YIDFF 2023 New Asian Currents

Parallel World
Hsiao Mei-ling (Director)

Interviewer: Mabuchi Ai

My daughter has Meimei and I have a camera

Mabuchi Ai (MA): This film does not simply follow Elodie’s, your daughter’s growth chronologically, but it structurally goes back and forth in time. The narrative returns to the past and then turns to the future. This to and fro is repeated many times without any abruptness. The film is organically structured in harmony with human thought and past/future scenes function like chapters. What are you trying to convey with this?

Hsiao Mei-ling (HM): At first, as the narrative, I did not intend to depict a person’s life from childhood to adulthood. I had quite a lot of footage. Rather than editing scenes chronologically, I selected only the scenes which I found important and which I wanted to show, and put them together. But if I suddenly jumped from a childhood scene to a scene from adulthood, I would create an inconsistency. So, I devised to insert shots at pivotal points where I am editing footage in my daughter’s room. This way I can share my feelings with audiences and avoid incongruities. Eventually, these shots became the axis around which this film was formed.

MA: Exactly. Symbolized by your editing scenes shot from behind, this film carefully shows us the world viewed by both Elodie and you. You do not abridge the time as you cherish it. Besides, you do not intend to guide the spectator through storytelling. When I see your film as a viewer, I end up observing myself, wondering what I am feeling as a spectator, rather than watching the world you and Elodie are looking at. Were you aware of something like this while making this film? Or did people who saw your film tell that to you?

HM: I did not aim at it from the beginning. I had a really huge amount of footage, which I repeatedly saw, spending about ten hours a day. During that time, I had thought hard about how to edit it rationally. Initially, I wanted to focus on Asperger’s syndrome, which gradually shifted to the mother-daughter relationship, the bond or ties between us. Many filmmakers make films about autism or Asperger’s in the world, don’t they? Suffering of Asperger’s can attract the audience’s attention. In my case I had more than enough footage about such episodes. I’ve seen my daughter distressed, suffer. In the end I purposefully kept such scenes to a minimum and instead focused on how a mother dealt with her autistic or Asperger’s child while filming. Many people think that autistic people, including those with Asperger’s, tend to keep a distance or dissociate themselves from others, which in fact isn’t true. They often do not know how to interact with people. So I wanted, through this film and through my daughter’s words and expressions, to tell everyone that autistic people actually want to make friends, communicate with people around them, or be understood—though it was really hard to show my true feelings to make a film.

MA: In your films screened at YIDFF in the past, you are behind the camera. But as you said, you are one of the subjects in this film. I felt that perhaps, groping for what approach to take, you chose to stay close to and sit next to Elodie, which meant you ended up sitting in front of the lens. How did your being a subject affect the film?

HM: In some scenes where I was filming I wasn’t in front of the camera, but I decided from the very beginning to sit next to her as much as possible when her emotions exploded.

MA: In this film the camera plays a very important role in your relationship with your daughter. Your camera seems to be to you what Meimei (Elodie’s favorite stuffed animal) is to Elodie. I sensed while I was watching your film the presence of four beings: Meimei, the camera, Elodie and you.

HM: While I was filming, I wasn’t aware of it that much. After I finished the shoot and I showed the film to a friend of mine in the same industry, they said, “The camera is like Meimei for you.” A camera is not just a machine but listens to me and stays with me all the time. It is my Meimei. My daughter has Meimei and I have a camera.

The meaning of continuing to film, and about my roots

MA: Interesting. Since the early days your films have kept questioning why you continue to film. In The Falling Kite (New Asian Currents, YIDFF 2001) you ask yourself from the very first scene if you should continue to film. A camera is not just drawing material like a brush for you, but seems to seek for something more profound, something like a healing effect.

HM: Absolutely.

MA: The film’s title Parallel World can be taken in a variety of ways. It may refer to two worlds, Taiwan and France, with different cultures and languages. It can also mean the path Elodie and you have chosen and the one you two have not chosen. And it is about the world filmed and the one not filmed, namely, parallel worlds of a filmic world and a real world. How did you come up with it?

HM: An interview in the morning also referred to the title (laughs). You are right, but if I may add another, I wanted to express the existence of two stars: A star where children with Asperger’s live and we live on the other star. As such, I put my thoughts into the title. I cannot enter the world where they live and they can’t enter the world we are in, such parallel worlds do exist.

MA: Now, let me ask you about the images. The Falling Kite captures water impressively. Its images are on the whole very wet with waterfront scenery, fog or rain. Looking at reality, both Somewhere over the Cloud (New Asian Currents, YIDFF 2007) and Parallel World are relatively dry. And yet there is something humid about these films. Parallel World has some scenes that make you feel water, such as your video calls from the waterside. I find that water and moisture are important elements in your films. Are you attracted to such elements? If so, what do you want those images to narrate?

HM: Thank you very much for understanding such minor scenes. I’d like audiences to feel my feelings or emotions especially through rain or fog. I guess it’s common with Asians. I live in Keelung City, Taiwan where it rains a lot. While I was studying in France, I missed my hometown when it rained. Speaking of video calls from the waterfront in Parallel World, I said to my daughter, “I’m going to video call you from here” before she went to France. In the scenes of my video calls I wanted to express my loneliness or longing for Elodie whom I want to see though I can’t through the sound of waves. I also used the sky as a similar element of expression. This film has many airplane scenes. I used a lot of views from the window. I often travel to France from Taiwan, but where should I go if there is neither Taiwan nor France? So I thought while on a flight. I used rain and the sky to express my feelings, including these thoughts.

MA: The beauty of your films, I believe, derives from the beauty of shot composition. In each film depth is felt as characters come towards us from the back; they come and go between here and there. In the waterside video call scenes in Parallel World you move from front to back and back to front within the shot. Personally, movements with depth have a soothing effect on me. Do you like such compositions?

HM: Perhaps, it has something to do with my major. I’ve been working in art. I am more of an artist than a filmmaker, well, I don’t know, but I am very particular about a sense of distance and composition during filming. In editing, too, I tried to pay very careful attention to them. I have studied art and I am teaching at a university.

MA: What do you teach now?

HM: Basically, I teach art, including moving images.

We think as we walk together

MA: Let me now ask you about yourself. You have many faces, an artist, a teacher, and a mother. As you said, a camera is like Meimei for you. When I see your films, filming seems to help you keep yourself. If you want to have it both ways, I mean being an artist and a mother—it depends on the culture—but there is so much social pressure on mothers. In Somewhere over the Cloud your husband tells you to stop the camera. This scene is symptomatic, I think. In Japan, too, there is social pressure on female artists/mothers; if you want to be an artist, you must first play the mothering role or finish your mothering tasks; only then can you pursue art. If there is such pressure in Taiwan or France, how do you cope with it? I’d like to know.

HM: I have prioritized my roles. When I became aware of my daughter’s symptoms, I decided to give the first priority to being a mother of a child with disabilities. Next came teaching at school as I could not give up my job. Being a teacher is second. Finally, a filmmaker or being an artist. I decided this order by myself. So, even now I try not to pay attention to social pressure or other people’s opinions. But if I say this in public, at a film festival, people think I am unprofessional, don’t they? (laughs)

MA: Never!

HM: I mean being a mother is my first priority. But struggles of working mothers are common across the world.

MA: In this film you let your child go, Elodie goes to France. You are worried throughout the film—Is it really okay? Don’t I have other options?—You always look worried. But I am much relieved by your attitude in which you do not provide a definitive answer in the film. I myself do not know what is really good as I raise my child. I often regret what I thought was good or inversely what I regretted turned out a better choice later. I truly sympathized with your film that honestly depicts yourself as a worried mother, taking care of your child.

HM: To tell you the truth, my daughter is now back in Taiwan. If she stayed in France any longer, she might have gone down the wrong path, shutting herself up. As you can see in my film, my husband and I have been worried about her. When we are gone, will she be able to live on her own? I have no idea of how it will go and I am searching for answers or rather, I have no answer at all. All we can do is to think as we walk together.

MA: How did your family respond to your film? Have the protagonists seen it?

HM: While I showed it to my husband and daughter, I have no courage to show it to other family members. My daughter saw freshly edited footage. She was crying as she saw it. She was moved to realize how she grew up. And what she disliked or what she found bad was all cut. I had no hesitation in eliminating it because I wanted to respect her views. Moreover, she encouraged me. Her response was so positive as to advise me to go to a place in Taiwan where my film can be shown. Actually, my husband also gave a positive reaction. When I showed it at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, I received many offers to screen it, all of which I turned down. But my husband said to me, “Since you created it, you might as well screen it in places other than film festivals.” He was for a wider dissemination of the film.

MA: Do they feel responsible for the film as protagonists? Elodie is one of the producers, isn’t she?

HM: I think so (laughter).

MA: Do you have a plan for the next film?

HM: I finished editing Parallel World in 2020 and managed to complete it in 2022. I have many things to film. My daughter turned twenty and is becoming an adult, facing new worries, which I want to film. But I am not sure if I can show it to others. That’s my problem.

MA: Can I have a word from Meimei before I go?

HM (Meimei): Elodie is in Yamagata now, but she can’t see you. So I am here on behalf of her. I am very happy to be here in Yamagata. Thank you very much.

Compiled by Mabuchi Ai
Translated by Yamamoto Kumiko

Photography: Fukuda Mako / Video: Kusunose Kaori / Interpreter: Su Xin / 2023-10-07

Mabuchi Ai
Lives in Fuchu City, Tokyo. Since 2007 Mabuchi has served as a program/guest coordinator for YIDFF. Since 2018 she has also worked on discovering and screening home movies in 8mm found in households in Fuchu.