Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival Report (Part 1)

September 19-26, 1998

Miyazawa Hiraku
(Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival Yamagata Office)

In the autumn of 1998, the first Taiwan International Documentary Festival (hereafter TIDF) was held in Taipei City. It is a brand new film festival similar to our own Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, in that it showcases documentary works only. It is to take place every other year, alternating with the YIDFF. For filmmakers wanting to launch their works into the public sphere, such a system will increase their chances of selection. Prior to the TIDF, there had been various exchanges between Yamagata and Taiwan. In 1997, a fifteen-person delegation from Taiwan, including a traditional dance troupe, visited the YIDFF and this year, in return, four of us from Yamagata departed Tokyo headed for Taipei. The Yamagata delegation was made up of Yano Kazuyuki, director of the YIDFF Tokyo Office; Fujioka Asako, New Asian Currents coordinator; Kawaguchi Hajime, Yamagata filmmaker and TIDF invitee; and myself, from the YIDFF Yamagata Office.

Research and preparations for this film festival commenced at the beginning of 1997. Advice was received from people in various fields, including experts in overseas film festivals and assembly members who could appreciate cultural enterprises. In April, the National Assembly gave its consent and the outline of the festival began to take shape. It is said, however, that the real motivation for the film festival came from the Taiwanese delegation's report upon its return from the YIDFF '97.

Soon afterwards, an executive committee (equivalent to our Organizing Committee in Japan) was established, consisting largely of persons in the cultural arena and film industry. There was a period of uncertainty up until May 1998 (the year of the event) as to whether the festival would actually go ahead or not. A small group of people worked full-time toward the festival until May, when the number increased to fifteen. In July, the Council for Cultural Affairs decided to cut the initial budget of 20,000,000 Taiwanese dollars to 18,000,000 Taiwanese dollars (roughly US$550,000). This sum then served as the basis in determining the scale of the festival. In trying to procure funding, private sectors were also approached but, due to a recession, even negotiations with airline companies fell through at the last minute. The event was drawing closer, and whilst preparations were under way beneath the surface, there is no doubt that the rush leading up to the opening was beyond imagination.

Festival staff were there to welcome us when we disembarked at the airport in Taipei. Indian filmmaker, Anand Patwardhan (a familiar face through the YIDFF), flew in from Bangkok twenty minutes later, after which we all headed straight for the festival venues via our hotel.

Venues were scattered in the eastern part of Taipei, which reminded me of the modern area around Fukuoka City General Library with a number of high-rise buildings currently under construction. It was vastly different from the area around Taipei Station and the Office of the President which are located in the center of the old district. Venues included three cinemas in Warner Village (one of which was used only on the 20th), the sixth floor hall of the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store Taipei Sinyi Branch, and the Taipei City Hall Exhibition Center's fourth floor Audiovisual Room. In deciding the venues, a number of municipal sites were proposed but much time was wasted in the negotiation process. In the end, the placement of each venue was such that they were all within five minutes of one another. Incidentally, it was a leisurely twenty-minute stroll from the venues back to my hotel each night.

The opening ceremony took place in the main hall of Novel Hall, the skyscraper next to Shin Kong Mitsukoshi. It was exactly the same size as the YIDFF's main venue (the Central Public Hall) with a 600-person capacity, but the elaborate interior resembled that of a top-class hotel. The building is a private facility, and is owned by a man who has strong connections to the Kuomingtang and is an avid lover of the Chinese Opera, sometimes performing in the hall himself. When we arrived, the Chinese Opera, which happened to be the opening attraction of the festival, was just coming to a close. Although we missed the performance in the magnificent hall, we attended the welcome party in the front garden afterwards where it was plain to see how much interest the owner invests in the TIDF.

National Assembly Member Fan Sun-lu, alongside other government officials, and the director of the Chinese-Taipei Film Archive, Edmond K. Y. Wong, opened the proceedings. Lastly, everybody stood while the prime minister ascended the stage. I was particularly impressed by the fact that almost all the speakers used both English and Chinese, thus reducing the need to call on interpreters. Speeches were lengthy, but what with the government providing funding for the festival and with the upcoming elections in December, it served as a kind of public relations platform.

The opening screening was Mother Dao the Turtlelike, a film by Dutch filmmaker Vincent Monnikendam. When it was screened at the YIDFF '97, the film was censored by Tokyo Customs and a scene cut from it. In Taiwan, the fact that it was screened without incident is something to be noted. Until 1985, censorship in Taiwan was enforced by the Citizen's Bureau and the Arts Development Council (Kuomintang). Now, it is done by the Citizen's Bureau only, and in the case of a disagreement, the applicant can reapply. In such circumstances, leading intellectuals are added to the screening committee and the film is reassessed. If the applicant still disagrees, the entire committee can be replaced, and that up to three times. Currently, while works of a homosexual nature seem to be quite popular, there apparently is no censorship of those or political films.

From the next day onward, meals were eaten in haste as we moved from one to venue to another. Entrance to the screenings was free of charge which was partly due to funding by the Council for Cultural Affairs and also to avoid the inevitable labor expenses which would result in managing the proceeds from ticket sales. All tickets were for reserved seating on a specified date, and a four-tickets-per-person system was enforced. Apparently, all tickets were scooped up before the festival even began. At first, I didně╬ know about the reserved seating system and often found myself in awkward situations where I had to move elsewhere. Incidentally, the Taipei Film Festival was held just after the TIDF, with entrance fees of 100 Taiwanese dollars (about US$3). This is quite reasonable, compared to the usual admission fee to cinemas of 280 Taiwanese dollars (about US$8.5). Many events which boast free entry do not necessarily draw crowds, but in the case of the TIDF, interest shown by citizens was exceedingly high, and wherever I went, it was often a full house. Of those who visited the festival, students and young working people in their twenties stood out. In the question and answer sessions which followed the screenings, there was no end to their enthusiastic queries.

Festival works were divided into five categories: International Competition (film; 20 entries); International Competition (video; 32 entries); International Jurors' Films (8 films); Taiwan Retrospective (15 films); and Asian Images (10 films). Altogether, a total of eighty-five works were screened. There was a grand prize and two runner-up prizes for both the film and video competition sections, as well as a Taiwan Director's Award for the best overall domestic film/video.

It was also interesting that all the works I saw, including videos, had subtitles. Adding subtitles is usually an extremely expensive and time consuming exercise. Therefore, I was particularly interested to find out how this was done. When I enquired about it, I was given a business-like reply. Subtitling commences as the works are decided and is completed in about two months. The number of films shown at the YIDFF is greater than at the TIDF, and some are borrowed especially from overseas film archives, making the task of subtitling all the films impossible. To date, the YIDFF has relied largely on simultaneous and pre-recorded translation, but I think we must consider the introduction of a computer subtitling system where the work can be done without damaging the film.

The TIDF Executive Committee consists of one chairperson, one vice-chairperson and nine committee members. Edmond K. Y. Wong, director of the Chinese Taipei Film Archive, heads the selection committee composed of a total of six prominent individuals from the film industry. During the festival, they hurried from one venue to the next, supervising stage proceedings, providing commentaries before the screenings, and chairing the question and answer sessions afterwards. Jane Hui-Chen Yu, formerly coordinator of the Golden Horse Awards and a YIDFF '97 New Asian Currents Juror, was responsible for gathering entries, which she was able to do through the various friendships she has cultivated to date. Entries were also obtained from the Chinese Taipei Film Archive by utilizing the International Film Archive Federation (FIAF) network. One remaining problem, according to selection committee member Chang Yann, was that with Taiwanese works these days, often the same staff work on a variety of projects, resulting in many films of similar quality. Consequently, this makes for boring, uninspiring viewing. This being the first TIDF, fairly unadventurous and more orthodox films were chosen.

In the secretariat of the film festival office, there were fifteen supervisors headed by Jean C. W. Shih (a visitor to the YIDFF), plus about thirty students and freelancers working as staff. In particular, I noticed that the supervisors for each department-reception, internet, translating, editing, etc.-were clearly distinguished from one another. There were also volunteers, usually friends of the students. Our two attendants Hsieh and Lee were university students who were majoring in Japanese and, apart from when they were watching films, were always by our side actively helping out. Despite a long commute each day, Hsieh went out of his way to give me a wake up call at my hotel every morning. Another attendant by the name of Chin also stayed with us to interpret, often until two or three o'clock in the morning-something for which I was very grateful. Nevertheless, the attendant staff still gathered at 9:30 every morning and at five o'clock every evening, and held meetings in the hotel lobby or the staff room at the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi to exchange information.

At present, Hollywood films are predominant in Taiwan. The government provides funding to promote the production of local films but unfortunately with little effect. Annually, around ten films are produced but winning prizes overseas seems to be becoming the main purpose. Because audiences tend to be drawn to Hollywood productions, local films are short-lived. Even in commercial cinemas they only last two to three days. Even the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien are no exception.

I did discover something very curious during my stay, however. When I saw the title "Bishonen no koi" (Bishonen, a.k.a. Beauty, dir. Yon Fan (1998)) written in Japanese on a banner, I drew closer only to realize that it was in fact a Hong Kong film. Usually in Taiwan, names of westerners and film titles are forcibly written in Chinese characters. Writing the film's title in Japanese may very well be due to the current popularity of Japanese culture and the fact that many young Taiwanese are watching "trendy" Japanese TV dramas.

Looking at the situation in another way, documentary filmmaker Wu Yii-feng says, "The fact that many recent films are computer generated offers a good chance for documentary films. Ten years ago in Taiwan, there was very little freedom, which is not the case today. Taiwan harbors 400 years of malcontent but now we look to the future and want to speak out, not for reasons of revenge but to search for our true selves through documentary. Documentaries ultimately return to our everyday reality."

I think the aim of this festival is to screen works in a comfortable environment for the general public. The TIDF stance is a simple one which does away with excess, and prioritizes "place" and "people." By learning from other film festivals, many of which tend to lean towards being "showy," the TIDF also seems to have incorporated a sense of self-esteem.

Unfortunately I left midway through the film festival, but I heard that it was a great success right to the end. Whilst it is difficult to make a simple comparison between the regional city of Yamagata in 1989 and the metropolis of Taipei in 1998, I can say that compared to the first YIDFF in 1989, the TIDF felt much more composed. The producer Fan Chien-yu told me as he took me to the airport that, "Because Taiwan has overcome many hardships to date, we can handle any situation." This shows an optimism in tackling anything and everything. With the government also expressing great interest in its success, I'd like to believe that the content of next year's festival will be even more fruitful.

In February, when it was still cold and snowy in Yamagata, I received a New Years' card from Hsieh and Lee, who wrote that they were experiencing a relatively warm winter in Taiwan. They both expressed their desire to come to Yamagata. It is for people like them, as well as for the many others from within and outside Japan who spend their precious time and money to come to the YIDFF, that I feel I must continue to do my best as we aim toward this year's festival.

—Translated by Jennifer Swanton