A Reign of Bombs,
A Never-ending Rain
Chung Shefong｜Festival Director, Music Producer
Showers fall from the sky. Sheets of black pellets fall to the ground.
The camera zooms in. We see that the showers are not the work of mother nature, but military planes. Then the camera zooms out, moving farther away, until we no longer hear the falling of those pellets, a symbol of a disappearing history: In Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, millions of tons of cluster bombs were dropped from American planes in the 1960s and 1970s, each bomb designed to tear apart flesh and body. The planes that unleashed those "rains of bombs" were stationed in Okinawa, and they circulated throughout islands and seaports across Asia.
More than two million tons of those cluster bombs were dropped on Laos over nine years. The average elephant weighs four tons. So the number of bombs dropped on Laos is equivalent to the weight of 500,000 elephants. This year, US President Barack Obama visited the Laotian capital of Vientiane and gave a speech in which he acknowledged the atrocities: "Today, I stand with you in acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict," he said. That lofty rhetoric might have received congratulatory praise from commentators in the West, but from here, in Asia, those words felt light and empty, given the weight of those bombs, given the true weight of history.
Bombs, warplanes, warships. These instruments of war are forever tied to the fate of Asia, which, in the cold eye of a military power, was reduced to lines marking borders. Those of us who live on an Asian island such as Okinawa cannot remove ourselves from this fate because we have no other place to go. There is no escape.
"Island Elegies" is the main theme of the 2016 New Narratives Film Festival. We begin by looking at Okinawa, an island that exemplifies Asia's struggle with a legacy of war and post-colonial geopolitics.
In 1968, Japanese director Higashi Yoichi made "The Okinawan Islands," a black and white documentary that focused on the Okinawans, who, until then, had no voice in expressing their feelings about living under American control. Through this film, which will be shown in Taiwan for the first time at this festival, we uncover the politics and destiny of the island.
I traveled to Okinawa for a conference at the beginning of the year, and I arrived in a bitter cold — the temperature had hit a historic low. The island's famed blue skies and emerald ocean waters were no where in sight. It was overcast, and all I could hear was the roar of US military planes, which flew by every three minutes. Here we are in 2016, I thought to myself, and we assume peace as the norm. But here it felt like another storm of war was around the corner.
When its bays are filled with warships and planes, the island has no control of its body. It can only cower and gasp for breath.
In 1970, while the Americans were still "temporarily administering" the islands, the novelist Kenzaburō Ōe wrote an essay entitled "Okinawa Notes," a record of his encounters and friendships with Okinawans. He noted their complicated feelings, a mix of rage over being subjugated to an outside power and divided identification with their island and the "mainland" — yet another outside power, Japan. Oe's writing offers a new perspective on the notion of an "island" and a "mainland." His remark "Japan belongs to Okinawa" reminds us that the idea of Okinawa as part of a Japanese "mainland" is a political construction. We expand on this in a portion of the festival entitled "The Mainland Belongs to an Island."
A separate film by Higashi Yoichi contains a disturbing scene that takes place on Okinawa. It is difficult to erase from the mind: A Japanese man comes ashore, sees a woman nearby, and then rapes her in broad daylight, under a broiling hot sun with no shade or shelter in sight. The woman's body and the island are one and the same: Outsiders come in uninvited. They build fences in the name of "protection," and then keep forcing their way in. The space between woman and man is the space between love and tyranny. It is also the space between the "island" and the "mainland."
An island, a mainland. As times change, one rope is loosened, but then another is tightened. Rinshō Kadekaru, a representative Okinawan/Ryukyuan folk musician, sang in "The Flow of Time":
China fell under Japanese control
Then Japan submitted to America
How quickly has our Okinawa changed
Today Phenom Penh looks a city like any other, with cafes like cafes in any city anywhere, espresso machines humming and blowing steam, the fragrance of roasted beans wafting in the air. Conversations in English, Chinese, Japanese and French ebb and flow. But one doesn't hear very much talk about the scars left from the two million people massacred during the 1970s. Those ghosts have been quietly obscured by the growing number of shimmering high-rise buildings built by foreign investment. The Bob Dylan song "The Times They are A-Changin'" still resonates in Southeast Asia today, and so this portion of the festival is titled as such, and features documentaries brings attention to some of these unhealed scars.
The "Times Are A-Changin'" series is composed of works by up-and-coming directors from the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia. They were all born after the Vietnam War-era, and only know the phrase "Rain of Bombs" as something part of the oral mythology of the older generation. But these young directors possess their own keen view of the world and a unique approach to the craft of filmmaking. With an unwavering, critical eye, they challenge sugar-coated notions of a national identity constructed by authorities motivated by political power. These directors magnify the voices of the marginalized in their respective countries today.
The "City Borders" portion of the festival brings us to other shores. We visit a city on the outskirts of Java, several tiny islands outside of Hong Kong, and a Hakka village in southern Taiwan. Instead of the typical things these places may bring to mind — Tung flowers, fabric, batik prints — these films focus on the relationships between the people there and their relationship to the space around them. Looking at changes in time, language, occupation, personal identification, we ask: what is "film" to the contemporary Hakka? What can future films aspire to? If we look beyond the cultural nostalgia associated with the word "Hakka" in Taiwan, we see other topics worthy of attention in Hakka communities, such as the shift in jobs from farming to heavy industry and the impact of a globalized economy in small towns and villages. More of these stories are waiting to be told.
The 2016 New Narratives Film Festival explores what it means to be a part of, and to live on, an "island" in modern times, as we also attempt to revisit and rebuild history.