a couple of weeks ago, i had the privilege of mediating a discussion on hu tai-li’s 2012 documentary on a movement for cultural restoration in tavalong, “returning souls”.

hu’s documentary chronicles the efforts of a group of tavalong ‘amis youth to rebuild the kakitaan house, a ritual site. eight years in the making, the documentary focuses on the complex issues surrounding repatriation or reproduction of sacred objects, cultural tourism, and cultural revitalization movements fifty years after missionization. i’ve seen the film twice–once in the a’tolan ‘amis community–the contrast between the meaning of the film in these two contexts suggests something about the project i might have missed otherwise

as professor hu explains, she initially began filming because the case interested her. in her work as an advocate and a film maker, she continued, not sure when and how to end–the story still unfolds today. in keeping with the unfiinished quality of the story, the documentary poses more questions than it answers; the narrative, although a complete depiction of the rebuilding project, does not give viewers any closure: at any rate, such closure would ring false. rather, it asks, now that the kakitaan ritual house has been rebuilt, can it actually serve as a means to overcome the community’s religious and political fragmentation? how will it promote local cultural development when it is entangled with tourism? what is the role of the site when the majority of the community members now profess christianity? to hu’s credit, she leaves these questions open for viewers to ponder

yet, this showing of hu’s documentary at harvard’s fairbank center was the second time i’ve watched the film. the first was in a’tolan, an ‘amis community in taitung county, where i saw “returning souls” as part of the ‘amis community’s “village sofa” outdoor film series. my experiences of viewing the film in a’tolan and cambridge were so different that i could hardly consider it the same film

during the summer of 2012, a’tolan had been embroiled in ongoing land rights disputes centered upon coastal tracts, particularly pacifalan, a site important for both ritual life and subsistence. these coastal lands have faced increasing pressure from developers and government agencies which favor projects to build a mass tourist infrastructure. protests in 2011 and 2012 focused on both pacifalan and a large “bulid, operate, transfer” development project in nearby shanyuan, miramar resort

in a’tolan, youths active in protests against coastal development screened the film. their similarity to the youth in hu’s documentary, who strove to rebuild the kakitaan ritual house, channeled discussion of the film toward analogies between the situation in tavalong and a’tolan, particularly the plans that a’tolan youth had drawn up to manage pacifalan in their attempt to keep the site from development under a BOT model. nevertheless, the a’tolan youth were ambivalent about the example of tavalong. on the one hand, they admired the tavalong youth’s resolve; but the a’tolan youth would not, at least so publicly, work without the approval of the community headman and elders

in this context, discussion also led to an appreciation of the diversity of ‘amis communities. the politics of cultural restoration in tavalong somewhat resembled a’tolan, but a’tolan was different in several respects. first, in a’tolan, the kakitaan is neither a place nor an hereditary post, as it seems to be in tavalong; kakitaan in a’tolan refers to the office of village headman. secondly, the age set organization and elders’ council in a’tolan appeared more intact than that in tavalong. in a’tolan, claims on common land, such as pacifalan, or rebuilding projects–perhaps of the sfi’ (meeting house)–would only occur through the age set organization, many in a’tolan argued, because the age set organization, not ritual or even language, grounds ‘amis ethics and personhood, at least for men

more senior members of the community who watched the film were also skeptical. they doubted that it was useful or even a good thing to “return to the past. why bother spewing rice wine about or talk to ancestors through cikawasay (spirit mediums), when we have left them behind? we live now. we need to figure out how to be ‘amis in the modern world.” they were also troubled that the tavalong practiced headhunting in the past, a practice that elders in a’tolan associate with the traditional enemies of ‘amis. and in some cases, these community members feared that the knowledge necessary to reclaim traditional rituals had been lost; in that case, these rituals would endanger the community. in other cases, they pointed to their current commitments to catholicism or presbyterianism

this set of conversations in a’tolan and the contexts of ongoing land disputes meant that i saw hu’s film as a document of similar disputes in tavalong, with the sense that “‘amis are a very diverse people” added to the mix

my critical position on the film thus centered on what i consider hu’s relatively naive politics, both of representation, in which she seemed not to focus enough on dissenting opinions, and of her alliances, which seem too readily to support the youth in their rebuilding of the kakitaan house, which was not a majority opinion in the tavalong ‘amis community. but to be honest, my critical take on hu’s project reflects my own ambivalence as a foreign researcher in a’tolan, who has both politically strident young activist friends and a network of politicallly conservative or accomodationist age mates and fictive kin. although i support movements for indigenous sovereignty on taiwan, i am aware enough of the awkwardness of my position and understand the reasons that many indigenous people lean toward “blue” (in this case, accomodationist) politics. thus in spite of my “green” leanings, i would not easily engage in the sort of advocacy hu has; not because my heart wouldn’t be in it, but because i cannot place the world in categories simple enough for political activism, at least not within the scope of my scholarly production

as it turns out, though, this critical position might be an artifact of watching the film in a’tolan, a context that tended to erase the film’s metapragmatic marking (the indexical features that make it “ethnographic film”), thus shifting the conversation space of the film

in a’tolan hu’s film brought out responses connected to the politics of indigenous activism. i suspect that these responses usefully focused the attention of those who watched the film on the complexities of our own struggles in a’tolan. that is one set of connotations for the film, but not the only one

in harvard, the film seemed less of a political document, but an ethnographic one. perhaps it was nostalgia on my part, but i doubt it; during the reception, a few people asked questions that focused on everyday life in ‘amis communities. throughout the film, hu portrays with care and attention the contexts of everyday life in tavalong, beautifully framing the rebuilding project amid casual gatherings of friends or family, work, periodic ritual and church meetings, landscape and soundscape. musical expression features prominently in hu’s lens, not surprisingly given her work on paiwan nasal flute players and her collaborations with composers. hu’s feeling for everyday language, eastern taiwan’s landscape, and the religious diversity of ‘amis communities all give the viewer a thick context in which to interpret the efforts of one group of tavalong ‘amis to rebuild the kakitaan ritual house. indeed, this thickness makes the documentary an effective medium for raising questions about cultural restoration projects rather than supplying easy answers. seen within this context, hu’s position seems much more complicated than the one that seemed evident in a’tolan

curiously, that context did not strike me as a vital part of the film in a’tolan. perhaps in a’tolan, the context of life in eastern taiwan was too common to be noticed; however, in cambridge, hu’s care and skill for showing this life stood out. i was not transported back to ina ci amoy’s betel stand, but was forced to see the film as an ethnographic document

overall, “returning souls” is a beautifully constructed work from a skillful visual anthropologist. i hope that the film inspires discussion about questions of decolonization and cultural reclamation on taiwan and elsewhere