225th Meeting – Tuesday, July 9th  2002

'Lisu Actors and Foreign Filmmakers'

A video presentation and talk by Dr. Otome Klein Hutheesing

Dr. Otome Klein Hutheesing is a sociologist from Leiden University in the Netherlands, who has been doing research in a Lisu village for more than 20 years.  

This is the full text of her talk:


"Tiger mountain will never die" is the title of a 40-minute video, made by a Dutch film crew, about the Lisu mountain people. My talk this evening will focus on the ways in which foreign media-men portray other cultures. I hope to create some understanding of the process which we generally go through when we confront others who are different from us. A part of that process are the 'pictures in our minds' with which we stereotype races and, often, exaggerate their habits. The colours with which we 'paint' may be just black and white, at times brilliant, yet the portrayal we create is more often than not a far cry from the gray, shaded lives people actually live. It is now generally accepted that the authentic nature of another ethnic community can never be truely fathomed, even by those involved in long-term social research.

Film as a medium and a business enterprise, concocts images of the lifestyles of other people which are idealised, stylised versions of how they really act and feel.

I will underline these mind processes, concerning the 'knowledge' of other social realities, as I discuss the kinds of uncertainties one faces when one tries to approach another land and lore without blinkers. Biased, subjective views of other cultures are often born of the individuals background, needs of the moment and/or the justification of a political ideology.

The Lisu

For some background information about the Lisu, I would like to give you a quick sketch of how, during their long history, they as a minority group have been perceived by the majority population surrounding them. The Lisu are a people who, throughout their history, have lived in areas on the high grounds between four mighty rivers of Northwest China. Virtually impenetrable in their isolation, early Western missionaries regarded these areas as the 'Kingdom of Satan'. In European missionary reports, the Lisu were described as barbarians who engaged in cruel, gangster-like behaviour. Other foreigners typified the mountain tribes as being exceedingly lazy, while the Lisu were characterised as “The wildest of untamed natives of all the Montagnards.” Similar observations were found in Chinese chronicles, where they were termed as black barbarians and quarrelsome drunkards.

When sections of the Lisu population were forced to migrate to Burma, by dint of the  pacification efforts of the Chinese and their demand for taxes, the British in Burma viewed them as “Destroyers of the forest, inherently warlike and given to feuding.” Ousted from Burma, where they had problems trafficking in opium with the remnants of the Kuo Min Tang forces and were victims of inter-ethnic strife in the Shan and Kachin states, they crossed the border into Thailand. Over a period of about 90 years, groups of Lisu continued to flee to Thailand and there are now about 23,000 living in hill communities. This number is however decreasing with the steady increase in the drift of Lisu into the cities, as a result of their deteriorating economy. Known for their fierce independence and their near-egalitarian relationships (also with regard to gender), they have, along with other minorities, been victims of stigmatisation by the majority population of Thais, who regard them as dirty and crude, as spoilers of the environment, and whose women are known for their free and easy ways. Thai popular magazines and tourist brochures, however, tend to portray them in a somewhat friendlier light. These publications show images of beautiful Lisu girls dancing in colourful costumes and describe the people as a strong race living in harmony with nature. The wildness, depicted in the earlier stereotypes, is toned down and instead we note touches of 'back to nature', with natives idealised as simple souls who dwell in romantic environments. It is interesting to observe that Chinese tourist pamphlets now portray the Lisu as “poor, but serene souls, superb hunters who live in enchanting environments." In the 'Tiger mountain' video, similar themes of  Lisu villagers as a fearless people, romanticised in some beautiful shots, can be detected.

The film industry as such is not geared to provide an authentic insight into the inner mechanisms of a culture. Cultural aspects, such as the relationships between clans, the rituals to pacify spirits and the values guiding custom, are seldom touched upon in films and when they are, they are usually stylised and sensationalised in the fashion of the popular media.

Anthropological research on the Lisu has made an effort to understand kinship patterns, the economy of subsistence agriculture, folk stories and songs, the tenuous concept of ethnicity and the ways of worshipping diverse spirits like the ancestors and the guardians of the land, which have their roots in Tao beliefs mixed with animism and a Buddhist flavoured female deity. As social scientists, anthropologists often have to do some soul searching to question their own concepts with which they look at other cultures. As such they are in a quandary when they have to analyse the beliefs and mores of other people. The research subjects’s idea of their own lifestyle is at times difficult to express in words because their ways of cognising the world around them are less conscious, uncodified. Lisu culture, being fluid, untractable, often “cooked” and remodelled on the spot, is a stumbling block for any outside investigator who aims at some real understanding of other people’s thought.

Foreign Filmmakers in the Limelight.

Probably the most serious criticism of film as a medium to portray the life of a people is that, with its powerful machinery and trickery, it creates a fictional world which is far removed from the raw, everyday reality of life. In the process of creating an image which will entertain, environments are refashioned, nationalities faked and a make-believe stage created.

When I was first asked to participate in the production of a video about the Lisu hill people, with Lisu teenagers acting out a story, which would be part of a series of films intended to show Dutch secondary school students how other cultures live, I answered, rather naively, that it would be more authentic, and cheaper, to make a documentary. In a documentary the camera would merely follow Lisu kids and watch them as they engaged in everyday activities like collecting bamboo worms, playing in the school yard, making their own toys, talking in the family circle, going out with their father to catch pangolins or shoot birds, watching their mother prepare mountain liquor, participating in traditional ceremonies and, nowadays, nagging their parents to buy them a motorbike. Simple, authentic scenarios in which one let’s the people speak for themselves.

My suggestion was immediately squashed with the words, "Dutch school kids will be bored. There must be action, a captivating, dramatic storyline, otherwise they will not want to watch." And thus I became involved in the production of a feature film in which instant heroes were created, violence was played up and the search for spectacular scenes and locations became the main motivating forces. What the video producers did not opt for was the genre of films made by Asians, like, for instance, one shown recently at a Hong Kong film festival in which five young Chinese in bathing suits are filmed sitting on a bank of the YangTse river, doing nothing, not uttering a syllable, just to highlight the ponderous Asian orientalism. Leaving aside whether one should emphasize Eastern mysticism rather than concrete Western dialogue, worse conceptualizations are often put forward by outside filmmakers. 

In this context, I recall how perturbed the well known Indian author Narayan was when the setting of his South Indian novel was relocated, by an American film company, thousands of miles away in the North. When he exclaimed "You have to stick to my geography and sociology. Although it is a world of fiction, there are certain inner veracities.”, the film director's answer was, "We must shoot where there is spectacle.”

Despite the fact that my experiences with the foreign film crew were not as unsettling as those of Narayan, I had to keep thinking about that strange breed of people who would sacrifice reality for the sake of glamour. Many a time I tried to look at the film crew as if they were a tribe with their own peculiar rituals, motivations and mannerisms.

Anthropologically speaking, the Dutch team, in particular the director, subscribed to the ideology of making beautiful pictures to produce a shining movie, in the process of which he would at times sacrifice authenticity of place and culture. If an anthropologist would look at them, as natives of a far-away society, they seemed to have rather odd work rituals. They never walked to their "field” and sat most of the time surrounded by a forest of machines and instruments, looking at pictures, pouring over papers, all of it geared towards producing a spectacle from the right angle with ideal lighting.

As a part of their mindset about tribals, the crew initially searched for an idyllic Lisu village, pristine and untouched. However, as logistics and their personal comfort became the main concern, they ultimately choose a village which consisted of a helter-skelter assembly of dwellings on stilts, nothing like traditional Lisu houses. It transpired that their reasons for selecting this village were that the road leading to it was not too bumpy and that there was a resort nearby where they could relax and sleep after work. To make some village houses more 'Lisu-like', corrugated tin roofs were covered with straw. This intervention however, according to the lady of one house, did not please the house spirits. She complained to me that the spirits were upset by all this disturbance and that the sacrifice of a castrated pig and one male and two female chickens had to be made to pacify them. In this ideology of power not only are environments to be refurbished as the producer envisions them, but the players as well are forced into a frame of behaviour that, according to the director, fits the storyline. After one attempt at role-playing, a young Lisu actor was told, "You laugh this way... Your reaction was out of frame." A presumed psychological scheme is imposed in terms of how people should gesture, how to look sad and an explanation is given in terms of “He feels he has to do something nice in return.” How does one know that this type of psychological reasoning fits with the knowledge a Lisu has about adequate responses? A rationale for motivations is imputed to Lisu behaviour which may not be, to them, commensurate with the way they would interpret their actions.

The language of the video tribe people was rather quaint, quite abrupt and spiced with technological jargon. Befitting a desire to control others, their language consisted mainly of commands: “You here, you sit.”, “Don’t talk.” The words 'Action', 'Attention', 'Shoot', 'Silence', 'Rolling' were shouted like military commands and between themselves one overheard strange connotations of the word “cut”- "Ah, there is a cutting moment”, “We put a cut there, a cut here.” Within the context of speech there seemed to be a lingering desire in the mind of the tribal-headman-producer to believe in scriptures, i.e. the written text of the screenplay, which had been assembled out of bits of information from anthropological literature, mostly mine and Sjon Hauser's, mixed up with their ideas as to what would “sell”. The scenario was rewritten umpteen times, the story was straightened out, while dialogues had to be precisely worded. Thus the Lisu actors had to memorise the text, which had been translated from Dutch to English, English to Thai and then rephrased from Thai into Lisu. Once I heard the director give the order, "You have to feel the text.” (identify with your role). How is this idea communicated to the Lisu who have no word for 'text' and no proper term for 'to feel for something'?

In the final phase of production, the director, while watching the mounted strips of film with scenes rolled backwards and forwards, had to be constantly reassured that what was said in Lisu language followed exactly the lines of the written text. However, unbeknown to him, peculiarities of Lisu language played their part. At times a long written sentence would be spoken with three words by the Lisu actor, while the Lisu took poetic licence when the text was rather brief by adding their own flowery phrases. Sticking to precise wording and literality, being so letterbound, would eventually create a cultural gap between the director and the Lisu actors, who have always relied on a rich oral tradition.

Other misunderstandings between the film crew culture and Lisu life style were observed. Understandably, an outsider tends to apply his/her own experiences to other people’s activities, and as a result asks naive questions. The director's ignorance regarding tribal ways became most apparent during a long-distance telephone conversation when he asked me a long list of questions about the Lisu wedding ceremony - "Who has the first dance with the bride after the wedding? The father of the bride?”, "Do the couple go on a honeymoon?", "Does the bride look radiant?” Such information-seeking queries posed from afar are rather harmless, but in the field of action they become major faux pas, displaying, at their worst, an abject insensitivity to other cultures. For example, the film crew was about to shoot a scene where a Lisu man and woman, acting the parts of husband and wife, were to lie in bed and have an argument. First, the position of the couple’s bed was on the wrong side of the family altar; this location having been selected by the crew because of better light, and then the woman acting the part of the wife objected to lying too close to a man who was not her husband because the villagers would accuse her of being a loose woman. It took more than two hours to convince the director that the placing of the bed had to be changed and that the scene had to be shot in such a manner that the couple did not seem to be huddled together. As Western foreigners, they also had to come to terms with the world of spirits, an active, motivating force in the lives of the Lisu. In this context some Lisu villagers wondered about Dutch spirits, whether they were worshipped and how. I mused about that and told them that nowadays these foreigners only believed in the spirit of capitalism, a phenomenon which would be hard to convey or visualise in the Lisu spirit world. In response to their question, I asked them whether they thought the “farang” carried spirits and a couple of them were of the opinion that, in view of the prodigious amount of body hair, they must have very strong ones. Their answer made me think about the curious ways in which the idea of barbarian has travelled. 

The story depicted in the video.

In brief, the story is woven around the lives of two Lisu teenagers; Ale, a 13 year old boy and Mimi, who is perhaps 14. During a raid by the Thai army, Mimi’s father's opium is confiscated, but Ale manages to hide his father's opium in a tree. After the soldiers have gone, Ale's father retrieves his opium and sells it to buy waterpipes for his tomato field. He also buys a book on the rules of takrow and a takrow ball as a present for the village boys. The boys immediately clear a piece of waste land near the school to make a takrow court where, with Mimi reading the rules from the book, they start to practice every day. Everything is fine until, one morning, the boys arrive at their court to find the newly appointed Thai teacher's Suzuki Caribian parked in the middle of it. An argument ensues when the teacher comes out of the school to see the boys pushing his car off of their court. In this scene and the scenes that follow, we get a glimpse how the Lisu kids react to the Thai school system. Mimi’s father, who lost his opium, tries to borrow money from Ale’s father because he needs to pay a bride price for his son, who has impregnated a girl and made a “forest child”. Ale's father agrees to loan the money but, not wanting his wife to know about it, tells Mimi's father to come to his tomato field the next day to collect the money. The next day however, Ale's wife is working in the tomato field and becomes very annoyed when she sees the money change hands.

Mimi’s father is also in debt for a television bought on credit from a TV store in Chiang Mai. The family have no money because the crop of cabbages they sold at market; a substitute crop which the local government, via the army, forced them to plant instead of poppies, fetched a very low price. When the Thai TV store owner comes to collect the installments and the family can't pay, Mimi volunteers to pay off the debt by working in the TV shop in Chiang Mai. Ale, who is secretly in love with Mimi, knows nothing of her departure from the village until her brother tells him. Upon hearing the news, Ale goes to the city to find her. When he succeeds, she tells him she does not want to go back to the village. As the now dejected Ale is leaving the TV store, he sees a poster for a takrow tournament in which the winners will earn a large sum of money; 8,000 baht. Ale decides to work hard with his team of Lisu boys and his father agrees to supervise their progress. On the day of the tournament, when the team reach Chiang Mai, Ale jumps out of the pickup truck to go to the TV shop to get Mimi, but when he gets there the shop is closed for the day. He arrives late at the match and is not allowed to take his place on the team until one of his team mates is forced to retire with a twisted ankle. A twist of fate that allows Ale to play and score the winning point, and become an instant hero. Ale uses his share of the prize money to settle Mimi's debt with the TV merchant. In the final scene we see Mimi and Ale sitting on a bench, basking in the afterglow of his triumphant entry into the village. Mimi shows her fondness for Ale and confesses that she came back to the village because of him. Standing under a tree, the fathers of Ale and Mimi watch this tender scene and comment that it would be an appropriate match, particularly so as the bride price Mimi’s father would receive for his daughter would clear his debt with Ale’s father.  

By way of summary, the filmmakers seemed to waver between two images of their conception of tribal people. One image was laced with references to exoticism, the quaint, the oriental with tinges of sensuality and played-up violence, while the other was a projection of Western-laced ideas regarding the creation of individual heroes, with its related formula that despite all obstacles they will triumph. Another foreign-imbued image was that of the romantic love complex which filtered through the scenes played by the teenage actors. Despite this amalgam of Western stereotypes about the East, a charming video was concocted with some true Lisu touches, especially with regard to the intricate bargaining deals of everyday life which the Lisu strike for goods and services. The attitudes of the Thai teacher, the Thai store owner and the Thai soldiers towards the Lisu also approached a realistic rendering of their actual behaviour. Two aspects of the video that were totally unrealistic were the romantic love between Ale and Mimi and Ale's 'noble gesture' in paying off Mimi's debt. Romantic love between teenagers is unheard of in Lisu culture, and a young Lisu man might settle a debt for his sister or, more rarely, for a close female relative but never for a girl from another family.

The actors, both Lisu and Thai, were all amateurs and they performed admirably despite the pressures of Western-imposed ideology and work schedules.

On a more personal level, as I muddled through the sessions of consultation about Lisu culture, I learned that, due to my educational background and personal views, my own perceptions of the true nature of hilltribe communities were also susceptible to falsification.