“I never thought my little film could bring us this far,” an emotional Huang Hui-chen told the audience at February’s 67th Berlin International Film Festival.
The 39-year-old Taiwanese director’s feature-length debut, Small Talk, had just lifted the 2017 Teddy Award for best documentary. Run in conjunction with the Berlinale, the Teddys are awarded to LGBT-related films by an independent jury consisting of organizers of gay and lesbian film festivals.
The 88-minute documentary explores Huang’s relationship with her own mother, a sometimes painful journey that was almost 20 years in the making.
Growing up, Huang felt bound by various labels. From the age of six, she and her younger sister worked alongside their priestess mother, Anu, in a Taoism ritual known as “soul guiding” – a performance staged at funerals involving chants and prayers believed to steer deceased souls to salvation.
Despite Taoism being one of the two dominant religions in Taiwan, soul guiding is considered a symbol of backwardness and generally frowned upon on the island.
“People think funerals should be quiet and solemn and that rituals such as soul guiding should be wiped out entirely,” Huang says.
At the age of 10, Anu fled her abusive husband, the three leaving in such a hurry that she forgot to take the household registry – a legal document critical for school enrolment in Taiwan. Huang and her younger sister were forced out of school ever since.
With limited financial resources, Anu was forced to borrow daily necessities from friends, and placed her hope of earning money on soul guiding and the mahjong table.
For many years, Anu concealed the fact that she is a lesbian – a lifestyle considered taboo in traditional Taiwanese society in which women are expected to be married off after a certain age.
After fleeing from her husband, Anu no longer hides her sexuality. In the film, she is described as a sweet and caring girlfriend by her partners. But for Huang, her mother was always a distant figure. Silence ruled their world.
Huang spent her teenage years lost in comic books and television. The turning point came in 1998, when at the age of 20 she met director Yang Li-chou who was shooting a documentary about young soul guiding performers.
Before that filmmaking was a distant world beyond Huang’s reach. “That was the first time I knew there was such a thing called ‘documentary’, and that I could use it to tell the story of my family,” Huang says.
Looking back, Huang says it was the ability to interpret that drew her to the documentary format.
“A person who guides the soul, a school drop out, a kid who has an abusive father and belongs to a single-parent family, and a person who has a lesbian mother. Society imposes all kinds of labels on people who have these identities. But am I the kind of person who society thinks I am?” Huang asks herself. “I want to be the one who interprets who I am.”
Huang saved money for months, bought her first video camera, and enrolled in Ludi Community College – an education institution serving adults in Shanchong and Luzhou districts of New Taipei City – to learn everything she could about filmmaking.
“I had too much to tell,” Huang says. “In my twenties, I didn’t have the ability yet to articulate my thoughts through film, and it was also very difficult to face myself honestly.”
She continued filming Anu and her family members during her free time. The project finally began to coalesce in 2012 after Huang gave birth to her daughter Ping.
“I started to look at the world from a different perspective after having Ping,” Huang says. “In the past, I’d been looking at my mom and the things that happened to my family from a daughter’s point of view. But after becoming a mother myself, I started to think about how my mom understood the things we experienced together?”
For Huang, documenting is to look for answers to questions that she never had the courage to ask. As the film unfolds, Anu slowly opens up to her daughters, and eventually reveals dark family secrets.
“If I don’t face my past and mend the wounds between us, I feel we will never move forward, and I will never know what it means to be a mother,” Huang says.
In 2016, 150 hours of footage was edited down to 88 minutes of taut, real-life family drama. It premiered at the 2016 Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan and earned nominations for best documentary and best editing.
This year it became the first Taiwanese documentary to win a Teddy Award and the jury praised Huang for a courageous portrayal of her family and for offering insight into a culture most audiences would be unfamiliar with.
Changes in Huang and Anu’s relationship took place after they both watched their past unfold on the big screen. “Sometimes things get clearer when observed from a distance,” Huang says.
“Maybe this is something universal. Everyone has some kind of issue with their parents, or something that is forbidden to talk about in their family,” Huang says. “We received a lot of feedback and heard stories from audiences. These empowered my mom. I think she received them well.”
And while Anu has never told her in words, Huang believes she understands what she was trying to convey through the film, and the need to put such an intimate issue on the big screen. The silence that always separated them has also disappeared.
“It took me a very long time to realize that people express love in different ways, and no one should take any relationship in this world for granted,” Huang says. “Understanding doesn’t come by default, it takes a lot of conversation and devotion to truly understand someone. This is probably the greatest lesson I learned by making this film.”
Small Talk is now showing in Taiwan