After serving Taiwan’s Public Television Service (PTS) for many years, the office is just like a second home to KE Chin-yuan, who has been respectfully called “Master KE” for his experienced and envisioned filmmaking career. When he was young, a singular desire to create “more connections with the people of society” led him to move from personal causes to collective ones. From then on, he poured his life into filming nature. His works cover from “gutter water” to the “ocean”, from “corals in the sea” to “forests on the land”, allowing him bear witness to the many faces of Taiwan’s natural environment.
Master KE’s latest work, Ocean, is like a slice of time extracted from the two decade-long footage of Taiwan’s seashores and marine life. The sober images allow the audience not only to marvel in silence at the unexperienced beauty of the ocean, but also witness the landscapes that have been damaged by mankind. For example, the film goes from the pure spectacle of a jellyfish swimming upward in the water to the image of a plastic bag floating on the surface. Even though Master KE doesn’t add any narration in this documentary, he still delivers the massages with the visual language.
Q: Ocean actually comprises footage accumulated over decades. You have cut it down and split the footage into three major parts: the visual appearance of the ocean, the relationship between man and the ocean, and man’s destruction of the ocean. How did you decide on what footage to choose? How were you feeling during the editing process?
We had actually already decided that the filmed video would be shared separately on online and TV platforms. So I didn’t struggle too much when editing because even if some of the spectacular images are cut out, I knew they could still be put into the online version. It comprises 46 short films and can currently be viewed on the PTS YouTube channel under the “Ocean” page.
I was feeling calm during the editing, because I had been collecting the footage for several decades. The footage is all very refined, so I was instead hoping that it would be able to be reach people who aren’t normally concerned with the environment, and people from different fields. In the early days at PTS, our reports emphasized the revelation of information, criticism and supervision, then adding moral values to shape the story so that those who are uninterested in the environment can understand or feel what it is experiencing. . In the later periods we have been hoping to engage more people into the environmental protection with the rising of the public’s awareness, changing individuals then, corporations and the government successively.
Q: You’ve been filming so many ocean-related topics over the years. How do you think the ocean has changed during this time?
I started circling Taiwan and its main islands to film ocean-related topics since 1994 and began doing field research from 1990. Then when PTS began broadcasting officially in 1998, I started producing the Our Island program. In 2004, I completed the documentary film Remember the Coral Reef. With 10 years as a time scale, in 2014 I began preparing for Ocean to re-examine the seas. But due to the change in the environment over these 20 years, the diversity and richness of much of Taiwan’s marine life no longer exists, so we could only film in the South Pacific and the Atlantic for some of the scenes. Often we found that footage that took years of waiting to get in Taiwan could all be captured in just one day in the South Pacific. Seeing the deterioration of the environment left an especially deep impression.
Q: Your previous works contain a lot of news-style reports. Last year you had works with accusatory voice-overs such as Black and Formosa vs Formosa, but also gentler expressions such as Ocean and Water is Life. When you were producing Ocean, at which point did you decide not to use voice-overs and captions in your storytelling?
When filming a documentary I will first establish a model through field research. Every film therefore has a pre-set style of expression, but most will only gradually develop into form during post-production. Things could still change at the last moment because an interview or a shooting did not go well.
For me, what I am most concerned about is the relationship between man and the nature, especially the qualitative changes that man brings about. Like Ocean, for instance, the first 10 minutes or so are used to lay out the original appearance of the sea. The middle part depicts relatively harmonious co-existence between man and the sea, while the focus of the third part is on the damages to nature produced by man’s activities. Only in the fourth part do we start getting into viewpoint. Although it feels like human being is a minor character in Ocean, it is still a discussion of the relationship between man and nature.
At the start of the production of Ocean, we were thinking to set an omniscient viewpoint. The shooting took three years. The collection of materials was very complete. We began the editing process with the music score. When I first started thinking about the score I had considered finding ready-made music or getting a musician to produce it, but gave up because the tone didn’t match. Later I discovered that apart from the familiar sound of slapping waves, people didn’t really know many other sounds of the ocean. So I thought we could just let everyone listen directly to the significant sounds I recorded in the ocean, which can allow them to concentrate on observing the ocean. Abandoning music and voice-over is actually not unusual for fiction films or documentaries. But it is more of a challenge when being presented via television because it’s unlike the rhythm and the structure audiences are familiar with from watching Discovery channel, with that drama, music, tight pacing and story-like feel.
Q: In your past works, like Black, Formosa vs Formosa, and now also Ocean, it is very easy to see where you stand on damage to the environment caused by development. This also makes it very easy for you to be categorized as an“environmental protector”. Is this a label you agree with? What are your thoughts on environmental protection and development?
Man cannot protect the environment. All along, it’s the environment that’s been protecting man.
I mean we should try our best not to cause damage, to exercise appropriate usage and sustainable development, rather than just think about present needs. According to Taiwan’s Constitution, when there is a conflict between the environment and economy, the environment takes precedence; if there is a conflict we should first choose to protect the environment instead of developing the economy. With the rising of the citizen’s awareness about social issues in the last few years, we seem to be at the dawn of a new era. . Some of my documentaries are actually talking about corporate social responsibility, but in the end it’s still about the right to choose. Now that the citizen has started participating, we need to think about how to put the right to choose back in our own hands, to let us decide what policies are shaped and how society should be developed, for reshaping the values.
Q: What left the deepest impression on you or what was your most unforgettable moment during the making of this film?
There are many “firsts” coming with documentary filmmaking. For example, my first time scuba diving was for making a film. We dived into the Sargasso Forest, about two to three meters high. It was like shuttling through a forest on land, and you can come into close contact with many living creatures. It was a very stunning experience! Also, I grew up in a Shengang fishing village in Changhua county, where there was a little river in front of the house and only two kilometers from the beach, so I’m very familiar and passionate about the ocean and agriculture.
Q: What was the most difficult thing you encountered during filming?
The weather. Major factors affecting maritime documentary filmmaking are wind, tides and rough seas. When there are typhoons it becomes even more impossible to go out to sea, and it also increases the budget. Secondly, it is hard to track down the marine life that we plan to film. We often spend a lot of time searching on the seas without success. It might be due to environmental changes or because they’ve been caught. As a result, we’ve had to capture the necessary images at the South Pacific instead. I remember in the first day we managed to capture all the footage we had been waiting for the last 20-something years. In Taiwan we had waited year after year without payoff. Like land crabs, there used to be a lot of them in Hengchun in southern Taiwan, all over the beach, but now there are probably only a few scattered along the entire shore.
For more information about Ocean, please click here
(Translated by Howard SHIH)