Finish year

The Profile of a Wanderer: An Interview with Director LI I-hsuan of Mutualism

  • Taiwan Competition

What gave you the impetus to make Mutualism?

I became personally involved with the issue of stray animal welfare around 2016 and 2017. I also filmed homeless animals for a work project around that time. Over the years, this subject matter continued to linger on the edge of my mind. Later, at 30, I was feeling aimless and adrift, having not much to show for my life — I realised it was time for a change in course. I turned to documentary filmmaking, because it afforded me creative freedom on a limited budget. It seemed natural that the first idea to cross my mind then was to make a film about stray animals and their human caretakers.


How did you find Jerry, the protagonist of this documentary?

I grew up in Taipei, but moved south to Kaohsiung in 2017. When looking for Kaohsiung-based subjects, I dug around online for a while, mostly on the stray animal rescue forums and communities that I knew of. Then I came across Jerry, who lived rather close to my place in Linyuan. To me, it was extraordinary for an elderly British man to live in the Taiwanese countryside, so I reached out to him and asked if he was willing to be filmed. Jerry had a Facebook Page; that was how I made initial contact with him.


Why did you choose the title 'Mutualism' for the film?

In biology, the core concept of 'mutualism' is a mutually beneficial co-existence of two or more species. For many foster parents, simply giving and caring for stray pets is enough, but I feel that Jerry needs his cats more than the cats need him; their company means a lot to him at this stage of his life.

As for the second half of the Mandarin title, the term 'wandering' is meant to illustrate Jerry's own nomadic way of life. He left his native country Britain at 18, roaming all over the world, until settling down in Taiwan in about 1983. Through the Mandarin title, I wish to highlight Jerry's life as a wanderer, while emphasising on the similarly drifting existence of the stray cats around him.


Which director or film has the most significant impact on your work?

I admire Director SHEN Ko-shang's works. His documentaries are realistic, yet emotionally restrained. I'm uncomfortable with sentimentalism in films. I was worried that people would see Mutualism as a heart-warming animal welfare documentary, simply because there were stray pets and an elderly man involved. But this is not what I was aiming for, so I was very careful in how to present the story I wanted to tell.

That said, Mutualism is not entirely true to reality, so to speak. In the film, Jerry is always presented as a solitary figure, but in fact he does chat and interact with other people. Students from his past teaching stints occasionally come to visit him, as well. It's just that in the most footage included in the film, he is alone.


Will it be possible for Mutualism to evolve into a feature-length documentary, or undergo another revision?

I'm still filming Jerry and his cats. Materials are still piling on, unedited, but I can't say for sure whether Mutualism will ever turn into a feature film from its present shape. For now, I think the filming will probably stop when Jerry leaves, so no idea how long I've still got to go on this project. This current edition can be seen as an observation or a slice of Jerry's current life, but if opportunities arise, I wish to be more personally present in the next edition — to open up a dialogue on the clash between the individual wish of 'being oneself' and social restrictions as well as expectations. This is a topic close to my heart, and one that I would like to go into more depth about.


What's next on your agenda? Or, what are your working on at this moment?

I plan to make another documentary on stray dogs and foster moms to explore the relationships between them. In addition, I'm writing the script for a fiction film.


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