The filmmakers behind one of my favorite ethnographic films from last year, ManDove, are not professional anthropologists, but you’d never know that from watching this insightful, sensitive portrait of Indonesia’s National Perkutut Championship — a singing competition for doves. In fact, Kian Tjong, who made the film with his partner Jim de Sève, calls himself “a self-taught anthropologist and sociologist” and so it is only the lack of some institutional stamp of approval which prevents me from referring to him as a “professional” anthropologist…
Winner of the SVA’s Jean Rouch Award in 2012, Stori Tumbuna is the only ethnographic film I can think of for which one has to watch out for “spoilers.” Indeed, what starts off as a seemingly generic ethnographic film soon turns into a Blair Witch-esque horror film. Despite the title of this post, I don’t intend to write any spoilers —I really don’t want to ruin for anyone the pleasure I felt watching this film the first time — but there really is only so much I can say about the film without giving too much away… The story is so well crafted and shifts gears so subtly from ethnography to horror that the discerning and suspicious viewer will likely find themselves caught up in the excitement without even noticing the switch.
In the first of what I hope to be several reviews of ethnographic and documentary films, I want to write about Hu Tai-li’s excellent film Returning Souls. This film will be of interest to anyone teaching about museum anthropology, repatriation, and indigenous rights. Filmed over eight years, the story it covers goes back forty years to a typhoon in 1958 which destroyed an indigenous ancestral house in the Amis village of Tafalong, about forty minutes south of where I live in Taiwan.
While Amis are generally egalitarian, the owners of this house, the Kakita’an family, had a special place in the village, and their house “is the only recorded structure with carved pillars” among the Amis (from the study guide – PDF). While aristocratic families and carved pillars are common among the Paiwan, they are not otherwise known among the Amis.
Commentary on the film Seediq Bale often relates it to Taiwan identity. Leaping the fifty years from the Wushe Incident (1930) to Taiwan nationalism (1980s) might seem like a non sequitur or anachronistic, but many have made the leap. According to The Economist, “its message of a unique, empowering Taiwanese identity is unmistakable.” I found this statement very irritating when I read it. What business does anyone have relating a Seediq resistance against the Japanese to Taiwan identity? I’ll address the issue of the supposed connection between Seediq Bale and Taiwan identity in a roundabout way, by exploring Seediq Bale as an epic film. It seems to me that the film’s message is of an epic identity, not necessarily an empowering one.
In Taiwan’s first indigenous film, Finding Sayun, there are two casting assistant/cameraman characters from Beijing, as well as a director from Beijing. The director from Beijing never appears on screen. We only hear his voice as he watches the footage recorded by his Taiwanese casting director. What are these mainlanders doing in a Taiwan indigenous film? One reviewer complains the Chinese connection is irrelevant and was probably included to attract Chinese investment. Another possibility is that the director Laha Mebow wanted to attract Chinese tourists to the village. B&B tourism is part of the marketing of the film. I don’t know if Chinese tourists stay in B&Bs, but there are now a lot of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan. What if the investor put pressure on the director to change the film in accordance to mainland audience expectations? What if the director put on rose-colored glasses to make her village attractive to the mainlanders? These are delicate questions. I was too afraid to ask them. So, I asked the director via e-mail what the mainlanders are doing in her film. Suffice it to say, the director encouraged me to find the meaning of the Chinese connection in the film itself rather than the film’s investment structure or marketing strategy.
It seems to me that rather than declare the mainland Chinese presence in Finding Sayun irrelevant we should try and make sense of it.
In an article on the recent Orchid Island film Waiting for the Flying Fish, which is about but not by Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, Prof. Anita Wen-hsin Chang called for funding for local films by indigenous directors. Finding Sayun, directed by the indigenous woman Laha Mebow, claims (on the film poster) to be the kind of film Prof. Chang has been waiting for: a local film with an indigenous director. Therehas been significant indigenous involvement in other films, including this year’s “epic” about the Wushe uprising in 1930, Seediq Bale. A better example is The Sage Hunter, starring the Taiwan indigenous writer Sakinu and based on his writings.
If Finding Sayun is Taiwan’s first indigenous film, it is Taiwan’s first contribution to the growing corpus of global indigenous film. According to Houston Wood, the author of Native Features: Indigenous Film from Around the World, the first indigenous film was Richardson Morse’s 1972 adaptation M. Scott Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn. The first feature by an indigenous woman was the Australian Tracey Moffat’s beDevil in 1993. A Chinese/Atayal language indigenous film with limited distribution (even in Taiwan) like Finding Sayun is not likely to make it onto the radar of a scholar like Wood. This is not a criticism of Wood, who had his work cut out for him trying to cover indigenous films in English speaking countries.
But what does it mean to claim that a film is indigenous?
Finding Sayun is a superb new anti-aboriginal romance film by Laha Mebow (陳潔瑤), a Taiwan indigenous director. The film revisits the 1943 Japanese propaganda film Sayon’s Bell about an indigenous girl from Nan-ao, a “rural township” in northeastern Taiwan, who drowned trying to carry luggage across a river for the man she adored: a departing Japanese officer. (Sayon and Sayun are two different transliterations of the same name.) Sayon’s Bell wanted to reassure the Japanese public that, a decade after the Wushe uprising in 1930, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples had been converted to imperial subjects, and to convince aboriginal braves to fight for the emperor: it would be hard to resist after hearing Sayun singing the inspiring Song of the Taiwan Soldiers: