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Being of two lands, Filipina-Taiwanese filmmaker Rina B. Tsou applies her multicultural sensibilities to the issues and emotions raised in her films. Based in Taipei, she is currently working on both fiction and documentary films, exploring the possibilities of different narratives.
The culture shock I experienced upon returning to my hometown of Taipei from Manila, where I lived from the age of one till ten, has never stopped being part of my life. I’ve lived in Taiwan ever since, but people still ask me where I’m from, they question whether I’m Taiwanese, whether I’m a foreigner, whether I’m indigenous. Having always felt distant and a little out of place, it’s become a need for me, to explore.
Travelling is for me a way to look at things through a different lens. When I’m at home, it’s like I’m looking through a 100mm lens. Everything is very near, everything is very shaky. When I’m in a foreign country, I have time to mellow and think about my life and my experiences. I look at things through a wider lens: everything is small, the frame is different, the details are different. I see a bigger picture.
In Taiwan, like most people, I live with my family. After my father passed away, I really needed to get out to some place where I could breathe properly. I did a six-month residency in Paris and being there alone – isolated, even – was really helpful, it gave me the time and space to grieve. I spent the first month and a half editing The Horrible Thirty: Me, My Father and Richard the Tiger (2018), which in part addresses my father’s passing. It was a nice place to edit this particular film because I knew that I could exhaust my grief without anybody familiar there to bother me, to make me feel like I should pull myself up.
That distance also made it easier to consider what choices to make in the edit. When you’re in a place full of foreigners, and you go to a bakery and you have to try to say, Une baguette s'il vous plait, and they don’t understand your accent, it gives you a strange feeling of pretense. It’s like you’re playing a part. And that made me rethink the edit: if I’m playing a part, except while making a film, how do I get people who don’t speak my language to understand me?
The context I found myself in made me more aware of what I was creating, even though it was very personal. Because I wanted this film to be therapeutic, but not just for me, for the audience as well. Losing a family member is a grief no one can prepare you for. It’s something you can understand only once you’ve lived it. When I later showed the film in Oberhausen, people came up to me in a way I had never experienced. The grief the film expressed connected people from different backgrounds. But that was only because I’d gotten the narration right, because I made the film precisely in order to convey that kind of impact.
A feeling of connection was one of the shocking revelations I had when I started travelling with my films. I realized that my stories are not special, they happen everywhere! The first film I showed abroad was Chicharon (2013), my thesis film, which was inspired by the disorientation and yearning I felt upon returning to Taiwan as a child. I showed it in Poland and Germany. There was this lady who was in her 70s and had lived through the war. She approached me and said, “Thank you for also depicting my childhood.” I was speechless. It was so hard for me to imagine that this lady could have had a childhood like mine.
My yearning for storytelling is in large part born from feeling unrepresented. I think that’s why my eyes and heart are drawn towards the powerless, the voiceless – the minorities, even though I’ve always disliked the word. When my audience also feels represented, no matter how personal a story I’m telling, it gives me the courage to continue. That’s the reason I also make documentaries and fictions about other people, because I find myself echoing in their stories. My filmmaking is a journey of me exploring myself and my outer world, and because travelling offers a different perspective, that’s probably also why my films are all so different from one another. I’m exploring myself through different textures, different narratives.
My traveler’s dilemma, however, is doubting whether I have the right to represent. When others consider me a foreigner, it’s as if they were indirectly questioning my right to judge or comment on a situation. Right now, I’m feeling especially powerless about what’s happening in the Philippines. But since I’m not there, who am I to speak up while I live untouched by the turmoil raging there every day? Also here in Taiwan I feel the urge and responsibility to address social matters in my work. My attempts seem futile as I observe little positive change in our society, and things keep happening that are even worse. But the reactions from the audience, together with my own selfish and naïve drive, are what nudge me to keep trying whenever I’m ready to quit.
Travelling has made me feel not so different. Not so out of place. I sometimes ask myself whether I would have the instinct to make films if I had been in one place all my life. When I try to make a film that can help represent the people I feel connected to, improve the places I call home, and support the causes I believe in, then I feel a bit more anchored, a bit more accepted. Because I tried, I made an effort. And it feels wonderful. This is what I try to do through film.
By Hamza Bangash
By Philbert Aimé Mbabazi Sharangabo’s