Indigenous/Islander Fanaticism Across the Pacific: A Perspective from Films

Written by Yawi Yukex; translated by Yi-Yu Lai.

Image credit: Pacific Island man and woman in grass skirts by Tudor Washington Collins/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY 4.0.

A type of Taiwanese is extremely fond of anything about the Indigenous peoples of Taiwan. They are captivated by all the totems and material cultures associated with Indigenous peoples, yet they frequently only believe what they already know about Indigenous cultures. Besides, they usually turn a deaf ear to Indigenous peoples’ enormous burdens and struggles. I call these individuals “Indigenous fanatics.”

In the early 2000s, a series of Taiwanese films, such as The Sage Hunter (2005) and Fishing Luck (2005), portrayed Indigenous communities as shelters for those wishing to escape reality and contrasted cities with the communities. People believe that the expansion of civilisation causes problems, whereas mountains and forests represent the solution. 

The narrative logic of such films is often “rejection-shock-acceptance.” In “The Sage Hunter,” for instance, Han Chinese officials were first repulsed by way of life in the Indigenous community, but a construction project compelled them to reside there. Most of the time in the film, the officials from the city were quite unaccustomed to the traditional cultures of the Paiwan people. Still, following a series of events, they finally gave up the proposal to destroy the community. Although it is still debatable whether the films originated from the stereotype of Indigenous lives or whether these sorts of movies are produced because of the beautiful imagination of Indigenous peoples, it is undeniable that they attract many Han Chinese individuals to the lives of Indigenous communities.

Logically speaking, the Indigenous movement has had an enormous impact on the globe, and the perception of Indigenous people should be different than it was previously. After all, the channels of communication are diversified. Therefore non-Indigenous or non-Austronesian individuals would have a greater possibility of being acquainted with Indigenous peoples. However, it is unlikely that Taiwan is the only place to experience the aforementioned situation, which is that Indigenous peoples and their ways of living are assigned specific stereotypes. For instance, some new-age enthusiasts who explore spiritual healing or those keen on the shamanic cultural traditions of Indigenous peoples in North America may also be considered Indigenous fanatics. 

A 2012 New Zealand-produced B comedy film Fresh Meat satirised those Indigenous fanatics. A white character in the movie is enamoured with Māori culture. In the latter portion of the film, the guy dines with a Māori family. He talks nonsense to the family about his passion for Māori culture and mentions being given a beautiful Māori name by the Māori people. However, the family laughs when they hear that name, as it is not meant to be a compliment but a pejorative term. It can be seen that this phenomenon is not only in Taiwan but also at least in Oceania.

Noble Savage in the Films: The Problems of South Seas Cinema

In the history of Oceania cinema, there is a genre known as “South Seas Cinema,” which is based on a notion that after most continents of the globe were colonised by Europeans and Americans, the Pacific Islands were the last “pristine land.” The ethnographic photographs left behind by the 1898 Torres Strait expedition sparked a desire for the region among whites, which led to the productions of numerous South Seas Cinema. These films presented islander men as cannibals or ignorant savages, whilst islander women were portrayed as well-proportioned, innocent, tropical beauties. 

Whether in Taiwan or Oceania, it is a continuation of Rousseau’s 18th-century idea of the “Noble Savage.” With the expansion of colonial power, it has evolved into the current appearance and has made the Indigenous fanatics possible. In other words, colonial power still controls the interpretation of Indigenous peoples and Pacific Islanders. Certain stereotypes are imposed on the people and even established a measurement standard. Under such conditions, Indigenous peoples and Pacific Islanders may even be questioned about their own identity. As for these Indigenous fanatics, however, being close to Indigenous lives and communities is self-serving. The underlying hierarchical imbalance is infrequently acknowledged. 

There are also a few recent examples, the most notable being the 2015 film Tanna.” Even though Tanna Island is not isolated, the film’s premise is consistent with the romantic imaginations of the islanders held by earlier colonists. However, there have been several controversies within and beyond the film, including the fact that the actors wore traditional attires at the Venice Film Festival while appearing uncomfortable. For those actors, traditional attire is no longer what they are accustomed to wearing. However, they donned these outfits for the festival as if to satiate the exotic curiosity of white people. In addition, the male and female protagonists in the film defied traditional customs by eloping and dying in love. Whether these narratives represent islanders’ perspectives or adhere to white ideology is another contentious issue in the movie. 

People’s prejudiced romantic notions of Indigenous and Islander cultural lives cause this problem. As a result of the fact that many individuals are dissatisfied with “civilised” urban life and resort to natural spirituality, the relatively simple and unsophisticated Indigenous ways of life become what they pursue. Through the reproduction of the films, we may see this tendency very clearly.

To conclude, Indigenous/Islander fanatics in Taiwan or Oceania should be understood as a warning sign. It is worth questioning if mainstream society has failed to comprehend the diversity of Indigenous/Islander lives or whether the representation of the films has caused problems. Indigenous/islander fanatics do not necessarily have hostile or violent intentions, but their ideas or actions may erase distinctions and merge Indigenous peoples and islanders into a unified national identity. While these individuals seem smiling and generous, we must not forget that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. 

Yawi Yukex is a middle-aged man who owns a cat and only watches ethnic-related films at film festivals. He is an Atayal film critic who resides in the mountains of Maoli county in Taiwan. He has never been optimistic about Han Chinese society, yet he still has hope. He operates the Facebook page “See Movies Casually” and the podcast “Dear Han People.” Currently employed in a position that allows him to live without starvation. 

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Pacific Encounters.”

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