forms a school choir. He trains the students to a high standard competing in national competitions and then they go to record a CD over the summer vacation. Most of the students in the school are Bunun and most of the songs they record are traditional Bunun songs.

The film has two aspects, the first is the dedication and the professionalism of Principal Ma. He was formerly a sports coach and has no musical background. However, he is a great teacher and although he demands the best from the students he also relates to them on a very down to earth level. The second aspect is learning more about the home lives of the students. There is Wei-cheng the funny practical joker, but some of the other students face much more serious difficulties. One girl’s mother is an alcoholic and she is burdened with caring for her younger brother and sister. Another student longs for his runaway mother to return.

Small Steps on a Long Road (細細腳步大路行), directed by Ku Shao Chi (古少騎), tells the story of Hakka photographer Ye Cai (葉裁). It captures Ye’s passion for photography and Hakka culture. Ye is forced to do odd jobs to make money, but he still devotes his life to capturing images of his world.

Atayal director Pilin Yapu was one of the festival’s directors in focus. The program included two of his documentaries which provided fascinating insights into Atayal culture.

The Stories of Rainbow (彩虹的故事) is about Atayal elders who still carry facial tattoos (紋面). The tattooing is such an important part of Atayal cultural heritage. The tradition ended as a result of Japanese prohibition in the 1930s. The women that are tattooed are now elderly but through capturing them on film their stories and connection to the cultural heritage are told in a personal way.

The documentary was filmed over a period of more than ten years. In the beginning the director interviewed more than forty elders with facial tattoos. Then he chose to just focus on a few of them. One Yaki (Atayal word for old woman) is 102 years old. She is an endearing character who clearly charmed the director.

Through Thousands Years* (走過千年) provides a fascinating behind the scenes look at the making of Msgamil: Once Upon a Time (泰雅千年) directed by Chen Wen-bin (陳文彬), mentioned in an earlier post about Smangus. It is an Atayal director’s perspective of a Taiwanese director making a film about Atayal culture.

The production team goes to the villages of Cinsbu and Smangus to negotiate about making the film. The process of negotiation ends up taking many months as they encounter suspicion and misunderstandings. Director Pilin takes the position of an insider observing the process.

The film provides many fascinating insights into Atayal culture and difficulties in cross-cultural communication. Although the film made by Chen Wen-bin is beautiful to watch and an important record of Atayal culture, Pilin’s documentary provides a much more contemporary look at Atayal communities and how they negotiate their position in Taiwan.

Although I only saw a few films in the Ethnographic Film Festival, it was a wonderful event. Just two more years to wait until the next one.

*The English title on the DVD is The Moment Run Through.