INTERVIEW: Urban Nomad Subverts, Inspires, Strengthens

INTERVIEW: Urban Nomad Subverts, Inspires, Strengthens
Face the Earth
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This year's offerings cover dashcams, porn, punk and violent revolutions.

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Urban Nomad holds a unique spot in the Taiwan film festival circuit.

The festival, founded in 2002, was launched to give a voice to subculture and filmmakers both local and connected to Taiwan. Once home to a mish-mash of self-published and local projects on VHS tapes; screened in warehouse spaces on a bolt of white cloth suspended from the rafters by founders David Frasier and Sean Scanlon, the festival has grown alongside its remaining founder to become one of Taiwan’s most anticipated music, film and art festivals.

Nowadays, feature films from Cannes or Sundance are among a lively and varied program; singer and saxophonist Angelo Moore is just as likely to headline the Opening Freakout music event as the latest kooky act from Japan; and art always finds a way to nestle in alongside the music and movies over the six-week festival run.

Despite the move into conventional movie theaters, which was driven by a dearth of non-gentrified spaces, the festival is still a celebration of subculture. After enjoying a week of previews, one thing became very clear: Urban Nomad still resonates with urgency and unbounded energy.

The opening film, "Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits" (William Badgley, UK), kicks things off in rip-roaring fashion as the audience is introduced to the world’s first all-female punk band, a giddy ride that turns to poignancy by the close. The festival's theme of "Grrrl Power" seems apt, on both a global and local level.

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Here to Be Heard
'Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits' chronicles the legendary punk band.

Women directors abound, wearing a multitude of stylistic hats, from the stark edge of documentary "Pornacracy: The New Sex Multinationals" (Ovide, France), which delivers the type of disturbing reflection on global society that has become synonymous with the festival, to searing documentaries from Syria like "The War Show" (Dalsgaaard and Zytoon, Denmark).

The festival bill gives a flavor of its fare: Art Power, Music Power, Disruption and Technology are the themes, rounded out with shorts and the more benign Surfing category. And just for good measure, "The Road Movie" (Kalashniko, Belarus) is an experimental film formed entirely of found footage from dashcams in Russia. Expect the unexpected.

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The Road Movie
'The Road Movie' was shot entirely with Russian dashcam footage.

As Taipei has come to expect, the films are in turn thought-provoking, disturbing, hugely entertaining and often all three.

"The War Show" follows a group of 20-something idealist artist and activist friends from the nascent Arab Spring in Syria in 2011 through to the full-on civil war and repression that resulted. This is the Taiwan premiere of a documentary that humanizes a country torn apart by conflict and known to many only through its depiction on the nightly news. It scooped up awards and critical praise at the Venice Film Festival for its emotional heft and impact.

"The New Radical" (Bhala Lough, U.S.), shown under the Technology and Disruption category, serves up a controversial and dispassionate look at some of the shadier characters pushing back against online government control in the UK and United States.

Ovide’s "Pornocracy" certainly gives the audience pause for thought, as she grapples with the effects of the internet on the consumption of porn after the collapse of the DVD market in 2006-8, and tries to decipher who is behind a monopoly that seems to control the market.

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Pornocracy
'Pornocracy' is thought provoking and uncomfortable.

As a former porn star, Ovide is uniquely positioned to establish how the changes have affected the industry, and as she gets deeper behind the scenes and talks to directors and young actresses, as well as those involved in self-produced porn, the web gets murkier and murkier. Someone is certainly profiting here and it’s not the young actresses.

There’s plenty of narrative films in the mix too, with bewitching animation "Virus Tropical" (Caicedo, Columbia), an adapted graphic novel by Power Paolo, being of particular note - as well as the offbeat "White Rabbit" (Wein, U.S.), which follows Korean-American comedienne Vivien Bang through comedic soul searching and lesbian relationships as she attempts establish herself as a performance artist while juggling part time jobs and confronting identity politics.

Meanwhile the closing film, "Face the Earth" (Huang, Taiwan) follows the real-life journey of local performance artist Yang Chin-chih (楊金池) flitting between New York and Taipei, while "Wall Writers" (Gastman, U.S.) explores the world of graffiti before it became an established art form.

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Face the Earth
'Face the Earth' will close the festival.

One of the foundations of Urban Nomad is locally produced work and shorts. Its ethos aims to provide the international community connected to Taiwan a chance to be seen, and behold, the Filmmaker Nights Taipei: Short Film Development Project showcases four locally made narrative films shot over 24 hours. The screening includes a Q&A with the directors. Plenty of work by up and coming local directors is also to be found in the four Shorts programs.

Facing the founder

The News Lens sat down with festival founder David Frasier to discuss this year’s program and the place Urban Nomad has carved for itself in Taiwan’s cultural scene.

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Credit: Jamie MacGregor
David Frazier, who founded the festival in 2002.

The News Lens: Urban Nomad normally has one particularly disturbing film in the program. Which one would you say is this year’s?

David Frasier: "Pornocracy", or perhaps "New Radical". "Pornocracy" is disturbing because of the secret corporations controlling the internet.

TNL: Yes, both raised issues of how the internet is used and accessed, especially by children. "New Radical" was … conflicting.

DF: The way the director approached "New Radical" is a part of the appeal. And of course, "The War Show".

TNL: When you watched the "Maribor Uprising" -- an interactive documentary that uses footage from the uprisings in 2012 in Slovenia and allows the audience to choose which of the cameras they follow at various points, a nonviolent route advocated by the organizers or tagging along with a rowdier mob -- which way did you choose to go?

DF: I chose to sit and watch the protest peacefully.

TNL: You watched it on your own though, right?

DF: Yes.

TNL: Did you go back and watch it with the other choices?

DF: Of course!

TNL: It’s actually quite interesting to see which way the audience in Taiwan will go, with their recent history of relatively peaceful protests.

DF: The way it will work is that sometimes the whole audience will get to vote, and sometimes just one person. Which reflects the way that one person’s actions can potentially effect, have a ripple effect, on an entire protest. It’s part of the reason that I chose it. That it is such an interesting and different approach.

TNL: Urban Nomad has its roots as a warehouse event with you stringing up makeshift screens and running films off VHS and Bluetooth. How do you feel that you have personally grown alongside the festival?

DF: You become more organized. You can do more things, better things. Get more integrated into other local institutions and film festivals. You become an event in the annual cultural calendar. But it’s also a pain in the ass because the bureaucracy slows everything down. A conversation with someone like Candy Bird [local mural artist] goes along the lines of ‘I have a festival. I have a place. Do you want to come and paint?’ that’s pretty much it. Five minutes. Gentrified Concert venues don’t understand subculture.

TNL: How does Urban Nomad fit in alongside the other film festivals in Taiwan (and Asia)?

DF: In terms of the competition it’s actually becoming kind of important. It gives a sense of affirmation to the directors that are accepted and win prizes. Urban Nomad went from a bunch of friends making films to being able to meaningfully support up and coming filmmakers.

This year we’re working with Cai Chang [Taiwanese film distributor] who hold the rights for "Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton" (Kennedy, US). It’s the first time we have worked with a distributor that big. [It’s been positive they haven’t imposed] a lot of conditions. They gave us the freedom to hold the Taiwan premiere of the Laird Hamilton film as we want to.

Urban Nomad went from a bunch of friends making films to being able to meaningfully support up and coming filmmakers. — David Fraiser

TNL: Urban Nomad always has an active art and party element alongside the film program. What’s happening this year?

DF: We have two rooftop parties this year, an art one with three or four artists and live painting from one or two graffiti artists. The other is surf themed. There will be lots of giveaways from surf brands, clothing, sunscreen board wax that kind of stuff.

TNL: Let’s talk about" Metal Politics" (Wilms, Germany), which is a special competition screening this year.

DF: This is actually the third year that Marco (Wilms) has come to Urban Nomad. Two years ago we screened his film "Art War", which is about graffiti artists in Egypt during the Arab spring, and did a Q&A panel after. Last year he happened to be in Taiwan filming "Metal Politics" and he came to do a panel discussing the process and showed a couple of clips. It’s pretty amazing we’ve been able to work with him three years in a row. Panels featuring international filmmakers build the culture of the festival.

TNL: How has Urban Nomad reflected changes in Taiwan over time?

DF: Well we’re still in the creative mode of going forward and innovating. But we have been collecting short films from Taiwan for 17 years. Perhaps if there was enough interest it might be something we could put together in a program. Putting on a screening is quite expensive [in a commercial venue].

TNL: Yes, coming back to the money side of things. Would it be easier if you had government sponsorship?

DF: Actually last year we accepted a bit of government sponsorship for the first time. It’s a help, but…

TNL: And this year you have sponsorship from the British Council. Is that why there are so many British-focused films in the program [such as "Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist" (Tucker, UK), "Here to be Heard", and "Bunch of Kunst" (Franz, Germany) the story of the Sleaford Mods punk band]

DF: It was actually the other way around. We selected the films and then approached the British Council. They’ve been great to work with.

TNL: Let’s talk about the shorts program, which opens up the festival to the international community of filmmakers in Taiwan...

DF: It is like the beginning of Urban Nomad. It’s cool that we can get back to the early spirit of the festival.

TNL: Of the other shorts programs Shorts 4: Connected/Disconnected looks particularly interesting. Lots of experimental stuff in there and so on.

DF: Shorts 4 looks like it might sell out early on, which is unusual for a shorts program. It also features a short from Xiao Ying, who acted in "Cape No. 7" [a hit Taiwanese film set in Hengchung released in 2008]. He’s also the lead singer of [longstanding] local band The Clippers.

TNL: How has Urban Nomad helped films from Taiwan travel outside of the country?

DF: This year Easternkicks.com a UK based film site for Asian Cinema noticed our writeups for this year’s screenings. They are going to write reviews of some of the films that premiere at Urban Nomad. This is a small success at helping introduce Taiwanese films to an international audience. So it has had some positive effects.

TNL: From the beginning Urban Nomad has been reliant on volunteer staff. Have there been any cases where the volunteers have moved on to bigger or more formal things in the industry as a result of their volunteer work?

DF: We have a key staff of seven to eight people who are part-time workers, including myself. We hired the Volunteer captain from last year to be the Urban Nomad Assistant. Other volunteers have gone on to work for the Taiwan International Film Festival and the Docworkers union [a local documentary organization], and a film festival in Edinburgh.

TNL: It’s pretty cool that Urban Nomad is supporting young people in Taiwan in that way. Finally, what’s your favorite Urban Nomad memory?

DF: There are a lot, but the Trippple Nippples [a band from Japan who headlined the Urban Nomad Opening party in 2012] was pretty awesome. It is the only concert that we had with projector screens at the side of the stage. We worked out how to do it and were climbing around in the rafters hanging projectors and connecting wires. I don’t climb ladders so much anymore. Now it’s all spreadsheets.

Read Next: The Road to Revitalizing Taiwan's Creative Industries

The Urban Nomad Film Festival runs from Thursday May 17 to Sunday May 27 in Taipei. The schedule can be found here and the film line up here.

Interview has been edited for clarity.

Editor: Morley J Weston