Third Digital Documentary

A Theory and Practice of Transmedia Arts Activism, Critical Design and Ethics

by Anita Wen-Shin Chang (Author)
Monographs XVIII, 218 Pages

Table Of Content


Figure 0.1. 228 Hand-in-Hand Rally, Northern Taiwan (February 28, 2004). Central News Agency.

Figure 1.1. Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack during the production of Grass (1924). Produced and directed by Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack.

Figure 1.2. Animated map of disputed territory. You Are On Indian Land. Directed by Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell, produced by George C. Stoney and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada (1969). Screenshot by author.

Figure 1.3. Mike Mitchell speaks to Canadian government representatives. You Are On Indian Land. Directed by Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell, produced by George C. Stoney and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada (1969). Screenshot by author.

Figure 1.4. Mike Mitchell and protestors speak with Cornwall police. You Are On Indian Land. Directed by Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell, produced by George C. Stoney and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada (1969). Screenshot by author.

Figure 1.5. Cornwall police force protestors into cars heading to jail. You Are On Indian Land. Directed by Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell, produced by George C. Stoney and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada (1969). Screenshot by author.

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Figure 1.6. Protest press. You Are On Indian Land. Directed by Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell, produced by George C. Stoney and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada (1969). Screenshot by author.

Figure 1.7. Protest at the Canadian Custom’s House on Cornwall Island. Directed by Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell, produced by George C. Stoney and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada (1969). Screenshot by author.

Figure 2.1. Co-directors meet in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, left to right: Kainoa Kaupu, An-Chi Chen, Apay Ai-Yu (translator) Tang, Shin-Lan Yu, and Hau‘oli Waiau in Tongues of Heaven (2013). Reproduced with permission from author.

Figure 2.2. Aboriginal Culture Village in Tongues of Heaven (2013). Reproduced with permission from author.

Figure 2.3. Shin-Lan Yu at the Taroko National Park Museum in Tongues of Heaven (2013). Reproduced with permission from author.

Figure 2.4. Shin-Lan Yu interviews her mother at their family tribal shop in Tongues of Heaven (2013). Reproduced with permission from author.

Figure 3.1. Aboriginal Culture Village in Tongues of Heaven (2013). Reproduced with permission from author.

Figure 3.2. Aboriginal Culture Village in Tongues of Heaven (2013). Reproduced with permission from author.

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Figure 3.3. Aboriginal Culture Village in Tongues of Heaven (2013). Reproduced with permission from author.

Figure 3.4. Aboriginal Culture Village production still for Tongues of Heaven (2013). Photograph by author and reproduced with permission by author.

Figure 4.1. Visitors create and upload onto The Wall at the Te Papa Museum (2009). Reproduced with permission from Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Figure 4.2. Marokot 88news.org Website. Reproduced with permission from 88news.org editorial team.

Figure 4.3. IsumaTV Website. Reproduced with permission from IsumaTV, Felix Lajeunesse (director) and Tanya Tagaq (actress) in Tungijuq (2009).

Figure 5.1. Root Tongue opening page (2019). Reproduced with permission from the author.

Figure 5.2. Classical Logo. Reproduced with permission from Otherwise, Co.

Figure 5.3. Raw Logo. Reproduced with permission from Otherwise, Co.

Figure 5.4. Modern Logo. Reproduced with permission from Otherwise, Co.

Figure 5.5. Plant Logo. Reproduced with permission from Otherwise, Co.

Figure 5.6. System Logo. Reproduced with permission from Otherwise, Co.

Figure 5.7. Root Tongue video clip topics (2019). Reproduced with permission from the author.

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Figure 5.8. Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July, Learning to Love You More (screenshot), 2002–2009 web project (<http://learningtoloveyoumore.com>) and archive. Reproduced with permission from San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase © Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July. Photo courtesy SFMOMA.

Figure 5.9. Root Tongue video clip introduction (2019). Reproduced with permission from the author.

Figure 5.10. Root Tongue video clip (2019). Reproduced with permission from the author.

Figure 5.11. Root Tongue prompt (2019). Reproduced with permission from the author.

Figure 5.12. Root Tongue upload interface (2019). Reproduced with permission from the author.

Figure 5.13. Root Tongue video contribution in the community gallery (2019). Reproduced with permission from the author.

Figure 5.14. Root Tongue text contribution in the community gallery (2019). Reproduced with permission from the author.

Figure 5.15. Root Tongue photo contribution in the community gallery (2019). Reproduced with permission from the author.

Figure 5.16. Root Tongue community gallery (2019). Reproduced with permission from the author.

Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologizes for any errors or omissions in the above list and would be grateful for notification of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.


I would like extend my deepest gratitude to my creative team, whose friendship, inspiration and support made this book, and the creative production of the Tongues of Heaven documentary and Root Tongue web application possible in the first place: An-Chi Chen and family, Shin-Lan Yu and family, Yan-Fen Lan and family, Merata Mita, Malia Nobrega, Leivallyn Kainoa Kaupu and family, Hau‘oli Waiau and family, Amy P. Lee, Apay Ai-Yu Tang, Yu-Chao Huang, Sean Elwood, Michella Rivera-Gravage, Otherwise Co., Terry Hwang, Irene Faye Duller, Jessica Yazbek, Marisa Wilson, Wali Hassan Jafferi, Biagio Azzarelli, Shalini Agrawal, Michael Wong, Chevy Lum, Alex Wang and Julie Ann Yuen. I also cannot overemphasize the importance of the critical dialogue I have had with my students over the years who have shaped this artistic and scholarly research, and so I thank my students at National Dong Hwa University for sharing their minds and hearts and whose experiences serve as the springboard for this study and the transmedia documentary project. I am also grateful to my media studies students at the University of San Francisco, who provided invaluable feedback during our usability testing for Root Tongue.

A key aspect of the work’s success is the important community support I received in Taiwan, the San Francisco Bay Area and Hawai‘i. I am especially grateful to Ho Chie Tsai, James Y. Shih, Jenny and James Hong, Shin-Fei Wu, Carol Ou, Paul T. Tran and Anna Wu; Laura Welcher and Cameron Eng at the Long Now Foundation; and Dave Kamholz, Julie Anderson and Ben Yang at PanLex. I am also grateful to my academic colleagues, who offered their expertise at various stages of the research and writing process, and creative production: Robert Blust, Andy Wang, Wendy Chun, Nishant Shah, Rik Du Busser, Dafyyd Fell, Bi-Yu Chang, Kerim Friedman, Jolan Hsieh, Yi-Fong Chen, Kent Liu, Emerson Odango, Koukalaka McNaught, Bernadette Barker-Plummer and Dorothy Kidd.

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The discussions that occurred during seminars and conferences were key in shaping many of the ideas in this book project. I want to acknowledge the important contribution of attendees at the following gatherings: ‘Art, Activism, and the Role of Asian American Documentaries in the 21st Century Marketplace’, Asian American Studies Association Conference in New Orleans; Seminar in Experimental Critical Theory VII, ReWired: Asian/Technoscience/Area Studies sponsored by the University of California Humanities Research Institute; Expanding Documentary Conference in Aotearoa, New Zealand; International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa; The School for Oriental and African Studies Film Screenings at the University of London, UK; Community Filmmaking and Cultural Diversity: Practice, Innovation and Policy Conference at the British Film Institute, London; Center for Taiwan Studies, University of California at Santa Barbara; ‘Post-Asia Film, Media and Popular Culture’, Asian Cinema Studies Conference at the University of Macau; The Summer Institute in Asian American Studies: Empire Reconsidered at National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, Taiwan; Second Annual Stabilizing Amis Language Seminar at Hualien Tribal College in Hualien, Taiwan; Pacific History Association 21st Biennial Conference in Taipei, Taiwan; Interdisciplinary Austronesian Connections Symposium, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa; Visible Evidence XXII Conference at Toronto; Cultures in Disarray: Destruction/Reconstruction Conference at Kings College in London; Cultural Typhoon Conference at the University of Arts in Tokyo, Japan; and the Labriola National Indian Data Center/American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona in Tempe, AZ.

The following funding support made my research, creative work and distribution possible, for which I am deeply grateful: Eugene Cota-Robles Fellowship, Art Dean’s Excellence Scholarship, University of California Institute for Research in the Arts Graduate Grant, University of California at Santa Cruz President’s Dissertation Year Fellowship, Porter College Graduate Arts Research Grant, Creative Capital, National Geographic All Road Seed Project Grant, Indiegogo Donors, National Dong Hwa University, North American Taiwanese Women’s Association, Taiwanese United Fund, Big Ideas@Berkeley, the San Francisco Arts Commission ←xvi | xvii→Individual Artist Grant, and a Faculty Support Grant from California State University, East Bay.

Much appreciation is felt for the community of stellar faculty, staff and students during my Ph.D. studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I am particularly grateful to Robert Valiente-Neighbors, Tristan Carkeet and Melanie Wylie for their administrative and technical support through the years. I am deeply touched by the following faculty for their knowledge and support shown toward various aspects of my research project and intellectual work: Martin Berger, Stacy Kamehiro, Boreth Ly, Derek Murray, James Clifford, Anjali Arondekar, Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Sharon Daniel, Warren Sack, Peter Limbrick, Gustavo Vazquez, L.S. Kim and Irene Gustafson. Likewise, I extend my gratitude to fellow doctoral students, who provided much moral support and companionship: Sara Baylock, Fabiola Hanna, Karl Mendonca, Rachel Nelson and Dustin Wright. As for my doctoral committee members Soraya Murray, Jonathan Kahana, Jennifer González and Lisa Nakamura, I want to express my deepest admiration and appreciation for their brilliance, expertise, attention to detail and clarity of thought. I am particularly grateful to Lisa Nakamura for proposing the term ‘third digital documentary’ to describe the transmedia activist project Tongues of Heaven/Root Tongue.

I also thank my dear friends Tosh Tanaka, Lori Pino, Charlene Tan, Megan Wilson, Kevin B. Chen, Katherine Chun, Justine Lo and Angela Urata for their unconditional care, which provided the life balance I needed. I also thank my family, who are my biggest critics and supporters. And a very special thanks to Steve Fujimura for his reading and copyediting acumen, our lengthy conversations, and his constant encouragement over the years.

Two amazing women stayed by my side through what would become an extraordinary journey, and I want to acknowledge their camaraderie: Amy P. Lee, who generously shared her linguistics expertise, resourcefulness and home with me during my numerous trips to Taiwan, and Soraya Murray, my chair, advisor, teacher, to whom I give my immense heartfelt thanks for her intellectual guidance, influences and dedication.

Finally, I would like to thank Mary Cardaras and my new colleagues at California State University, East Bay, for the support and time I needed to finish this book. They helped me to find the right balance between ←xvii | xviii→teaching, research and service. At Peter Lang, the productive feedback from my anonymous reviewers challenged me in ways that made the book much better, so I am grateful to them their time and care. At last, a big thank-you to my commissioning editor, Laurel Plapp, who took initiative with my first book project and made it enjoyable every step of the way.


Given the increased options of multiple digital platforms available to practitioners of social issue documentaries, what kinds of new considerations are required during research, production and distribution? We often think of social justice–driven documentaries as articulating some form of oppression that requires awareness, and the subsequent alleviation of this issue. Some documentaries foreground the systemic problems of the issue to get at its root cause, contributing to the continued discourse of neocolonialism, and potentially to the growing robust acts of decolonization. Within the highly visible milieu of digital activism from those seeking a more just existence, this book argues for the potentials and benefits of a critical research design practice and production ethics to pilot new collaborations in documentary and digital media platforms toward what I call a third digital documentary. My concept of a third digital documentary takes its intellectual legacy and inspiration from Third Cinema, a new form of communication theory and practice articulated in 1969 by Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino that responds, and continues to respond, to neocolonial oppression.1 Like Third Cinema, a third digital documentary is an audio-visual experience, a theory and a way of practice that utilizes a decolonizing framework in order to simultaneously arrive at a new consciousness and carve out spaces of freedom, whether physical or psychic – spaces needed to imagine, invent and construct new realities, identities and futures.

In describing what a third digital documentary is and does, the book begins with the decision-making process to commit time and resources toward addressing a social justice issue through a documentary mode of production. The book then discusses the critical empirical, ethical, activist and artistic approaches to representing the issue at hand, while evaluating ←1 | 2→the increasingly accessible digital documentary tools and practices available. Hence, the following chapters are meant to offer documentary professionals and amateurs, designers, artists, students and scholars a working method to critically research, reflect, design and potentially produce a transmedia documentary presentation – one that moves across multiple mediums – as a contribution to the alleviation of contemporary social issues. One of the main approaches in the book is presenting an in-depth background and analyses of a transmedia documentary project I produced, Tongues of Heaven/Root Tongue, on language endangerment and revitalization. This transmedia project consists of the one-hour documentary Tongues of Heaven that explores case studies and personal stories from Taiwan and Hawai‘i, and the companion web application Root Tongue: Sharing Stories of Language Identity and Revival (<http://root-tongue.com>) that provides space for users to explore the challenges of language endangerment and preservation by sharing their perspectives through dialogue and creative uploads of their videos, images, audio and writings.2 What makes this approach to studying transmedia documentary productions unique is that it enables readers to better understand the complexities of what a third digital documentary practice entails, including its pitfalls, successes and possibilities. My aim is that through this personally shared experience as an artist scholar, this book can be utilized as an in-depth guide for a radical decolonial practice, for personal and professional reflections, allied solidarity work, and a rethinking of digital activism in today’s social justice issue landscape.

When media makers are confronted with a social justice issue, an ethical charge is experienced as we are moved, internally and potentially externally, to action. A decision is then made whether or not to commit time and resources to bringing awareness to the issue and possibly pursue actions through a documentary. Whether during this process or after having decided to pursue the documentary project, we think about our role in the overall documentary ecology, and the digital forms the documentary work will take. These considerations entail monetary factors and issues of power and control regarding the ←2 | 3→work, including the people involved. Through the years, I have become better at anticipating the relationships that may form as a documentary materializes, and seeking a way of working that is aware of my place in the overall power dynamics as it relates to the issue being addressed, the people involved, and the benefits produced by the work. Understanding one’s position in such power dynamics is the beginning of a third digital documentary practice. To begin accessing my position, I describe below the historical and my personal background to the issues of language endangerment and revitalization, and the considerations that would initiate the Tongues of Heaven/Root Tongue transmedia project.

The nativist project of (post)colonial Taiwan has been one of repairing the material and psychic damage of several centuries of colonial violence. I experienced it in Diaspora, growing up in the U.S. with pro-independence Taiwanese parents, who escaped the threat of intellectual persecution. Part of this nativist project has been, and continues to be, one of searching, reinvigorating, and reinventing aimed at the restoration of dignity and self-determination, even amidst continued humiliation. It continues to be a powerful force that brings people together in cooperation to work toward these efforts. For example, prior to embarking on what would become (and unbeknownst to me) six years of living and working in Taiwan, Taiwanese citizens held the now historical ‘228 Hand-in-Hand Rally’ of 2004 (see Figure 0.1). For this event, an estimated two million Taiwanese citizens, at 2:28 p.m., joined hands to encircle the entire island as a political gesture protesting China’s military threat to Taiwan. ‘228’ refers to a massacre that occurred on February 28, 1947, when the new Kuomintang regime began its violent suppression of island-wide protests. The event marked the beginning of nearly 40 years of martial law and the deaths of as many as 30,000 civilians. The massacre has become a national day of remembrance in Taiwan. Almost every Taiwanese person alive then has a memory of the incident. My own grandfather was persecuted for providing shelter to a crowd of injured civilians during the incident. He disappeared for several weeks during which he was tortured. My grandmother bribed her way with red envelopes of cash to the Kuomintang authorities in order to bring him back.

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An aspect of the nativist movement is raising awareness of the epistemological violence enacted on the Taiwanese people through colonial education which brainwashed generations of Taiwanese, whether through Qing cultural assimilation, Japan’s kōminka practice of forced servitude, or the Kuomintang’s Sinicization policies. This nativist movement also includes a re-discovery of ethnic and cultural identities that were suppressed during these colonial periods.3 For example, my father rediscovered his Hakka background; his father was Hakka but suppressed it due to fear of discrimination. Likewise, my mother discovered her Pingpu indigenous ancestry as she learned about the history of intermarriage and her family’s matriarchal practices in southwestern Taiwan. Currently, with China’s ←4 | 5→insistence that Taiwan is a part of its territory and that any effort to declare independence will be met with military attack, most Taiwanese have found ways to articulate their difference from China promoting culturalism as defined by sociocultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai – ‘the conscious mobilization of cultural differences in the service of a larger national or transnational politics’.4 This culturalism includes using DNA testing for indigenous ancestry as a last resort. As cultural anthropologist Jennifer Liu writes, ‘In this sense, the new discourse of Taiwanese identity based in genetic uniqueness may be viewed as an insurrectionary recuperation of a subjugated identity’. Naming practices, especially as a result of DNA testing, generate robust dialogue and conversations around social positioning, political aspirations and personal ancestral histories. These naming practices further impact notions of indigeneity as materially lived, culturally performed and creatively imagined. However, for the Taiwanese DNA testers’ seemingly desperate attempt to disarticulate themselves from Chinese identity, do the stakes outweigh the risks? As Liu states, ‘The creation of categories of people who qualify, in a biological sense, as authentically Taiwanese necessitates the concomitant creation of those who do not so qualify, providing yet another way to figure difference in an already deeply factionalized Taiwan’.5 Would increasing claims and proof of indigenous ancestry further unify or alienate the Taiwanese?

Amidst such a force field, like any other (such as the Internet that is relevant to this book), I must step back and critically think about this phenomenon as an issue of who is benefiting and who is not. Who is being harmed and who is not? I must consider my own susceptibility of being pressured or moved by this force. What are my personal obligations in pursuing the Tongues of Heaven/Root Tongue transmedia project and how are this and other forces shaping these obligations? For example, how did I suddenly become both a San Francisco Bay Area artist educator and a Taiwanese American filmmaker teaching in Taiwan in an academic ←5 | 6→department focused on indigenous languages and communications? In looking back, I believe these interests and experiences are largely due to a transethnic minoritarian solidarity at play. That is, this solidarity is based upon our experiences of struggle and treatment as ethnic minorities in the land of our citizenship. Yet, this does not mean that no social and cultural negotiations are required. In fact, these negotiations figured prominently at the everyday level, and certainly on the level of my pedagogical and creative practices.

Anthropologist Faye Ginsburg cites a well-known exchange in the 1960s between the anthropologist filming team Sol Worth and John Adair, and the Navajo elder and medicine man Sam Yazzie.6 As the filmmakers tell Yazzie that they are interested in teaching the Navajo how to make movies, Yazzie asked: ‘Will making movies do the sheep any harm?’ Worth responded that ‘as far as he knew, there was no chance that making movies would harm the sheep’. Yazzie then asked: ‘Will making movies do the sheep good?’ To this, Worth eventually responded that ‘as far as he knew making movies wouldn’t do the sheep any good’. Yazzie asked: ‘Then why make movies?’ Besides an exchange that foregrounds social and cultural differences on the topic of image-making, this is an exchange about ethics. This leads me to ask whether there exists a kind of image-making or filmmaking that would be good for the sheep?

People who experience a sense of injustice and want to see a better world take action in ways they can, based on their capacities. Some actions are riskier than others, including causing possible harm to oneself and others. One of the common impulses in documentary filmmaking is to show how the world is now and how it might be better. Some of these impulses are more activist in pursuit than others, but most have pedagogical goals in mind. Filmmakers hope that a viewer comes away more knowledgeable than before having watched their documentary, and even better if viewers decide to take actions toward the issues addressed in the work.

No one, neither artists nor filmmakers, as careful and ethical as they try to be, completely knows the future ramifications of one’s works in terms ←6 | 7→of harm and benefit. Therefore, one concern as a media practitioner is to consider the identifiable immediate and future stakes involved, and in the case of collaborative work, the imperative to identify those who have a stake in the project. The question of whose realities are most at stake is critical. When the medicine man, Yazzi asks, ‘Will making movies do the sheep good?’ he, perhaps as healer, guardian, and certainly as co-inhabitant and co-species, also has something at stake, such as his livelihood. Attending to these stakes is one of the key foundations of a critical practice. It is true that one of the mysteries particular to moving images as a signifying device is its slipperiness. Attending to films as more than just a communicative medium from one person to another, ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall writes: ‘Film both signifies and yet refuses signification. It asserts itself as figuration, but to the extent that it implicates filmmaker and viewer, it transcends it’. Yet, later in the essay he writes:

Perhaps never again can anthropologists use the external self-reflexive mode as they once did, for this self-reflexive ‘voice’ was always implicitly directed toward their anthropological colleagues, invoking a set of very private interests. The world has now changed, and one’s first audience is as likely as not to be the subjects themselves.7

Although MacDougall is attending to the field of anthropology, I find his reflections useful for media productions involving engagements across different cultural and geopolitical landscapes.

The transethnic minoritarian solidarity that I am currently working within calls for attending to differences that arise through image-making, story-telling, collaboration and together identifying those with a stake in and because of the project. While indexicality of the image to reality is something that the Tongues of Heaven documentary relies on to tell its stories, finding ways to disrupt the ‘positivist yearning’ lurking below the surface, that is, believing what you see, has also been an aesthetic technique ←7 | 8→I pursue.8 Working at the level of, or relying on figuration can be useful, but even figuration is not completely immune from referentiality. Through editing, I attempt to showcase spectatorship on a meta-discursive level, to work with the potentialities of multiple addresses in personal camerawork, and to make aware within viewers their compulsion toward referentiality, a meaning-making operation cultural critic Rey Chow describes and which I discuss in Chapter 3 on editing.

Tongues of Heaven also puts into practice a decolonizing filmmaking methodology within the context of transcultural exchange across territorial boundaries. As a result, it participates in presenting the contemporary (post)colonial conditions of Hawai‘i and Taiwan, exposing differences and similarities and proposing affinities and potential solidarities. In the essay ‘The Imperialist Eye: The Cultural Imaginary of a Subempire and a Nation-State’, cultural studies scholar Chen Kuan-Hsing advocates for a ‘cross-boundary praxis’ that would be a postnational cultural imaginary from the margin. He writes:

Here, post means (1) breaking the rigid lines of nationalist imagination, and (2) exploding the myth of the necessity of the nation-state, and (3) imagining something beyond the nation – that is, the space of the nation is full of ‘broken’ nations constructed by suppressed social subjects after they have succeeded in subverting supposedly impregnable nation-states.9

Certainly the indigenous peoples of Taiwan and Hawai‘i continue in a vexed and at times ambivalent relationship with modern settler populations and governance, despite gaining more recognition and influence in state-level matters, including education. Thus, in our case a ‘postnational cultural imaginary from the margins’ would be shaped by our presence together as women, socially defined as minorities in the land of our citizenship, with interest in bringing attention to our neglected histories and ←8 | 9→experiences. My role as producer, mentor, co-director, mediator and translator also foregrounds and re-positions our geo-political relations given current imperial formations, producing, as Chen would term, ‘shifting points of reference’ and self-reflection in our engagement with each other. How might such cross-boundary practice operate in the medium of digital documentary? Other than the actual collaboration among women of different indigenous affiliation, and the film production in various locations, in what ways can cross-boundary praxis be constructed, proposed, or materialized through the moving image medium, to allow us to visualize, hear and imagine past, current and future affinities? And likewise, how is boundary-crossing produced by the image itself? These are experiments, and therefore not without their own sets of tensions.

Despite the ongoing clamor for visibility, recognition, rights, dignity, and self-determination around the world for the historically marginalized, and in my context, Taiwan’s and Hawai‘i’s indigenous peoples, I am tasked with asking: What are the nature and stakes of my participation, along with my collaborating co-directors, in the Tongues of Heaven documentary and Root Tongue web project? How are we shaped by this clamor for recognition? How can we productively contribute to it? And most importantly, how can we create something that encourages and attends to the nuances amidst such clamor?

I do consider the Tongues of Heaven/Root Tongue transmedia project an activist pursuit. It is not an outright advocacy for saving languages; rather, it brings to the public realm a private matter on how one contends with the role of language in one’s life. Thus, it offers a platform for sharing and dialogue, a key aspect of a third digital documentary practice. The transmedia project is not soliciting donations for the cause, nor is it eliciting empathy per se. Rather Tongues of Heaven/Root Tongue aims to be an ‘alternative social project’, a term defined by anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli as capacitating ‘an alternative set of human and posthuman worlds … dependent on a host of interlocking concepts, materials, and forces that include human and nonhuman agencies and organisms’.10 Seeking alternatives is another ←9 | 10→key dimension to third digital documentary, as what opposes and counters legitimizes the dominant force and risks obfuscating other viable paths and outcomes.

Third digital documentary also foregrounds how ethical awareness can guide digital documentary practices toward a new consciousness. For example, the Tongues of Heaven/Root Tongue project’s existence in the virtual realm provides a space that showcases the processes of real world ‘enfleshments’. While the question of what you lose when you lose your native language initiates the creative gestures, the documentary production, and its presentation online, the answers seem to be a search for the very ‘ethical substance’ that is causing continued language loss. Povinelli, via Michel Foucault, defines ethical substance as ‘the prime material … of moral reflection, conduct, and evaluation’.11 First, is there an ethics to consider at all, and if so, what is this ethical substance, and where is it located? Can naming and knowing the world, which is the role of language, be considered an ethical substance? Can other intangible notions like ‘soul’ or ‘time’ be considered ethical substances? These are just some of the concerns that constitute a third digital documentary practice in the Tongues of Heaven/Root Tongue transmedia documentary project.

The following chapters document and demonstrate the dynamic interplay among creative production, critical analysis and a decolonizing framework. Each chapter is a stop along the critical roadmap toward a third digital documentary. In Chapter 1, ‘A Discourse on “Image Sovereignty”: Variations on an Ideal/Image of Native Self-Representation’, I examine a major theme of and intervention in the Tongues of Heaven documentary: the term ‘native’ – as topic, object and subject – and its attending discourse and practices of authenticity, ethnography, salvage ethnography, and autoethnography. This chapter charts the active career of the moving ‘native’ image through key documentary works and writings. It then discusses the growing discourse of ‘image sovereignty’ and its relevance to native self-representation and a radical documentary praxis.

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Understanding the need to transform the discourses of authenticity, ethnography, salvage ethnography, and autoethnography, Chapter 2, ‘Digital Documentary Praxis’ describes how minority and indigenous media artists experiment with various techniques of self-representation. I offer the one-hour documentary Tongues of Heaven (2013) as a case study to further elaborate these experiments in self-representation. In this collaborative documentary, four young indigenous women directors from Taiwan and Hawai‘i use digital video as their primary medium of expression to share the challenges in learning the languages of their forebears before the languages go extinct. I analyze the documentary’s cross-boundary and transnational modes of production, including the (post)colonial historical circumstances that lead to its creation. In mobilizing a third digital documentary practice, I layout the collaborative methodologies employed in the making of the work; the Third Cinema, experimental and feminist approaches to media practices; and the challenge of pushing further the reflexive potentials of documentary while remaining grounded with the social issues at hand. I describe how I became interested not only in making visible Taiwan’s indigenous people’s visuality, but making palpable the entire enterprise of looking/viewing/gazing as a mode of participation by attending to the affective and intellectual operations occurring within the spectatorial act.

Editing is a potent dimension of filmmaking that is often under-acknowledged. Chapter 3, ‘An Essay on Editing’ addresses the topic of editing through the writings of Gilles Deleuze and film practitioner-theorist-writers Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Robert Bresson and Trinh T. Minh-ha. My primary engagement, however, is with Rey Chow’s essay ‘The Interruption of Referentiality; or, Poststructuralism’s Outside’ as a way to ruminate on my own editing practices, taking heed of her call ‘to let the problematic of referentiality interrupt’.12 How might cinema or digital video bring its tools to bear on this challenge, tools that exceed that of language alone? In thinking and working through documentary temporality as form and content, I propose the concept of interval, as it exists between and within shots, as a productive spectatorial intervention. Conceived ←11 | 12→in essayistic form, this chapter also juxtaposes the written reflections of a group of students enrolled in the Multilingualism and Ethnic Groups course in the Department of Indigenous Languages and Communication at Taiwan’s National Dong Hwa University as ‘watchers’ with mine as ‘maker’ that aims to produce not so much a comparison of intention and reception, but a survey of ‘directions’ and ‘orientations’ that film theorist Christian Metz refers to as the ‘figures of enunciation’ in a film.

In considering the multiple ways that documentaries can engage viewers and different publics, I first analyze how documentary production and viewing has expanded as a result of developments in digital and online technologies. In Chapter 4, ‘Networked Audio-Visual Culture and New Digital Publics’ I examine how digital and online technologies are influencing documentary discourses on reality and ethics, and affecting viewing habits. I survey the discursive and technological interventions into the notions of ‘public’ and ‘participation’ with particular attention paid to how ideas of offline and online spheres of publics, counterpublics and community operate, intersect, and interact to create multiple ways of being together in community, as a public and with oneself. The chapter further focuses on new forms of visibility and expressions for minority and indigenous cultural producers arising from popular platforms such as YouTube and Facebook.

At this juncture, having been provided with a methodology to: evaluate one’s commitments to a social justice issue; understand where a documentary producer/director’s power is situated in presenting this issue; research critical aspects of the issue engaged in a digital documentary; consider the digital tools and online and offline publics for the documentary work, we can now consider the potential interventions via digital terrains that are available and feasible. Chapter 5, ‘Documentary and Online Transmediality Toward a Third Digital Documentary’ studies and analyses the critical arts practice in the design and production of the online interactive documentary platform to pilot new forms of engagement with documentary and new digital media for a third digital documentary. Theories on third cinema methodology, critical design, digital networks, information infrastructure, dialogical aesthetics, community, publics, online cultural representations and digital ontology serve as critical frameworks for the Root Tongue ←12 | 13→transmedia project. These critical frameworks inform how Root Tongue mediates across space, time, localities and languages to extend engagement on socio-cultural and political issues around language endangerment and revitalization via acts of spectatorship, commentary, discussion, creative production and activism.

The research in and inspiration for this book are drawn from multiple disciplines (i.e. film and digital media, anthropology, geography, linguistics, political science, sociology, visual arts) and from the interdisciplinary fields of critical race, feminist, cultural and postcolonial studies. Working across these fields and disciplines is essential in forming connections and relations to complex phenomena and ideas informing critical creative media practice within a highly technologized world. Each of these fields and disciplines produce the critical roadmap for readers as they pursue transmedia documentary projects that bring visibility to and the potential alleviation of contemporary social issues. These critical engagements ultimately contribute to a third digital documentary that partake in the cultivation of a new documentary culture of transmedia arts activism that prioritizes decolonizing media practices, consciousness, and spaces to imagine, invent and construct new realities, futures and ways of being.

←13 |
 14→←14 | 15→

1 Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods, Vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 57.

2 Tongues of Heaven is distributed by Third World Newsreel, Kanopy and Alexander Street Press.

3 For a personal and historical account of Pingpu indigenous peoples’ revival and recognition movement in Taiwan, see Jolan Hsieh, Collective Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Identity-based Movement of Plain Indigenous in Taiwan (New York: Routledge, 2006).

4 Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, 9th edn. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 15.

5 Jennifer A. Liu, ‘Making Taiwanese (stem cells), Identity, Genetics, and Hybridity’, in Aihwa Ong and Nancy N. Chen, eds., Asian Biotech: Ethics and Communities of Fate (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 255, 256.

6 Faye Ginsburg, ‘Mediating Culture: Indigenous Media, Ethnographic Film and the Production of Identity’, in Leslie Devereaux and Roger Hillman, eds., Fields of Vision (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 262.

7 MacDougall is mobilizing the notion of figuration based on literary theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes’ idea of film as ‘always’ figurative as opposed to texts, from which a figure appears in the reader’s imagination, and mobilizing film theorist Kristin Thompson’s idea of excess that is created via the materiality of the image. David MacDougall and Lucien Taylor, Transcultural Cinema (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 83, 91.

8 Trinh T. Minh-ha, ‘The Language of Nativism: Anthropology as a Scientific Conversation of Man with Man’, in Linda S. Kauffman, ed., American Feminist Thought at Century’s End: A Reader (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993), 123.

9 Kuan-Hsing Chen, ‘The Imperialist Eye: The Cultural Imaginary of a Subempire and a Nation-State’, Positions 8/1 (2000), 66.

10 Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 7.

11 I summarize Povinelli’s concept of ‘enfleshment’ as a state of mutually constituted bodily relations among people formed through discourse, as well as the material flesh that produce and maintain unevenly distributed life-worlds. See Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Empire of Love (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 10.

12 Rey Chow, The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 69.

CHAPTER 1 A Discourse of ‘Image Sovereignty’: Variations on an Ideal/Image of Native Self-Representation

Modernity’s Primitive Other

One of the early steps toward a third digital documentary encompasses developing the critical empirical and knowledge bases of the social issues at hand. These bases hone understanding of the key areas where a digital documentary might intervene, and become the guide for ethical, activist and artistic approaches to representing the social issues. In the case study of the Tongues of Heaven documentary that deals with the endangerment and revival of indigenous languages, representational challenges involving indigenous peoples were a major consideration. In order to effectively respond to and intervene in the praxis of indigenous self-representation, this necessitated historical research into ‘native’ self-representation, particularly in its engagement with the term ‘native’ – as topic, object and subject – and its attending discourse and practices of authenticity, ethnography, salvage ethnography and autoethnography.1 One of Tongues of Heaven’s critical projects is to consider alternative means of representation that acknowledges the history, traditions and tendencies of ‘native’ representations by ‘non-natives’ and ‘natives’ themselves, in order to move toward creative expression as a biopolitical act. How ←15 | 16→and what one perceives through audio-visual technologies are key premises of visual sovereignty or ‘image sovereignty’, a concept that is mobilized in the Tongues of Heaven production process. This chapter charts the active career of the moving ‘native’ image through some key documentary works and writings. It then discusses the growing discourse of ‘image sovereignty’ (first coined by Māori filmmaker Barry Barclay in 2006) and its subsequent relevance to native self-representation and a radical documentary praxis.2

When considering the use of the term ‘native’ in the context of ethnographic or auto-ethnographic documentary, the issue of authenticity is central. While scholars in various disciplines have attempted to define what constitutes ethnographic moving image works, the term ‘native’ brings to the fore the field of anthropology from which ethnographic documentation originated. Anthropology emerged as a discipline in the nineteenth century alongside colonialism, and as such it is ‘predicated on the fact of otherness and difference, on the lively, informative thrust supplied to it by what is strange or foreign’.3 This authenticating difference of the ‘native’ is what gives those who choose to document the native’s way of life purchase, legitimacy and justification for their enterprise. Whether through the writings, drawings, lithography, photography, sound recordings or moving images of explorers, prospectors, missionaries and anthropologists, the authenticity of the ‘native’ must produce enough of a difference to justify the actions of non-natives, hence the politics of identifying authentic natives, which continues to this day.

In her writings, postcolonial critic Rey Chow has consistently and persistently pointed out the subtle and not so subtle ways in which the ‘native’ is figured in modernist discourses of difference. Whether configured as communist, woman, subaltern or simply marginalized, the native is modernity’s primitive other. Why does the desire and drive to identify and ‘know’ the authentic native continue to persist? According to Chow, modernity ‘is ambivalent in its very origin. In trying to become “new” and ←16 | 17→“novel” – a kind of primary moment – it must incessantly deal with its connection with what precedes it – what was primary to it – in the form of a destruction’. This destruction inevitably produces sadness as we realize the ‘irreversibility of modernity’. She concludes, ‘Our fascination with the native, the oppressed, the savage, and all such figures is therefore a desire to hold on to an unchanging certainty somewhere outside our own “fake” experience’.4

While Chow focuses on the native or ‘endangered authenticities’ as different in terms of time and place, filmmaker-scholar Fatimah Tobing Rony considers the pervasive racialization of the native, particularly in popular and scientific ethnographic cinema. In her study on representations of indigenous peoples in early twentieth-century ethnographic spectacles, Rony defines ethnographic cinema as ‘the broad and variegated field of cinema which situates indigenous people in a displaced temporal realm’, that includes ‘works now elevated to the status of ‘art’, scientific research films, educational films used in schools, colonial propaganda films, and commercial entertainment films’.

Rony demonstrates how race, a defining problem in anthropology, is a key marker of difference that produces perverse, fantastical and troubling images of the native. In her analysis of Robert Flaherty’s 1922 celebrated film Nanook of the North, she exposes the narrative of human evolution, with Nanook representing the native in his once primitive state and Flaherty as the white male ethnographer hero. Such is their symbolic pairing: the Primitive as the ‘ “pathological” counterpoint to the European’.5 However, what further knowledge is produced in the story starring natives on native land? Juxtaposing the 1925 film Grass, made by three Americans around the same time as Nanook of the North, may bring further insight to this question.

←17 | 18→

Early Depictions of ‘Natives’

Grass (1925) is a 70-minute film about the semiannual migration of the Baba Ahmadi tribe in Iran, produced by three Americans with backgrounds in exploration, anti-Soviet U.S. military activities, journalism and filmmaking (see Figure 1.1). Like Flaherty’s work in Nanook, the film serves as evidence that these Western filmmakers were there to witness and capture the harsh living conditions and perceived nobility of the natives. More so, the film shows how the Western filmmakers ‘discovered’ the ‘Forgotten People’ and completed an extraordinary feat of migration with the Baba Ahmadi people over the 12,000 feet high Zardeh Kuh pass. If the film itself was not proof enough of the Americans’ ‘pioneering’ efforts, Grass ends with an image of a document certifying that the filmmakers, Merian Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack and Marguerite Harrison were ‘the first foreigners to have crossed the Zardeh Kuh pass and make the 48-day migration’, signed by Haidar Khan, Chief of Baba Achmadi, Tribe of Baktyari; Amir Jang, Prince of Bakytyari; and Robert Imbrie, Vice-Consul of the United States. As Hamid Naficy explains, the ←18 | 19→tribespeople in Grass were not forgotten or unknown to Iranians; rather, the ‘fiction of loss and amnesia’ was necessary to the fiction of discovery by the filmmakers.6 Like many artifacts of colonial and imperial contact, how the native subjects reacted, resisted, assisted and/or collaborated with outsiders was usually documented in one-sided accounts by the filmmakers themselves. This one-sided documentation compounds the objectifying status and silence of the depicted native whereby, as Chow describes, the ‘native’ is ‘turned into an absolute entity in the form of an image … whose silence becomes the occasion for our speech’.7 On the rare occasion that the discourse includes those individuals who remember the production, or, more commonly, whose ancestors or people were depicted in these films, can the knowledge value of these films be further expanded? In the case of Grass, Naficy demonstrates that depending on how the images are framed, whether by text, storyline, music and/or narration and the historico-political context in which the film is shown, the images give something different to spectators. This could entail themes such as Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, racialist nostalgia for origins, Orientalist entertainment; or later, Iranian national pride, ‘auto-identification’ and for Naficy himself, the techno-aesthetic acumen of the cinematographer. Naficy’s analysis finally frames Grass within the larger context of nations collapsing and rebuilding, and how the images within the film circulate to bolster national projects. Nevertheless, the revisiting and recirculation of the images in Grass in the mid-1970s, as well as Nanook in the early 1980s, produced affective and prideful relationships among the descendants of those depicted in these early ethnographic documentaries, leading to their own pursuits in documentary and fiction filmmaking.

The use of film technology in anthropology as a viable scientific tool continued through the 1930s and 1940s via Franz Boas and his students, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Hurston later wrote more complexly about the nature of her simultaneous insider and outsider status as an ethnographer within the communities she studied, ←19 | 20→while Mead continued to develop methodologies of producing filmic supplements to written ethnography. Deeply indebted to Mead and Bateson, anthropologist Karl Heider’s 1976 classic guide to visual anthropology, Ethnographic Film was reprinted in 2006. In the new edition Heider is initially reluctant to define ethnographic film but uses ‘ethnographicness’ to indicate that ‘ “ethnographic” has very specific meaning’ and that one can ‘look for various attributes, dimensions that effect ethnographicness in films’. But then he finally gives in to a definition: ‘Ethnographic film is film that reflects ethnographic understanding’.8 Emphasis is placed here on discipline, accuracy and truth.

Despite rules and codes that have developed within various disciplines for ethical engagement in researching human subjects, earlier rules in ethnographic documentation were mainly about how to manipulate and gain the cooperation of ‘natives’. Anthropologist filmmakers often used ‘native assistants’, ‘native police’ and ‘native informants’ to conduct their work. This is still the case today, emphasizing the continually vexed conditions under which audio-visual recordings are made, and often in situations of unequal power dynamics. One particular mode of collaboration that addressed some of these ethical issues was practiced by Jean Rouch, which he called ‘shared anthropology’. In 1957, Rouch writes:

Knowledge is not a stolen secret later to be consumed in Western temples of learning, but rather is to be arrived at through an unending quest in which ethnographic subjects and the ethnographer engage with one another on a path that some of us are now calling ‘shared anthropology’.9

The practice of shared anthropology involved the feedback screenings of films that would lead to further suggestions from audiences for new joint creative projects. In a 1954 feedback screening, Rouch’s native subjects Illo Gaudel and Damoure Zika (who would become Rouch’s filmmaking assistant and companion for 62 years) made suggestions for a film about labor migration to the Gold Coast, which would become Rouch’s first ←20 | 21→‘ethnofiction’, Jaguar (1970). This method of sharing would become his way of working for most of his films made in Africa and what he considered an ‘audiovisual countergift’ for his native subjects’ trust and cooperation. Filmmaker scholar Trinh T. Minh-ha would later critique this method as partial sharing of power since it is ‘on the condition that the share is given, not taken’.10 Although Rouch’s ways of working and depictions of Africa have been criticized by his critics and some of his film subjects as paternalistic, racist, salvage ethnography and apolitical, he was a pioneer in maintaining long-term, ongoing and overall mutually beneficial relationships with his native subjects, many of whom became filmmakers themselves.11 In such a situation, the stakes for all involved in the production process become more tangible to each other and more negotiable than before.

Taking the Technology

What happens, however, to the term ‘native’ when ‘natives’ take up audio-visual technology for their own use and creative expression? Or rather, what happens when they take the technology into their own hands, as in the case of Mike Mitchell, a Mohawk of the Akwesasne Reserve in 1968, which culminated in the 36-minute film You Are On Indian Land (YAOIL)? Mitchell’s initiative to film a pending international bridge blockade to protest the government’s lack of resolving land rights guaranteed in the 1794 Jay Treaty, was aided by George Stoney, then the Executive Producer of the Challenge for Change/Societé nouvelle (CFC/SN) program. CFC/SN was a program of the Canadian National Film Board (NFB) started in 1967 by media activists who believed that media communications use by disenfranchised ←21 | 22→groups could lead to social empowerment. Although CFC/SN required government approval of media proposals, applicants found ways of presenting a proposal that would be amenable to the government sponsors, and later diverging somewhat from its proposed intent. For example, proposals dealing with ‘Native rights’ were rejected, but if couched in terms of ethnography would be accepted. That Stoney bypassed CFC/SN protocols and gathered a film crew for filming the next day, spoke to the ‘gap within a gap that made a truly confrontational representation and documented moment of oppression possible despite government funding’.12 Three hours of footage were shot on the day of the blockade of which two hours were edited into a rough cut that were immediately shown to community groups. The purpose of the screenings was to mainly quell disputes among protesters, instigate dialogue within and between different tribal communities, re-evaluate strategies with government officials and hear editing suggestions. Later, video transfer of the footage was shown to municipal and Indian Affairs officials, police and the courthouse. According to Mitchell, the main advantage of these small screenings was to bridge a communications gap between antagonistic groups. Mitchell also went on tour with the film throughout North America at a time in which he felt First Nations issues were barely made public, and this also led to international interest in their issues.

The existence of CFC/SN and a film like YAOIL was made possible in part due to the political turmoil happening across the globe around decolonization efforts, such as the anti-war and civil rights movements. The sense of being part of a larger decolonial frame is evident in the efforts to train Native peoples in film production, resulting in CFC/SN’s Indian Film Crew of which Mitchell was a part. Along with the rise of the New Left involving the ‘emerging social movements (of people of Color, women, students, and first nations)’, was the need to develop alternative means of ←22 | 23→media representation and distribution.13 Debates on how to depict the ‘Indian problem’ with ‘a real Indian point of view’14 ensued at the NFB and eventually resulted in the establishment of the National Indian Training Program in cooperation with the Company of Young Canadians in 1968.15 As Noel Starblanket, one of the camerapersons for YAOIL explains, despite being the first government program that showed any interest for the ‘knowledge, opinions, and feelings of Indians’, the program lasted just three years due to lack of funding. More importantly, in recounting the struggle ←23 | 24→for human resource development in the Lesser and Great Slave Lakes area at that time, he notes the limits of participatory democracy.

Social protest marches and demonstrations are the only alternatives left to these people. The Indian Film Crew feels it would be valuable if we could become involved in this struggle. Our purpose? To facilitate communication between the people and the government – to help this Indian community.

While Starblanket critiques the limits of participatory democracy, he believes in fostering dialogue, particularly with the aid of video as a communications medium and fully aware that ‘we are dealing with a powerful outlet for emotion and a power that even administrations recognize’.16 So powerful indeed that a former CFC/SN filmmaker Dorothy Kidd, in her 1994 essay, reflected back on how CFC/SN’s ‘technicist idea of electronic democracy’ limited discussion ‘posed by the irresolvable conflicts of competing perspectives and power positions’. As a result, such limitations exposed the contradictions and the narrow possibilities of state-funded communications programs.17 The radical alternative was taking the means of communications into one’s own hands. Of the 140 films and videos produced by CFC/SN, YAOIL was the only film that was mostly initiated, produced and distributed by Natives themselves, and this is clearly reflected in its interventionist aesthetics.

Shot in one day on December 18, 1968, YAOIL opens with Mike Mitchell (see Figure 1.3), standing as he addresses the politics of self-identification, hence authenticity:

We don’t want to be Canadian citizens. We don’t want to be American citizens. They told us a long time ago we were North American Indians, and today we feel this way too. Why I feel this way is because we think this reservation is ours. And it does not belong to the white man. It’s the only part we still have left.

A table with a few federal Canadian representatives and a room crowded with community members listen on. This scene bookends the protest, ←24 | 25→which is the centerpiece of the film. Throughout the protest, voices from the crowd remind the police that the world will see this – your police brutality. The camera serves as the witness for the world. At least five times the same policeman tells the protesters that they have made their point, and to move their blockade. YAOIL uses a mixture of documentary modes of representation resulting in a work that is part agit prop, educational and lyrical, but mostly observational, in both the direct cinema and cinéma vérité styles. The camerawork both records the action and at times instigates the dynamics of those being filmed, which was most evident when the Chief, who is aligned with government interests, threatens to destroy the camera. In Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, film theorist Bill Nichols writes: ‘What works at a given moment and what counts as a realistic representation of the historical world is not a ←25 | 26→simple matter of progress toward a final form of truth but of struggles for power and authority within the historical arena itself’.18 Within each compositional frame of YAOIL, one can see and feel the lines of tension. Though this may be due in part to the graphical contrasts produced by black and white film stock, it is in fact the historical arena of struggle that produces the very aesthetics of the work. How did we get to this point, and how do we show you where we want to go? Considering the structure of the documentary – a meeting between the concerned community and authorities, voice-over narration addressed in the third person, an animated map of the contested territory (see Figure 1.2), flashback chronology of a protest event with occasional English subtitling of Native speech (in the Kanienkeha language), shorter scene of another protest, and back to the meeting – this is a work made to be heard loud and clear.

In film scholar Jonathan Kahana’s study of the intelligence work that documentaries perform, he notes the aesthetic challenges for filmmakers in ‘finding an appropriately particular language for the representation’ of political struggles marginalized by national media.19 One of these aesthetic devices is the sound or ‘noise’ of radical documentary. While his study analyzes examples of the sophisticated uses of soundtrack of certain films, YAOIL is mostly synch sound. Nevertheless, what makes it radical filmmaking is its commitment to recording the protest in its ebb and flow of tension, discussion and violence, since most news media only cover moments of heightened violence (see Figures 1.4 and 1.5). As Stoney remarks in an interview with Alan Rosenthal: ‘You begin to see how the violence happens; you begin to see the nature of the violence, and you see the violence tapering off and some more palaver following’.20 Rather than always seeing protestors as victims of police brutality, YAOIL exposes the forces underlying the actions of all parties and stakeholders involved with the main question: How are we to resolve this problem together? When the ←26 | 27→police tell the circle of gatherers, ‘The Indians have made their point, I see no reason why you should block this road any longer … or we will have to use force to do so’ one of the main interlocutors, Ernie responds, ‘Officer, tell us just to what extent have we made our point?’ The police officer says as he walks away, ‘The news media, you got recognition’. A woman off camera retorts, ‘We want more than that’. The scene cuts to a young woman held up by her fellow protestors singing: ‘We shall overcome’. Drawing from the symbolic African American civil rights protest song, YAOIL itself becomes a symbolic discourse for a politics based on a ‘we’ and not ‘them’ perspective. Many disparate Native voices on and off camera are heard within a span of only 36 minutes in the fine cut version, and many with full awareness of the camera. Of course, YAOIL’s most reflexive charge is its last image, which consists of the contested bridge superimposed with ←27 | 28→the credits: You Are On Indian Land was produced by the National Film Board of Canada for the Challenge for Change Program in co-operation with Departments and Agencies of the Government of Canada. Its reflexivity lies in the fact that the very filmic materialization of such tensions between the indigenous peoples and the Canadian government policies was made possible in part by the Canadian government itself. If anything, it offers a stark reminder that the ‘Indian problem’ is not going to go away so easily (see Figures 1.6 and 1.7).

In his written assessment of the disbanding of the Indian Film Crew due to funding cuts, Starblanket poses his final question. Addressing the state sponsors, the National Film Board and the Company of Young Canadians, he asks: ‘Is a strong independent voice for the Indians worth supporting?’21 ←28 | 29→This begs the question as to how far Western capitalist democratic systems can be challenged and transformed to resolve the often-conflicting interests of capitalist democracies and indigenous lifeways? Through gaps within the CFC/SN bureaucratic system, YAOIL brought attention to and facilitated dialogue on land issues for both the Natives in Canada and the U.S., and to the Canadian government authorities. Eventually, the Canadian government lifted the customs duties levied on the Mohawk people, one of the main demands of the protestors.22 In reflecting on CFC/SN and state-sponsored film arts production in general, activist author Naomi Klein admits the difficulty of measuring the ‘advancement in those debates’ for these projects, ←29 | 30→such as ‘how did this enrich us? How did this improve us?’23 While no objective barometer exists in measuring how spectators are moved or moved to action by a film, or a documentary in this case, YAOIL exemplified the potential of documentary to transform when a radical practice can emerge to open up the possibility for new forms of communication. And in this case, YAOIL opened up what indigenous education scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith calls, ‘symbolic appeals’ to authenticity as an oppositional term in the struggle for decolonization. She writes:

[Authenticity] does appeal to an idealized past when there was no colonizer, to our strengths in surviving thus far, to our language as an uninterrupted link to our ←30 | 31→histories, to the ownership of our lands, to our abilities to create and control our own life and death, to a sense of balance among ourselves and with the environment, to our authentic selves as a people. Although this may seem overly idealized, these symbolic appeals remain strategically important in political struggles.24

YAOIL also exemplifies the Third Cinema practice espoused by its proponents in Argentina around the same time. For example, not only through its form, aesthetics and timeliness, YAOIL, together with Native activists performed numerous ‘film acts’ in a variety of contexts to garner dialogue, support and most importantly change – change that would then inspire others in their own decolonial struggles.

Image Sovereignty

Along with decolonization movements across the globe and increased accessibility of audio-visual technologies, the 1970s and 1980s saw the continued rise of indigenous media activism. In the field of ethnographic film, one such key moment occurred in 1978 during the International Ethnographic Film Conference held in Canberra, Australia. Film critic James Roy MacBean, in recounting the debates of observational cinema as the ultimate solution in representing others, brings to light the power struggle over methodology in the field. He observes, ‘Sympathetic with Aboriginal peoples’ increasingly vociferous demands to be provided access to the media and to the means of film and television production, the MacDougalls had scheduled a session in the conference agenda to explore these issues’. He then notes that the time allocated was not sufficient and scheduled for the last day of the conference.

MacBean’s article makes a case for the necessary critical shifts in the field from ethnographic filmmaking focused on the professional concerns of the outsider ethnographer to the politicized concerns of the indigenous ←31 | 32→subjects of their works. At the conference, the Aboriginal attendees sought to recruit white filmmakers to work with them ‘in making films that would express rather than merely observe Aboriginal culture’. This request eventually resulted in the film Two Laws (1981), collectively produced by Australian filmmakers Caroline Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini with members of the Borroloola Aboriginal community in the Northern territories of Australia. MacBean highlights the collective working methodology as proof of the divergent interests, style and use for audio-visual technologies of communication by ethnographic filmmakers and by the Aboriginal peoples. Divided into four parts – ‘Police Times’, ‘Welfare Times’, ‘Struggle for Our Land’, ‘Living with Two Laws’ – the main goal of the film was to provide historical information in order to prove that the Aboriginal system of law was an equally valid form of regulating their relations with one another, to the land and to their property. In analyzing the style, MacBean writes:

And even within the film we see the way the film-making process offers material for further work and reflection, as we later see several Aboriginal women activists listening, with ear phones, to the sound tape of that particular conversation – which stirs them to compose a letter offering their response to the white laborer.25

Undoubtedly, the function of the film as a dialogical device influences its aesthetics, further expanding the creative and political possibilities of indigenous filmmaking. YAOIL and Two Laws are exemplary of what Māori filmmaker Barry Barclay has called the practice of Fourth Cinema or ‘image sovereignty’. The importance of knowledge, property and trust are key foundations of ‘image sovereignty’. Film scholar Stephen Turner further explains:

‘Image sovereignty’ thus questions the protocols and practice that govern the making, distribution, reception, and storage of Indigenous media (for instance in libraries and information systems). Ultimately, it questions whether human community is enhanced or diminished by its imaging and archiving, or whether the imperative ←32 | 33→of imaging and archiving makes an inert object or human community for others (scholars and strangers).26

Understanding this and taking the technology into one’s own hands is the radical praxis of image sovereignty upon which native and indigenous producers are increasingly embarking.

Postmodern Experiments

Such radical praxis can take various media forms. For example, the ‘radical’ in radical documentary produces a different way of viewing and thinking that sometimes jolts audiences out of their often complacent and consumptive positions, allowing for internal moves and shifts. These moves and shifts can be radical without producing immediate material effects, such as shifting popular notions of what constitutes a ‘Native’, as with the work of Kidlat Tahimik. In a similar spirit of decolonization, a few years later, Tahimik (formerly Eric de Guia), a recent MBA graduate of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania returned to his home in the Philippines to produce Perfumed Nightmare (1977), which garnered the Critics Award at the Berlin Film Festival. The film is now considered an art house cult classic, mostly due to the fact that Tahimik makes his films for Western film festivals, his association with Werner Herzog, and the interests shown for his works by art film critics and educators.27 Mostly independently financed, this semi-autobiographical film stars Kidlat Tahimik himself as the protagonist, who at first idolizes American culture (i.e. the Voice of America ←33 | 34→broadcasts, the Statue of Liberty and the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant), but who then gradually becomes disillusioned with Western technological superiority and capitalism. Tahimik does so with playful ruminations about postcolonial modernity in the Philippines and its U.S. imperial legacies. By blurring the conventional borders of documentary and fiction, his unique storytelling technique becomes a tactic for eschewing the incessant need for the authentic native informant.

In Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video, Catherine Russell focuses her analysis on films and videos by producers who are perceived as ‘others’, and advocates for a critical method of film/video production called ‘experimental ethnography’ as a way to dismantle realist aesthetics and rethink cultural expression as anything but stable. On Tahimik, she writes: ‘He produces a subjectivity that is consistently double, inappropriate, and hybrid, signified by the body of the Other, a body that is unauthentic, textual, ironic, transnational’.28 From Eric de Guia, to Kidlat Tahimik, to ‘Indigenious’, Tahimik is the quintessential ‘Inappropriate Other’, both a ‘deceptive insider and a deceptive outsider’, that Trinh T. Minh-ha seeks to uncover in her own works, the one who ‘refuses to naturalize the “I” ’.

In her first film, Reassemblage (1983), Trinh takes on the underlying assumptions of the ethnographic enterprise to create a polemical work using a metadiscursive framework. In doing so, she unravels notions of objectivity and subjectivity, including her own positionality. Trinh experiments with a personal voice-over narration that refuses to give in to explanation, clarity, or point of view. It wavers between objective sounding facts, poetic fragments, personal anecdotes and theoretical ruminations. Not quite halfway through the film, we hear her say: ‘A film about what? my friends ask. A film about Senegal, but what in Senegal? I feel less and less the need to express myself. Is that something else I’ve lost? Something else I’ve lost?’ By this point, viewers may begin to wonder whether this ‘I’ speaking is the real Trinh, the confessional Trinh, or the sincere Trinh. Yet, there is a tinge of distrust of the film’s narrator, which further calls on the viewer to question the anthropological drive to capture and know the ‘woman/native/other’. In 1986, when she proposed the figure of the ‘Inappropriate Other’, she emphasized that self-reflexivity was just a small fraction of uncovering the work of ideology. She continues:

←34 | 35→

What is at stake is a practice of subjectivity that is still unaware of its own constituted nature … unaware of its continuous role in the production of meaning … unaware of representation as representation … and, finally, unaware of the Inappropriate Other within every ‘I’.29

As notions of subjectivity and performativity began to gain theoretical ground, particularly for those who were underrepresented as film/video practitioners, Marcia Langton in 1993 wrote the ground-breaking essay ‘Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television’: An essay for the Australian Film Commission on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking by and about Aboriginal people and things.30 At that time, little anti-colonial critique was written of the thousands of films and videos about Aboriginal people in Australia. Therefore, the essay is written as a prescription, but also to stimulate debate on the theoretical and critical approaches that could guide and inform the Australian Film Commission and those involved with the development of policies and programs to encourage Aboriginal production and distribution. Her essay includes issues on the politics of representation, defining Aboriginality, aesthetics and production. Langton also identifies experimental film and videomaking as vital for expanding notions of self-representation and cultural meaning.

Intracultural Mediations

During this similar time period in the 1990s, a white Australian doctorate student in anthropology, Jennifer Deger, began a collaboration with a Yolngu man Bangana Wunungmurra under the Broadcasting in Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme. Their collaboration led to the ←35 | 36→production of the video Gularri: That Brings Unity (1997) and her dissertation which became the book Shimmering Screens (2006). Produced by Deger and directed by Wunungmurra, Gularri tells the story of Gularri, the waters that flow though the Yirritja clan countries and are a source of ancestral significance and identity for the Yonglu people. Keeping in mind broadcast technology, Wunungmurra’s aim with Gularri was to reconnect and strengthen the identity of the Yonglu diaspora within Australia, ‘so that the new generation might be drawn back to country, back to rom,31 and thence, as he said, “back to where they belong” ’.32 She explains that Wunungmurra was not necessarily interested in preserving culture, but rather in producing it. That is, Gularri, is not a video about ritual. It is a video that produces the effects of ritual. The 82-minute video consists of images of the ancestral waterway through aerial shots that follow its path to the sea, and close-up shots of shimmering water, intercut with medium shots of the ritual specialist Charlie Ngalambirra’s narrating the story of Gularri, in different locations along the waterway. In certain scenes, he is accompanied by those who are guardians of the waterway. The soundtrack consists of occasional rhythmic clacking of the clapsticks, singing and water sounds. Wunungmurra’s aim is not to represent the Yonglu ngarra or ceremony that is held annually, but to produce the mindful and sensuous engagement leading to Ancestral revelation and connection experienced in ngarra. In seeing the shimmering patterns created above and below the water’s surface, he explains:

Even though they are not there, they are really. Yonglu know those patterns are there, and when they watch they can see their dhulang,33 their gamununggu,34 and it will make them feel closer to their country, and all the other clans with similar paintings. Bring them all together … Yolngu, dharpa [trees] gapu [water], wanga [country], maddayin [sacra] everything.

←36 | 37→

First and foremost, Gularri is a video made by a Yonglu man for Yonglu people. Its intended effects are described by Deger via Heideggerian phenomenology, a field that began to inform film theory, through the work of ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall and film scholar Laura U. Marks. Regarding Marks’s concept of culture in her book Skin of the Film (2000), Deger points to the limits of Marks’s analysis in relation to indigenous productions in that Marks does not account for the differences in ‘histories and lifeworlds’ of the intercultural makers she features. Deger asserts:

Ultimately the problem with this film-based theory is that by focusing on filmic language as the means by which cultural difference is asserted and contested (even if resignified or sensually evoked through a ‘native’ filmmaker’s lens), it potentially ignores other levels at which culture might be represented, reproduced, or even revisioned.

The implication here is that media anthropology, rather than film studies, might be better suited to tackle the complexities of culture in our increasingly mediated lives. After all, culture is anthropology’s object of study par excellence. Further, Deger is concerned with Marks’s use of difference in her study as marked against ‘the West’ in that it ‘gains its strengths from and against the dominant discourses of the West (male, colonial, white), one that doesn’t consider adequately the cultural contexts and meanings from which those works derive’.35

Despite Deger’s position, Marks’s and Deger’s culture projects are not wholly incompatible or irreconcilable, and have the potential to offer dynamic working processes – one that I explored with the Tongues of Heaven documentary, discussed in the next chapter. Marks’s study is an attempt to foreground the works of cultural minorities by emphasizing the dynamic relationship between dominant ‘host’ cultures and minority cultures. She writes: ‘Intercultural indicates a context that cannot be confined to a single culture. It also suggests movement between one culture and another, thus implying diachrony and the possibility of transformation’. Thus, filmmakers of intercultural cinema are located at the intersections of at ←37 | 38→least two cultural regimes of knowledge, and therefore must deal with the issues of where ‘meaningful knowledge is located, in the awareness that it is between cultures and so can never be fully verified in the terms of one regime over the other’.36 According to Marks, these works are best conceived when the screen is seen as a ‘membrane’ that engages viewers with the material forms of memory contained in these works. In the case of Gularri, Deger details the cultural conditions that lead Wunungmurra to produce the video in the first place. In Marks’s framework, what cultural regimes of knowledge is Wunungmurra contending with? Deger’s in-depth study seems to imply one cultural regime: the Yonglu culture. However, what I see Wunungmurra contending with is the fragmentation and possible loss of a Yonglu sense of identity, due in part to out migration primarily within the settler nation territory of Australia. Therefore, I would argue that the two cultural regimes of knowledge he must confront through his work are the cultural spaces of one’s native land, and the cultural spaces that are lived outside and away from that land. Hence purpose, process and production of Gularri serve as the inter-activities from which Gularri becomes the mediating device among different cultural spaces that Wunungmurra desires to connect. By focusing more on the nature of the ‘inter-’ activities (which include acts of intervention) of intercultural nonfiction media productions, whether marginal or dominant, a middle-ground can be attained between an anthropological trend of ‘native’ culture as sacred and another of film studies’ audio-visual aspect as exotic sensorium.

However, these inter-activities produce not only intercultural film and video works but also ones that are intracultural. Intracultural media productions, which I define as media produced primarily for those with similar cultural backgrounds, nuance both of Deger’s and Mark’s discursive frameworks on media and culture. They offer pathways to tackle problems tied to the land that often impact the livelihoods of indigenous peoples. As with YAOIL and Gularri, such intracultural non-fiction productions and distribution tactics can mediate, communicate, and bring people together on issues affecting them – some of these relate to fragmentation ←38 | 39→and disintegration of community, culture, identity and in the Tongues of Heaven documentary, language. As an interventionist mode of production aimed at those who are most materially affected by the issues at stake, intracultural documentary production can then be situated within the discourse of image sovereignty, and as a critical strand of radical documentary praxis – what Tongues of Heaven aims to be.

←39 | 40→←40 | 41→

1 Salvage ethnography is a turn-of-the-twentieth-century practice associated with the anthropologist Franz Boas and his documentation of indigenous peoples’ cultures that were facing extinction. In doing so, he often reconstructed and imagined a picturesque primitive past that has since been critiqued for displacing indigenous peoples in a temporal realm outside modernity. See Craig Calhoun, Dictionary of Social Sciences (London: Oxford University Press, 2002), 424; and Fatimah Tobing Rony, The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 78.

2 Keyan G. Tomaselli, Cultural Tourism and Identity: Rethinking Indigeneity (Boston, MA: Brill, 2012), 50.

3 Edward Said, ‘Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors’, in Critical Inquiry 15/2 (1989), 213.

4 Rey Chow, ‘Where Have All the Natives Gone?’, in Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 41, 41, 53.

5 Rony, The Third Eye, 8, 27.

6 Hamid Naficy, ‘Lure of the East’, in Jeffrey Ruoff, ed., Virtual Voyages: Cinema and Travel (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 131.

7 Chow, ‘Where Have All the Natives Gone?’, 34.

8 Karl G. Heider, Ethnographic Film (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), 2, 7.

9 Paul Henley, The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 316.

10 Trinh T. Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender, and Cultural Politics (New York: Routledge, 1991), 67.

11 Henley, The Adventure of the Real, 331, 332.

12 Ezra Winton, and Jason Garrison, ‘ “If a Revolution Is Screened and No One Is There to See It, Does It Make a Sound?” The Politics of Distribution and Counterpublics’, in Thomas Waugh, Ezra Winton and Michael B. Baker, eds., Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010), 414, 416.

13 Dorothy Kidd, ‘Shards of Remembrance: One Woman’s Archaeology of Community Video’, in Pilar Riaño, ed., Women in Grassroots Communication: Furthering Social Change (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1994), 179.

14 Noel Starblanket, ‘A Voice for Canadian Indians: An Indian Film Crew (1968)’, in Waugh, et al., Challenge for Change, 38.

15 Winton and Garrison, ‘ “If a Revolution Is Screened” ’, 414.

16 Starblanket, ‘A Voice for Canadian Indians’, 39, 39, 40.

17 Dorothy Kidd, ‘Shards of Remembrance’, 184.

18 Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 33.

19 Jonathan Kahana, Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 144.

20 Alan Rosenthal, ‘You Are on Indian Land: Interview with George Stoney (1980)’, in Waugh, et al., Challenge for Change, 174.

21 Starblanket, ‘A Voice for Canadian Indians’, 40.

22 Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois (Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005), 102.

23 Erza Winton, ‘Putting Ideas into the World: A Conversation with Naomi Klein about Starting Conversations with Film’, in Waugh, et al., Challenge for Change, xix.

24 Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (10th edn., London: Zed Books, 2007), 73.

25 James Roy MacBean, ‘Two Laws from Australia, One White, One Black’, Film Quarterly 36/3 (1983), 32, 39, 40, 43.

26 Stephen Turner, ‘Reflections on Barry Barclay and Fourth Cinema’, in Brendan Hokowhitu, and Vijay Devadas, eds., The Fourth Eye: Maori Media in Aotearoa New Zealand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 170–172.

27 Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 295. See Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell, A Dictionary of Film Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 311.

28 Russell, Experimental Ethnography, 300.

29 Trinh T. Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender, and Cultural Politics (New York: Routledge, 1991), 74, 76, 71, 77.

30 Marcia Langton, ‘Well, I Heard It on the Radio and I Saw It on the Television’: An Essay for the Australian Film Commission on the Politics and Aesthetics of Filmmaking by and About Aboriginal People and Things (North Sydney, NSW: Australian Film Commission, 1993).

31 Law/culture/proper way.

32 Jennifer Deger, Shimmering Screens: Making Media in an Aboriginal Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 139.

33 Design relating to the ancestral.

34 Sacred clan designs.

35 Deger, Shimmering Screens, 205, 52.

36 Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 6, 24.

CHAPTER 2 Digital Documentary Praxis

A Place

Demonstrating the need to transform the discourses of authenticity, ethnography, salvage ethnography and autoethnography, the previous chapter presented some exemplary cases of how minority and indigenous media artists have experimented with various techniques of documentary self-representation. Alongside these works, this chapter details how the one-hour documentary Tongues of Heaven (2013) case study further elaborates on these experiments in self-representation. What conditions enable minority and indigenous media artists to pursue experiments in representation? How does process, content and form figure into how these experiments are carried out? What kinds of critical media practices might give rise to a third digital documentary?

To provide historical context, Tongues of Heaven arose from colonialism’s wreckage caused by successive colonial regimes in Taiwan, most notably from the early twentieth century to today. Several centuries of colonial violence included forced assimilation, more recently during the Japanese (1896–1945) and Kuomintang (1949–1987) rule, which included the compulsory adoption of their languages, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, respectively. Starting with the lifting of martial law in 1987, marking Taiwan’s entrance into a participatory democracy for the first time in the island’s history, Taiwan’s indigenous peoples have steadily gained more recognition and influence in state-level matters, including education. While the early days of bentuhua [best translated as ‘Taiwanization’] were Han Chinese-centric, the main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), saw the need to downplay the prevalent dichotomy between Hoklo Taiwanese and the mainlanders (settler autocratic Chinese rulers ←41 | 42→from 1949 to 1987).1 Hence, they created the concept of si da zu quan, ‘big four ethnic groups’, which included the Hoklo, mainlanders, Hakka, and aborigines of Malay-Polynesian origin.2 This ethnic framework of ‘strategic essentialisms’ has since been used to build coalitions and to handle ethnic and nationalist issues.3 For example, while China continues to claim Taiwan as its territory, and to aim for official reunification, Taiwan independence advocates stake sovereignty claims on the grounds of Taiwan’s distinct histories, ethnicities, cultures and languages. The push toward self-determination entailed a culturalism that also served the purpose of differentiating itself from China. As museum studies scholar Marzia Varutti details in her study of museums in Taiwan, this period was one in which ‘cultural institutions such as museums were also charged with the task of making visible the multicultural and local character of Taiwanese culture’.4 Of course, the question of how that visibility should look depends on who is funding this endeavor. For example, indigenous peoples often get swept up into nationalist politics, ‘valued’ for their ‘distinct’ ethnicity, culture and language, all of which they must prove and showcase. However, symbolic recognition is easier to come by than accepting indigenous peoples’ claim to land use rights and sovereignty, or appropriate educational support ←42 | 43→in areas such as effective native language instruction. Nonetheless, indigenous activism rose and indigenous peoples found greater representation and recognition within governmental entities. One of the results was the establishment of the College of Indigenous Studies in 2001 at National Dong Hwa University (NDHU), a public university located in eastern Taiwan’s Hualien county, which is home to one-quarter of Taiwan’s indigenous population. The College of Indigenous Studies is also the only one of its kind on the island.

A Filmmaker

As a filmmaker and teacher of documentary and Third Cinema, I was hired to teach digital film in the NDHU’s Department of Indigenous Languages and Communication (DILC). The DILC is comprised of linguists, communication scholars and media practitioners. This gave me the opportunity to put into productive relations my own independent filmmaking practices with Taiwan’s struggling localized cinema landscape that still exists alongside mainstream media but is often eclipsed by imported foreign films.

My own creative practice developed out of a desire to tell stories centered on the experiences of minorities, immigrants, exiles, Asian and Asian Pacific American women, and disenfranchised communities. These interests arose partly due to my own experiences of existing in a country where its media landscape was – and arguably still is – bereft of images that reflect my experiences as an Asian American woman, and partly due to my family’s experiences as exiles, and my own background doing social justice work in the civil rights field. I was inspired to pursue documentary filmmaking in the service of social justice when I first saw Who Killed Vincent Chin? in 1987 and listened to filmmaker Christine Choy talk about her experiences making the film. Choy’s work is significant in that it gave visibility to both a grave social injustice inflicted upon Asian Americans and to their lives and concerns. While Asian Americans have been subject to their fair share ←43 | 44→of stereotypes and typecasting, what remains persistent throughout the history of U.S. mainstream media is their near media invisibility. Media scholar Glen Mimura goes as far as to spectralize Asian American experiences in U.S. history, and Asian American media within Asian American Studies and Third Cinema discourses. He explains:

[P];erhaps the most salient characteristic of Asian Americans’ symbolic racialization is that we ceaselessly ‘disappear’, ghostlike, in public cultural and national political discourses, only to persistently reappear as ‘stranger’ or perpetual foreigners – that is, symbolically out of place and outside of history.5

In the meantime, images of ‘Asia’, ‘Asian’ and Asian-ness continue to permeate and persist in the U.S. media landscape, and oftentimes, in not so pleasant terms. Despite Mimura’s lucid and ‘ghostly’ predictions, media activists and artists like myself, along with predecessors like Choy, continue to labor over the expression and presentation of Asian American stories and sensibilities to anyone who might be interested, but most notably, to Asian American viewers.

However, beyond mere representation of those who are mis- or under-represented are my interests in how documentary filmmaking can expose the conditions that produce existences lived in marginality. Third Cinema theory offers a useful conceptual framework for exploring these issues in my previous works, as well as in the current work and case study, Tongues of Heaven. Third Cinema is the only film theory to have originated outside a Euro-American context, and since its articulation by Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in 1969, Third Cinema theory has been reexamined, debated, neglected, marginalized, pronounced dead and recuperated primarily by those in the media studies field.6 This is ←44 | 45→an indication that Third Cinema theory was open and flexible enough to adapt to various contexts of shifting political and economic conditions that continue to repress and exploit. A main tenet of Third Cinema theory is one of ‘practice, search and experimentation’.7 Solanas and Getino write: ‘The attempt to overcome neocolonial oppression calls for the invention of forms of communication; it opens up the possibility’.8 Subsequently, with each showing, this cinema provokes a ‘liberated space, a decolonized territory’.9 As a practitioner then, Third Cinema’s decolonizing framework (and subsequently third digital documentary) is simultaneously arriving at a new consciousness and carving out spaces of freedom, whether physical or psychic – spaces needed to imagine, invent and construct new realities, identities and futures.

With regard to experimental filmmaking practices, Maya Deren, an early practitioner and theorist of experimental avant-garde cinema became my first inspiration, particularly in her search for a film language that could communicate the psychic wounds of wartime atrocities.10 Deren and other filmmakers’ attempts to represent the unrepresentable, along with Third Cinema’s decolonizing framework, and my involvement in San Francisco’s vibrant independent film scene intersected to make cinematic experimentation a viable critical practice in my own documentary works. I experiment with creative techniques and methodologies that offer openings and attend to slippages in film/video language in order to acknowledge both what Trinh T. Minh-ha argues is the constructedness of all documentaries, and ←45 | 46→what Bill Nichols believes is the social representational function of documentary regarding the world we live in.11 Equally important is how I name my work, which then creates certain expectations for viewers. For example, in calling my work ‘an experimental documentary’, the word ‘documentary’ indicates a mode of audience reception in which the stakes of reality imaged and presented before audiences are different than those in a fiction film. Even fiction films that present themselves as ‘based on a true story’ shift the mode of reception, and perhaps perceived stakes, for viewers with the idea that what they are about to see happened in our world. However, a ‘documentary’ means that the contents are real and happening in the world as delineated for you by the director(s). These are the reasons to be aware of what is happening in this particular world I choose to show viewers. And if the documentary addresses social issues, these are the reasons why we should care, and perhaps get involved in alleviating the issues.

As someone who works within a Third Cinema framework, showing the processes of the problem is a key aspect of my practice for which experimentation is often required. At times, political cinema production experimentation means working toward what is oppositional or counter to mainstream dominant media. Rather, searching for and experimenting toward what is alternative or new avoids ‘prescriptive aesthetics’.12 Third Cinema Cuban filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea is one example of a practitioner and theorist whose works I find to have particular resonance. This is due primarily to his commitment to finding a (post)colonial film language or strategy that addresses hegemonic cinematic codes and invents forms, associations and methods to create a new aesthetic in the audio-visual landscape. These efforts acknowledge the stubborn structures of economic domination and exploitation that continue to this day across the globe, and propose an alternative cinema that aims to confront these issues. In his essay, ‘The Viewer’s Dialectic’, Alea writes: ‘Cinema can draw viewers closer to reality without giving up its condition of unreality, fiction, and ←46 | 47→other-reality. This happens when and if it lays down a bridge to reality so that viewers can return laden with experiences and stimulation’.13 Keeping in mind ‘this bridge to reality’ is important when engaging with discursive or aesthetic experimentation such as through hand-processing footage, using filters, altering temporal and spatial movements, using found footage, etc. The experimentation I refer to here is a form of practice whereby – along with the cinematic pleasures of other worldly imagery and soundscapes – concepts, theories, intentions, methodologies and on-the-ground activities are tested and ‘experimented with’. Risks must be taken, and mistakes are inevitable. This is critical to the viewing experience I aim for, one that encourages dialogue instigated by the dialectics arising from within the text, image and audio themselves, as well as the relationship between the work’s form and content. A new cinematic language can mean a new social imaginary – one that offers a projection of solidarities that acknowledge planetary effects, connections, interdependence and a utopian guide for change grounded in depictions of daily struggles.

Therefore, when I come upon an idea for a documentary, I ask myself: How do I find a form that works dialectically with the content and vice versa? This involves several considerations, such as the themes, concepts, relationships that make up the content, along with the formal aspects of the medium, which includes its display and the potential spaces surrounding it. Finding this form is particularly challenging when working collaboratively across borders, nationalities, multiple languages, cultures, classes, generations, sensibilities and personalities, which have characterized my collaborative efforts in Taiwan with the films 62 Years and 6,500 Miles Between (2005), Joyful Life (2007) and my latest work Tongues of Heaven (2013). I have previously written about what it means as a Taiwanese American to feel connected, get involved and engage in communitarian, solidarity-building activities, and how a collaborative filmmaking praxis in Asia might contribute to a collaborative praxis in the U.S.14 Every documentary video ←47 | 48→project will have its unique set of collaborative dynamics. For my documentary works in Taiwan, I continued to ask myself: How can the positionality of being Taiwanese American facilitate or thwart collaboration abroad in Taiwan? And what is the nature of working among such differences that seem at once distancing, yet intimate? I found engaging with these questions helped to elucidate the form the works eventually took, which I discuss in the following sections regarding Tongues of Heaven.

An Idea

While teaching in the DILC from 2006 to 2010, I was made keenly aware of a certain lament by my students for their limited if not entire lack of ability to speak their mother tongue. They knew that they and their peers did not speak their heritage languages and if their generation did not learn and pass down those languages, the languages would most likely be gone. My students’ linguistic heritage comes from one or more of the at least 16 distinct indigenous languages, Minnan and Hakka. In addition to the 16 indigenous languages that currently correspond to the 16 current officially recognized indigenous groups in Taiwan, 10 other indigenous groups have yet to be recognized. Many students come from mixed heritages and are sometimes exposed to multiple languages. Their lament foregrounded my own. Though my parents are ethnically mixed (Hoklo, Hakka, Pingpu), they spoke Minnan at home, and this became my first language. I lost my ability to speak it at age six when I began learning English in the U.S., although I can still understand it. However, the conversations with my students were not only about a sense of loss but the conditions that make it difficult for them to learn or re-gain fluency in their heritage languages. Mandarin is the official language in Taiwan and some schools, depending on teacher availability, will offer minority ←48 | 49→language classes, but rarely enough to achieve fluency. As such, some students chose to attend DILC to learn more about their heritage and study their language(s).

My linguistics colleagues also served as an inspiration for the documentary. One day, Yueh-Chen Chien, a sociolinguist, handed me her copy of David Crystal’s Language Death, which made it clear how high the stakes are in language loss for humanity. Linguists estimate that at least 3,000 of the world’s 6,000–7,000 languages are liable to disappear before the year 2100; that is, two languages disappearing each month.15 With 96 percent of the world’s population speaking only four percent of the world’s languages, I wondered what does it mean to speak one’s mother tongue? Or for that matter, what does one lose when one loses one’s heritage language?16

Given my observation over a course of two years of the conundrum of language death for my students, and regarding my own declining competency in my heritage language, in consultation with my students, we decided that tackling the issue of language endangerment through a collaborative documentary would be a worthwhile effort for us. In my recruitment of young collaborating co-directors through a Media Management course I taught, two students An-Chi Chen and Shin-Lan Yu, who are both indigenous, enthusiastically joined the team, while a few others wanted to share their stories for the film. The documentary focuses on young indigenous peoples’ perspectives for two main reasons. One is that the two individuals who showed the most interest in the topic and desire to co-direct are two indigenous women. The second reason is the sheer fact that the extinction of Taiwan’s indigenous languages is more imminent given the lower numbers of speakers, compared to the number of other minority language speakers; and these languages are not being passed down.17 The inclusion of Hawai‘i was initiated by the dean of the College of Indigenous Studies, ←49 | 50→Fa-Tung Chen, who had a few years ago visited the renowned Ke Kula ‘o Nāwahīokalani ‘ōpu‘u [Living Hawaiian Life-Force School], a K–12 immersion school in Hilo on the Big Island. He encouraged us to visit the school. Our team also felt that a comparative approach would be fruitful, particularly with Hawai‘i, which was known worldwide for its language revitalization efforts. Finally, An-Chi and Shin-Lan also believed that speaking with other indigenous youth their age could foster insight and support as they confront the daunting prospect of language loss.

Bringing Taiwan and Hawai‘i together however, produced other discursive effects. At that time, an influential DNA study that was also publicized through The New York Times concluded that Polynesians and Micronesians have no genetic relationship to Melanesians.18 Rather, the data showed that Polynesians and Micronesians are most closely related to Taiwan Aborigines and East Asians.19 The DNA study corroborated similar findings in the fields of archaeology and linguistics.20 Linguistically, Taiwan is home to nine of the 10 Austronesian language subgroups. One-fifth of the world speaks an Austronesian language, spanning a large area of Oceania, which includes Taiwan, the Philippines, Madagascar, most of Indonesia, parts of New Guinea and Island Melanesia, as well as all of Micronesia and Polynesia. Taiwan is generally considered the cradle of the Austronesian language.

On the geo-political front, juxtaposing Taiwan and Hawai‘i re-orients these islands in the Pacific to foreground their colonial pasts and presents in relation to the continental nation-states of China and the U.S., respectively. Taiwan and Hawai‘i are islands that continue to seek sovereignty from two of the most influential nations on the globe. For the Taiwanese filmmakers, ←50 | 51→journeying to Hawai‘i to witness its language revitalization movement in action is not merely about learning successful language models, but an opportunity as well, to reflect upon similar socio-political histories of colonization and language suppression. Such parallel phenomena continue today for indigenous peoples in different parts of the world: A generation or two are punished for speaking their language, leading to the near extinction of their language and the realization that if something is not done, the language will be lost.21

Locating Capital

Media funding possesses its own politics and ideological underpinnings. Since I was keen on limiting artistic constraints for this particular work, especially given the politically sensitive nature of the topic, this intention influenced where and how I sought funding. One of the issues with artist funding in any country is whether a nation can handle critique and dissent in the hands of artists, particularly mediamakers. I was hesitant to seek funding from Taiwan Public Television Service Foundation because the media organization was undergoing major restructuring after the Kuomintang (KMT) party government went into office. For example, the KMT-affiliated board of directors demanded an increase to 60 percent in Chinese-themed television programming. In the past, colonial institutions like schools, universities and museums were supported primarily to legitimize the colonial project and build a national imaginary bolstered by these structures. However, even as Taiwan moved toward democratic governance in the late 1990s, state funding always expected cultural and educational institutions to tow the party line. Funding resources are often tied to their particular interests. Funding amounts and requirements are currently dictated by the dominant two parties: the ←51 | 52→KMT, which is a vestige from colonial days with an ultimate aim for reunification with China; and the DPP, created as an opposition party to the KMT with a pro-independence stance. Beginning in 2008, the highly publicized account of controlling cultural content occurred with Taiwan public television. The ruling KMT party withheld funding from the organization’s broadcast sector until greater Chinese-themed content was included, thus exemplifying the subtle and blatant ways in which state funding influences what kinds of cultural visibilities can emerge in the public landscape.

In 2008, I was fortunate to receive one of very few artist-merit grants in the U.S. from Creative Capital for the production of Tongues of Heaven. Additional funding came from the National Geographic’s All Roads Film Project seed grant, established in 2004 to provide a ‘global platform for indigenous and under-represented minority-culture filmmakers around the world to showcase their talents and cultures to a broader audience’.22 All funded works were considered for programming in the annual All Roads Film Festival and other National Geographic-affiliated broadcast outlets. While the National Geographic Society is a non-profit organization, its television division became a business enterprise in 1995, and in 1997 it went international, boasting a subscription of over 350 million viewers in 172 countries in 41 languages by 2019.23 In 2015, the National Geographic Society partnered with The Walt Disney Company, with a funding structure that is a combination of membership contributions from individuals, foundations, U.S. Federal agencies and corporations. The Society’s rhetoric and mission are admirable: ‘We believe in the power of science, exploration and storytelling to change the world’. Yet the ‘change’ it imagines taking place through these endeavors is vague enough to accommodate the major corporate donors and weapons production partners like Lockheed Martin, and extractive industry partners like Shell and British Petroleum – companies ←52 | 53→that arguably do considerable damage to the planet.24 Nonetheless, Mark Bauman, the founding director of the All Roads Film Project believed that what the program was doing was ‘critical in the current age of global conflict and mistrust’ and that ‘The world is in need of more answers and more perspectives on a lot of the issues that we seem unable to solve now’. Notable advisory board members included Māori filmmaker Merata Mita and Spike Lee. However, in 2013 the All Roads Film Project was dismantled, noting officially that it ‘did not generate the audience needed to sustain it as a separate strand of programming’, thus speaking to the precariousness of alternative funding and programming approaches for profit-driven media entities.25 This signals that no consideration or possibility can be given to the time it may take to generate or engage new audiences, or to valuing niche viewing as an equally quality experience.

In her book States of Emergency: Documentaries, Wars, Democracies, film scholar Patricia Zimmermann urges that independent documentaries need to rethink their future and purpose in light of the assaults against documentaries in the U.S. due to increasing deregulation of public telecommunications globally, privatization of the media sector, and conservative governance. She writes:

This is a war over a discursive territory, a war over how the public spaces of the nation are defined and mapped, a war between the faux homogeneity of corporatist multiculturalism that absorbs and vaporizes difference and a radical heterogeneity that positions difference(s) and conflict(s) as a core of contestation over identity with frisson as its modus operandi.


XVIII, 218
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2020 (July)
Third Digital Documentary digital media cultural studies
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. XVIII, 218 pp., 35 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Anita Wen-Shin Chang (Author)

Anita Wen-Shin Chang is an artist–scholar who works with various media forms, including film, digital video, photography, installation and the web. Her works have been screened and broadcast internationally and have been presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Walker Arts Center, Museum of Fine Arts Houston and National Museum of Women. She has received awards from Creative Capital, the Fulbright Program, the San Francisco Arts Commission, and National Geographic All Roads. Her essays have appeared in Verge: Studies in Global Asias , positions: asia critique , Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies , Taiwan Journal of Indigenous Studies and Teaching Transnational Cinema and Media: Politics and Pedagogy . She is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at California State University, East Bay.


Title: Third Digital Documentary