Taiwan’s first indigenous film? Continuum and either/or definitions of “indigenous film”

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?

It seems to me we have two ways of determining whether a film is indigenous, by a continuum and making an either or determination. There is a kind of continuum from non-indigenous representations of indigenous peoples to indigenous representations of indigenous peoples. Features such as screenwriting, cast (are the actors indigenous?), crew (especially whether the film used a “community production” model, involving local people in production), direction, production, the language of the film, and the content – whether it conforms to Hollywood expectations, whether it is an authentic presentation of local people – place any given film somewhere along the continuum.

At the same time it’s still meaningful to claim that a certain film either is or isn’t indigenous. The boundary separating indigenous film from non-indigenous film is fuzzy; in most cases the determination will seem straightforward, while in others the film will seem to sit on the fuzzy boundary and there will be more room for debate. When push comes to shove, the either or decision is usually made based on the identity of the director: if the director has an indigenous identity that is accepted by an indigenous community, then it’s an indigenous film.

This approach assumes an auteur theory, spotlights the role of the director in the making of the film and leaving the rest of the production in the shadows. Some auteurs might be able to do everything they want, but most directors aren’t in this position. They have to negotiate their visions with writers, actors, investors and distributors, and of course with the public as well. An indigenous director would have to negotiate with the local people and with the indigenous community. As a result of this hidden complexity, we must be careful interpreting films we accept as indigenous in the either or sense because they have indigenous directors. Wood argues that the producers of the first “indigenous hit” Smoke Signals, as well as Mirimax, the distributor, put pressure on the director Chris Eyre to provide a feel good ending resulting from the positive attributes of the main characters. In other words, they pushed for conformity to Hollywood expectations. This puts the authenticity of the film into question. This makes one wonder about Finding Sayun, especially because of the unexplained mainland Chinese presence in the film. I’ll address this issue in a separate post.


Darryl Sterk is a Chinese-English literary translator and scholar of Chinese literature, specifically Sinophone literature from Taiwan. His scholarly interest is the comparative representation of aboriginal places and peoples in film and literature.

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