A View of Taiwan’s Documentary Landscape

by Ruby HSIEH / 2016-04-21

An examination of Taiwanese documentary film history reveals that mainstream discourse began in earnest during the social movements of the mid-to-late 1980s, with activist groups like the Green Team producing highly politicized films advocating social responsibility and a voice for the lower rungs of society. Earlier efforts, like the highly experimental TV documentaries on Taiwanese artists and culture by CHANG Chao-tang in the 1970s, are rarely mentioned. Documentaries claiming to uncover the “truth” and serving as mouthpieces for the weak flourished during Taiwan’s democratic transformation, becoming a “social weapon” designed to fight the injustices of society.

Many truth-seeking documentary filmmakers emerged as a result in the 1980s and 1990s, an era in which the media was controlled by the party-state and skewed by commercial interests and ideologies. Accordingly, the public also expected documentaries to offer not just more depth than news reports, but also more “truth”. In recent years, Taiwanese documentaries have seen an upsurge in “theatrical releases” and “private screenings”, as well as themes targeting national identity and local nostalgia. But box office success is still regarded as somewhat miraculous as most documentaries remain low-budget independent productions without easy channels for screening and distribution.

Works with Contemporary Art Cross-overs and Innovative Aesthetic Forms
The 15 nominees for the Taiwanese Competition at this year’s Taiwan International Documentary Festival (TIDF) signal a reversal from the previous social issue-driven, journalistic documentaries, with many entries crossing over into the domain of contemporary art. Filmmakers of selected projects CHEN Chieh-jen, HUANG Ya-li and Midi Z, for instance, were not originally documentary filmmakers, but each have applied their own creative style to add some colorful new strokes to Taiwan’s documentary landscape.

Evolvement of Senior Filmmakers, Potential from Young Generation
Apart from boundary-crossing filmmakers, the younger generation – including first-time documentary feature directors – are also delivering mature, energetic works that demonstrate outstanding control over issues, diverse themes and filmmaking techniques. Meanwhile, experienced directors have continued to roll out new films that not only explore fresh themes but also showcase the spirit of evolution and experimentation through innovative aesthetic presentations and filming methods.

Archives – Texts – Documentaries
The film topics are broad and rich, traversing themes including the environment, national and ethnic history, arts and culture, and death and life. In particular, there are several works focused on history (memory) that utilize large amounts of archives and texts through experimental ways, filling in the gaps of history with more personal stories that reflect the consciousness of the filmmaker.

Production, Screening Channels Continue to Expand
While the majority of the 15 nominees are still independent productions, this year there are numerous works of varying topics and forms commissioned by TV networks, suggesting that television is gradually opening up to different types of documentaries and no longer only favor specific formats. This is undoubtedly a positive development for Taiwan’s documentary film industry, which has long suffered from narrow audience tastes and screening channels, though filmmakers also need to be aware of the drawbacks of TV such as set running times with less freedom. Making the environment and screening channels more open, diverse and friendly will be a goal to work towards in the future.

These are 15 works that reveal 15 different ways of visual storytelling, 15 facets of contemporary Taiwanese society – all weaved together by the filmmakers and their subjects into a view of Taiwan's documentary landscape.

--

15 nominations of Taiwanese Competition in TIDF 2016
Le Moulin
TPE-Tics
The Last Insurrection
Still Life
Hebei Taipei
Southland Soldiers
Jade Miners
Ocean
Once Upon A Time When Robin Hood Grew Old
Realm of Reverberations
Cloud Nation
Rolling on the Stage, Rolling for Life
The Taste of Apple
The Mountain
Wansei Painter - Tetsuomi Tateishi


(Translated by Howard SHIH)