Finish year

Introduction to the New Taiwan Documentary

  • Kuei-fun Chu

Kuei-fun Chui 邱貴芬 (Taiwan Literature and Cultural Studies)

(This article was originally published on YIDFF2019 Official Reader "SPUTNIK" )

      In New Chinese-Language Documentaries: Ethics, Subject and Place (2014, co-authored with ZHANG Ying-jin), I identified three historical stages of the development of the New Taiwan Documentary. The first stage, spanning from 1984 to 1990, was dominated by activist documentary films marked by a strong grassroots character. NTD at this stage defined itself basically as counter-witness and counter-memory film practice. The Lukang Anti-DuPont Movement (1987), produced by the ‘Green Team’--allegedly ‘the father of the New Taiwan Documentary,’ is an illustrative example. This documentary documents the movement against the proposal by the transnational DuPont company to build a titanium dioxide plant in a coastal town in western central Taiwan. It vividly captured a growing Taiwanese civil society at that specific historical juncture. The documentary can be seen as a landmark in the history of Taiwanese ecodocumentary making in that it laid the foundation for activist Taiwanese ecodocoumentaries. It carries a rudimentary note of environmental justice – an environmentalism that recognizes the uneven distribution of environmental burdens and the need for social justice.

      The second stage, lasting roughly ten years in the 1990s, witnessed the domination of the Taiwanese documentary scene by the Full Shot Foundation under the leadership of WU Yi-feng. A characteristic of the Full Shot Foundation is a participatory documentary style that positions the filmed subject as an interlocutor—someone on an equal footing with the filmmaker. Instead of ‘speaking for’ the filmed subjects, the filmmaker ‘speaks with’ them, showing respect for the filmed subjects in the construction of the documentary’s meaning.

Interestingly, the close relationship between documentary filmmaking and the empowerment of the civil society in the 1990s was developed with the government’s assistance in many ways. In 1995, under the aegis of the Cultural Affairs Bureau, the Full Shot Foundation undertook a multi-year training program to teach interested people in rural as well as urban areas basic documentary filmmaking skills. Noticeably, 11 out of the 74 trainees were indigenes. This signifies an important step in the indigenous struggle for self-representation. Director HUANG Shu-mei was a Full-Shot member before the school was disbanded in 2006. Several of her works are included in the “Cinema with Us” program at the 2019 YIDFF: Formosa Dream, Disrupted, A Letter to Future Children, and Coming Home.

      The 1990s also witnessed increasing institutional support of documentary filmmaking and screening in Taiwan. In 1996, Tainan National University of the Arts set up the first graduate institute of documentary filmmaking and studies. Documentary filmmaking training finally gained an important institutional foothold. Many young documentary filmmakers in Taiwan have studied in or graduated from that institute. Both HSU Hui-ju and TSAI Yi-feng, whose works also appear on the screening list of “Cinema with Us” program this year, graduated from TNUA. In terms of screening opportunities, Taiwan Public Television launched “Documentary Viewpoints” --a program devoted exclusively to documentary films, in 1999.

      The appearance of Floating Islands (2000), a collection of short pieces directed by twelve documentarians and coordinated by Zero CHOU ushered NTD into a new stage. The question of aesthetics surfaced and the line between documentary and fiction was blurred. In a sense, this urge to address the aesthetic question testified to the impact of proliferating film festivals that were becoming important screening venues for independent documentarians in the late 1990s. Film festivals usually have an audience quite different from those targeted by documentaries produced by the Green Team or the Full Shot Foundation. The experimental film language of Le Moulin (dir. HUANG Ya-li, 2016), an award winning documentary celebrating the dynamics of transcultural flows in the France-Japan-Taiwan circuit in the 1930s, is a good example. Taiwan International Documentary Festival was set up in 1998. Wood LIN, who has been the program director of this most important documentary festival in Taiwan since 2013, helps organize the Taiwanese film screenings for YIDFF this year.

      In addition to film festivals, the search for a wider audience through commercial release to make the documentary industry in Taiwan sustainable also forces documentary filmmakers to pay more attention to the question of documentary aesthetics. Understandably, documentary films made with commercial release in mind cannot overlook the importance of the aesthetic form, for “good storytelling” is as important as, if not more important than, “the story” itself in appealing to theater audience. Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above (dir. CHI Po-lin, 2013), an ecodocumentary that claimed the highest gross for a locally produced documentary in Taiwan, is a case in point. As I pointed out in “Mapping Taiwanese Ecodocumentary Landscape: Politics of Aesthetics and Environmental Ethics in Taiwanese Ecodocumentaries” (Journal of Chinese Cinemas, vol. 11, no.1, 2017), the debate on this popular documentary raises important questions about the definition of ‘ecocinema’ and eco-film criticism.



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