Making documentaries has never been an easy task, but it is the fervent belief that this type of truth-revealing film can bring about positive changes in society that has encouraged filmmaker Yang Li-chou (楊力州) to keep going.
A graduate of Fu Jen Catholic University’s Department of Applied Arts, Yang grew up as an idealistic young man believing that documentaries had the power to change the world.
Although experience has caused him to realize that this power might only be enough to change the attitude of a small group of people, Yang has remained unwavering in his belief, saying that the world is, after all, composed of millions of groups of people.
Yang still harbors hopes for the positive changes he has always wanted to bring through his works, and that optimism has prompted him to take every one of his documentaries, including his latest project, A Bridge Over Troubled Water (拔一條河), as an opportunity to embody such hopes.
A Bridge Over Troubled Water tells the true story of immigrant spouses from Greater Kaohsiung’s Jiasian Township (甲仙) who struggled to rebuild their lives after Typhoon Morakot in 2009.
Yang originally planned to focus mainly on the story of how a tug-of-war team from the township’s Jia Sian Elementary School had helped boost people’s morale in the aftermath of the devastating typhoon, but as shooting progressed, another important issue came to the fore ─ long-standing negative stereotypes attached to immigrant spouses.
“As many as one in three children in Jiasian have been born to immigrant mothers, but whenever people look at so-called ‘new immigrants,’ the first thing that comes to their minds is an image of women suffering or being abused,” Yang said.
Yang said such negative stereotypes have become so prevalent over the years that he once heard a middle-aged female vegetable vendor blatantly ask a foreign spouse: “How much did your husband pay to buy you?”
“At a time when most social media was fixated on the negative [aspects of foreign spouses’ lives in Taiwan] I asked myself whether we could bring out a different side [of these women’s stories] for the public to see,” Yang said.
With that goal in mind, Yang planned another storyline for his documentary ─ a group of immigrant spouses, despite seeing their hopes for a better life shattered by Typhoon Morakot, become the backbone of the township’s post-disaster reconstruction efforts and an unexpected force for good in the area.
“The number of new immigrants in Taiwan has long exceeded that of Aborigines. Their children will be adults soon and, who knows, one of them could end up becoming president in 20 years’ time,” Yang said.
He added that new immigrants have been long neglected by the government and that he hopes his new film will lead the way in raising pubic awareness of their problems.
Having lived side-by-side with Jiasian residents for a year to shoot the documentary, Yang said he has been able to see more clearly how severely the typhoon devastated their lives and how little the government has done to help.
“Stop just giving us money that is only enough to save us from starvation, but not enough to feed our families and ourselves,” Yang quoted a Jiasian resident nicknamed A-chung (阿忠) as saying.
“What we need is for you [the government] to tell us how to get back on our feet again,” said A-chung, who used to run a taro-ice shop before Morakot struck.
A-chung was referring to an employment scheme launched after the typhoon by the government called the “880 Employment Program” (八 八零工), under which unemployed residents in disaster-stricken areas have been given short-term employment opportunities that require them to work eight hours a day in return for a daily salary of NT$800 (US$27).
Pacifying the typhoon victims with money is not a viable long-term solution, Yang said, adding that the government should instead seek ways to increase the economic value of agricultural products from Jiasian.
Yang said A Bridge Over Troubled Water is by far his most important work because “it has made him an angrier person.”
“Documentary filmmakers are supposed to bring attention to certain social issues, but many people are mistakenly expecting us to not only point out problems, but to also roll out solutions for them, which to me is utterly absurd,” Yang said.
He said making the film has taught him one thing: People should tell the government what to do rather than expecting it to do something or giving up on it.
“However, as the government has been occupied ‘removing a person over a troubled matter,’ it probably has not even noticed my film,” Yang said jokingly, apparently referring to government attempts to oust Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) over allegations of improper lobbying.
A Bridge over Troubled Water is Yang’s second documentary featuring post-disaster recovery following the release of his work Revival (甦) last year. This 22-minute film centered on the reconstruction of northeastern Japan after the region was severely hit by a magnitude 9 earthquake and ensuing tsunami on Mar. 11, 2011.
Comparing Taiwan with Japan in terms of their post-disaster efforts, Yang said Japan has used “soft power” by holding musical concerts, art shows or sports events.
“Japan’s approaches to reconstruction may not be completely applicable to Taiwan, but we could still borrow its wisdom,” Yang said.
“After all, the most difficult task in post-disaster recovery is not rebuilding houses, but rebuilding minds,” he said.