Written by Hsin-Chin Evelyn Hsieh.
“We hope every migrant worker lives a healthy and safe life away from home. Such an incident should never happen again.”Quoc Phi Nguyen’s family
Reviving forgotten news via documentary-making
The award for the best documentary feature at the 59th Golden Horse Awards held in November 2022 in Taipei, Taiwan, went to And Miles to Go Before I Sleep (2022), directed by Tsung-Lung Tsai. At the ceremony, film producer Kim Hong Nguyen, dressed in the Vietnamese traditional garment áo dài, read out a message from Quoc Phi Nguyen’s family expressing their grief and hopes. It was the first time a documentary on migrant workers was presented with the Golden Horse Award, thereby creating a platform for voiceless migrants and drawing attention to the related issues in mainstream society.
And Miles to Go Before I Sleep is based on a criminal case and tragic incident that occurred in 2017 in Taiwan. An undocumented Vietnamese migrant worker Quoc Phi Nguyen was fired nine shots to death by a young and newly recruited policeman when Nguyen was naked, walking along a river in Hsinchu, Taiwan, and having a physical confrontation with pedestrians and the police. However, it is not a singular case. The flawed employment system and immigration law in Taiwan result in structural problems, such as overcharging broker fees, occupational injuries, and no freedom concerning the transfer of employment. Under these circumstances, the number of undocumented or illegitimate migrant workers who are taking risks to make more money has been increasing in recent years. All of these situations point to the structural issues in Taiwan that should be identified, examined, and resolved.
In his last documentary, See You, Lovable Strangers (2016), co-produced with his Vietnamese wife Kim Hong Nguyen, filmmaker Tsung-Lung Tsai revealed the issue of overcharged broker fees through interviews with five undocumented Vietnamese migrant workers. However, he adopted different filming strategies in And Miles to Go Before I Sleep. To tease out the multi-layered structural issues that have affected migrant workers’ rights as well as their working and living conditions over the years, a series of occupational injury events and the Quoc Phi Nguyen incident are covered in the documentary. Interweaved with news reports on mainstream television channels and interviews with lawyers, police officers, officials, and brokers in the narrative, the documentarian has thoughtfully presented multiple perspectives to his audience to enable them to reflect on these matters and ascertain the undisclosed complex structures. As a result, the audience can perceive why migrant workers decide to become undocumented, their hiring process, and where the overcharged broker fees go, which become the major factors that land migrant workers in predicaments while working in Taiwan. From See You, Lovable Strangers to And Miles to Go Before I Sleep, Tsai’s documentaries on migrant workers have rationally and systematically traced the unsolved issues of the broker system and policymaking in the past decade from microcosm to macrocosm and from documenting migrant workers’ voices to including informants belonging to diverse backgrounds. Thus, his documentary filmmaking contributes to the understanding of the development of the policymaking of immigration law and employment as well as everyday practices and living conditions of migrant workers.
In addition, the more creative aspect of And Miles to Go Before I Sleep compared with Tsai’s previous works is that it highly recognizes the existence of Quoc Phi Nguyen as a human being in the world. A soul perspective was created to imitate Nguyen’s wandering on the road and as a witness of what had happened to him before his death. Interviews with Nguyen’s family in Vietnam and friends in Taiwan provide us with more information about his growth, personality, and lived experiences. His posts on Facebook are adopted as part of the voiceover in the documentary for the audience to hear, feel, and get to know him better. More importantly, the lyrics of the end credits song are extracted from Nguyen’s Facebook post and the song is sung by a second-generation immigrant. With the juxtaposition of Nguyen’s pictures, words, and recreation of his voice, he is portrayed as a human being with emotions, desires, and vexation similar to all of us rather than as a mere labourer devoted to the economic miracle of Taiwanese society.
However, Nguyen was not treated as a human being while working as an undocumented migrant worker in Taiwan. In the documentary, the documentarian inserts and edits a video that was recorded by a body-worn video camera on the police officer, thereby capturing the entire process of Nguyen’s being shot, looked on, arrested, given first aid, and sent to the hospital. Instead of depicting the incident with the interested parties’ verbal narratives or the documentarian’s comments, the brutal video is used to recreate the situation. The documentary exposes the audience to the brutal and tragic incident, thus observing that Nguyen was fired with several shots, covered in blood, and laying on the ground. In contrast, those on the spot were heartlessly standing by and did nothing to help him. To a certain extent, we, the audience, are similar to those witnesses—ruthless and not concerned with people around us. We turn a blind eye to migrant workers who devote themselves to caring for our family, building infrastructure and housing, and working hard in various sectors that allow the Taiwanese to lead better lives. The filming strategy of inserting the video of Nguyen’s tragedy not only reveals and documents the incident for the audience to see through the dichotomy between the victim and the police but also challenges and criticizes the structural problems caused due to the government, brokers, and employers.
Furthermore, it calls the audience’s attention to migrant workers and their related issues. Thus, making such a documentary is not for entertainment purposes but rather for arousing people’s consciousness toward public affairs and advocating further changes and policymaking. On the one hand, documentary-making’s socio-political function is to give the voiceless a voice. On the other hand, it presents the documentarian’s perspective of reflecting on the political intervention of public affairs via filmmaking. And Miles to Go Before I Sleep not only intervenes in the stereotypical representation of migrant workers in the mainstream media, but more importantly, it uncovers the myth of Nguyen’s death on screen.
Beyond the glory of the Golden Horse Award, it is more than just a documentary
On November 19, 2022, And Miles to Go Before I Sleep was presented with the best documentary feature award at the 59th Golden Horse Awards, which marks a milestone of documentary-making in contemporary Taiwan. After the ceremony, the official Facebook page of the documentary was full of congratulatory messages and critical comments. Only three screenings were done at the Golden Horse Festival, and around 400–500 people have seen the film so far. It is evident that most of the verbal attacks and malicious posts have been made by those who have not watched the film, yet, they have passed judgments. The controversial discussion then centred around the binary conflict between the police and the victim. As a result, the nine shots become the focus of online discussions. However, it is not what the documentarian had expected in making the documentary. His original motivation was to encourage his audience to look beyond the dichotomy and understand the structural issues in depth. Therefore, more than ten film screenings in different cities in Taiwan have been planned for December 2022 and January 2023.
The screening tour contributes to the development of advocacy and documentary-making of migrant workers’ issues in several aspects. First, it is the first time in the history of Taiwanese documentaries that the audience needs to book the tickets at the earliest to gain access to the screenings. All the tickets are booked out within a few minutes after the online reservation system opens. Second, the documentarian, joined by other invited speakers, attends every post-screening session to have face-to-face discussions with the audience. Third, the production team has created two Facebook pages and an online survey to collect the audience’s responses and comments, which are subsequently posted and circulated on the Facebook page. The onsite and online active participation demonstrates the power of the documentary and civil society. Fourth, the documentary screening and discussions after the post-screening sessions encourage the audience to get involved with the issue. The making of And Miles to Go Before I Sleep creates a space for the voiceless to be heard and understood, as well as motivates society to take timely actions to advocate migrant workers’ rights. It is just the beginning, and we have thousands of miles to go.
Hsin-Chin Evelyn Hsieh is Associate Professor at the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature at National Taiwan University. Her research interests include contemporary Taiwan literature, film and documentary, migration studies, Sinophone studies, and women studies, particularly looking at the relation between contemporary cultural production and the inbound and outbound migration of Taiwan.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Farewell 2022 and Welcome 2023’.
**An online discussion and screening of And Miles to Go Before I Sleep was presented by the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Programme in association with Global Taiwan Studies Salon (EATS-NATSA-IJTS-JATS) in October 2020.