Sun, Sep 26, 2004 - Page 17 News List

The healing powers of documentary

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

Scene from Chiufen Erh Shan, where scores of people were buried alive in the 921 earthquake. Hope of finding survivors faded as the excavation process extended into weeks. The site is a focus of a series of documentaries about the quake currently showing in Taipei.


Sept 28, 1999, one week after the 921 earthquake, hundreds of social groups and charity organizations arrived in the disaster areas to help the rescue and reconstruction work. Full Shot Foundation (全景傳播基金會), a documentary filmmaker workshop, was among them.

The night before setting off to central Taiwan, where the quake hit hardest, the 12 members of the workshop engaged in a long, heated discussion about what they, as filmmakers, could do to help. Reflecting on that moment, they said that as reports from the disaster zone became worse, they became increasingly antsy.

"We should station ourselves in the disaster areas to shoot documentaries long-term. ... Even if you disagree I'll quit my current job and go down there to film on my own. If I can't make a film there, I'll do volunteer work to help, whatever ?" one of the filmmakers said.

"What about expenses? How do you make a film without money?" Lin Hsiu-hua (林秀華), the foundation's accountant, said.

"We can't worry about that now. It'll be too late if we don't start shooting," was the reply from another group member.

So the team began its long journey to make a series of documentaries about the earthquake, a journey that for many of the members hasn't yet ended five years later.

"Entering the disaster areas, the pictures we see and the shock they cause render us unable to think at all. We didn't know how and where to start filming. I cannot describe how I felt looking at the residents in those areas. It's as if they had not only lost their homes and families, but also their souls," a Full Shot member wrote in his diary.

Wu Yi-feng (吳乙峰), founder of Full Shot and a devoted social worker, as well as a film scholar, led the team of 12 people to shoot in disaster areas in Nantou and Taichung counties. They spent four years shooting and another year in Taipei editing.

The result is seven full-length documentary films showing at the Full Shot Screening Season (全景映像季) at Taipei's President Cinema (總統戲院) and Show Time Cinema (欣欣晶華影城) until Oct. 8, and that have already been screened in villages in Taichung and Nantou, where the films were shot. A final screening will be held Oct. 23 in Heping Township, Taichung County.

Audiences packed the President Cinema during the first five days of screenings in Taipei beginning last Friday, showing that people's collective memory about the quake had not faded.

"We never expected a documentary film could sell so well. It's totally beyond our expectations. We didn't even prepare enough workers to help with ticketing," said Liu Hua-ling (劉華玲), the foundation's PR manager.

One of the films, Life (生命), even attracted President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and Premier Yu Hsyi-kun (游錫方方) to a screening. Chen, who seldom shows his soft side in public, said on TV that he cried many times during the film.

"The film makes one see the vitality of Taiwanese people," Chen was quoted as saying on TV last week.

With that type of endorsement, it's little surprise that all screening sessions at President Cinema are already sold out.

Life is a 142-minute film focusing on residents of Chiufen Erh Shan (九份二山) about families dealing with loss and putting their lives back together again. Chiufen Erh Shan in Nantou County is thought to be one of the epicenters of the 921 earthquake. A massive landslide occurred during the tremor, causing half of the mountain to slip into a valley and snuff out all traces of 20 households in its path.

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