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Taiwan Doc Fest Showcases Indie Work from China

By Tom White

I had the fortune of attending the Taiwan International Documentary Festival (TIDF), which ran from October 9-19. The festival launched in 1998 as a biennial event whose host cities varied from year to year. This year’s edition marked a major shift, with Taipei henceforth serving as the permanent host city, and the recently launched Taiwan Film Institute designated as the permanent office for the festival. In addition, the festival will be held annually.

These changes presented an opportunity for the TIDF team to truly catalyze its identity, vision and mission. Most of the programming and marketing team for this year’s festival—program director Wood Lin, programmer Fan Wu, program coordinator Wanling Chen, and marketing and PR manager Fiona Sung—have been affiliated with the festival since the beginning. “This is the only festival in Taiwan with a large-scale international competition,” Lin noted in an interview between screenings. “For the past 16 years, the entire team has changed constantly, and the government’s policy changes every year, so we couldn’t have a consistent system for this festival. So this year we repositioned ourselves. After a very long process, we determined that Chinese documentaries and Asian documentaries are a very important niche for us. By holding this festival annually, we hope to create a connection between us and Asian documentary makers—including those from China and Taiwan. The industry or market is not a priority for us. To create connections between independent makers and the festival is what’s most important for us. Taiwan has an advantage to support documentary filmmaking from Asia and the Chinese area.”

And the programmatic mix was rich and robust, with a dynamic representation of new and old, Eastern and Western. TIDF’s Asian Vision Competition included films from the Pacific Rim as well as from Iran and United Arab Emirates, while the International Competition included films from Europe and Latin America. American filmmaker Alan Berliner was the subject of TIDF’s Director in Focus, while Claude Lanzmann traveled to Taipei from France to screen both The Last of the Unjust and his monumental Shoah. TIDF also saluted the late Japanese documentary master Ogawa Shinsuke with a retrospective of his work and a seminar presided over by scholars and by Shinsuke’s colleagues and contemporaries.

TIDF’s showcase of independent documentaries from mainland China was the inspiring highlight. Culled from a decade’s worth of works recommended by indie film festivals that were later banned for showing them, China Salute! reflected a boldness and verve in vision and execution. Spark, by Hu Jie, introduces viewers to survivors of Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward—-his campaign to transform the country from an agrarian economy to an industrial one—and the resulting Great Famine. Since information about the famine had been suppressed by the authorities, a number of teachers and students took it upon themselves to publish Sparks of Fire, an underground periodical that told the truth about the famine and about the realities of life under Chairman Mao. For the great risks they took, nearly everyone affiliated with the periodical, as well as suspected sympathizers, was arrested and imprisoned for lengthy sentences. The survivors took great risks in telling their stories several decades later to Hu Jie, and the film itself is banned in China. But in Taiwan, Spark earned the Jury Prize for Best Chinese Documentary. “I didn’t think about the repercussions,” Jie said after the screening. “It should be the media’s duty to reveal the truth.”

A jarring contrast in tone is Zou Xueping’s Children’s Village, in which the filmmaker lends cameras to the young children of a rural village impacted by the famine. The children approach the older residents to relate their memories of the Great Leap Forward. Some look back in anger, some don’t remember, some simply walk away. The pain is palpable, but the younger generation persists in learning a long-suppressed history—and in soliciting donations for a memorial for those who perished in the famine. A nearly whimsical contrast to Spark, Children’s Village does leave us with a feeling of hope.

Another striking documentary from the China Salute! strand was Yumen, an experimental meditation on the fate of a once-thriving oil production city, Yumen, when its sole source of revenue runs out. Now a ghost town, Yumen serves as the stage for filmmakers Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao and American J.P. Sniadecki (The Iron Minstry; People’s Park) to explore the reality of dereliction, decay and abandonment. Xiang himself acts as a de facto on-camera Baedeker, donning the uniform of an oil-rig worker and introducing us, in a silent way, to the lost souls of Yumen. The film earned the Grand Prize in both the Asian Vision Competition and the China Salute! section.

In Wuchao Gate, filmmaker Lin Weixin trains his camera on Wuchao Gate Square in Kaifeng, a gathering place for tourists, activists, vagrants and poets, all of whom find in this city center a catalyst for self-expression. Ardent Maoists wave their Chinese flags, display photos of the Chairman and recite passages from The Little Red Book, while singers warble Chinese folk songs, vagabonds talk about the history of the region and Buddhists pray in the snow. Lin Weixin captures the mystical tug of Wuchao Gate Square over the course of the four seasons, as a motley crew of denizens try to secure their place in a dramatically changing society.

The independent documentary community in China operates seemingly one step ahead of the government, which has shut down efforts such as the Beijing Independent Film Festival to showcase their work. Even other catalyzing mechanisms that Westerners take for granted—websites, crowdfunding, film schools—are not immune from government scrutiny. TIDF’s Wood Lin feels that the festival can continue to play a major role in providing a place for indie docs from China. “We want to build a partnership with Chinese documentary makers,” Lin maintained. “They want to show their work in Taiwan very much, and we should support them.”

In programming the work from China for this year’s TIDF, Lin contacted the independent festivals, including Beijing, on the mainland. “We contacted the festivals and let them know we wanted to create a program and we asked them to send us the films they liked. They sent 50 or 60. My concern was to reflect the diversity of independent filmmaking in China. We aren’t only going to focus on human rights or social issues; what’s most important is to show how creative independent Chinese documentary is.”

Another prominent documentary showcase in Taipei is the CNEX Documentary Film Festival, which this year ran right before TIDF. CNEX (a rough acronym for “China Next”) is a nonprofit organization with offices in Taipei, Hong Kong and Beijing; its mission is to produce and promote Chinese documentaries. The CNEX festival also includes a pitching forum. “The Ministry of Culture is hoping we can combine,” said Lin. “CNEX  has a pitching forum. Their showcase range is smaller. CNEX is shifting direction as well. They want to focus on their pitching forum and the industry; that’s not where we’re heading. If the market and the festival   can combine, that would be ideal.”

“I used to work for CNEX, for seven years,” said TIDF programmer Fan Wu. “It’s the first time that these two festivals are taking place in the same city at the same time, and we are trying to figure out a way that we can benefit each other. I think the difference is that CNEX is focusing on social-movement or social-issue documentaries more, but TIDF is trying to find indie filmmakers with creative documentaries. The approaches with programming are different.”

And how does the TIDF team envision the festival growing over the next five to ten years? “Government polices change every year, so it’s hard for us to have a longer vision for the festival,” said Lin. “The main goal is not to grow bigger every year in terms of scale, but the to build a really big base under the Taiwan Film Institute. It’s an organic thing. We hope that our festival has its own character, so the audience can feel the passion we have for documentaries.”


Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.