By Olivia Yang
“As a creator, if you don’t have the strong motivation to tell a story you need to tell, then don’t. That’s what I tell myself.”
Film director Huang Hui-chen (黃惠偵) has just returned from the 67th Berlin International Film Festival (the Berlinale), bringing back with her Taiwan’s first Teddy Award — an official award of the Berlinale for films with LGBT topics — for Best Documentary.
The 88-minute documentary, Small Talk (日常對話), is Huang’s attempt to understand her gay mother and herself through conversations on issues such as trust and domestic abuse. It also won the 2016 Golden Horse Award for Best Documentary.
In a quiet cafe in Taipei, the 38-year-old director is snuggled in a black turtleneck sweater, wool coat, torn boyfriend jeans and black laced-up boots. Her voice hints a cold as she apologizes for her makeup, which she says was put prior to an earlier interview.
“They even trimmed my eyebrows,” she says, before taking us back to her Berlinale experience.
It all still “feels like a dream” to Huang. Without a professional background in making films, the director never imagined she would have anything to do with big international film festivals.
“They were all just names to me in the past,” Huang says.
The Berlinale not only opened her eyes to what the movie industry is actually like but also led Huang to start thinking about what films meant to her.
“Before I left for Berlin my mother asked me, ‘Will you get paid for screening there?’ I said, ‘If our movie gets sold,’” says Huang. “I still couldn’t imagine how the film business worked when I told her that, but when I got there I told my mother it was like a film market with hundreds of stalls selling movies. It was something I couldn’t picture before. It was hard to imagine how films could be a commodity for trade.”
The intention behind making Small Talk was never to enter any film festival, but rather for Huang to face the pain of her past and mend her relationship with her mother.
When the director became a mother in 2012, she quit her job and it was the first time she had time to herself since she started working at the age of six. Staring at her daughter every day, Huang realized she didn’t know what kind of mother she wanted to be.
“Every time I thought about my relationship with this child, I would think about my mother and I,” says the director. “If I couldn’t face or understand who I was, how could I know what kind of mother I wanted to be? There was no way out.”
So Huang picked up the film project she started in 1998, documenting her mother’s life and asking her questions about her past abusive marriage and how she felt about her place in the society.
“She would ask me why I was filming her and our family, and who would want to watch a movie about these things,” says the director.
After nearly 20 years of filming, the documentary was finally completed, but the changes in the Huang’s relationship with her mother didn’t take place until after Huang’s mother watched the film at its premiere.
Sitting in the audience and watching her past on the screen was probably the first time Huang’s mother was able to see from a distance this was what her daughter and family were like, says the director. The audience’s reaction was also crucial to her mother’s transformation.
“Suddenly there were people telling you that your past experiences, the ones you always thought were bad and shouldn’t be mentioned, actually meant something, and they thought you were already doing the best you could,” says Huang. “It was like a process of empowerment; people saw her life experience in the film and were inspired, and then it came back to my mother.”
Though her mother didn’t tell her in words, Huang believes her mother more or less knew what the director was trying to express.
“Her good mood lasted for 30 days after watching the shorter version of the film,” says Huang. “She didn’t lose her temper and would buy me all kinds of food. I think that was her telling me she understood.”
After its crowdfunding drive reached the goal of NT$1 million ($33,000) this week, “Small Talk” is now scheduled to hit 15 movie theaters around Taiwan from April 14.
This was never part of Huang’s plan, either.
She had already spent all her funds in production and had not saved any for releasing the documentary. Huang originally believed that finishing the film more important and she could screen in schools to personally interact with the audience. The director only accepted selling her documentary when she was persuaded it might reach a wider audience.
Huang’s team started to look for corporate sponsorship thinking that there may be interest given same-sex marriage is a trending topic in Taiwan. But they never got a chance to meet any companies, probably because corporates didn’t want to express their stance on the issue, says the director.
“I actually had a lot of complicated feelings because some of the corporates we were asking for sponsorship were ones I had protested against in my ten years working in social movements,” says Huang. “Thank God I didn’t have to go through all that. I was somewhat relieved they didn’t want to meet with us.”
So they took a different route: crowdfunding.
“I wanted to let the people actually living in this reality to decide what kind of movie they want to watch and what type of society they are looking for,” says the director. “One million is such a large number to me, so I was worried. Seeing so many people share the crowdfunding link held so much more value to me than selling the film.”
With Small Talk on the way to being released in cinemas, Huang emphasizes she has been lucky from start to finish. After her Berlinale experience, the director is now trying to decide if she wants to open her own film production company.
“I’m constantly re-defining who I am. This is probably an ideal state to be in; not limiting people in a certain identity, place or role,” says Huang. “There is so much that has to be done in this world and so much no one is doing. Making this film is probably what I can do best at this point, but if there is something else I think I should do in the future, I will do it.”
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- According to statistics from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, there were 95,175 reported cases of domestic violence in 2016 compared to 75,438 reported cases in 2008.
- Draft amendments to Taiwan’s Civil Code which would legalize same-sex marriage on Dec. 26 passed a committee review in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s Parliament. The amendments will proceed to party caucus negotiations and still need to pass second and third readings before becoming law, which would make Taiwan the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.
This article was first published in The News Lens International as “INTERVIEW: Facing Past Pain and Empowering Others Through ‘Small Talk’“. Cinema Escapist has been authorized to republish its contents.