I cannot believe how long it's been since I posted on my blog - that's changing this year.
Almost a year ago, I made my first trip to Taiwan, with BIG JOY: The Adventures of James Broughton.
Here's an essay I wrote for them about my experience.
Documentary films illuminate worlds within worlds.
Artists’ lives show how creativity can break barriers and surprise ourselves and each other.
Documentaries about artists can break barriers between worlds, and nurture a city to more creativity. I was happy to be part of the second Chiayi City International Art Documentary Film Festival, the only one in Asia, and one of only two in the world that I’ve heard about.
Film festivals are proliferating like rabbits around the world, but it’s rare to find one that is so focused, so well curated, and so engaging, diverse and accessible for citizens. I was so pleased to meet filmmakers like Jessica Wan-Yu LIN, who made a beautiful film about HUANG Dawang, a cultural outsider who found ways to communicate through music, rapping, and dance. And I met Rafeeq ELLIAS from India, who told the story of looking for “Fat Mama,” a legendary woman who made the best noodles in the Chinatown neighborhood of Calcutta. In Beyond Barbed Wires: A Distant Dawn, he continues the story of how many ethnic Chinese from “Fat Mama’s” neighborhood were sent to internment camps during the Chinese-Indian war of 1962. Many escaped to Canada and other places.
Documentaries about artists are not always happy, but they tend to show the human condition in deep and nuanced ways.
My film, BIG JOY: The Adventures of James Broughton – about a poet and filmmaker who led a cultural and artistic revival after World War II in San Francisco, and went on to inspire many other artists – was extremely well received in Chiayi City. People asked excellent questions about his troubled family, his love life, his poetry and his creative process. I always learn so much from interacting with different audiences, and I felt the Chiayi audience was attuned to the subtleties of the film, its imagery and music and its unanswered questions.
Obviously, family is very important to people in Taiwan, as it is in many countries. James Broughton valued family, but he was not accepted by his mother, he lost his father in the Influenza epidemic of 1918 (when he was 5), and he ended up being too wrapped up in his own creative process to be a good father to his own children.
Broughton also grew up in a time when it was not accepted to be openly gay, even though he was primarily attracted to other men. He was very interested in Zen, and in the psychiatry of Carl Jung, and he wrote about the contradictions in his life. Ultimately, after much agonizing, he left his wife and two children and spent his last 25 years with his soulmate, who happened to be a man. His creative life prospered, and he published seven more books and made eight more films.
Many people in the Chiayi City audience spoke with me afterwards in gratitude for a film that depicted such a complicated life, and that followed Broughton’s admonition to “Follow your own Weird.” (He knew that the word “weird” comes from a Celtic root that means “fate” or “destiny.” So his admonition, to me, means to be true to your core self and be on your creative edge at the same time.)
A Taiwanese friend told me that Chiayi means “worthy of honor.” I was well hosted by the city and its honorable festival. I was amazed to learn of the city’s past glories in the lumber industry. And, not unlike the past of the region where I live in the United States, the big trees are mostly gone so people are finding new ways to make a living.
Bringing tourists to the city to see its art and film, listen to music, eat good food, and ride the narrow-gage railroad is one option. So are agriculture, invention, manufacturing, technology, and the arts.
Hopefully these particular films, shown free of charge to people who show up from all over the country, will spark more creativity and invention in the future.
In “Song of the Forest,” Chiayi’s beautiful egg-shaped sculpture, I found myself interacting with the wood, the stones, and the invocation of the forest, past and present. I could not help laying down on the central wooden tree stump, peering up through the skylight at the mottled clouds. It took me to another world.
Never having been to Taiwan before, I didn’t really know what to expect. I found a robust country, with lots of talented artists and filmmakers, curious viewers, entrepreneurs, and lovers of life. The fuzzy toy animals people love so much were a surprise. Also, the popularity of coffee, books, and night markets. Taiwanese food is incredibly diverse, fresh, and delicious.
I was entranced by the complexity of many temples, the beautiful handiwork, the symbolic animals and statues, and what seemed like embracing of many paths to spiritual growth – Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and others.
I could not help but be impressed with Taiwan’s free and open society, with the many mainland Chinese tourists who were experiencing it, learning what it’s like to read whatever books and watch whatever videos they want.
Even though it was only a small taste of Taiwan that I experienced, I left with a desire to return, to learn more about the rich cultures that thrive there, and to reengage with many new friends, ideas, and cultures. Not to mention the fabulous food.
Festival director HUANG Mingchuan took some filmmakers and visitors to dinner where we discussed our films, learned about each others’ cultures, sang songs and recited poetry. We hoped other people who attended the festival were doing the same thing. Film festivals, after all, are about building community, as well as watching great films.
Imagine a world where people really listen to each other, where their inner lives are seen as at least equal in importance to their outer lives. Imagine a place where people watch films together, then talk about them, and make their own films, write poetry, or express themselves in their own way.
Imagine a world where parents teach children their values, and children also learn to think for themselves as they age, to value their parents’ values, but also to evolve with society as they discover their own.
Imagine a place where people tell their own stories, and tell each others’ stories, and even if they are sad, weave them together into new stories of hope and resilience.