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Wood LIN: From Writing to Curating—The Journey of Documentary Filmmaking

Wood LIN—over a decade in, still making documentary films with impassioned enthusiasm. Photo by James LIN
Info
DATE2019.10.31
Interview LIU Yuching, HO Bo-YenText HO Bo-Yen
TIDFcultural experimentdocumentary film

When asked what he would like to do if he couldn’t be engaged in documentary films anymore, veteran documentary filmmaker Wood LIN skirted the question, replying, “I don’t think I’ve ever reached a point where I have been tired of watching documentary films…” He then cracked a smile and began talking about the time he created a sort of genealogical table to categorize documentary films into genres, including important works and filmmakers from around the world. The table ultimately grew into unwieldly complexity and the effort was abandoned. LIN has since learned his lesson and decided to keep ponderings on such complex interrelationships confined to his head. Despite his evasive answer, the filmmaker is known to be partial to graffiti art and sci-fi films, and, on occasion, combines these interests by lingering over the graffiti featured on the crumbling walls in sci-fi film backdrops. “Yeah,” he adds, “I like to wander and to watch.” Because he views life as an all-encompassing documentary, LIN’s other interests seem to also fold into the ‘documentary film’ experience.

“Initially, I just wanted to write movie reviews. I read all of the articles I could find and discovered that some of the writers penned critiques that were quite opaque and difficult to understand.  At that time, I thought articles should be clear and easy to read. Hence I chose a pen name (Wood) that I thought would reflect my style… solid in content and easy to read and understand.” As a movie critic and commentator, LIN has been promoting documentary films for years. . Today, he is the curator of the Taiwan International Documentary Festival (TIDF). LIN, normally serious-looking and deceptively unapproachable, becomes cheerful and enthusiastic when the discussion turns to his work and previous experiences.

Wood LIN worked in film promotion as a critic and reviewer for many years. Photo by James LIN

From Movie Reviews to Writings on a Myriad of Subjects

“In my opinion,” LIN shares, “documentaries should be strongly flavored by subversive, unconventional perspectives. They should be inspirational, even though their audience might be just a small minority.” LIN made the decision to focus professionally on documentary filmmaking, devoting himself to the critique and promotion of it when being a student at TNNUA’s Graduate Institute of Studies in Documentary & Film Archiving. Finding it difficult to earn a living writing alone, he pursued various ways to supplement his income, taking a litany of odd jobs. It was his experience gained while doing interviews, writing for others, and organizing events that shook his original convictions regarding pursuing a movie-review career. LIN moved to Taipei after completing his military service obligations and, for a while, he continued focusing on watching movies and writing reviews. However, after earnestly attending numerous test screenings, he found himself genuinely averse to the requisite formalities of such social activities, and so increasingly distanced himself from them. “In terms of the market, the basic difference between feature films and documentaries is that, in the former, commercial value trumps cultural value, while, in the latter, this balance is slightly reversed. So, cultural value carries greater weight when watching documentary films, which makes review writing a much more straightforward process.”

The bulk of LIN’s writings are accessible via his personal blog. Archived in the blog, in addition to his written reviews and observations on the film industry, is impressive firsthand reports about screening based on his extensive experience in the area of documentary films. In recent years, the neutral requirements of his curatorial position and his otherwise busy schedule have limited his writings primarily to commissioned articles. While the range of topics may not be as broad as before, LIN continues to write and opine.

“What most interests me still is editing and writing.” As the TIDF Curator, Wood LIN has maintained an active interest in all editorial activities—from the festival brochure to its commemorative publications. Even the synopses for the 100+ festival films that are written up and refined by the TIDF team must, in the end, pass LIN’s meticulous review. “If it (a synopsis) misses something I think is important, I’ll sometimes rewrite it into something that even the original author couldn’t recognize. Anyway, I’m the final arbiter of writing in this office. I’ve seen just about everything released from here.” Also, as Chief Editor of the e-zine Taiwan Documentary E-Paper, LIIN discusses the theme of every issue with his executive editor. In 2019, Taiwan Documentary E-Paper launched the feature “Film in Focus,” which invites five authors from differing eras to comment on movies such as WU Yao-Tung’s Goodnight & Goodbye and FU Yue’s Our Youth in Taiwan. Despite his evolution from movie critic to curator, Wood LIN clearly cherishes the passion for the written word.

Challenging Premises with Content: Wood LIN as the TIDF Curator

Wood LIN’s association with TIDF began in 2008 when he was invited to organize a weekly documentary film event at Taipei Stock in Taipei City’s Zhongxiao-Xinsheng area. As the organizers wanted the director of each featured film to attend and interact with the audience, most of the films screened were Taiwanese. “Initially, there was no salary. Later, we got funding and, so, had some money. As I was in charge of the event, I knew the tasks of every role. It was the same… just on a smaller scale.” He recalled that his team included just one or two people aside from him, with others hired to help out on event days. This weekly documentary film program ran on a tight, regular schedule until 2012, screening over 100 documentary films in total.

Wood LIN was the curator of the Xinsheng Exit 1 Documentary Film Festival at Taipei Stock from 2008. Photo provided by Wood LIN

Wood LIN’s association with TIDF began in 2008 when he was invited to organize a weekly documentary film event at Taipei Stock in Taipei City’s Zhongxiao-Xinsheng area. As the organizers wanted the director of each featured film to attend and interact with the audience, most of the films screened were Taiwanese.

Wood LIN’s first experience working on a large-scale film event came in 2010 when he was hired as TIDF’s program supervisor and placed in charge of program formatting, video selection, and the competition. LIN took a break from his program supervisor responsibilities in 2012 and, in 2013, the Ministry of Culture formally transferred authority over the TIDF to the Taiwan Film Institute. This decision gave TIDF a true home, where resources could be accumulated. Wood LIN was then hired on as TIDF Curator. “As a curator, I have a largely free hand with regard to content planning. There was, however, a potential problem in that few in Taiwan were actively involved in advancing the documentary film genre. If I attempted to organize a film festival featured a director relatively unknown around the world, it would naturally be a challenge for award committee members to provide substantive commentary.” As a result, while nominally still focused on documentary films, TIDF began accepting film entries from other genres as well. In contrast to the many film festivals held in the West, Asia has only a handful of film festivals where substantial numbers of films from the region can be shown and promoted. Therefore, TIDF’s vision is to become a film festival platform for the introduction, critique, and promotion of novel and edgier indie films.

“Although ‘documentary’ is part of TIDF’s name, we’ve consistently worked to include other media and artistic efforts in the festival as a way to challenge the documentary film genre. Having put it (‘documentary’) out there as our premise, the festival content has a responsibility to challenge this premise. If anyone is troubled or confused by this, we will explain our reasoning to them.” Drawing on core values embracing “youth” and “diversity,” TIDF continues to develop and promote documentary films. LIN and his team regularly attend international film festivals abroad to push the conceptual envelop even further and to continually nourish the TIDF with new ideas and energy. “One year at the IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam), I saw an interactive ‘Doc Lab’ program inviting an individual artist to present the “interactive vision” in his eye. He (the artist) first addressed the audience that he would carry out a performance art, and then swallowed a tiny Bluetooth video camera. We were all then treated to images and sounds from inside his body… in real time.” This is the sort of inspired creativity that finds expression in each TIDF. For example, in 2010, LIN joined director WU Chun-Hui Wu to invite five Asia-based artists to hold a Live Cinema performance. The Filmmaker in Focus that year was Philippine director Kidlat TAHIMIK, and, before the end of his film, TAHIMIK took the stage and performed a traditional dance, establishing natural synergy between the artist and his work.

Live Cinema performance by five Asia-based artists organized by Wood LIN and Director WU Chun-Hui in 2010. Photo provided by Wood LIN
2010 TIDF Filmmaker in Focus, Philippine director Kidlat TAHIMIK, performed a traditional dance that established synergy between the artist and his work. Photo provided by Wood LIN

“Most of the staff who work on TIDF also work for other film festivals, following each film festival’s schedule, so film festival offices share many of the same people. The overlap of staff members is common.” Wood LIN associates this phenomenon with structural problems in the budget. Most festival work lasts for a few months at most, after which there is no provision of funding for support staff. This makes it natural for people to look for the next gig after each festival ends. TIDF is a biennial, so the interval between contracts is longer than most, making it more difficult to recruit the former staff. After a year has gone by, it is likely that they’ll have found another job to occupy that time slot, so when TIDF rolls around again, the organizers have no choice but to look for new people. In addition to this, despite regular Ministry of Culture sponsorship, TIDF is perennially strapped for funds, leaving the TIDF team to search for alternative funding sources via cross-industrial cooperation and other sponsorship arrangements. TIDF has access to fewer resources than other large film festivals and faces bottlenecks in terms of promotion, including a meagre advertising budget and a stable but small audience. Although the festival has recently seen a rise in student and young adult attendees, TIDF’s promotion efforts continue to resonate poorly with mainstream media outlets. Current promotion strategies focus on cooperating with non-governmental organizations to reach a broader, still-untapped audience through schools and art-related agencies and organizations.

Wood LIN discusses the difficulties faced by documentary film workers in Taiwan during the interview. Photo by James LIN

Sponsorship & Copyrights: the Challenges of Doing Documentary Film Work in Taiwan

To highlight the current state of documentary filmmaking in Taiwan, Wood LIN shares his thoughts about the funding policies of the country’s leading documentary film program, Taiwan Public Television Service (PTS)’s ViewPoint. “Typically, the practice in the film community is that the copyright belongs to the person who pays. So, when PTS fully funds a film, there’s no controversies about PTS ownership. But conflicts arise relatively easily around documentary film projects. For example, a three-year project budgeted out at NT$2 million will necessarily require a huge but intangible investment by the filmmaker. So, it is natural for those who make these investments of time and energy to demand a certain stake in the copyright. But quantifying the value (of these intangible investments) is tough, and, so, such demands are, more often than not, rejected.”

“Ideally, a reasonable solution would be to take all of the resources required to complete a film project into consideration during the initial discussion stage, converting time estimates into tangible costs. For example, when PTS is willing to put NT$2 million into a project that the filmmaker estimates will cost NT$3 million to finish, and the filmmaker carries that additional cost, he or she should be entitled to an appropriate percentage of the copyright.” As to the question of whether requiring filmmakers to complete projects within a years’ time impacts negatively on their creative freedom, LIN thinks this requirement is simply part of the ground rules of pursuing a career in documentary filmmaking. Resources are scarce and the rules are what they are. Everyone who applies must finish their project within the allotted timeframe. When resources are limited, filmmakers have no choice but to take the best option available.

Some sponsored filmmakers make different versions of their film—one for themselves and another for PTS. Considering the current subsidy system, Wood LIN opines that if PTS were to raise funding to more reasonable levels, some of the problems would simply be solved. In fact, there have been cases of union-led action securing reallocations of copyright benefits. Examples include film rights being given to both PTS and the filmmaker, with related benefits accruing to whoever makes a sale, and filmmakers being given a higher share of copyright royalties. “Those who make their careers directing documentary films typically have no choice but to rely on (the benefits accruing from) sales and screenings. When a broadcasting network holds the copyright, the filmmaker has no say in the matter and it ends up being an existential problem.”

TIDF’s 2018 “Imagining the Avant-Garde: Taiwan’s Film Experiments of the 1960s” brought 1960s film works such as The Mountain back to the big screen. Photo provided by TIDF

Inquiries and Boundary Crossings: Diverse Approaches to Curating

For the 2018 TIDF “Imagining the Avant-Garde: Taiwan’s Film Experiments of the 1960s” project, Wood LIN and his team worked as archival archeologists to bring a series of forgotten films from 1960s Taiwan back into the public eye. The series included documentary, feature, and experimental films. “Working on documentary films long enough would affect how you view things. You see things that popular culture tends to miss. It makes you aware how much has been lost. Those lost things were around before… Why is no one talking about them now?” When asked what initially encouraged him to take this direction, LIN affected a righteous tone, revealing exasperation for that these films could be buried away and forgotten to history. They all once had a small but certain place in the sun. By giving them a platform once again, these films not only are supplement of the existing film histories, but also endow today’s audiences with differing perspectives. LIN also noted that the 2020 TIDF will continue in the vein of recent years and screen documentary films from the 1970s to the 1990s to spotlight issues that are overlooked in current film histories.

Also in 2018, LIN curated Under the Great Leader: Contemporary Human Rights Film and Video Exhibition. This exhibition displayed works from eight domestic and international artists in Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, stimulating the reflection on human rights and authoritarian. In our present age of increasingly blurring curatorial lines and increasingly frequent cultural experiments, how will the intrusion of contemporary art into the world of documentary filmmaking impact the role of the curator? “There will be more room for imagination. Premises won’t set fixed boundaries. You simply need to put them together, and audience will construe the connections. It’s analogous to the concept of montage.” LIN continued, saying that if you start out by telling the audience ‘this is a documentary film festival,’ it limits what they will think about it, turning it into something rather humdrum. Curators who want to try something different, he insists, must use the content to challenge the premise. And if no premise is offered, the scope can be even broader and more diverse.

CHU Chun-Teng’s work Taiwan Taiwan was shown at Under the Great Leader: Contemporary Human Rights Film and Video Exhibition. Photo provided by CHU Chun-Teng

Films screened in movie theaters and exhibition halls must be presented differently. Wood LIN shared an interesting curatorial story about his experience with CHU Chun-Teng’s Taiwan Taiwan, a two-channel video art piece finished in 2011 and displayed in Under the Great Leader: Contemporary Human Rights Film and Video Exhibition. In this piece, female and male actors extemporaneously act out their impressions of “Taiwan” against an R.O.C. (Taiwan) flag backdrop. The video runs for a full 100 minutes, from start to finish. The venue asked them to shorten the video, but LIN felt that viewers wouldn’t feel one way or the other about the length of the video and thus did not want to ask the artist for an abbreviated version. In the end, he agreed with the artist to segment the film into three parts, with a 1-second black-screen intermission between each section accompanied by an explanation of the section to come. This allowed the full-length video to be run on a loop throughout the exhibition.

“My friends from the contemporary art field imagine that putting on a film festival must be an organizational nightmare. For me, I think the same thing about putting on a contemporary art exhibition! The difference between the two is quite large.” Despite his remark, when asked whether he might be interested in curating a video art exhibition, LIN answers solidly in the affirmative. He notes that TIDF cannot focus solely on “films” in the traditional sense; it must expand outward to embrace a multifaceted range of performance, exhibitions, and other artistic genres. It is the only way, he thinks, to make these genres less strange and unfamiliar. Moreover, any interdisciplinary experience will ultimately feed back into the documentary film field, with each influencing the other.

Info
DATE2019.10.31
Interview LIU Yuching, HO Bo-YenText HO Bo-Yen
TIDFcultural experimentdocumentary film
Author
HO Bo-YenBorn in Taipei in the 1990s. HO is a writer and film worker, studying for a master's degree of Department of Motion Picture at NTUA, and runs the Facebook fanpage "Finding Neverpath."
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