Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: cinema
Monday, 15 December 2014 16:34

A pantomime of a war film: 'Devils on the Doorstep' Review


In a phrase: A pantomime until the end, at which point it rushes to satisfy nationalistic appetites.

(Spoilers below)

This film is set in a small Chinese town called Guajia (hang up armor) under Japanese occupation during the second world war.


Tuesday, 15 October 2013 14:05

A Tale of Two Syrias


The Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival is a biannual festival, organized by the Taiwan Association of Visual Ethnography and held in Taipei. I was very glad to attend this year’s festival, and over the five-day event I saw many interesting and inspiring films. One that immediately stood out for me was the documentary A Tale of Two Syrias.  I studied Arabic in Damascus, and later returned there for work, so for me the film had a very personal appeal. Nevertheless, A Tale of Two Syrias makes interesting viewing for anyone who wants to know more about the region.

The film switches between two locations and two people.  In Damascus, we follow the story of Salem, an Iraqi fashion designer who fled from Baghdad during the Iraq war and hopes to seek asylum in America.  In Mar Musa, a remote hillside monastery in the Syrian countryside, we follow Botrus, a Syrian monk.  The film weaves between these two stories to paint an intimate portrait of a country that despite the recent media coverage, most people know very little about.   By capturing the difficulties faced by ordinary Syrians in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and also their vision of a better, freer life in the future, in some ways the film pre-empts the current conflict.  However, through the beauty of Mar Musa and its inhabitants’ belief in inter-religious dialogue and mutual respect and tolerance, it also shows a vision of what that future Syria could be like.

I caught up with the director, Yasmin Fedda, whom I first met in Syria during my time there, and this is what she had to say:

eRenlai: It was great to see a film with a Middle East focus at the Taiwan Ethnographic Film Festival.  How did it happen?  Did they approach you?  Did you approach them?  What was the deal?

YF: I had heard of the Taiwan Ethnographic Film Festival through the Visual Anthropology networks that I am connected to, so I applied to them. They accepted, which was great!

eRenlai: Aside from your family links to the region, what was it that drew you to make a film about Syria?

 YF: At the time of filming, in 2010, there were still a very limited number of documentaries made in Syria, both by Syrians and internationals. I felt that it was important to make a film about regular- but unique- people's lives in a country that was largely misunderstood by the world's media.  

 eRenlai: "A Tale of Two Syrias" is an intriguing title. What are the "two Syrias" you tried to capture while you were filming? 

YF: I wanted to reflect the 2 stories of 2 individuals, the city and the country, the official and the unofficial, the before and the after.

eRenlai: Your film shows Syria through the perspective of two very different people, but nevertheless your two interviewees are both male, both Christian, and one of them is an Iraqi only recently arrived in Syria.  Why did you choose these two people in particular to represent the Syria of 2010?  Some people may question why you did not choose a Muslim or a female voice for example….

 YF: Good question. I realised after finishing it that some audiences have assumed that Salem, the Iraqi, is Christian, but in fact he is Muslim, but not very religious. At the time of editing I decided I didn't want to spell out what religion he is because he didn't either.  The only person's religion I did mention is that of Botrus. In Syria it wasn't strange for people of different religions to visit the shrines of other religions. I also think it is important to see that people’s religious beliefs and practices can be expressed in multiple ways, and being Muslim or Christian is not just done in one particular way that defines it for the rest. I also chose to have a story of an Iraqi refugee because up until 2010, up to 1 million Iraqis had gone through or settled in Syria and I wanted to humanise one of these experiences.

As for a female voice, I did try to find a female story, but after several different leads the stories didn't work out for various reasons (either bureaucratic, or difficult access to their particular stories). So yes I did intend to have a female voice.  But ultimately I was attracted to both Salem and Botrus’s stories as neither of them are your typical person in Syria and I think that gives an interesting perspective on life there at the time.

eRenlai: It was surprising that you managed to capture so many Syrians expressing their political opinions on camera (I am referring in particular to the discussions at Deir Mar Musa).  Was there any suspicion on their part?  Did you have to do much persuading? 

While people were discussing in Mar Musa I was allowed to film, due to being accepted by the community and also because I think people felt safe to speak there, so I didn't need to do any persuading. However the two discussions I filmed there now seem to reflect not only a different time, but also the issues that are pertinent today, like what does freedom look like and how do you share that and accept others?

eRenlai: Has the film ever been screened in Syria or the Middle East?  If so how was the film received?  What kind of comments did people have?

No, I haven't screened it in Syria or the Middle East, as it is difficult to do so at the moment. But many Syrians have seen it and have given me great feedback, which has been valuable to me. 

eRenlai: Could you talk about your changing emotions as the revolution in Syria started, then after a few months when it became clear there was going to be no quick toppling of the regime as in Libya or Tunisia, and finally when the revolution became a bloody civil war.

I was, of course, excited by the potential in Syria for change from dictatorship, and I still support this change. It became clear that this would not be easy as soon as the regime’s forces started killing people at protests and funerals, imprisoning and torturing thousands and using indiscriminate force in various parts of the country.

It is very sad and distressing to see the violence and destruction occurring in Syria today, and a strong solution to end the violence is needed as soon as possible, and then a transition to a different system of governance needs to be built.

Because of events in Syria today, the whole film has a sense of irony, tension and impending disaster it might not have had otherwise.  Had there been no conflict in Syria as you were editing the film, would you have made your film differently? What would you have changed and why?

I am sure it would have been edited completely differently, and my perspectives would have been different. It is difficult to know what would have been different as making a film is also very instinctive, and I was editing whilst the revolution was gaining ground and there was increasing repression and violence. I could not separate those things from editing. But in saying that, the Syria I filmed in was run by an authoritarian regime with much structural violence, rising poverty, crony capitalism, and many other problems. It was far from being a non-conflicted country even then. So I feel that this sense of disaster was there, even in 2010, but it wasn't clear where it was going exactly. The tension was there and I re-found it in the footage as I was editing.

eRenlai: At what stage of the editing process did the revolution start?  How far had you got with the film?

The revolution started just as I started editing, so it was difficult to see the footage of a few months before with the current news of what was happening in Syria. It took a while for me to edit after that as I could not edit the film easily due to these changes in Syria and the effects these were having on friends and family there. I took a few months off from editing, and then returned to it, knowing that the situation there had changed dramatically.

eRenlai: Before the conflict, Syria was not often talked about in the media.  Now, because of the conflict, Syria and films about Syria are getting far greater public attention.  As a film-maker, could you describe your feelings when faced with this reality?

While there is a lot of media attention about Syria I feel that there is not enough that deals with it more deeply, as most of the work is about war, which can be quite frustrating. That being said there are more and more great films being made there and they are slowly being filtered out into the world.

eRenlai: With the escalation of the conflict into a civil war between a multitude of actors, some of whom have shown themselves to be just as brutal as the regime, can we still call the conflict a "revolution"?  Can we still say that all factions of the rebels in Syria are fighting for freedom?

I think we can say that there is a lot happening in Syria and one of those things is a revolution. There are many other conflicts and fights going on at the same time but that does not mean we must sideline those that work non-violently or who focus on a change from dictatorship or for democracy. Silencing or ignoring them is dangerous, as is understanding the conflict in Syria in narrow terms, such as a conflict made up only of fighting factions, or of extremists, or full of brutal leaders. In reality there are many opinions and approaches.

Also it is important to keep things in perspective. The regime has, and still does, have majority of control of violence. The majority of destruction has been due to the regimes shelling and attacks, as have been most tortures, arrests and killings.

What is happening in Syria can also be called 'uprisings', a set of political processes that are occurring at the same time, trying to work out what they are and where they are going.  Also the term 'Freedom' depends on your definition of it, so yes, many factions may be fighting for that, and the challenge is reconciling those different interpretations of the term.

eRenlai: What do you think when you hear what some Syrians interviewed in the media –both in Syria and outside the country- are saying; that they preferred things as they were under Bashar al-Assad to the chaos reigning in their country today?

I hear a variety of opinions coming out of Syria but I cannot say that I have heard this opinion very often at all. On the contrary, I hear the opposite much more. Many people ask for an end to the chaos and violence but recognise that the regime has been the driving force for this chaos from the start in order to win popular support and to become even more entrenched. 

Some people do say they prefer Bashar al Assad, and others that they support someone else or some other group, and many others still that they prefer neither of these options.  I think this reflects the diversity of experiences and opinions across the country and I think this variety needs to be acknowledged and a space for it created in the future.

eRenlai: Christians in Syria today- and the village of Maaloula in particular where some of your film was shot- are not being persecuted by the regime, but rather by Islamist factions of the opposition. How does this affect Christians' place in the struggle against the regime?  They must be in a difficult position now...

I think the premise of this question is wrong and you cannot assume that Christians as a whole are being persecuted.  Many Christians have been persecuted by the regime pre and post conflict. At the same time there were individuals that were close to the regime and have favourable positions because of this. Sectarianism was used by the regime as a tool to consolidate power, both before and during the uprising against it. So this is a very complicated situation, as it is for Syrians of all backgrounds, including for Muslims, Druze, or atheists.

I think it is important not to see Christians as one homogenous group of people. There are many differing opinions and experiences which affect people's decisions so I don't think it makes sense to phrase the issue as the 'Christians' place in the struggle against the regime. It is about Syrians as a whole, people all over Syria are being targeted.

eRenlai: What is the best scenario for religious minorities in Syria?  At the moment things do not look good either way for them...

I don't believe this is a healthy way to see this issue. I think the best thing is to treat everyone as Syrians, as this is isn't a sectarian conflict, and is still one based on power struggles.  By saying that religious minorities are having a hard time, you are ignoring that the fact that the 'majority ' of Syrians, many of whom are Sunni Muslims, are also having a very hard time.  Everyone is affected by the conflict in deep ways and this must be recognised for everyone.

 It is important to point out that the regime has aimed since the start to make this a sectarian conflict, and this kind of narrative supports their aim. Sectarianism exists, but the uprising did not begin as a sectarian uprising.

eRenlai: Going back to your title, “A Tale of Two Syrias”, what "two Syrias" (or more than two) can you envisage in the future when this horrible conflict has come to an end?

It will take a long time to rebuild Syria but I hope it will be just one Syria after the conflict. One that is based on dignity, equality and able to accept diversity of opinion, whatever it might be. 

eRenlai: Will you be returning to the Middle East for another filming project soon? 

I am going to be working in Jordan very soon, filming a theatre production of The Trojan Women by Euripides, set in the modern Syrian conflict and made with Syrian refugees who now live there. 

 

For more information about Yasmin please visit her site, http://tellbrakfilms.com/

 


Monday, 07 October 2013 15:00

Film Review: The Queen has No Crown


The film
The Queen has no Crown was shown as part of the five-day Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival 2013. It's being held at the Wonderful Theatre, just opposite exit 6 of Ximen MRT - the last day is tomorrow, so try and catch at least one of the fantastic documentaries being shown. If you missed out on this film, you can catch a screening of I Shot My Love on the 9th October at the Freshman Classroom Building 102, Taipei at 18:30


Saturday, 05 October 2013 09:25

Film Review: Surname Viet Given Name Nam

The film Surname Viet Given Name Nam was the the second of two opening films of the five day Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival 2013. It's being held at the Wonderful Theatre, just opposite exit 6 of Ximen MRT - catch it before it's over.


Tuesday, 28 May 2013 18:26

Keening: Taiwan's Professional Mourners

Translated from the Chinese by Conor Stuart. Photos courtesy of Liu Junnan and Wang Zhengxiang

When did keening become so forced?

A Mei: 'There was always someone there saying: Now you should cry... You can't cry now...My brother and I often got mixed up, "Do we have to cry now? Or not cry?".
                                                                                                                 -Seven Days in Heaven (2010)

The film, Seven Days in Heaven (Fuhou Qiri) from the short story of the same name, describes the experiences of A Mei, the female protagonist who has been working in the city for many years, on her return to her rural hometown for her father's funeral. There was a montage in the film with a lively Spanish dance track playing in the background, in which the 'keening' during the funeral preparation process is satirized – at one point A Mei hasn't finished eating, and later hasn't finished brushing her teeth, but hears the call "the girl should come and cry", and she has to don her mourning clothes and sprint to the altar to cry – in a very memorable scene. This scene must have made a lot of Taiwanese watching laugh (at least that is what happened with my friends and I), not just because of the comi-tragic sorry figure she cut, but also because we've all had similar – even if not quite as dramatic – experiences and sentiments.

Funerals, always touch on death and separation. Being grief-stricken or crying, is a natural emotional and physiological reaction; however, having to cry or 'keen' under the strictures of a pre-formulated ritual, is hard to think of as 'natural'.

How old is traditional? How new is modern?

In Taiwanese funerals the time to cry is appointed and when that time comes you have to cry, even if you have to fake it, and it's a loud keening wail – this is an element of Taiwanese funeral culture which is often criticized as a corrupt practice. When watching Seven Days in Heaven, A Mei's embarrassment, and the laughter of the audience, reflects the distance that people nowadays feel towards funeral rites.

For the past 20 or so years, a trend towards modernization in funerals has gathered momentum; the customs surrounding the funeral rites, often seen as esoteric were rebranded under the new moniker 'the study of life and death' (a field of study in the Chinese speaking world: shengsixue), advocated in the context of Metaphysics. A milestone in this trend has been the regulatory impact of the 'Mortuary Service Administration Act' promulgated by the Taiwanese government at the end of 2002, an act that states its purpose as essentially advocating conforming funeral customs to reflect the demands of a modern society.

If one compares the funeral model listed under the Citizen Ceremonies' Model ratified by the government in 1970 and similar models offered by funeral businesses today, one discovers that there's not much difference – clearly we haven't completely gotten rid of the old, and welcomed in a new way of doing things, but rather we've adapted and reinterpreted some of the finer details. So, before we rush to accept the traditional/modern dichotomy, perhaps we should ask ourselves what is this tradition that we are talking about? How old is it really? And what about the meaning of it should be reformed?

The shift from secular to religious funerals

To continue the example of keening, let's do a bit of historical research.

Normally people from Han culture think of funeral rites as pertaining to three separate traditions, the Confucian school, Buddhism and Daoism, at the same time, different characteristics sprang up in different localities. The fact that a funeral rite is called a rite () implies that it not only a religious activity; comparing the Confucian, the Buddhist and the Daoist traditions, the relationship between rites () and the Confucianism is much older and much deeper.

Very early on, China already had the concepts of ghosts, deities and ancestor worship, however, from the time of Confucius and Mencius, the rites, although they took their origin in belief and sacrificial rituals, developed by Confucian intellectuals from the rites of Zhou has always been secular, the main thrust of which was concerned with governing the behaviour of man. Confucianism tends to a belief that improving one's own sense of morality can give order to society, and allow one to accept one's place in life; they didn't feel the need search for consolation in imagining ghosts or deities. Therefore, the funeral rites and customs Confucianism advocated didn't include religious mysticism, but rather they reflected the 'normal' social order and social contract.

Pursuing harmony and rationality in this world, cannot ease the primal terror that people feel when faced with death, and this pursuit is unable to answer people's questions or speak to their imaginings of the afterlife. The narrative of life and death in Confucian thinking, advocating the ideas of putting the service of man before the service of spirits and that of keeping a respectful distance from ghosts and deities, is not enough to satisfy these questions; so, as Buddhism, which had come from elsewhere, and the home-grown Daoism came to fruition in the Wei, Jin and North-South dynasties, the system of rites surrounding funerals associated with Confucianism became intertwined with those of Buddhism and Daoism; with the changes in the way people think about the world, the secular Confucian orthodoxy has gradually become less dominant, under attack as it was from modern ways of thinking; supernatural religious belief was able to come to the fore in funeral rituals, revealing even more clearly the shift towards thinking from a religious perspective.

哭喪04Restraining Grief, a Thousand Year Old Ritual

However, in the midst of this trend, keening is considered an example of a more 'classic' ritual.

As the Chinese equivalent to "I'm sorry for your loss", which translates roughly as "Restrain your grief, so that you can adapt to the loss", which people today still use regularly, can attest to, the main tenet by which the Confucian system of rites deals with crying or keening during the mourning period emphasizes mediating grief by controlling one's physiological reactions. The passage 'Questions about Mourning Rites'in the Classic of Rites (Li Ji) is an early record that, even in the case of mourning for parents, the mourning period shouldn't last more than three years, the purpose of this is in the hope that people will gradually be able to exercise emotional restraint, and return to their customary life in society. This current of thought continued until after the Song (960–1279) and the Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties, when Confucian scholars gradually compiled Family Rites wherein the role of crying as a stage in funeral rites was laid down more clearly in writing, this included instructions like the following: on the death of a relative or a friend, you cry loudly (the person is dead so you can cry); throughout the period when one is offering sacrifices for the dead, one can cry if one feels sad (there's no appointed time for crying, when grief comes one may cry); but once the body has been interred, during the 'Enshrining the Spirit' ritual, one can only cry in the morning and in the evening (crying at dawn and at dusk); after a year of mourning, one should stop crying – this is where the idea of appointing the times when one could and could not cry came from in part.

As well as this, keening in this context, isn't simply 'crying', but rather it involves singing a keening song (dirge). From the perspective of the Han people, the folk keening dirges can be sung in several different ways, some are freestyle with no limitations on content, others, however, have words, but most are sung by women, such as wives and daughters on the death of an elder; during the funeral rites of the Zhuang, the Yi and the Jingpo peoples, all minority ethnic groups from the South West of China, one can always find rituals which fuse dance and keening dirges to express and relieve grief.

Can grief-stricken keening be carried out by proxy?

We can say for sure that keening is a part of a funeral culture with a long history, and it had a rich significance, and not a negative one, so is it right to label keening as a aberrant practice?

In the film Seven Days in Heaven, as well as the 'genuinely' filial daughter, A Mei, who feels bewildered by the keening ritual in the process of the funeral, there is also another classic role associated with crying: the 'fake' filial daughter A Qin, who keens professionally. In the film, A Qin is a larger than life career keener who can turn her tears on and off at the drop of a hat; the idea behind this character comes from the Chinese expression for a professional keener 'Xiaonvbaiqin'(孝女白琴 literally: filial daughter Baiqin), which formed a part of Taiwanese funeral processions (zhentou 陣頭) ten or twenty years ago. Somehow, compared to the relatives of the dead not knowing how to cry, spending money to hiring a perfect stranger who is in this profession to keep up appearances for them by 'performing' grief, seems a lot harder to reconcile with the practice of 'rites', but in Taiwan, this phenomenon has really taken off.

In fact, as well as "Filial Daughter Baiqin", another element of the parade tradition (zhentou 陣頭) with which Taiwanese readers will be familiar is the part called "Five sons cry at a tomb" (Wuzikumu 五子哭墓), these all play a part in "orthodox" Taiwanese funeral customs: the latter takes its origin in a Hoklo folktale; the former, on the other hand, is derived from the character 'Filial Daughter Baiqiong' in the 1970s' Taiwanese popular classic puppet theatre The Great Confucian Knight-Errant of Yunzhou (雲州大儒俠) – so these are all relatively "new traditions", so to speak. That's not to say that these more performative examples of keening don't have an element of filial piety or that they don't count as an expression of grief; however if one really goes back through historical records it becomes clear that these performances were actually invented by Taiwanese funeral homes – another relatively "new tradition" which only really started to become popular from the 1960s onwards.

 Because of its close connection with the rise of local funeral home companies, most of the professionals performing as"Filial Daughter Baiqin" normally work for relatively small organizations, often with staff shortages, and they're often responsible for weddings and other celebrations in addition to funerals - working in a variety of different roles, not just in the funeral sector, like performing as show girls on dance floats at weddings - a common sight at local weddings, celebrations and sometimes even funerals. For that very reason, the "Filial daughter Baiqin" profession is one of the most denigrated within Taiwan's contemporary funeral cultural industry, indirectly reinforcing people's negative impressions of this keening custom at funerals.

Overcoming the diametric opposition between "traditional" and "modern"

From another perspective, however, no matter if it's the services performed by the undertaker, the"Five sons crying at the tomb" (Wuzikumu) or "Filial daughter Baiqin", given that the structure of society has changed over time, the way funerals are held has adapted accordingly, making up for something that is now missing from our society (the popularization of funeral homes reflects the weakening of the bonds between people living in the same area and within families, as well as the scarcity of people familiar with rites; the rise of this kind of performative keening by professionals is not unlinked to the shrinking of families and the decline in the number of children), that reflects the psychology and demands of a bygone era. The custom does not take its origins in temples and it does not have a long history, but compared to the esoteric mysticism of the religious conception of rites, it is perhaps closer to the true essence of rites as they relate to the life of the ordinary man.

With the tide of modernization concerning funeral and burial customs, people have advocated freeing ourselves from the corrupt practices of traditional funeral customs and rites: they should be more solemn, there should be no loud mournful keening; they should be simplified and adapted to the times, there shouldn't be such extravagant decorations; one should follow religious practice, and not indulge in petty superstitions... however, these imagined "traditions" cannot be so easily homogenized, and one cannot break away from them simply by constructing modernity in opposition to them. Using the example of keening, we can even go far as to say that 'modernity' surfaces in order to resolve that which seems to be a contradiction or an aberration in any given society – here it would be the aberration would be the idea of a stranger being paid to mourn for one's relatives, but often in problematizing this aberration we flippantly iron out the creases in history, and simply thrust upon it the term 'tradition'. In this way we often remain ignorant to how the same practice, in this case keening, in a different time and place can change in the way it is carried out (i.e. from family members to professional keeners); and how this kind of aberration is a product of historic shifts within a society, and shouldn't simply be banished as a corrupt traditional practice.

Ghosts and deities remain outside of the grasp of human perception, and so judgement of whether something is good or bad is simply a product of our way of thinking and we shouldn't ignore the historical realities that lie behind apparent aberrations.

 

 

 


Tuesday, 17 January 2012 18:33

CEFC Files: National Identity in the History of Taiwanese Film

Wafa Ghermani is currently a doctorate candidate in cinema studies (La Sorbonne and Lyon Universities). She focuses on the evolution of identities in Taiwanese film history since 1895 (the beginning of the Japanese colonial era) until today. She explains here how she delimited her field of research and gives some of its oultines while retracing for us briefly the timeline of cinema in Taiwan.


Monday, 01 November 2010 00:00

Festival Awards TIDF 2010

On 30th October 2010 the results of the awards for the Taiwan International Documentary Festival were released. The awards were divided into International Feature Length Competition, International Short Film Competition, Asia Vision Award and the Taiwan award. The jurors had been carefully watching the nominated films which had originally been selected from 1527 submissions received in 2010, to reduce them to the final 12 prize winners. The films were shown on the last day of the festival and will be shown at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in November. The results for the 2010, 7th Taiwan International Documentary Festival Award Winnerare as follows:

International Feature Length Competition

Award

Title

Director

Grand Prize

In The Garden of Sounds

Switzerland

Nicola Bellucci

Merit Prize

Let the Wind Carry Me

Taiwan

Chiang Hsiu-chiung, Kwan Pun-leung

Merit Prize

War Don Don

Sierra Leone

Rebecca Richman Cohen

Jury’s Special Mention

The Woman with the 5 Elephants

Germany, Switzerland

Vadim Jendreyko

International Short Film Competition

Award

Title

Director

Grand Prize

Countryside 35x45

Russia

Evgeny Solomin

Merit Prize

Divine Pig

Netherlands

Hans Dortmans

Merit Prize

In Case of Loss of Pressure

Belgium

Sarah Moon Howe

 


Asia Vision Award

Award

Title

Director

Grand Prize

Passion

Mongolia

Byamba Sakhya

Merit Prize

Amin

Canada, Iran, South Korea

Shahin Parhami

Jury’s Special Mention

Iron Crows

South Korea

Bong-namPark

Taiwan Award

Award

Title

Director

Grand Prize

Hand in Hand (牽阮的手)

Yen Lan-chuan, Juang Yi-tzeng (顏蘭權、莊益增)

Special Jury Prize

Nimbus (帶水雲)

A-yao Huang (黃信堯)

Jury’s Special Mention

Avoiding Vision (是你嗎?)

Chen Yuan-chen (陳婉真)

Audience Choice Award

Award

Title

Director

Audience Choice International Award

 

I Shot My Love

Germany, Israel

Tomer Heymann

Audience Choice Taiwan Award

Let the Wind Carry Me

(乘著光影旅行)

Chiang Hsiu-chiung, Kwan Pun-leung

(姜秀瓊、關本良)

 

A fantastically immersive sensory experience and one which resonates long after it is viewed by the audience was Nicola Bellucci’s In The Garden of Sounds which won the Grand Prize for the International Feature Length Competition. This film sets itself apart from regular narrative treatments because we are allowed to enter the sensory world of both the main character and those children whom he transforms. The Merit Prize went to Taiwan’s Let the Wind Carry Me which opens up to be an inner portrait of an artist as a human being. The film displays great cinematic qualities and it seamlessly weaves itself into the life and work of one of the world’s great poetic cinematographers, Mark Lee. Director Chiang Hsiu-chiung especially brought her son up on stage when receiving the Merit Prize. Rebecca Richman Cohen’s War Don Don received the other Merit Prize for a film about a war crimes case following Sierra Leone’s civil war which displays the human tendency to judge and be self righteous with our media biased knowledge. Finally A Woman and 5 Elephants was given a jury’s special mention.

Evgeny Solomin who won the International Short Film Competition Grand Prize in 2002 for his film Katorga, won the award again this year with his film Countryside 35x45, full of unforgettable images captured in black and white. Heddy Honigman said of Countryside 35X45 that “the stories are as touching as the images we see”. The first of the two Merit Prizes was handed to Divine Pig, in which Hans Dortmans gives you all the beef (or should I say bacon?) regarding the irony of life choices, as he follows a butcher and his favourite pig…all the way to the slaughtering house. The other Merit Prize went to In Case of Loss of Pressure, where a Sarah Moon Howe who was close to breaking down, took up the camera, and filmed the struggles of her previous life as a stripper with a young boy suffering from symptomatic epilepsy. The film is a sincere response to real life difficulties.

The Grand Prize for the Asian Vision Award went to Byamba Sakhya’s Passion, an honest, touching and open film in which Sakhya gives us his vision of the present state of Mongolian cinema and its inheritance from the past. Shahin Parhami’s Amin won a Merit Prize for this film about lost origins, skilfully combining individual loneliness with the whole nation’s love of music, as it follows the fate of a dying music. Finally, director Bong-nam Park, who was one of the three foreign guests running the DOCumentary DOCtor workshop this year, received the Jury’s Special Mention for Iron Crows, whose lens displayed a silhouette of Asia in the globalizing world. Its close up observation of workers in a Bangladeshi ship destruction yard reveals the absurdity and ruthlessness of human civilization. These pieces were all charming and touching pieces of Asian cinema.

Yen Lan-chuan and Juang Yi-tseng previously won the Taiwan Award Grand Prize for their film The Last Rice Farmer (無米樂). They won it again this year with Hand in Hand (牽阮的手). Juror Wu Wenguang, an important Chinese documentarist said that this film told a moving, sad love story which was full of drama and emotional inspiration before bringing the audience to life with his clinical sense of humour. The Special Jury Award went toA-yao Huang’s Nimbus, which uses beautiful cinematography to show us the history of a Taiwanese landscape in transition. Chen Yuan-chen’s Avoiding Vision was given the Jury’s special mention.

Last but not least, in the Audience Choice Awards I Shot My Mother won the international prize and Let the Wind Carry Me the audience prize.

Article originally written with Shinie Wang for the Taiwan International Documentary Festival


Monday, 04 January 2010 00:00

Avatar – look beyond the green and blue and you’ll see blood burning red

(Spoiler alert)

A holiday blockbuster on the scale of Avatar is always going to be carefully scrutinised. Does the story make sense? Are the effects realistic? What about the acting? Is the movie popular? And for some of us, what does the movie say about the world we live in? For certain commentators this is proving irresistible, viewing James Cameron’s sci-fi epic as leftist anti-capitalist propaganda, left to soak in a big bucket of green-wash. Perhaps this is true; it would be hard to sit through nearly three hours of Avatar and not have noticed the pro-environment narrative whereby evil white men plunder the pristine forest home of enlightened aliens, the Na’vi, in the pursuit of immense wealth. In this context, a disabled human soldier—alienated from his own terminal society—comes into contact with the Na’vi whose natural lifestyle allows him to transform into a more fully realized being, both spiritually and physically. All this is done, of course, with the most spectacular of special effects, doubly so if viewed in 3D.

But what sort of propaganda is Avatar really pushing down our throats? Yes, the movie is pro-environment but undoubtedly Cameron would have had great difficulty getting a studio to fund a movie that was as proportionately anti-environment. That the most expensive movie ever made can have this theme indicates just how deeply environmental marketing has penetrated our society. But I don’t think too many teenagers are going to go home from the cinema, throw their playstation and laptop out the window and walk off into the jungle to commune with the majesty of nature.

A much more powerful (and by no means politically correct or leftist) theme underpins the movie and has a far greater influence on the outcome – that is, success is achieved by violent confrontation and brute force. Sam Worthington rouses his new Na’vi kinsmen by delivering a stirring rallying cry that harks back to Braveheart and Henry V. Rather than passively accept the incursion of the greedy invaders from earth, the Na’vi should wage war. From this point Avatar turns into a gigantic battle – man versus alien. The ensuing carnage makes for spectacular cinema and the casualties on both sides are severe and in the case of the Na’vi, not without regret. For all the criticisms of Cameron dredging up Hollywood clichés into the story, the final battle is the one that is the least creative and most disappointing.

Fears that Avatar is brainwashing the public into becoming greenies are wide of the mark. The real threat that Avatar poses is more mindless consumption of fighting and brutality. As the decade ticks over and we move on from yet another 10 years of conflict and war, at all levels of society all over the world, the ongoing glorification of violence is something that we should be giving more consideration to.


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