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Interview with Ya-Ting Hsu, Editing Lab Participant

Interview with Ya-Ting Hsu, Editing Lab Participant

July, 27 - 2022

Ya-Ting is a Taiwanese documentary filmmaker and the director of Island of the Winds, a project about the leprosy village who were evicted by the government in Taiwan. 

Her first encounter with grassroots democracy was the Lo-Sheng Struggle, which completely changed the way she saw the world. Since then, she has focused on expressing her visions and reflecting her feelings through storytelling, and continues trying to push the boundaries of filmmaking. In her films, audiences can see her exploring the individual desire and loss to illuminate an entire era.

In this interview Ya-Ting talks about the ups and downs in pursuing a personal story, fighting for the unheard voices, and what she hopes to learn in the Editing Lab.

Congratulations on being selected for the Editing Lab this year. How has this experience been for you so far?

The Editing Lab contains a lot of information about processing this film. During the Editing Lab, I usually work in the day, and I have meetings at night. So it’s really tiring. And because I’m in the Editing Lab, we have a lot of time talking about structure and about a lot of relevant information about the film, as my documentary was shot for a long time. There’s a lot of backstory, a lot of character description. I have to tell all that to the mentor and everyone, but I’m very short on time. 

During the day, I have to edit more footage for the mentors in order to maximise their help. It’s very different—before this I was writing a lot, but right now I’m editing a lot, so my mind just keeps running and burning. Yesterday I finished my session around 12AM, and this morning we are immediately talking with our teams, how to start our assignments and to translate them into English. It’s a big work. I think all the projects at the Editing Lab are like that, too.

You had a one-on-one session with your mentor Yaël Bitton last night. You showed a mountain of footage from a long time ago. Can you tell us more about that?

I started to produce this documentary (Island of the Winds) in 2005, when I was 21 years old. Now 17 years later, I’m still working on that. So it’s a very long process. This story is about the leprosy village who were evicted by the government, due to the metro maintenance depot replacing their village and tearing their houses down. They were living in a small mountain of New Taipei City, a little village on the hill. But because this property is owned by the government, around 2005, the government chose to sell the land to the Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation.

Around that time I finished a short film Life with Happiness with co-director, Jessica Lin. I thought by finishing the short film, I could wrap the relationships with my subjects. But later on in my life, I realised there was something so strong, like I cannot just easily say goodbye. I’m trying to figure it out, is it the moral as a documentary filmmaker, or is it the “Me” that needed to finish the story? What’s that? I feel like I have responsibility for these characters  and their stories somehow.

So I went back in 2017. Actually before I decided to go back, I had been thinking a lot about whether I should for years. “But why don’t you just go back to shoot?“ This idea finally came to me one day. So I went back and started to re-shoot. Then I felt calm. Before that, I always felt very confused. And it was very painful actually, seeing that they were still fighting on the street but I did nothing.

I was drawn to this story when I was young. As a young filmmaker, I never knew this kind of story happening in Taipei. In Taiwan, I grew up in a democratic society.  At least since I have a memory, I knew that we have rights to vote; we have the right to talk about our own speech and feelings. I thought I was growing up in a democratic society. But when I went to the leprosy village, I realised what I’ve learned for my whole life doesn’t work there. Some people were forced to have lifelong segregation there. They were treated differently from me. And of course, they look differently. Their eyes are swollen because of their disease, and they have a very difficult time to finish their education or learn their (work) ability. They don’t have the similar rights to live elsewhere. And they feel discriminated from society. For me, it was shocking even just by knowing that there is a certain group of people living like that.  And they are so close to where I grew up, actually around an hour away from where I was.

It was very painful for me to see their fights against eviction and their protests. I knew the evictions started to be known by the public. I soon went on the street to protest with them. Their supporters started from 20 people, to 30, to 100, to thousands of people. So you’d see the power of democracy grows within. I felt some hope being with the underprivileged back to 2007… and that was just part of the footage I had. Not to mention the amount I had since 2017 until today. It gets even more complicated.

In this project, you’re a producer, a director, and an editor as well. From all of these roles, why did you decide to join the Editing Lab at Docs by the Sea? 

Last year at ASIADOC, I met Huang Yin-yu, the other producer for this project. Before, I was doing everything myself. It’s a very lonely journey. No one would follow me for that long. So naturally I became a producer for this film. And of course, I become a director and a cinematographer too because no one will do that alone with me. 

Huang was one of the mentors at ASIADOC and very interested in this project. He thought that this story is not only for the audience in Taiwan but should also be elsewhere; we want people to understand that this story is very important. So we started co-producing together. I have some advantage of speaking English so I started trying really hard in writing the proposals, editing an editing trailer and trying to just get the most out of every possible pitch or lab.. And then suddenly, I just edited too long and then it became a rough cut! (laughs). Huang thought that I’m already in the stage of editing. As I am also a professional editor in Taiwan, so I thought let’s try this out. He thought the chance for us to get into the Editing Lab is higher than the Storytelling Lab, and it will be more help from my situation right now. If I went into the Storytelling Lab, we would just be shaping another story, but he thought that right now since I have so much footage, I should be ready for the editing.

With those plans in mind, how has Docs by the Sea facilitated you so far? Especially now that you’ve been to several sessions with your mentors.

I didn’t have that much expectation before Docs by the Sea really begins. I know that it will be really helpful and will be a bunch of hard work. I am still in the beginning of the editing process so I have a lot of footage I need to show, to let people understand. Not only to mention that the process of making this film is so long, and the events themselves are so complicated, and so many characters, so I spent a lot of time preparing myself to get most of it. 

Besides being a professional editor in Taiwan, I really want to know about the experience of a senior editor. How do they structure a film? That’s the thing I want to really learn. As a director, sometimes I lose some ability as an editor who doesn’t know much of the events or the issue—I think I’m facing this struggle every day now while I am editing my footage. 

As an editor, when another editor tells you there’s a strategy, there’s some new knowledge, there’s some different technique to process a story, that helps. I want to see what I cannot see through them (more experienced eyes). There’s so many things I cannot see and so many things I didn’t cover or think about.

Would you think that’s the biggest challenge for your project to have? So many materials?

I don’t think it’s because there’s so much material. I think compared to other projects I have known, my materials should be reasonable and manageable, around 200 hours. It’s not that much. But the complexity, the layers of my subjects, are pretty difficult. For my own film, I feel like I’m so blind, so helpless, and realised that this subject for me is very difficult because there’s so many layers. Maybe if I use numbers, there will be five or six layers. In other movies, maybe one or two layers. So for me it’s so complicated, not only to mention that I am also the director and cinematographers, I have to face a lot of challenges: what did I think at the time when I was shooting back in the village 17 years ago? And how do I feel now? How do people see through this 17 years of long process? How to describe these complicated events? How do audience see the subjects from patients’ point of view? How do I lead my audience to follow this complex story? For me, everything is all really challenging. 

What does it mean to be a Taiwanese filmmaker? How is the documentary ecosystem there? How do you see it?

We know that in the documentary field, the Taiwanese government gives us a grant to support our films. We are an open society, comparatively. We have free speech. And as a woman, being a documentary filmmaker is manageable there. In Taiwan, we have a small but strong documentary community. We do have a union community in case of any trouble. We are trying to do more co-producing with other countries, but there is a limitation. I find it very difficult to explain about Taiwan to other countries. I feel like when you’re talking about other countries, they have a very clear image of what the country’s history is like, what kind of situation they might be facing. But about Taiwan, people may not be as familiar.

Some people know about Hong Kong, but Taiwanese political issues might not be as strong as Hong Kong versus China nowadays. Taiwanese issue about eviction is not as strong as the eviction that happened in Southeast Asian countries. So, the conflict of the footage or a conflict in the society itself is not as strong as other countries’. Not to mention our status is still unclear as a country. So for me it’s very difficult to know where I stand in the international world. I found that is the fundamental issue. We need a lot of background explanation for the lab participants to understand Taiwan. For example, I need to tell my mentor that Taiwan was colonised by Japan before. Even though we are not anymore, we are still actually very deeply influenced by Japan. Taiwanese actually have allowed the Japanese to influence us compared to other countries. I need to fill in a lot of historical background so that people understand what kind of society Taiwan is, and how later on, we became democratic. More importantly, through Taiwan, how do people see a democratic society in the Chinese area? Even though it is quite complicated, once I figure out the complex history of Taiwan. It will eventually lead me to find much more profound and human stories within my country.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.