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Videographer Tobie Openshaw on how his experiences in early adulthood shaped his life, his memories of the Sunflower Movement, and his ever-expanding list of projects.

INTERVIEW: Tobie Openshaw on Taiwan's Sunflowers, Indigenous Rights & Democracy

2019/03/29 , Voices
Cat Thomas
Credit: Supplied by Tobie Openshaw
Cat Thomas
Cat Thomas is a freelance journalist based in Taipei. She covers anything from culture to tech to travel, and sometimes all of those combined if she can swing it.

Tobie Openshaw (歐陽峰) might fairly be described as a stalwart of the foreign community in Taiwan. The 50-something videographer – who has lived in Taiwan for close to 21 years – is a go-to for several international news outlets when it comes to covering Taiwan with work appearing on Al Jazeera (Decriminalizing Sex Work in Taiwan), The Weather Channel (covering various typhoons), The Economist – for whom he recorded an interview with Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in the early days of the Sunflower occupation – as well as various segments on the BBC, Sky, Discovery and National Geographic Travel, perhaps the most well-known of which was on funeral pole dancers in Changhua County.

Alongside this, Openshaw has a regular day job as a videographer for a private school in Taipei and is involved in myriad side projects: He’s the founder of Taipei Filmmaker Nights, chairman of the board of directors for Taipei art/performance space The Red Room Association, helps out with the Urban Nomad film festival, is involved in organizing the upcoming Burning Man pre-burn event in Yilan and consistently has some ad-hoc projects on the boil – which are often related to film development or indigenous communities in Taiwan.

Openshaw is curating a photo exhibition for the five-year anniversary of the Sunflower Movement which will take place at The Red Room in April. The News Lens caught up with Openshaw to discuss the upcoming exhibition, his experiences as a videographer during the Sunflower Movement and how life in his native South Africa shaped his views of modern Taiwan, and his upcoming projects.

Tobie_Openshaw_inside_the_Executive_Yaun
Credit: Supplied by Tobie Openshaw
Tobie Openshaw inside the Executive Yuan.

The News Lens: Tobie, you moved to Taiwan back in 1998. What first brought you over to Taiwan and do you recall your first impressions?

Tobie: I was born and raised in South Africa, at a time of whites-only beaches and schools, and a period of civil war, ever-increasing unrest, violence and crime. I did my two years National Service as we all had to, but soon after graduating from University I moved to neighboring Namibia where most of the “Petty Apartheid” laws had been abolished. Here, I worked in theater for a while before migrating into documentary film work.

I experienced Namibia’s transition to independence, and then (due to affirmative action) I moved back to South Africa. After a few years of struggling to get enough freelance work to keep afloat, I knew I need to make a jump. I had started a family by then and the crime situation was becoming very serious. Friends of ours had moved to Taiwan to teach English and were singing its praises to us all the time till we made the decision to pull up stakes and follow them.

So yeah, crime and poverty in South Africa brought me here (that, and an airplane, is my standard lame joke). I had no idea what to expect and I vividly remember standing on a street corner in Taoyuan City in the rain, with a large electronic billboard flashing overhead street vendors, incomprehensible neon signs all around, scooters scuttling by and little blue trucks blaring advertisements in an equally incomprehensible language, and my first thought was “Oh my God, I’m in Blade Runner.”

TNL: In the early days of the Sunflower occupation, on Mar. 21, 2014, you recorded an interview for The Economist with Ma Ying-jeou about the Cross-Strait Agreement. While the interview had been set up prior to the occupation how would you say the atmosphere was within the Presidential Palace that day?

Tobie: My feeling is that this was around the time that it started to sink in that these kids were not just going to go away.

A_crowd_of_Sunflower_supporters_-_Photo_
Photo: JJ Chen
A crowd of Sunflower supporters.

So it was very clear that tensions were running high in the Presidential Office. What should have been a softball interview about economic policy and rapprochement with China took on a very uncomfortable edge. The president's office had been given the questions beforehand, The Economist editor from Singapore flew out, and everyone was on tenterhooks. Dare we bring up the occupation? What will his reaction be? I set up my shot to include the translator, but after getting my mic on her and getting ready to roll it was decided that she was not really needed – but still she sat there in my shot looking completely redundant – and it was too late to ask to change the shot. Ma himself looked intensely uncomfortable, his skin was sallow and he squirmed throughout the entire interview. Everyone was trying to keep it light but when we finally wrapped and took our leave after much bowing and handshaking, it was as if I could hear one great collective sigh as the door closed behind us.

I have filmed interviews with a number of heads of state or other “important” people, and they invariably go to some trouble to set a light mood, but in this instance, it was not the case at all.

The Economist is pretty soft on China. [The interviewer] asked about [the occupation] and I only remember that Ma Ying-jeou said something along the lines of ‘Well if people have complaints they should follow legal ways to address it and not take on rowdy behavior.’ But I don’t recall that that made it into the final cut of the interview.

Tsai_Ing-Wen_came_to_the_EY_in_support_o
Credit: Tobie Openshaw
Tsai Ing-wen, then running for chairperson of the Democratic Progressive Party, came to the Executive Yuan in support of students.

TNL: You were involved in covering the Sunflower Movement, from the second day onward you were frequently onsite both inside the Legislative Yuan and in the surrounding area. You also provided footage for French news channel France24. In an interview for the Daybreak Project, you described walking through the protestors and witnessing the power of mass democracy in action. Five years on do you think that the movement has effected lasting change in Taiwan’s political and social landscape?

Tobie: So there is no doubt that the Sunflower Movement forever changed the political landscape in Taiwan. Legitimate and peaceful protest was cemented as an accepted way to foment change. Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) got elected off the momentum created by the Sunflowers, and in return hired a bunch of young people to various positions in her office, to try and project a younger, fresher face. One of the Sunflowers who joined her communications office, as a speechwriter, was Jiho Chang (張之豪). In the intervening years he learned that in order to change the political system, you have to be in it, and so he ran for office in Keelung and won a seat. So I am very excited to have Jiho speak at the opening of my photo exhibition marking the 5th Anniversary of the occupation.

Jiho_Chiang_inside_the_LY_-_Photo_suppli
Photo: Supplied by Jiho Chang
Jiho Chang inside the Legislative Yuan.

The impression of Taiwan youth being spoiled, easily-bruised “strawberries” was also put on its head, as I saw young people linking arms and braving the police advancing on them, with great courage.

I have lived through three revolutions. One was South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy, another was Namibia’s achievement of independence in 1989, and the last was the Sunflower Movement. While that was a “soft” revolution, it was one that achieved the most with the least casualties – and I thought it was a beautiful (and rare!) example of how democracy can and should work.

Inside_the_LY_-__-_Photo_by_Tobie_Opensh
Credit: Tobie Openshaw
Inside the Legislative Yuan during the Sunflower Movement.
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Credit: Jonathan Burke
Police guard the front doors of the Executive Yuan.
Outside_the_barriers_-_Photo_by_Jonathan
Credit: Jonathan Burke
Students outside the barriers.

TNL: You’re organizing an exhibition at The Red Room for the anniversary of the Sunflower movement. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Tobie: My exhibition will feature mostly work from other expats including Ian Rowen, Kenny Paul, Jean-Jacques Chen, myself, Caden Davidson, Hani Basior, and Jonathan Burke. It will run for around a month from Apr. 21 onwards [see below for full details].

Tobie_Openshaw,_Ian_Rowen_and_France24_j
Credit: Supplied by Tobie Openshaw
Tobie Openshaw (L), Ian Rowen (C) and a France24 journalist inside the Legislative Yuan.

Read More: INTERVIEW: Ian Rowen on the Sunflower Movement and Youth Activism in Taiwan

We often heard from the Sunflowers [at the time of the occupation] that they felt the world was not taking notice of them, so we did what we could with our media connections. I shot for France24, but also for Ruptly.TV, a stock news agency. The sad thing, however, was that Ruptly was interested only in “footage of clashes.” I tried to explain several times that that was not the story here, that the story was nuanced, and that, in fact the core of the story was the non-confrontational atmosphere that reigned. That, however, fell on deaf ears.

A few months after, some of the Sunflower leaders spoke about their experience at University of London SOAS’s excellent summer program (I spoke there a few years ago) and apparently there were people from Hong Kong, and they were taking notes. So shortly after when the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement started, it was absolutely along the same lines. The result was different for them, because – well, in Taiwan there was a government which, for all its faults, recognized the right to protest.But to those of us who extensively covered the Sunflowers and tried to get the word out, it was galling to see the world's media suddenly sit up and notice, and ask, “WHERE in the world could such a peaceful protest ever take place?” and we went, “Over HEEERE, in TAIWAN... we did it quite a few months ago ... you just didn't want to pay attention.”

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Credit: Yolanda Stephanie Barton
Protesters_on_Trafalgar_Square_London_in
Credit: Yolanda Stephanie Barton
Above: Protesters at Trafalgar Square, London in support of the Sunflower Movement.

TNL: One type of story that does get covered from Taiwan is breaking news on natural disasters and extreme weather. You often provide footage for international news outlets about this kind of thing. What has been your most hair-raising experience from the front lines?

Tobie: Well Typhoon Soudelor [in August 2015] was right up there and it was also personal because Wulai was just devastated. I know the area well and have friends there - when I came around the corner the day after and saw not only was my friend’s restaurant gone, but the very earth it had stood on was gone … her livelihood filled with good cheer, and lots of indigenous artifacts, many of which she had made herself … I couldn’t hold back the tears.

TNL: You covered the Tainan earthquake in February 2016 in which 115 people perished and 397 were rescued in the Weiguan Building (維冠金龍大樓倒塌事故). How soon after the quake were you onsite and what are your lasting impressions from that week?

Tobie: I and my production partner Sean Kaiteri arrived two days after the event. There were well over 2000 people gathered around the site: emergency workers, counselors, Buddhists chanting sutras for the dead, volunteers of every kind handing out food, soup, coffee, warm hats and scarves – to all who came.

It was freaking cold but we stuck it out on this rooftop we were shooting from and every few hours they would bring out someone. Sometimes alive and as they were hoisted up you could see the rescuers talking to the victim, reassuring them. Then a 11-year-old girl was brought out and complete silence fell over the whole scene. As they lowered the body, soldiers formed two lines and as the rescue workers carried the body, everyone linked hands, and the soldiers all saluted. It was the most moving thing I ever saw. Then another live victim would come out and as they were handed off to the medics and bundled into the ambulance, a ripple of applause would break out among the assembled people, and cries of “Xin ku le!” (辛苦了! Good work!) would ring out. It was really an amazing show of people coming together in tragedy.

TNL: As a documentary maker, you need to maintain neutrality. Have there ever been occasions where you have found it tricky to do so?

Tobie: I’m not impartial, really. While I do my best to make sure that all voices are heard fairly, it is impossible to not have any bias whatsoever. So, of course, I am on the side of women’s rights, of democracy and free speech, of indigenous self-determination. It is possible to clearly be rooting for a side, and still to present the case fairly. In my case as an outsider, that usually plays out with me just saying “They say this thing, whereas they say that thing” – and just let people speak in their own words. But I easily do get emotional when I’m filming or discussing any struggle against injustice, talking to people who show great courage… that sort of thing so it’s not unknown for me to not be able to see clearly what I’m filming, through tears!

TNL: You have covered indigenous rights issues extensively over the past decade or so. What first drew you to this and what have you learnt from your experiences?

Tobie: As a child, I read stories about the San people of the Kalahari, how they survived in a bone-dry desert climate, the animals they hunted and their almost preternatural ability to track an animal. Then, in 1993 or so, I worked on a documentary project in desert Namibia that was about researching new water sources in the desert. I came in contact with the local hunter-gatherer Topnaar people and their chief Kooitjie (a dapper young man who had a day job in the nature conservation department), who spoke eloquently about his people, how they had been marginalized by successive colonial regimes, and how they practiced an age-old and effective form of conservation even under extremely difficult conditions.

So, when I came to Taiwan and discovered that there were in fact an indigenous communities here, and started to read up and talk to people about them, I began to realize a simple fact: indigenous communities the world over have pretty much the same narrative: Being the first inhabitants, owners and custodians of the land, being faced by a colonial/occupying group that comes in and destroys their habitat, pushes them out of their traditional areas, encroaching on their lands, destroying their culture and language, as well as the traditions that served as community adhesive. Legal and government systems, paperwork – all the paraphernalia of a western government and all alien to how indigenous people self-govern.

There follows a period of decline, even genocide, and then at some point there is a re-awakening, an attempt to reclaim what has been lost. This then most commonly manifests as a grasping for traditional attire and songs and knowledge, belief systems etc. Often a group can stay in that cycle for a long time, essentially fulfilling the role of “performing monkeys” that the former colonial powers trot out every now and then to show how magnanimous they are.

Then - and this is the exciting part - if they are lucky, indigenous groups begin to reclaim a new identity, one that is rooted in the past but plays out in the now.

TNL: You’ve been involved in building links between the Maori and indigenous Taiwanese communities. What has been the project you are most proud of in this context?

Tobie: So it was actually while I was doing work on the history of betel nut (TEDx talk) that I became aware of the “out of Taiwan” theory, that says that the proto-Austronesians migrated outward from Taiwan to settle the Pacific islands such as Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, and eventual Aotearoa, or New Zealand. I was immediately fascinated. How did they manage to cross those vast oceans? And more importantly, why?

Then a few years ago I accompanied fellow filmmaker Tony Coolidge to the Wairoa Maori Film Festival, and was incredibly honored to have the experience of staying in a Maori Marae (traditional hall) for almost a week. The Maori people’s strength of character, down-to-earth sense of humor, and pride in culture and language was immensely moving to me. There I was, a white South African who would rather disown my apartheid roots, and here were these youngsters working so hard to learn their language and to hold on to their unique identity.

My favorite project from that was when I facilitated, with Sean Kaiteri, a visit by Moana Maniapoto, noted Maori singer and New Zealand Music Hall of Famer, who was compiling an album of original collaborations with other indigenous artists around the world. We paired her up with Inka Mbing, a semi-retired Tayal singer, and over the course of a few days they produced a beautiful song together that speaks of the importance of traditional language. Seeing them come together, form a connection and then work through a creative process was immensely rewarding and satisfying.

My next project though, is to try and develop indigenous filmmaking in Taiwan. Since Maori have embraced filmmaking as a tool for storytelling and have done fantastic work in recent years (Taika Waititi being a prime example) I want to invite a group of Maori film students to Taiwan, pair them with Taiwan indigenous students, and have them produce four short films that speak of their shared culture, history – for contemporary issues. This project is currently seeking partners and funding.

TNL: You were invited to speak on panels at Taiwan studies conferences in the UK in 2017 and in 2018, as well as at Academia Sinica here in Taipei. How did this come about and how did you find the experience?

Tobie: SOAS’s School of Taiwan Studies under Daffyd Fell is incredibly active in promoting dialog about Taiwan around the world, and their summer school program has become legendary for inviting a very broad range of Taiwan academics and practitioners to come and speak. So when I mentioned to Daffyd that I was coming to the UK on a holiday, he immediately invited me to speak, and in the end I did two talks – one on the Sunflower Movement, and one about my work-in-progress documentary about the Indigenous apology.

I love having an audience and talking about my work, and especially to a receptive audience. When I spoke at Academia Sinica they had to kick us out at 7 p.m. because people just wouldn’t leave – there were lots of conversations and questions and reminiscences going on.

Stephane_Corcuff_of_Academis_Sinica_and_
Credit: Tobie Openshaw
Stephane Corcuff of Academia Sinica and his team removing ephemera for preservation.

I have now started hitting the MUN (Model United nations) circuit too – I’m a Keynote speaker at Kang Chiao MUN next week, and addressing indigenous issues at TAS-MUN a few weeks later. It is very gratifying to see international-school students start to take note of local issues, considering that they are taught a mostly American curriculum and American Social Studies topics.

TNL: Your work has led to you interviewing and meeting several high profile-people in Taiwan. Which one would you like to sit down and have a natter over a beer with?

Tobie: Well, I have met and been privileged to know many absolutely outstanding people in Taiwan. And when I start counting them off, I also note that almost 90 percent of them are women. Some of them are in high-profile positions, others are doing extraordinary work in humble settings.

But I guess still my all-time favorite is Kolas Yotaka, currently Executive Yuan spokesperson and indigenous Legislator-at-large. I’ve known her since she was a producer at TITV (Taiwan Indigenous Television) and she is a true fighter for indigenous rights in particular, and for what is right and good in general. Last year I had the incredibly good fortune to introduce her to Moana Maniapoto, mentioned above, and I just sat back and watched these two powerful indigenous women connect across a table, talking about language, about music, about identity. The energy that sparked off them was almost palpable. There was an Australian guy also in attendance who later complained that “he felt like he wasn’t even in the room” and I just said, “Yeah mate, you weren’t. Come on, that was pure woman power and it was a joy to watch.” These two women embody that rare example of being strong women who don’t need to act like men in order to show their strength.

TNL: It seems fair to say that Taiwan is your adopted homeland at this point. What issues affect you as a regular resident and how have you handled them?

Tobie: Well the issue that most directly affected me has been the immigration laws. My one son Conrad is mentally challenged, and therefore he couldn’t work or go to university and after 21, he could no longer be on a dependent ARC. Thus he had to do visa runs all the time [and, because of his disability he had to be accompanied every time].

I was not the only parent with an adult dependent child stuck in this position, and other long-term expats were starting to consider bringing their aging parents here.

The conversations and meetings I had with various officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) would make for a tragicomedy series on their own, but the organization Forward Taiwan took this up as one of their issues of immigration reform in Taiwan, and with the help of legislator Jason Hsu (許毓仁), amendments were finally pushed through after a few years of back-and-forth. It was, however, too late to benefit Conrad, because by that time we had made the decision to send him to South Africa to live with his mother.

I would gladly take Taiwanese citizenship but for the fact that I absolutely abhor paperwork of any kind and thus it is merely inertia that is stopping me from doing it!

TNL: Back when your kids were teenagers, your family took part in the Garden of Mercy’s weekend foster program for infants born in circumstances that exposed them to the risk of HIV infection. These were long-term arrangements which aimed to give the kids a sense of family life outside of the full-time care they were receiving. Has the family stayed in touch with any of the foster kids? Is the program itself ongoing?

Tobie: The program is actually “weekend-fostering”, where the child stays in the orphanage in the week, but every weekend you pick the child up on Friday and drop him or her back on Monday. So in this way the child gets an opportunity to experience “home life”, but the orphanage still has the primary responsibility for their care. (and during vacations) The first boy we fostered was actually HIV positive, which meant that we had to give him very precise doses of medication at exact times. Because of his status (and the attached stigma) no-one wanted to adopt him, even though his health was very good and he had every hope of living a pretty normal lifespan, so we actually had him with us on weekends and holidays for almost two years. It was a blessing to see him come in every weekend and toddle down the corridor, hug the dog and pull the cat’s tail, and with this big smile on his face that said, “I like it here.”

Eventually, though, he was successfully adopted out to a family in the U.S. I do keep in occasional touch with his mother, so besides the usual difficulties of being a preteen he is thriving, and it amazes me to remember the sweaty little boy in my lap in Taiwan, and seeing him now stand proud in his snow suit, snowboarding like a champ.

We went on to foster four more babies for shorter periods.They all have rather sad stories of parents who are drug users and HIV positive, and one always needs to keep in mind that the child is only loaned to you - you do have to give them back at some point, when either family members agree to take them in, the original parent restores their parental rights, or the child ages out of that system.This is very hard – but ultimately very rewarding and it was our way of “giving back” to Taiwan society.

The program is ongoing, yes. It is very well run, the children are exceedingly well taken care of, and they are always looking for weekend foster parents – so by all means send them an email and inquire about volunteering or fostering.

TNL: You grew up in the era of apartheid in South Africa and have spoken in a TEDx talk about how you became increasingly uncomfortable as a child and young adult with the values of your country at the time. How do you feel your personal values overlap with life in Taiwan? Are there any aspects of Taiwanese society that give you pause for thought?

Tobie: South Africa was of course a very repressive society, and so was Taiwan in the martial-law period. Reading Shawna Yang Ryan’s “Green Island” was an eye-opener with regards to the many parallels there are to the South Africa of the past. However, South Africa was very, very deeply divided around race, while Taiwan society’s divisions were perhaps more complex.

TNL: You have fingers in many pies nowadays including your role as chairman of the board of Red Room (a performance and arts space community in Taipei) which you took on last year. How have you found the experience so far and how does this role complement your other projects in Taiwan?

Tobie: The Red Room is a wonderful community of free spirits who come together around spoken word, visual arts, music… all the things that gives us a dimension beyond the daily grind. I have been a regular attendee of the monthly open-mic events for many years. But Red Room was always operating on very loosely-organized, organically-growing principles, and so the decision was made to form a not-for-profit association in order to manage and run the organization more efficiently and to expand it. It’s been a really tough road in terms of the amount of red tape that the government throws at us, but we have just had our first AGM and we have shown tremendous broadening of the kind of events we facilitate. Just recently we had an event for International Women’s Day that was warm, inclusive and empowering to all who participated.

TNL: Let’s talk Burning Man. You’re involved in organizing the pre-burn event in Yilan next month. How did you become involved and how is the event planning going?

Tobie: There are a whole bunch of people in Taiwan who have been to Burning Man events and who support the burner ethos of radical self-reliance, self-expression, and sharing. I actually feel there are many parallels with the indigenous community. We are planning an informal event called SPARK running Apr. 4-7 in Yilan, with space for about 60 people (spaces filling up fast!) and then we are working towards a sanctioned Burn event in June.

TNL: Do you have an overreaching personal philosophy that makes sense of how insanely busy you are? If you had to Marie Kondo your projects, which ones would you keep?

Tobie: Ha – I imagine Marie Kondo would look at my life and just turn away, shaking her head and saying, “This one, I can’t help.”

But yes, I have a simple quote [by Albert Schweitzer] that I live by, that sets the tone for what I do. I determined early in my life that I will never be a billionaire who can just throw money at huge problems and make the world a better place. But, I can do small things and I can do them repeatedly. So here it is:

“A man can only do what a man can do. But if he does that each day, he can sleep at night – and do it again the next day.”

Tobie_Openshaw_performing_at_the_Red_Roo
Credit: Supplied by Tobie Openshaw
Tobie Openshaw performing at the Red Room.

Sunflowers in the Streets: Protest Photography from Taiwan will run at The Red Room from Apr 21 to May 26.

The exhibition will open on Apr. 21 at 4 p.m. with a talk by Jiho Chang about the legacy of the Sunflowers, followed by an illustrated talk by Tobie Openshaw about his experience documenting the Sunflowers.

Snacks and drinks will be available, plus an opportunity to mingle with photographers and participants.

Admission is free.

Address: 建國南路一段177號 (入口左邊第一棟灰色大樓2F)| Jianguo S. Rd. Sec.1 #177 (1st building on the left, 2F)

Read Next: 5 Years Later, What Is the Legacy of Taiwan's Sunflower Movement?

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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