translated by HO Hsiao-fu, edited by Stefanie ESCHENLOHR and proofread by TSAI Wan-ying
In March, 2014 the sloppy review procedure of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, that was to liberalize trade between Taiwan and China, resulted in the outbreak of the student Sunflower Movement. Four students from Taipei National University of Arts, HUANG I-chieh, LIAO Xuan-zhen, LEE Chia-hung, and WANG Yu-ping, came to the protest site hoping to stage some political art performances to support the movement. However, due to strategic objections by the movement's organizers, these four students were not able to realize their plan. They ended up putting some protest banners on the street which gave voice to their thoughts and frustrations and which asked, “Can art only be practiced by printing these banners?”.
One year later, they came back to this unfinished task and decided to transform the disappointments and emotional upsets into a graduation project. They made videos which engaged their families to bring up an issue that had been on their minds: How do different individuals manage to communicate with each other?
Unfamiliar with film-shooting, they used the internet to teach themselves the basics of filmmaking. Without a background in film studies, the form and technique of their film would be different from that usually used in documentary films. The directors had their fathers act out the story of SHI Ming-zheng, a Taiwan writer and political activist who had died of a hunger strike in 1988, to tell their own untold true-life stories.
Q1. What is the relationship between the student Sunflower Movement and the origin of this film?
HUANG: Museums have always been related to politics. There is a strong connection between contemporary art and political activism, including works which show how performance art can play a role in politics. In fact, we were hoping to stage a performance during the Sunflower Movement, but this plan failed because certain groups who lead the movement considered it inappropriate. I couldn't do any of the things I wanted to do, so I felt frustrated and marginalized. We made this film to deal with those unrealized ideas of that time. In our project, we wanted to explore how this public issue had entered our private spheres and our homes.
Q2. Is there any message that you wanted to convey to your families by shooting Time Splits in the River?
LEE: When our parents were faced with conflicts and social movements during the martial law period, they did not stand up to fight. Now at a time, when freedom and democracy are in everybody's mouth, how could we expect them to say “All right, go and join this social movement, that's fantastic.”? But while we would have expected them to be apathetic or opposed, they actually recognized the students who were active in the movement. That was where we started and tried to trace their personal histories.
LIAO: Although I did not have any conflicts with my parents, it was still weird to discuss this political event with my family members at home, in a private space. We wondered where this weird feeling came from, and what our parents' recognition of the movement actually meant. That's what we wanted to understand.
HUANG: My father kind of supported me to take part in social movements, but I felt that many participants of the Sunflower Movement were under pressure from their parents. In Taiwan, no matter what you do - be it taking part in political movements or finding a job -, your family will always be a source of pressure. We identified this as a core problem and tried to explore how we could relate it to some other issues.
Q3. Why did you decide to use the technique of acting in your documentary?
LEE: Had we only documented reality and removed the process of acting, even if our fathers had provided the same answers through interviews, the content would have become less significant because they had not experienced these events themselves. Therefore, we chose to make this film using the technique of acting. Our fathers did not manage to play roles which did not belong to their own life experiences, that was a strong point for us. The process how our fathers tried to understand things beyond their own personal experiences, and how they would eventually start to think about their roles and who they were, that became the focus of our project.
LIAO: In the beginning, we wondered how we could get them to say something they would not say under normal circumstances. By playing the role of another person, my father would say things that he would not say in an interview, because it was a fictional situation. For example, he was able to play the role of a torturer because he had shed the burden and responsibility of his own identity as a father. Moreover, at the scene of shooting, I was the director while he was the actor. I could call him by his name, thus the generational relationship and the power imbalance between fathers and sons was removed.
Q4. Why did you choose to base this film on the story of SHI Ming-zheng's life? Did you anticipate that your fathers would tell their own experiences?
LIAO: We chose the story of SHI Ming-zheng's life as the theme, because he was somewhat schizophrenic. On the one hand, SHI hated the political situation at that time, so he wanted to criticize it by writing political novels. On the other hand, he was afraid of being jailed, so he put some strange patriotic plots into his stories. His works are very contradictory. We were asking ourselves if our fathers might have similarly complex emotions.
HUANG: When our fathers look back at that period, they also seem to be quite confused and ambiguous. They would sometimes criticize the ruling Kuomingtang party and praise it at other times, saying that life then wasn't that bad. Thus, they also had quite ambiguous emotions towards the government, quite similar to what we find in SHI's works. SHI would unexpectedly add some unrelated plots and then suddenly return to the original storyline. We thought that this technique was quite interesting. When our fathers were acting, we would sometime lead them away from the main plot, just as in SHI's works.
LIAO: Having our fathers speak about their own experiences, was part of our arrangement, but in the first place we wanted them to play the roles we gave them. Sometimes we even gave them the scripts, or we gave them a few hints, such as books or paintings that were used in the sets. We anticipated that our fathers might go blank when they were acting and those hints should help them imagine themselves as someone else and how they should be acting.
Q5. What is the main message of this film?
HUANG: We wanted to deal with the problem of communication, i.e., how do we converse with other individuals? How do people with different values talk to each other? SHI Ming-zheng was very different from our fathers as they come from two worlds. What this film managed to do was to bring these completely distinct kinds of individuals together.
LEE: Why would I want to see a common person acting his own life experiences? The point is exactly that they are not important people, but they would represent most people. Usually, when we write about history, SHI Ming-de will stand out as a hero - great … Or the victims will stand out - great… But then, how do we try to describe the experiences of common people? We wanted a narration different from the one about the oppressed and the suffering. That is probably the question that our film is trying to deal with.