Whose Story Is It? Funding and Representation in Taiwan’s Documentary Film Industry

Whose Story Is It? Funding and Representation in Taiwan’s Documentary Film Industry

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Whose Story Is It? Funding and Representation in Taiwan’s Documentary Film Industry

I recently watched American Fiction, and a line from the film deeply resonated with me: “I’m black and it’s my book.” This was the frustrated response of the main character, novelist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, when informed that publishers (essentially “mainstream” American white gatekeepers) wanted books that were more “black” for the marketplace. I’m certain that this frustration is often experienced by filmmakers or storytellers of the “other,” when told by gatekeepers to adhere to a specific perspective, or else that their specific perspective is not “mainstream” enough. In a world where identity (gender, politics, race, etc.)—not the message we want to convey, nor the creative endeavor we’ve put in—is used as a tool to attract or repel audiences, who has the right to tell our stories, and who is funding our stories?

The Issue of Identity

In Taiwan, where two-thirds of adults identify as Taiwanese, the struggle with identity—and how to capitalize on it—persists. This is evident in Taiwan’s government funding schemes for films, which often condition support on arbitrary mandates like the inclusion of “Taiwanese elements,” or the requirement that the majority of “above the line” positions be filled by Taiwanese citizens.

On the one hand, the government can argue that it is being fiscally and politically responsible in ensuring that taxpayers’ dollars are put towards Taiwan-made projects. However, promoting Taiwanese elements or identity, regardless of whether the storyline calls for it, can be perceived as propaganda. And again, what constitutes “Taiwanese elements” or “Taiwanese identity”—and who determines that? Additionally, regardless of their origin, are filmmakers responsible for representing and highlighting their country’s nationhood or identity?

Isn’t it sufficient that documentary filmmakers who reside and work in Taiwan are considered Taiwanese? Shouldn’t documenting Taiwanese individuals, experiences, struggles, hopes, and dreams, meet the requirement for being “Taiwanese?” As a documentary filmmaker and producer living in and documenting Taiwan, I feel Monk’s exasperation daily.

The successful Taiwan-born filmmaker Ang Lee (李安) is often touted as an example of a successful Taiwanese filmmaker, and is considered the “glory of Taiwan.” However, throughout his illustrious career, most of Lee’s films have been made in the United States. His earlier films—the “Father Knows Best” trilogy, which included Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman—did highlight a changing and modernizing Taiwanese society, where waishengren (外省人) and their offspring struggled with fading traditional Chinese/Confucian values.

However, both Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet were shot entirely on location in New York; Lee’s only film shot entirely in Taiwan was Eat Drink Man Woman. All three films were co-produced by Lee’s US production companies, Ang Lee Productions and Good Machine, in collaboration with Taiwan’s Central Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC, 中影股份有限公司, operated by the government until 2005).

The Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨)-controlled CMPC funded and co-produced Lee’s first three films. However, many of his above-the-line staff were Americans, and only one film was shot in Taiwan. Would he have gotten funding from Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture (MoC, 文化部), with today’s funding requirements and political climate? Would his projects be “Taiwanese” enough by today’s standards? After all, Lee was born into a waishengren family, with a waishengren identity, upbringing, and sensibilities.

Island in Between

Fast forward to 2024, as Taiwan continues to struggle with its identity and international recognition. The MoC and the Taiwanese press have bestowed the title of “台灣之光” (glory of Taiwan) on a new filmmaker, this time for the Oscar-nominated short documentary Island in Between, by Taiwanese-American filmmaker S. Leo Chiang (江松長).

In a recent interview, Chiang admitted that his relationship with Taiwan was “stunted,” but has since “evolved” after moving back to Taiwan during the pandemic. Chiang also admitted that he doesn’t have a strong connection to Kinmen, the location where his documentary Island in Between takes place, and the film title’s Chinese namesake. Instead, he stated that he “heard about this place” all of his life, and believed it to be a “mythical place out in the middle of the water somewhere.” Despite his admitted lack of knowledge or connection to Kinmen, and to a larger extent Taiwan, Chiang’s film— at just under 20 minutes—is now “representing” Taiwan and its cross-Strait relations challenges, to the delight of the Taiwanese government.

It should be made clear that the nominated short documentaries for the Academy’s Best Short Documentary category are not submitted by any country, nor are they intended to represent their countries of origin. This is in contrast with the International Feature Film Award, in which the submissions must be made by—and represent—the country of its production.

So, does Island in Between qualify as a “Taiwanese” film? In evaluating a funding proposal for this film, how would Taiwan’s funding bodies like Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA, 文化內容策進院) or the Ministry of Culture weigh factors such as the composition of the filmmaking team (diasporic Taiwanese), their motivations, and the artistic or cultural value of Island in Between? What criteria does this film fulfill for Taiwanese gatekeepers?

Unclear Criteria

Taiwanese nationalism lacks self-assurance and often seeks validation from external sources. “The glory of Taiwan” has become a common phrase in contemporary Taiwan media coverage. Taiwan appears desperate to prove its existence and worth—often at the expense of its own creatives—by establishing arbitrary yet ambiguous policies that stifle creativity while reflecting the neuroses and anxieties of Taiwanese national identity.

Would a filmmaker like Chiang, who has openly discussed his limited ties to Taiwan, meet the government’s criteria of a “Taiwanese” filmmaker? Would such a filmmaker be more likely to receive funding, support, resources, and access than a filmmaker like Fu Yue (傅榆)? Known for her critical examination and exploration of the Taiwanese identity in several films, Fu has faded from the industry despite winning a Golden Horse award for her documentary Our Youth In Taiwan and taking a solid stance and claim on Taiwan’s identity.

Similarly, would a filmmaker like Chun-hsiu Hung (洪淳修)—who extensively documented Kinmen and made two feature-length films about this “mythical place”—be celebrated in the same manner as a Taiwanese-American filmmaker who views Kinmen through a diasporic and exoticized lens? Although Hung’s films were not submitted to the Academy, he has successfully screened them internationally without requiring “cultural translations.”

Must creatives, storytellers, and filmmakers pander to the “mainstream” to receive validation or recognition for contributing to the fabric of Taiwan’s culture, history, and identity? And must the Taiwanese government reduce filmmakers to a singular identity?

Another scene from American Fiction comes to mind, in which Monk serves on a literary award judging panel alongside three white writers and another black writer. A book authored by Monk under a pseudonym is up for consideration. The other black writer perceives it as pandering to white audiences. This sparks a discussion between Monk and the other black writer—who had previously published a similarly “pandering” book—about authenticity and the dynamics of storytelling within the black community, including who has the authority to narrate different types of stories.

We should celebrate when Taiwanese or Taiwanese diaspora filmmakers do well, gain domestic or international recognition, and when their stories reach wider audiences and have long-lasting impact. However, we must also critically reexamine and reflect on how we are investing in and celebrating Taiwan’s filmmaking industry—specifically and especially for documentary films, which receive very little funding and overall support from MoC in comparison to feature films or series. We must update and improve on the criteria for defining “Taiwanese” filmmakers, the recognition they receive, and consider factors such as thematic focus, training, access to resources, documentary film distribution and dissemination vehicles, international exposure, and what the government’s role and priorities are.

Updating Government Policy

For quite some time, Taiwan’s cultural policies and funding criteria have been reductive, stifling creativity, diversity, and innovation, and have relegated artists and storytellers to the role of government surrogate. Whenever there is an election, filmmakers must worry whether the definition of “Taiwanese elements” will change with the next administration.

When the government uses financial incentives or diplomatic quid pro quos in exchange for production and content creation memoranda of understanding (MOUs), it hinders the development of an independent and creative film and media industry. The Taiwanese government must stop gatekeeping and respect the filmmaking industry and storytellers’ domain. For a vibrant, mature, and thriving film and media industry to function, the government must stop dictating narratives, or how resources are used.

The role of the government should be to establish policies that provide training, tools, and resources for artists to create, compete, and thrive independently. Additionally, the government should support functioning, independent civil society organizations to assist in the promotion, perpetuation, and dissemination of such works. MoC film/television funding and programming officers should be arts administrators with experience in filmmaking and TV production. They should possess the ability to evaluate production budgets and treatments, and provide constructive feedback on pitch decks and proposals to enhance quality and address production challenges.

Government-funded film, arts, and culture organizations, such as the National Culture and Arts Foundation (財團法人國家文化藝術基金會), the Golden Horse Film Festival, or regional film institutions, should be allowed to conduct independent fundraising to secure donations and other financial resources. Independent governing bodies, comprised of individuals from civil society with relevant arts administration experience, should be appointed to alleviate and separate political party influence, ensuring that the organizations are not beholden to any particular political interests.

Funding policies should prioritize and encourage artistry, innovation, technology, unique or diverse perspectives, voices that challenge or reexamine the status quo, local and international collaborations, pay equity, and intended impact on societies. Government funding should also be allocated to create education programs in media studies, critical media and film theory, film industry management, and building sustainable careers in film.

To ensure the sustainability and growth of the ecosystem, from creators to consumers to disseminators of film, the government must encourage philanthropic donations and investment in cultural creation and dissemination. This will foster a sense of societal ownership and engagement in the advancement of Taiwanese culture, rather than relying solely on one funding source that inevitably dictates the definition of Taiwanese identity or culture.

In conclusion, despite Taiwan’s appearance of freedom and democracy, documentary filmmakers in Taiwan have long found themselves subject to the directives of the Ministry of Culture and the ruling political party. Due to their reliance on a single funding source, Taiwanese filmmakers must tread carefully, balancing the promotion of Taiwan while avoiding provocations, or reflecting negatively on the government. Therefore, it is imperative to diversify funding sources and establish independent bodies capable of creating, promoting, preserving, and perpetuating Taiwanese films.

The main point: By monopolizing funding for Taiwanese films and imposing unclear mandates, Taiwan’s government has effectively stifled the development of a diverse and productive arts ecosystem. Accordingly, the government should diversify funding sources and reduce its restrictions on the types of films it funds.