Finish year

"Life is brutal and hard, so I want to look at it light-heartedly" Director WU Wen-rui talks about his film Funeral Video

  • Stefanie ESCHENLOHR
  • 2018TIDF
  • Taiwan Competition

translated by Stefanie ESCHENLOHR and proofread by TSAI Wan-ying

Making documentaries about people is a real challenge  

I haven’t produced many films, and the few films I made are mostly about “people”. When I was in the initial stages of Funeral Video, I had things in mind that I wanted to try out, but sometimes you can't film what you want to film. Also, some of my friends say that I have a talent for filming people, that I manage to portray them vividly, as individuals with strong personalities. So, in hindsight, it might have been predestined, that I came across my uncle's story and that I ended up making another documentary about a person.

Shooting people is indeed one of the most complicated issues in making documentaries. It doesn't matter how familiar you are with someone, as soon as there is a camera between you and this person, you will build an entirely new relationship starting from zero. All kinds of questions will come up:  Should I film this scene or not? Should I ask for permission? At what time should I shoot? And those questions do not only come up, when you are shooting the film, but also when you are editing it.

Which kind of truth do family photo albums reveal?

Making this film was really hard, from the very beginning to the end. First of all, old people are difficult to film. In particular, interviewing them is difficult. For example, I wanted to know why my grand uncle likes to take so many photos. I could actually guess the reason, but he was evasive in his answer and didn't reveal his thoughts. Besides, my great uncle is quite headstrong.  Originally, I was planning to add another layer to my film that should reveal something about the creative process. With such a technique, which I had used in previous works, the character of the film could have been reflected more clearly. But for Funeral Video, it was not possible to pursue this idea.  When I did the editing, I would sometimes treat it like a fiction film. But, at the same time, I had to respect the people who were in front of my camera. They shouldn’t get the impression that I construed a story. I had to think of a way to stay truthful to the story as it had evolved.

In a recent review, Professor KUO Li-hsin from National Chengchi University wrote, that so-called family photo albums would never reflect the truth. Most people would only take shots of happy moments, but never record sad moments in life or scenes of conflict. Most of all, death was a complete taboo in family photographs. If pictures of death scenes were taken, death would be sublimated to an art work. That is why only photographers would do it. In my opinion, KUO'S thoughts are a bit too sophisticated. Quite obviously, my great uncle is an exception. He has been photographing scenes of death and funerals all his life. When his daughter and his wife died, he would take pictures of their bodies lying in the coffins. It seems, as if he was just speaking through his photos, it was completely normal for him. 

Shorts are harder to make than feature-length films

My great uncles pictures posed a problem for me. How should I integrate his stills in my film? For a long time, I was mulling over aesthetic questions that come with including still photography in a film. I finally came to the conclusion that the only important thing was to capture the feeling and the atmosphere of those family photographs. When we thumb through a family photo album, nobody would look at the pictures in detail. They only serve to trigger emotions or evoke an atmosphere of the past.

Another thing I'd like to add: I haven't done any creative work for quite a while, but I have been making films, mostly commercials. Since I hadn't used a camera to shoot my own work for a quite some time, I was thinking of a minimalist approach for Funeral Video. I wanted to use very simple equipment to achieve a particular quality. However, sometimes I would fall back into a habit that comes with shooting commercials, that is, making pictures of all possible sizes and from different angles. But then I was asking myself:  Do I really need all those recordings?  I guess I was just afraid that there would not be enough material when it came to editing.  In fact, everything in this world is highly condensed. When we make a conscious decision on the length and the content of a shot, every object or situation in a scene might reflect several layers of meaning. Such a way of shooting is definitely not easier than making a long feature film.

Resisting loneliness with Don Quixotian optimism

My great uncle is a contradictory personality. I was wondering, if he really would not fear death. I noticed that it was the year, when his physical and psychological health was deteriorating, that he took most pictures.  He wanted people to believe that he would face death in a positive way, but whenever he had the slightest health issue, he would become very nervous. I believe that he was quite afraid of dying.

Shooting this film made me realize that many elderly people are afraid of being forgotten. My great uncle feared this kind of death, the death of being forgotten. That is why he was clinging to his camera, putting so much effort into recording his life as if he wanted to protest against the fact of being forgotten. This somehow reminds me of Don Quixote. Another problem that has been troubling him: His son wasn't married, and that he didn't have any grandchildren. He worried that nobody would pray for him when he died, that no one in my generation, let alone in the following, would remember him.
Emotions in life sometimes resemble a double-sided coin, with a bright side and a dark side.  Does one always have to dwell on the dark side?
One probably has to choose one side of the coin in order to move forward. At least, my great uncle has the courage to face the fact: We have to be optimistic, because we are lonely.

Handle sadness light-heartedly, tell your story with humor

When I make a short film of limited length, I do not only want to get an idea across. My ambition is to tell a story that will create suspense and stir up different kinds of emotions. And, I don't want to make a film too depressing. Sometimes, one has to treat sad things in a light way. When you feel the lightness, you would simultaneously feel that there is something heavy sticking to it. Therefore, humor is very important in my works. Even if I make a film about a sad topic, humor will allow us to deal with it gracefully.

I also spent quite a lot of time to think about music. In my opinion, the music in a documentary shouldn’t just be an underlying layer that accompanies emotions. Film and music enter a dialogue, so I want to have music with a strong narrative character. If the music is detached from the film, the whole film would be incomplete.

I have watched many films, so most of the time I have been in the role of the audience. For me,“Adopt the audience's point of view”has always been an important principle. If people come and spend their time to watch my film, I want them to enter a shared space of feelings or some kind of dialogue. A director has to tell a story that resonates with the audience, a story that allows him to communicate with the audience, a story that everybody wants to watch from the beginning to the end. Otherwise, one will end up being caught in one's own world of feelings.


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