Charlene Shih, the Taiwanese doc director and producer speaks about her last and new projects, some strong stories about China, Taiwan and even Japan.
Could you introduce yourself ?
I was born and raised in Taiwan. At 19, I went to the United States to further my education, studied fine arts in undergrad, and received MFA in Experimental Animation in 1998 from California Institute of the Arts. Then, I worked as a designer and animator for many years. In the mean time, I kept working on my own art works and short films. 2 of my short animated films, “Women” and “Papa Blue”, have won many international awards.
How did you get involved and why are you interested in documentary industry ?
The first documentary film I made was probably “Papa Blue”, its a 13 mins experimental short , even though at the time I considered it more as an animated short, many festivals considered it either as experimental or documentary as well. It was a story about my father who suffered from depression, but was treated in a very unconventional story telling, this was back in 2003, and this little short film let me into the whole documentary film making that I have never even thought about doing.
When and what was your first “real” doc ?
After making “Papa Blue”, I team up with my brother Gary Shih and we bid on the National Geographic Project in 2004. The same year one of my best friends husband died from brain aneurysm at age 30, the shock made me want to make a film about her. “Spirit Talk” is my first “real” doc. It is about my friend Georgia trying to find a way communicate with her diseased husband, and we also followed a young man Paul Huang who at the time was facing his own death. Through their stories, we see Taiwanese religions and folk believes.
How many docs have you already directed ?
I have directed around 5 docs, Mostly for National Geographic Channel. Both “Spirit Talk ” & “Super Pigs” have received Columbus film & Video festival’s Honorary mention, “Spirit Talk” also won the Best Editing prize in Taiwan’s Golden Bell Awards.
All your docs are about Asia ? They are only for TV ?
They are all about Asia, and mostly for TV. I did another short doc that was made on 35mm on my own..
You have been working mainly for the Taiwanese prodco Dynamic ?
Yes i have always worked for Dynamic Communications, which is owned by my brother. Before “Spirit Talk”, neither of us made any doc, so we kind of grew together. Even though its not my own company, but I treated as my own. In fact, it is not that I am so loyal to Dynamic Communications, its just everyone knows I work with my brother, so I actually never had other opportunities to work with other producers.
Can you speak about your doc latest tv docs ?
The latest TV doc that we produced is “Taiwan’s Medical Miracle”. About 2 or 3 years ago we approached Nat Geo about this great story on Doctors without borders, because we know the first guy from Taiwan who went to such a medical mission in Africa, so we wanted to follow his story. Nat Geo showed the interest, and we started to do research, however, the money didn’t come in until a year or two later, and of course the guy we know has already finished his mission, so the story became something totally different…
But its still a great story, we followed four different patients from around the world who come to Taiwan for medical helps, one is suffered from biliary atresia, a disease which blocks the bile duct that leads from the liver to the small intestine. She only has a few months to live. Another case is actually a surgeon from Egypt, During the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, Dr Solimen was hit by a bullet in the hand – a wound that could spell the end to his career as a surgeon. He is also coming to Taiwan searching for help. Another patient is 3-year-old Mitsuki and her family fly to Taiwan from 3000 kilometers away in Malaysia, because she has inherited a rare disorder called Beta Thalassemia, and urgently need cord blood transplantation in Taiwan. This film is directed by Allen Tsai who has been working in Dynamic Communications for couple years as well. He is a very talented young man. Its a great film, and we are all really proud of it. (Film trailer)
How did you financed this doc ?
This film is financed by the National Health Department in Taiwan, and produced by National Geographic Channel and Dynamic Communications.
What do you like in documentary making ?
I am probably best at putting story together and also pretty good at editing. With my art back ground, strangely I have never care too much about the prettiness of the film quality, and I think that’s not really good in terms of TV docs. I just like the roughness and the real part of the documentary film making.
Do you consider yourself more as producer or director ?
I am definitely a much better director than producer, because I started as a director, so I tend to direct the film even while I am just the producer, which I know is not good. And because I can write, direct, edit, even do animation, I ended up doing a lot of things that I probably shouldn’t be involved at the first place.
I certainly prefer directing than producing, but when I meet some one who has the passion to direct a film, I also tend to wear the producer’s hat pretty quickly as well..
Why you never did feature doc film ? would you like to do it ?
I guess with Nat Geo’s project one after another, I was just caught up in it, and never really had a chance to make a feature doc on my own. Since i have worked on short docs with my own money, I know how expensive and time consuming it can be. Unless i have a great topic that I am really passionate about, I wouldn’t jump into it.
Do you have new doc project(s) in or about Asia ?
Yes, we have 2 projects.
. We are working with another director from China on a great story called “Ryefield Sailors”. This film follows the fortunes of two of these farm boys, their hopes and their fears, and the teacher who guides them on their course for the ocean – in a school marooned in the middle of a wheatfield, five hundred miles from the coast. One is just starting out, and is confronted with the reality of a life at sea; the other is about to graduate, and, if successful, set sail for the first time. For both, it’s a gamble: this could be their only chance to leave the relative poverty of rural China – and see the world. (See the doc project page on ADN Doc project Database)
. I am also working on another very low profile project, its about a 93 year old artist Yu-Liu in Taiwan, who originally came from China, studied in Japan, came to Taiwan and got arrested during the Taiwan white terror period. The film is about how Liu spend all his life working on painting, fillm, sketches, and never had one solo exhibition until now…through his story and his works, we’ll unfold the history between Taiwan, china, and Japan, and see the beauty and passion he has through his art.
What do you think about the situation and evolution of doc industry in Taiwan ?
I studied in the States, and worked in LA for couple years, so I know how competitive the doc industry is in US, in comparison, Taiwan has way more opportunities for people who want to make docs. However, ther is always very little funding (even though little is better than nothing). So its not hard to make a decent little documentary film, but to make a great one, a great feature film, then that still takes money and luck I think.
Is it easier to fund documentary in Taiwan ?
In our country, local broadcasting and funding has always been a problem. The public station in Taiwan has always been the only venue until Nat geo and Discovery came to Taiwan. And even them paid very little fee to air an one hour show.
Have you already produced docs in or about mainland ? do you want to do more ?
I have not produced any docs about mainland yet, though Gary/ my brother is working with another director from Mainland at the moment. We are also working together on the “Ryefiled sailor” this time, and will keep seeking more stories in mainland as well.
What do you think about the evolution of the Asian documentary industry?
I personally feel China has a big influence on the whole documentary industry, simply just because its so big, so many people and so many stories. Looking around at all the fundings that have given out the past few years, its not hard to see that most of the funding probably all went to stories about or in China. Thats one of the reason we have the opportunity to work for Nat Geo when they first came to Taiwan. I am pretty sure they weren’t just here for Taiwan market, every one’s hoping to get into the China market. And thanks to them, myself and many other producers/directors have the opportunities to work on docs in the international scale.
I wouldn’t say or think its easier to finance doc production in Asia, because I believe Europe still are more supportive in terms of arts and culture. But I hope it will improve in the future.
In the last 2 years, have you seen any Asian documentaries or docs about Asia which impressed you?
I like “Last train home”, and I love the doc called “Superman of Melageon”, though its probably a little more than 2 years old.
Interview by mail on 28 June 2012