In December last year, seven wooden pillars in the collection of the Institute of Ethnography (民族學研究所), Academia Sinica (中央研究院), were designated as “national treasures” by the Council of Cultural Affairs (文建會) under the Culture Resources Preservation Act (文化資產保存法). In 2003, a group of young Amis had sought to retrieve the pillars from the research institute and return them to their rightful place within the Amis community. The Amis’ initial aim was never realised, but through the almost decade-long process of negotiations, something much more important — national recognition — may have been achieved.
The negotiation process was captured on film by Academia Sinica researcher and filmmaker Hu Tai-li (胡台麗), who has recently released Returning Souls (讓靈魂回家), a documentary detailing the long and complex process of preserving and revitalizing these important items of Taiwan’s cultural heritage. Issues of government policy, religious belief, community identity, economic interest and clan rivalries all play a part in this story.
Hu said that, initially at least, this tale was recorded more by accident than design.
In a telephone interview with the Taipei Times, Hu said she had taken video notes of the events surrounding the unusual occurrence of a group of young Aboriginal people writing to and subsequently visiting Academia Sinica in an effort to retrieve the pillars. She had recorded interviews simply as a matter of habit. Hu has been a documentary filmmaker for nearly three decades and some form of camera is never far from her reach. Her films have often reached out to a wider, non-academic audience, an aspect of her mission that is underlined by her continuing role as founder and director of the Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival (台灣國際民族誌影展), which aims to bring ethnographic films to a non-specialists.
Once she decided that the story of these pillars, which provide a pictorial narrative of a number of important Amis myths, also had a contemporary story to tell, she pulled her various notes together and began pursuing developments in earnest. This was the beginning of a film that follows the twists and turns of nearly a decade of discussions between the Aborigines and Academia Sinica, as well as elements within the Amis community itself; discussions that highlight the many often conflicting strands that make up Aboriginal society in Taiwan.
The story begins with an e-mail from a young Amis called Fuday, who works as a teacher at Tafalong Primary School (太巴塱國小). In his e-mail, penned in 2003, he wrote to Academia Sinica to express his belief that the removal of these pillars dispossessed his community not only of its ancestral spirits, but even its sense of identity, and that he and others felt it was their mission to bring these items back home. The pillars had been part of an ancestral house belonging to the Kakita’an clan, which had an important leadership and spiritual role within the Tafalong community (located in Guangfu Township, Hualien County). They are also one of the only examples of a pictorial narrative relating to Amis mythology that has been preserved. During the Japanese occupation, the colonial government had already noted the importance of the pillars, designating the Kakita’an house a preservation site in 1935. After damage caused by Super Typhoon Winnie in 1958, researchers from Academia Sinica removed the pillars to the museum for safekeeping.