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LEE Pei-yu’s Still Life: Revealing Wounds the Family Wouldn’t Touch

It is a simple family tale that incorporates our deepest fears of life and death. In one’s life time, the deaths of our loved ones is something we all must face up to, yet extremely difficult to look at. Director LEE Pei-yu turned the camera to her own family, recording the pain and sorrow that followed the passing of her elder sister. The family did not want to speak of these feelings again, burying what had become an unspeakable subject amongst them all. But is it really better not to speak up? LEE used the film as an opportunity to begin bringing out the feelings that had been hidden away after the passing of her sister.

The shooting of Still Life spanned 10 years. It documented the family's evolution and how the mindsets gradually changed through the process of shooting and discussing this painful issue. What follows is a summarized version of an interview with LEE Pei-yu.

Q: So how long did it take you to shoot this film?

About 10 years or more, but I wasn’t shooting the whole time. When I first started, it was just like a home movie. My father had bought a camera, I just picked it up and shot whatever. As a result, the last shot of my sister was shot back when I was in college.

Then I started studying documentary filmmaking, and became more conscious about ‘shooting a film’. In my first year at grad school, I went and saw some films in the Taiwan International Documentary Festival. I had the feeling that I could probably make any kind of film because it really depends on how you present the idea. So I went and bought an HD video camera and started capturing important events in my family, or just family life.

At the time, I hadn’t really thought about making those recordings into a film. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with them. Maybe it was because of my sister’s fading away, I just felt like I wanted to keep a record of something, so I kept shooting for like 10 years.

Q: In the film you include family members’ feelings and recollections about what happened—did anyone have any objections to being on video?

They were basically used to me walking around with a camera all the time. What they objected to was more the crux of the film, being ‘the thing’ that we don’t talk about. At first I was nervous, because I didn’t know if they’d be willing to talk or not. I’d already figured out the worst case scenario—if they didn’t want to talk, well, that’s just reality, and so the film would have to deal with that since that’s their position.

But after talking it through, I found that it wasn’t as hard as I’d expected. Maybe they knew what I was going to ask, or maybe they understood what the theme of the film was basically going to be, either way once we really got talking, everything went alright. Another point was that if they really weren’t willing to talk, then I could at least say what I wanted to say on the theme of the film, about why we avoid talking about this and whether or not talking about it would be better.

Q: The film shows plenty of reactions from your family members, but why don’t your reactions feature as much?

It’s not that I didn’t want to talk about it, it’s that I just had less to say. When I started thinking about how to structure the film, I thought about including myself. And when it came to editing, rather than thinking, “How do I put myself in there?” I had to ask myself, “How do I want to be in there? How much do I want to be in there?”

When I did the later interviews, I felt the role I wanted to appear in was that of interlocutor. I did try to shoot myself, but I didn’t end up using those images because they didn’t really cry out to be included in what I was trying to show. I went back to the perspective of those involved and wanted to hang back and watch. I strived to maintain a balance, and if that still wasn’t enough, maybe I’m just not ready to be in that position yet.

Perhaps I’ll just have to keep filming, since maybe during the next one I’ll be able to talk about my own part more clearly.

Q: There are a lot of shots in this film that are from a low angle, as though from a cat or other pet’s perspective—what was the idea behind that?

Actually, I didn’t really plan that, it was just a very instinctive way of shooting since they're small and my camera is small. Putting it on the ground was an easy way to shoot. I realize that interpreted cinematically then of course it could be said to be a pets-eye view and people will wonder whether the director intended to communicate anything in particular with it. I understand that’s one way of reading it, but at the time I just shot like that, very intuitively, since if you want to shoot them, you've got to get close like that.

Later, during editing, I found the angle interesting. Another important point is that the animals in the film aren’t pets to me, but rather members of the family, and so I felt like their perspective was just as valid, which also informed the editing.

Q: Speaking of editing, in several scenes there are subjects in one shot that then vanish in the next. This is quite shocking to the viewer—was this a deliberate attempt to give the audience a sense of the impermanence of life?

I wasn’t really thinking particularly about making the audience feel like that. My main point was to do with our talking about death. Death is a very heavy thing, and there’re a lot of things about death in the film. From the start of assembling the film, I had one idea clear in my mind: I didn’t have to use super solemn way of dealing with this. When you follow up one solemn, serious thing with another, including the narrative of the film, I feel like things get too heavy.

Also, I don’t know if being too heavy through to the end will make everything actually seem like it has no weight to it, so right from the start I decided I didn’t want to use the imagery of death to look at death. I feel like essentially I just wanted to say that this is what happened, rather than dwelling on death’s details. If you look at death on a longer time scale, it’s just one point, and that was another thing I took into consideration regarding the narrative.

Q: What was the happiest part of making a documentary?

I’d say you could split that into two parts. If we’re talking about while shooting, it was when I knew I was shooting something important. After the film was complete, it would be seeing the film finally get screened, seeing how the audience experienced all the ideas I wanted to communicate, and then letting them interpret everything, including things I hadn’t consciously thought about. I think if you really give your all, the audience can tell, and it's also pretty good to see them coming up with interpretations you yourself had never considered.

For more information about Still Life, please click here.

(Translated by Geof ABERHART)

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