Placing Relationship over the Project: Filmmaking in Oceania

Written by Cheng-Cheng Li.

Image credit: Cheng-Cheng Li.

My filmmaking story in Oceania started with the Re/presenting Oceania course at the University of Hawai‘i. My Kumu (professor) Tarcisius Kabutaulake, who comes from the Solomon Islands, has been teaching and researching across the region for decades. His course invites me to critically engage with and discuss how the Pacific Islands have been represented in scholarly and other mediums. He brings me onto the ‘voyage’ across the ‘storyscapes’ of scholars, artists, performers, poets, and filmmakers to understand the politics of representation.

Students in the class are encouraged to choose a performative or creative option instead of a written essay. At the end of the course, the students will have the opportunity to share their creative projects. Although I produced a documentary, “After Crossing”, with Indigenous communities in Taiwan, I didn’t choose the creative option because I assumed all academic works could only be presented as written texts. However, some of my classmates, the majority of them are Pacific Islanders, did. They performed poetry, played films, and told stories about their paintings, which impressed me. Immersing into the Pacific context, I learned that we, as scholars and graduate students, are always welcome and encouraged to incorporate the elements of creative mediums into scholarly work. This tradition encourages me to use film to tell the story that I feel intimately connected to.

This article will first discuss my filmmaking experience in Hawai‘i with the Pacific Island community. In the second section, with an increasing number of Indigenous Taiwanese wishing to connect with Oceania, I will address the interconnection story between Taiwanese Indigenous filmmakers and the Oceanic community. The theme of ‘relationship’ as ‘Priority’ will be interwoven into the stories. 

The Relationship is the Priority

My immersion in the Pacific studies taught me the importance of demonstrating my positionality. Since the 1990s, Pacific studies have improved Western ways of producing and circulating knowledge in Oceania. This trend invites me to think, as a non-Indigenous, non-Oceanian Taiwanese filmmaker, who will benefit from the film? Whose interests does it serve? What are my roles in filmmaking? 

For me, filmmaking is about building relationships with communities, organisations, friends, and classmates. With this mindset, I have the responsibility and obligation to ensure that the film should be communicated and returned to the people. In addition, the relationship on top of the project ensures that the filming is not just a one-off exercise but a reciprocal one. I believe that it is difficult to achieve the goal without cherishing and nurturing our relationship. 

Sharing back and building relationships also disrupt the conventional way of making films where there is a clear job distribution between each role. This leads to my second example; in my filmmaking process, there is a blurry line between the filmmaker and the filmed. Of course, as a film director, I will draw the storyboard at the very beginning, but the storyboard is always open to change. We identify, exchange, and contextualise our film’s vision in conversation with the Pacific Islands community.

I remember so intimately that whenever we are about to film, I (the filmmaker) and others (the filmed) will start to tell stories about how the film will eventually look. They exchange their imagination and ideas about what they will speak about and how they will present in the film with me. Sharing space and stories also make me more aware of their cultural protocols. My role as the filmmaker is no longer clearly defined but is a fluid, interchangeable position with the filmed. That is, ‘We’ make our story richer, layered and culture sensitive. I intend that the filming is not the dominant space but the open, inclusive, and participatory space. 

Unity in Diversity

How do we place the relationship over the project and create an inclusive filming space? In 2021, I received the invitation from my Kumu, Dr Mary Hattori, an interim director of the Pacific Islands Development Program at East-West Centre, toproduce a five minute film for presentation at the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders (PICL) in June 2021. I teamed up with Carolann Ligohr Carl and Mara Mahoney (two of them are from the region) to weave our thoughts. Eventually, we decided on two key themes in the film: demonstrating the sense of place and reflecting the Pacific Islands’ values. 

We decided to have our ‘Ōiwi (Hawaiian) friend, Kainoa Keanaaina, begin the film by chanting E Hō Mai. This is the chant to anchor our film in Hawai‘i and the community. From the content of the lyrics, “E Hō Mai ka ‘ike mai luna mai ē,” we hope the ancestors can grant us the knowledge from above to guide us through filmmaking. Nurturing the connections and being guided by the ancestors are a valuable and meaningful part of the filming journey. Second, we want to demonstrate the Pacific Islands’ values. Through engaging with Pacific Islands literature and our lived experiences, we think that being inclusive of everyone’s voice and demonstrating diversity in unity are the values that we want to present in the film. Third, we celebrate the diversity of Oceania in cultures, languages, and politics. Despite such notable diversity, we are also connected by one ocean. Pacific Indigenous scholar Katerina Teaiwa reminds us that Oceania is one “big kinship group,” but it is also remarkably diverse. One of the amazing things about Oceania is how diversity and unity coexist

We invite Pacific Islands students, community members and organisations such as Pan Pacific Association, Kvibe and Pacific Voices to tell a story before we start the film. It allows us to have space to introduce our project to them and make the filming process participatory. First, the team asks each participant to develop a sentence to express their identity, vision, and solidarity in their native languages. Then, the filming team weaves the sentences into collective poems to show the theme of unity in diversity. This collaborative film, “Oceania: Unity in Diversity”, eventually became a gift from the youth to present at the eleventh Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders.

Taiwan (Re)connecting with Oceania through Shared Relationships

Indigenous peoples of Taiwan have wished to (re)connect with Oceania through multiple occasions and opportunities. The Austronesian Forum’s establishment and the Festival of Pacific Arts’ participation are salient examples of their efforts. Filmmaking is one of the areas where Indigenous Taiwanese filmmakers connect with the Oceanic community. 

Sayun Simung’s story demonstrates this connection. Simung is an Indigenous Atayal director of various documentaries and the founder of the Taiwan Indigenous Film Academy. In addition, she has been interacting with and involving Oceanic communities, such as being the journalist attending the Second Taiwan-Pacific Islands Allies Summit in Marshall Islands in 2007 and the Festival of Pacific Arts (FESTPAC) in Guam in 2016. 

When I asked her why as the Indigenous filmmaker, you want to (re)connect with the Oceanic community? She explained that ‘stronger together’ and ‘working collectively’ is the tradition of her people. ‘Stronger together, as Simung refers to it here, is based on building and nurturing the shared relationship. 

The idea of working collectively and being together resonated with what I stated about relationship building in Oceania. Simung illuminates when we are together, we are building a relationship. Being together and sharing space gives her a powerful sense of belonging and security. She no longer feels lost in the directions. Moreover, she feels much stronger asserting her identity. Simung’s words reflect what the Pan-Pacific Association in the film, “Together We Are Oceania: The Story of Pan Pacific Association”, expresses “As individuals, we are waves. As a community, we are the ocean. Together we are Oceania.” Their words assert the power of people who work together to promote the voice within and beyond the region.

In addition, Simung says despite the long history of exploitation, displacement and other colonial impacts, the Indigenous people still survive to this day because we work together. But she elaborates, when you want to find allies, of course, you can find allies in Europe or other areas. However, working together with the Oceanic community is grounded in culture. In her words, this culture is ‘grown from the land’, which delineates the deep cultural foundation between the Indigenous people of Taiwan and Oceanic communities. 

Simung points out that shared contemporary issues such as environmental justice, cultural revitalisation and decolonisation are other critical reasons for working together. Simung tells her story in the FESTPAC in Guam. She watched the film “Talent Town” directed by Don Muna and Kel Muna. As the Chamorro directors, the film richly records the identity of Guam’s artists and how the identity inspires the artists to tell the story that belongs to them. The overarching theme of searching and asserting Indigenous identity in the decolonial context inspires her filmmaking journey. 

Together We Are Oceania

To conclude, in Hawai‘i, people say, “All knowledge is not taught in the same school.” Oceania teaches me to embrace all kinds of different knowledge through various mediums. I choose filmmaking because filmmaking is the platform bring people together in asserting identity, story, and solidarity to which we are intimately connected. My education in Hawai‘i encourages me to envision more possibilities of representation in academia besides written text. In addition, as a Taiwanese filmmaker in Oceania, building and nurturing relationships always comes first. The principle of building relationships teaches me to take care of our shared emotions, cherish our friendship, and deepen our trust and respect. 

Taiwan’s government, in recent years, has launched various events in Oceania. However, suppose the Taiwan government’s Priority in the region is policy-driven and policy-oriented, not putting people and relationship-building at the centre. In that case, it can become a one-off exercise that hurts mutual trust and partnership. 

The idea of relationships coming first is not just practised in Oceania, but as Simung reflects, it is one of her core cultural values. Moreover, as the Indigenous people of Taiwan increase in number, they continue to build relationships with Oceanic communities through shared cultural values, colonial legacy, and contemporary issues. Therefore, valuing the relationship across islands is a sustainable and long-term approach to building friendships and partnerships. Consequently, I believe we will see more collaborative films, documentaries and other creative productions between Taiwanese Indigenous and Oceanic communities in the future.   

Cheng-Cheng LI is from the harbour city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan. He is a PhD student at the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawai‘i. In addition, Cheng-Cheng is a research intern in the Pacific Islands Development Program at East-West Center. As an academic and digital storyteller, he aims to produce and circulate inclusive and reciprocal research to the Oceanic communities. 

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s