2013 / 5月
Sam Ju /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
It both documents and observes. Hu Tai-li’s new documentary Returning Souls takes an anthropologist’s look at how the people of Tafalong have courageously searched for their roots with great passion and idealism in the face of great difficulties.
Hu Tai-li, a research fellow at the Academia Sinica’s Institute of Ethnology, works with both pen and camera, writing academic papers as well as filming ethnographic documentaries. Over 20 years, she has completed eight documentaries on topics such as Aborigines, veterans, Taiwanese women, and the transformation of farming communities.
But her breaking of boundaries doesn’t stop there. Having immersed herself in long-term research into the Paiwan tribe, she never imagined that she would choose to make a documentary about the Amis, about whom she had previously known little—and what’s more that it would take eight years to complete. The film, Returning Souls, wasn’t finished until the end of 2011. She dedicated her first-ever documentary film about the Amis to the people of Tafalong.A late-in-coming challenge
In this instance, the documentary, and its structure, fell into her lap. Hu Tai-li explains that in 2003, when the director of the Institute of Ethnology’s museum first gave her a look at the email from the Tafalong tribe asking for the return of the pillars of the Kakita’an ancestral home, her first thought was: “I knew something like this would come along sooner or later.”
Hu thought that the Tafalong youths’ request was quite meaningful: It demonstrated that Aborigines were seeking ownership of their traditional culture. At first Hu wanted purely to document what was going on, and she had no thought of making a documentary film. Consequently, when the tribal youths came to visit the Institute of Ethnology, she filmed the visit on digital video and not film stock.
As the events unfolded—with the tribal medium performing a ceremony at the institute to communicate with the Kakita’an ancestral spirits, and later with the land dispute between the Kakita’an descendants and the tribal chief—Hu began to sense that this wasn’t simply a story about the return of tribal artifacts. After the Tafalong welcomed back their ancestral spirits, Hu several times went to the tribal village to observe their discussions and disputes over rebuilding the ancestral home. She also witnessed young tribal people working to revive the tribal culture. At that point, it became clearer and clearer that the events merited a documentary film.Eight years of filming and postproduction
The Tafalong youth first requested that the ancestral pillars be returned to the tribal village in 2003. With successive controversies involving the reconstruction of the ancestral home, Hu began to get the feeling that the filming was never going to end. All she could do was to continue to shoot. When she finally began to edit, she already had more than 200 hours of film.
It was the first time that Hu as a filmmaker had encountered images so numerous and multifarious. When previously filming in 16 mm, Hu found that she might shoot 10 hours of footage that would be edited into a one-hour film. Now she was attempting to cut 200 hours of footage into a 70- or 80-minute film. The arrangement of the material was posing far greater challenges than she had ever before encountered.
What’s more, everything from the welcoming of the spirits to the reconstruction of the ancestral home, including the ceremonies conducted by the shaman and the retelling of the Tafalong origin myths, were conducted in Amis, and required translations. Then she had to look through all that footage for the most suitable clips for the film. The time expended for the postproduction work kept growing and growing.
Once the film was finished in 2011, eight years had passed since members of the tribe had first asked for the return of the pillars. It’s the most time-consuming film project Hu has ever been involved in.Neutrality, not indifference
Hu took the idea of Fuday, a Tafalong youth, to name the film Returning Souls. (Directly translated, the Chinese means, “Let the souls come home.”) The film deals with issues such as the historical factors behind Tafalong’s falling on hard times, including Japanese colonization, ROC rule, and the impact of conversion to Christianity on traditional tribal spiritual beliefs. The role of the museum—whose attempt to preserve artifacts in fact led to a loss of tribal spiritual culture—was also a central focus of the film.
A review in Visual Anthropology, an important Western anthropological journal, urged readers to view the film, praising Hu for her meticulous observations and documentation, and noting that the film would be of special interest to those concerned about such matters as museum-based research, religion, material culture and the transformation of Aboriginal life.
As the director, Hu in the film serves both as interviewer and narrator. With regard to the legitimacy of the museum’s possession of the artifacts, as well as questions about the land dispute between the tribe and the family, she doesn’t shy away from expressing her own viewpoint in the film.
For instance, once the ancestral spirits are invited back to the tribe, the tribal chief and the tribe’s elected representatives object to the reconstruction of the Kakita’an home. At that point, Hu uses narration, quoting historical documents to convey the idea that only by letting members of the Kakita’an family rebuild and care for their ancestral home will it once again become a place suitable for holding spirits and hosting ceremonies, and only then will there be any hope of reviving traditional culture.
Hu emphasizes that directors of anthropological films try to maintain neutrality and not get involved, but that doesn’t mean they lack a point of view. “The Kakita’an were grievously wronged when the Japanese evicted them from their family home. When you understand this historical background, you’re naturally going to have some sympathy for the family.”
Furthermore, Hu doesn’t hesitate to look into the legitimacy of how the museum of the Institute of Ethnology obtained the Kakita’an pillars. She discovers that back when they removed the pillars from the village, they received permission only from the village chief but not the family. “The process was clearly not thorough enough,” says Hu.To stimulate reflection
When Returning Souls was finished, it was sent on tour for screenings in 11 Aboriginal communities. Hu personally attended nine of them. She says that the story of the return of the Tafalong spirits and the reconstruction of the Kakita’an ancestral home has given inspiration to other tribal peoples and communities. In the discussions held after the screenings, audiences brought up the cultural predicaments faced by various tribes, as well as their own longings for traditional culture. For instance, when the film was shown for the Jiaping community of the Paiwan tribe in Pingtung County’s Taiwu Township, it provoked passionate discussion about the ancestral spirit pillars from its Zingrur family of tribal chiefs, which are also in the collection of the Institute of Ethnology. The tribespeople discussed whether they should invite their ancestral souls to come back home as the Tafalong had done.
“In comparison to an academic paper, visual images have a much more direct appeal, and elicit much greater response from Aboriginal communities,” says Hu.
In 1997 Hu finished Passing Through My Mother-in-Law’s Village. It was the first documentary to be shown in commercial theaters in Taiwan. Her following works, Sounds of Love and Sorrow and Stone Dream, likewise had theatrical releases. With regard to Returning Souls, Hu has no plans for a commercial release. Instead she wants the film to reach large tribal audiences through screening tours of their communities. She welcomes requests from any group that would like to view it.
The soundtrack for Returning Souls was written by Chen Shih-hui, an associate professor of music composition at Rice University in Houston, Texas. In mid-March the film went on a tour of six prominent American universities, including Harvard, Columbia, and UC Berkeley. From the discussions that followed the screenings, Hu explains, it was clear that American audiences were most interested in traditional beliefs in ancestral spirits, shamanistic ceremonies and the impact of Western religion.
“What’s done is done,” says Hu. “And it’s not as if the current situation in Tafalong can be changed simply by saying you want to change it. But the search for the original tribal spirit and the ancestral spirits is a healthy development for the tribe.”
The young Tafalong tribespeople’s resolute and idealistic search for their roots, and the determination of the Kakita’an descendants to rebuild their ancestral home greatly moved scholar-cum-filmmaker Hu Tai-li. With Returning Souls’ completion, there may finally be some measure of closure for Tafalong, for other Aboriginal communities, and for Hu herself.