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David O. Mckay Lectures

Other Fields of Vision: On Seeing Differently

President Kauwe, Vice President Walker, colleagues and students, Aloha, and Happy Valentine’s Day. I am sorry that my topic is not very romantic, but it is an honor for me to share with you a small part of my current research today. I am also grateful to be a member of this institution situated on the Land of the Hawaiian people.

My intellectual genealogy began with a focus in my doctoral work on European Romanticism in theatre and pre-cinema traditions, and specifically how Romanticism’s genre-mixing and self-reflexivity paved the way for modern philosophy on art and literature. Since I came to BYUH, postcolonial African cinema became the new focus of my research. I found that Romanticism’s self-critiquing nature is not unique to modern European art; it is also a common characteristic in Africa’s oral tradition, which has been integrated into pioneering African films that follow the so-called Third Cinema’s codes and language of filming. [2] Senegal’s Ousman Sembène, Father of African Cinema, likened filmmakers to the traditional griot, the storyteller. [3] I began to also include narrative features from Oceania to broaden the perspectives of my teaching. I was and still am keenly aware that I am no expert in Pacific Studies. So, I became a student again and have learned tremendously from such Oceanian colleagues as Witi Ihimaera, the late Teresia Teaiwa, Selina Marsh, Vilsoni Hereniko, ‘Ōkusitino Māhina, and our very own Dr. Tēvita Kaʻili. Their scholarship greatly complements my former trainings in European art and literature. Informed by their work, I saw an unmistakable parallel between African and Pacific films’ storytelling. Both are deeply rooted in their oral traditions, which place the orators or the cultural performers in a particular setting where they are consciously self-referencing their own positionality in relation to other cultural players, navigating through very specific socio-cultural as well as gender politics.

Through two films as examples, the 2011 Seediq Bale and 2017 Waru, I hope that together we can expand our “fields of vision” and fill the gaps of seeing and understanding when we look at films from cultures and worldviews that may seem very different from ours. The title of my address also references John Berger’s 1972 seminal work Ways of Seeing, which challenges traditional Western aesthetics in visual arts. [4] As we teach and study at this institution, the following scripture in the Doctrine & Covenants, Section 88, Verse 79 fittingly illustrates an imperative for us to study and understand the diverse creations of an intelligent God:

Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms. [5]

Former President Eric Shumway also eloquently advised how we can bridge cultural differences:

The gospel is the point of supreme reference which bridges ethnic chasms in ways the principles of other international organizations cannot. Of course, the gospel does not eliminate the preferential differences in dress, music, and the arts. In fact, it even seeks to preserve and promote the vast stores of cultural wisdom and beauty which reinforce gospel ideals and give infinite variety and flavor to a people. [6]

Following this wisdom, I hope we will become conscientious readers and can “be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God...for us to understand” (Doctrine & Covenants 88: 78) and better partake of these “vast stores of cultural wisdom and beauty.” In this talanoa, even through the medium of a public speech and moving images, we as audience would offer our “willing suspension of disbelief,” [7] when engaging a fictional world, and better yet, our willing suppression of prejudice, when engaging an unfamiliar or even strange world through our eyes seeing and ears listening.

Both Seediq Bale and Waru attempt to connect cinema with the cultures’ oral traditions and utilize both mainstream and unconventional storytelling strategies. First Cinema is the commercial-driven, Hollywood filmmaking in the so-called “invisible” style. [8] Second Cinema refers to European art film’s individualistic form of expression. Third Cinema as a movement began in the 1960s’ Latin America that viewed cinema as a decolonizing tool. [9] Forty years later, Māori filmmaker Barry Barclay coined the term “Fourth Cinema” to classify Indigenous cinema (with a capital “I”), made by and for Indigenous peoples. [10] Third and Fourth Cinemas share similar goals and storytelling styles in carving out a space for activism and political engagement. As audience, I propose to look at them through their cultural lens so “the judgments which are on the land; and knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms” can be obtained and become meaningful to us. It is a responsible lens, pun also intended, as each frame or story has to be situated in a particular time and space in the cinematic, narrative, and extra-diegetic worlds in terms of production, distribution, and reception. The Moana-based tāvā-ism, as a way of knowing, sees art as “genealogy of times and spaces…a product of temporally, spatially (and practically) intersecting material, psychological, and social entities” and as “tā-vā (time-space) transformation, where conflicts in fuo-uho (form-content) are symmetrically mediated to produce potupotutatau (harmony).” [11] This theory seeks to indigenize aesthetics and historiography, and emphasizes in storytelling the discursive space and subjectivity in relation to the hierarchical placement of cultural actors.

As filmmaking has long been seen as an invention of the colonizers, it became crucial for Oceanian filmmakers to modernize storytelling by re-positioning themselves as storytellers in and outside the cinematic space through this tā-vā theorization. These two case studies integrate Indigenous storytelling by fusing various types of speaking subjects and modes of filming to mold a narratology in de-colonizing narration. They tread along the lines of Walter Benjamin’s notion of history, not based on a progressive flow of “homogeneous, empty time,” but as “disruptive constellations of the present and the past.” [12] Cinema as a modern storytelling tool in the “age of mechanical reproduction” can disrupt the temporal order of history/stories in relation to the spectator’s sense of reality and presence, despite losing the “aura” of the original subject it records, according to Benjamin. [13] Cinema can also reconfigure the positionings of characters in the mise-en-scène and the soundscape, and continues to historicize peoples and places.

The protagonists in these two films are all required to “speak” and perform in an appropriate vā, or space, as a way of proclaiming their place. Gaiyatri Spivak teased out the power struggles of Indigenous peoples in gaining a voice by asking “Can the subaltern speak?” [14] In these two films, the filmmakers configured the various social spaces within each community, where Indigenous children and women, all “minor” characters, are given the agency as speaking subjects and thus act as causal agents to motivate the progression of the narrative. French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari discussed the concept of “minor” in analyzing Franz Kafka’s work as “minor” German literature. [15] Deleuze and Guattari argue that being a German-speaking Czech-Jewish writer who contributes to the German literary canon, Kafka’s minority positionality mobilizes the center and problematizes the concept of one singular national literature written in a dominant language. The “impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, the impossibility of writing otherwise” characterizes the paradoxical nature of Kafka’s minor positionings as both familiar and strange (Deleuze & Guattari 16). These two films weave in formal speeches, folk stories, songs, chants and orature, which provide a de-centering force to mobilize the threads of gender, class and race relations in order to restore harmony. Although the various forms of speech of these characters are essential to connect with their historical past, their relevancy and currency to the present is manifested through the characters’ “becoming minor” within a dominant culture in the Deleuzian sense. The staging of the voices and their body movements as tropes and motifs in these films not only marks their placement within the sonic and performance spaces, but it also punctuates the rhythm of the narrative within a reconciled and de-westernized gender and race dynamic in contemporary Oceanian storytelling.

“Vā”, is a socio-spatial concept in Polynesia, where a nurturing relationship is often developed locally. It is also an important concept to understand diasporic trans-nationality grounded in a traditional kinship relationship even globally. In cinema, the weaving of past and present locations and moments in time made possible through cinematography, editing and film projection, can appear to the audience that the boundaries of the traditionally “real” and “fictional” story spaces can become blurry. The present voice in an Oceanian talk-story recounts the past within a specific cultural space, formal or casual, yet appropriate to the positions of the storytellers in that specific moment. When such a moment is presented in film, the audience makes a temporal link between the ancestors’ circumstances and theirs in the extra-diegetic world, while acknowledging the currency of the meaning and significance of the story content on screen. It is not a representation in the political sense that Spivak references for the storyteller to serve as a proxy for the ancestors, mediated through the camera. It is re-positioning, instead of replacing, the storyteller’s connection with those that are “before” in the temporal and spatial sense through each act of speech or performance.

This cultural view places the unseen future in the back and the past in the front, and, as an analytical approach, normalizes the fusion of the spaces co-occupied by the living and the dead. This spatial conflation is commonly heightened in oratory performance and reverses the linear reality of time as well. Such trans-media storytelling as from oral tradition to filmmaking, and the politics of writing and re-writing of new and old narrative contents will inevitably result in a dialectical tension between the classical cinematic grammar and the conventions of Indigenous storytelling, as the latter will require its own negotiation of the time-space relationships in- and outside the films’ own textual and formal boundaries. Nonetheless, Oceanian conceptualization of time and space and its cultural logic construe a fluid, Deleuzian correlation between text and context, and can work towards de-territorializing, thus making room for indigeneity through an intentional suspension of the classical continuity conventions, as theorized by David Bordwell and driven by the Aristotelian causal narrative construction.

The first example in my visual voyage with you today is from my homeland Taiwan, now believed by many anthropologists and linguists to be the origin of the Great Austronesian Expansion. [16] The film Seediq Bale, which literally means “real person,” dramatizes the 1930 Wu-she incident during Japanese rule, an anti-colonial rebellion of one of Taiwan’s indigenous groups, the Seediq tribe. It was a high-profile production with an impressive international cast and filmed on epic scale in the Seediq language. Wei Te-sheng, a non-Indigenous director, created a polyphonic historiography through the soundscape in structuring the Seediq tribe’s resistance.

In a scene depicting the Seediq boys’ and men’s surprise attack, killing Japanese men, women and children at a school event, the director staged this violent and bloody sequence in dramatic slow motion, literally dragging out the men’s anger, pain, and brutality, and thus lengthening the cinematic tā/time. A non-diegetic song sung a cappella by an unknown woman chanter underscores the rhythm of the men’s action as they wield their weapons against their enemies, and their ancestors are seen marching across the screen. This soon to be history and story of resistance carries the ancestors’ spirit. Meanwhile, a mother stands in the same diegetic screen space desperately screaming, “What on earth are you doing my children?” It’s a mother’s cry questioning the method of the men’s rebellion and her grief over the loss of the children’s innocence.

Soon after, the Seediq chief is with the boys, who have just earned the tattoo on their chin after the initiation ceremony, signifying manhood, and will also participate in the following day’s final battle against the Japanese. As they recount the origin of their tribe, in a sound bridge, the camera cuts to the women they left behind throwing their babies off the cliff with great sorrow and preparing for their own suicide in an act of self-sacrifice to conserve food for the men in battle. It is a devastating scene of the death of the tribe, juxtaposed with the birth story of the tribe’s progenitors.

If we listen to the distinct voices of the men and women in these sequences, the director carefully validates both the tribal and the individual’s positionalities by weaving the two strands of narration, the creation myth and the present-day revolt, and allowing the women’s diegetic as well as non-diegetic voices to accompany the men’s movement on screen within the representational, cinematic spaces. In turn, the director also restores the discursive spaces respective of the men, children and women and simulates the Austronesian oral culture which relies on the polyphonic modes of relating history past, present and future in a non-linear fashion. The Seediq people’s action is always rooted in their gaya (laws and customs) based on past wisdom and experiences, as their ancestors are ever present “before them” through these songs and chants and through cross-cutting or dissolving the images of their ancestors and men on screen. As the women sing and comment on the present, they occupy the same cinematic space and speak side by side with their men at the appropriate story tā, or time.

In so doing, the director carves out three distinct yet complementary sound-plateaus, and two points of view in narrating history: the Seediq men and male children narrate ancestral beliefs, legends and myths, which form a more fixed cultural identity, as defined by Stuart Hall, [17] while the women sing about and even critique current happenings to counter and re-contextualize the timelessness of the men’s storytelling. These juxtaposed and seemingly incongruent vocal performances effectively embed in the sound scale a counterpoint that alternates gendered and dialectical chants, songs and oratory in different cinematic moments and spaces. They function to balance a larger cultural narrative that would maintain the orality in storytelling even mediated through a modernized mass medium like cinema by breaking the Bordwellian continuity typically maintained in commercial cinema’s narration.

The second example,Waru, from Aotearoa, consists of eight short vignettes by nine Māori women filmmakers. Each was given strict filming instructions: in one single take, it must start at the same diegetic time of 9:59 AM, progressing in real time for ten minutes when the funeral of a boy named Waru begins. Each segment comes from a different woman’s perspective. The women’s memories of Waru intertwine but take place in separate diegetic spaces. During this same cinematic , space, their emotions converge at the same moment in /time, coming to terms with Waru’s death. Each vignette would fade out, transitioning to the same diegetic time when the next one begins.

In this film, the directors unapologetically link the theme of emotional and physical abuse to the colonization of the Māori people. In one of the vignettes, a male Pākehā newscaster covering the news of Waru asks, “Are the Māori genes responsible for these dead babies?” Responding to this racist comment about the Māori culture, Kiri, a female Māori anchor, leaves her scripted position for her part of the show. She sits right next to her colleague and shares the same screen space with him. As the camera spins around the TV studio, with the male colleague’s frame moving across the screen and finally in the center, Kiri is framed in a screen within the screen. As her ancestral land is now standing in the present framing of a culture that defies it, Kiri’s movement seeks to restore truths by walking away from a position or TV frame defined by the colonizers and by walking into the latter’s frame to reclaim her space and create a counter-narrative, side by side in the same frame with the Pākehā to “Dehistory” the settlers’ story, a term used by Albert Wendt in his 1992 novel Black Rainbow. [18]

The intentionally fragmented nature of the film and story of Waru with the strict single-take and diegetic time requirement for each vignette to take place independently in a separate diegetic space, is clearly an exercise to indigenize filmmaking. Through Oceania’s lens of the tā-vā continuum, the film’s narrative structure connects with the geographical construct of the Island-nations, as Epeli Hauʻofa has described as “Our Sea of Islands,” linked by a common motif of ocean as the life source of these Indigenous sisters. [19] Teresia Teaiwa famously said, “We sweat and cry salt water, so we know that the ocean is really in our blood”. [20] These impressionist, polyphonic and symmetrical vignettes subvert the language and structure of mainstream cinema by staying true to Oceanian storytelling and breaking down a dominant narrative to remap their diverse conditions and yet retain oneness of their Moana experience and identity. The one continuous take also speaks to the time continuum past, present and future, with current colonial/postcolonial spaces merged with their ancestors’. The directors adopt very visible, strict filming codes, like their tapu and customs, to offer a counter-story against the colonial perspective that sees the contemporary Indigenous people’s problem as their own responsibility. Reflecting bell hooks’ powerful words about marginality as a “Site of Resistance”, [21] these Island filmmakers are not speaking about, or in place of their Oceanian sisters, but instead, they are speaking with them and near by, in solidarity, in a common space of what Barclay calls the “communications marae” (Barclay 77).

In the oral traditions of these two examples, the temporal and spatial connection of a community with its surroundings, ancestors and contemporaries as configured in the cinematic spaces transcend the linear structure and premises typically upheld in Euro-American film narratives and theory. Thus foregrounding orality and Indigenous views of time and space is essential to indigenize theories as it aligns with the cultures’ epistemologies and folk traditions. The role and versatile functions of the storyteller, chanter, or orator situated and engaged in a specific spatial and temporal frame, reveal the possible ways of seeing these pictures. These minor or marginal films, amongst the global mainstream narrative cinema, inject a stream of mana, to use the Moana term, pulling the mix away from the center, forming a counter-energy to open up not only a literal , however small it may be, for these films to compete at film festivals and in the global distribution market. And more importantly in academy as we are gathering here today, they also momentarily occupy the center of a specific discursive space for us to rethink the canon of world cinema.

As Stuart Hall commented, about storytelling, “we all write and speak from a particular place and time, from a history and a culture which is specific. What we say is always ‘in context’, positioned…all discourse is placed” (68-69). Oceania’s time-space, genealogy-community dialectics of historicizing provide a stablizing cultural force, the “collective ‘one true self,’ unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning” (Hall 69). However, the (re)making of the modernized legends or stories mediated through film or digital media is not always consistent with the old ones and would require significant remapping and adapting the modes and contents of traditional storytelling, without violating their cultural tapu. “Who is speaking,” and “from what position?” We as audience must always ask. Understanding the workings of situated and enunciated speech as signifiers, through which cultural thinking and knowledge are encapsulated, would help us listen, see, empathize, and act. Additionally, recognizing other cultural epistemologies as a valid analytical and theoretical framing in film studies can, in turn, become a larger de-stablizing, yet constantly balancing force in breaking open established conventions between the center and the margin and invite multiple voices to participate in an updated talanoa for us to gain knowledge of these countries and kingdoms and to restore equilibrium in the power dynamics. Teaiwa said in an interview: “you can’t just paint one brush stroke over a nation.” [22] Likewise, we cannot use only one lens over a culture. Through listening and seeing, while being aware of our own positionality, can we learn of the past and present perplexities of the nations and become better educated audience of “Other” cinemas that offer such rich fields of vision. I would like to close with a proverb from our host culture: ‘Aʻohe pau ka ‘ike i ka hālau hoʻokāhi (Not all knowledge is learned from one school). [23] And I thank you for seeing and listening with me today. Aloha and in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

[1] Title comes from: Fields of Vision: Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology and Photography. Berkeley: U. Of California P, 1995.
[2] Fernando Solanas, and Octavio Getino. “Toward a Third Cinema.” Cinéaste, vol. 4, no. 3, 1970, pp. 1–10.
[3] Françoise Pfaff. The Cinema of Ousmane Sembène. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.
[4] John Berger. Ways of Seeing. BBC Two, 1972.
[5] Doctrine and Covenants 88:79
[6] Eric B. Shumway. “Bridging Cultural Differences.” Ensign, July, 1979, pp. 67-71.
[7] Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Biographia Literaria. London: Rest Fenner, 1817, p. 6.
[8] See David Bordwell’s seminal work on classical Hollywood cinema’s “invisible,” or “continuity” style, in Narration in the Fiction Film. London: Routledge, 1985.
[9] Solanas, Fernando, and Octavio Getino. “Toward a Third Cinema.” Cinéaste, vol. 4, no. 3, 1970, pp. 1–10,
[10] Barry Barclay. Our Own Image: A Story of a Māori Filmmaker. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis Press, 2015.
[11] ʻŌkusitino Māhina. “Tā, Vā and Moana: Temporality, Spatiality, and Indigeneity.” Pacific Studies vol. 33, no. 2 & 3, Aug./Dec., 2010, pp. 184.
[12] Sami Khatib. “Where the Past Was, There History Shall Be.” Anthropology and Materialism: A Journal of Social Research vol. 1, 2017, pp. 21.
[13] Walter Benjamin. Illuminations. Trans. by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p. 264, 218.
[14] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’: Revised Edition, from the ‘History’ Chapter of Critique of Postcolonial Reason.” Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea, edited by Rosalind C. Morris, Columbia University Press, 2010, pp. 21–78. JSTOR,
[15] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Translation by Dana Polan. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.
[16] R.D. Gray, Q.D. Atkinson, and S.J. Greenhill. “Language Evolution and Human History: What a Difference a Date Makes.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 366, no. 1567, Apr 12, 2011, pp. 1090-100,
[17] Stuart Hall. “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, no. 36, 1989, p. 70.
[18] Albert Wendt. Black Rainbow. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaiʻi, p. 33.
[19] Epeli Hauʻofa. “Our Sea of Islands.” The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 6, no.1, Spring, 1994, pp. 148-161.
[20] Teresia Teaiwa. “We Sweat and Cry Salt Water, So We Know That the Ocean Is Really in Our Blood”, International Feminist Journal of Politics, vol. 19, no. 2, 2017, pp. 133-136.
[21] bell hooks.“Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, no. 36, 1989, pp. 15–23. JSTOR,
[22] Dale Husband. “Teresia Teaiwa: You Can’t Paint the Pacific with Just One Brush Stroke.” E-Tangata, October 25, 2015.
[23] Mary Kawena Pukui. ʻŌlelo Noʻeau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetic Sayings. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983, p. 24.