Berlinale-Blogger 2017 “I expected the camera to bring me closer to my mother”

Interview with Hui-chen Huang
Interview with Hui-chen Huang | © Hui-chen Huang

Director Hui-chen Huang, producer Diana Chai-wen Lee and editor Jessica Wan Yu Lin came to the Berlinale to present “Small Talk¨, an tender and extremely candid documentary, in the Panorama section. The film observes the director’s mother who is homosexual but was married off at a young age.

It is through the process of filming that Huang gets to know her mother’s inner world and works towards reconciling both of them with the past. The entire team of Small Talk is very sweet, and talking with Hui-chen Huang, who has a beautiful soft voice, was both enjoyable and enlightening.

When and how did you come up with the idea of shooting a film about your mother?

The idea first came to me in 1998 when I was 20 years old and still working as a professional mourner at funerals. At that time a documentary filmmaker came to shoot my sister and me working there. It was the first time in my life that I saw the camera used for TV programmes and became aware of the existence of documentary film. From that point on I started to think about making a film about our family. I first saved some money to buy a camera and then took a course at a community college to learn some basic techniques. The smaller images in the film are taken from material dating back to around 1998. As my mum has been filmed since 1998, she no longer notices the camera in her daily life. What was more difficult was getting her to sit down for an interview; she is not someone who can use language to express her emotions easily, and she did not want to talk about those stories of the past.

Everyone tends to think that the presence of a camera increases the distance between people, yet from the very beginning I expected the camera to bring me closer to my mother because without the camera I would never have had the opportunity to get closer to her.

How did your five-year old daughter feel about this?

My daughter was with us during the entire shooting process. She finds it interesting to see a film made about our family. She likes to take photos a lot now. As we see at the end of the film, she would take her small toy camera along to imitate what I do. At the beginning she was filming me and interviewing me, and then she went to film my mother and ask her “do you love me?” The ending is actually what we want to express with this film: as humans, the quest for love is innate in all of us.

The dinner table conversation between your mother and you is very touching. It’s like a declaration of your love for your mother, but at the same time you reveal a secret about the past – both to your mother and to the audience. I imagine that it must have been quite difficult emotionally to have this conversation as both a daughter and a filmmaker. Can you tell us how your emotions changed during shooting and how you designed the set and shot the scene?

This is the scene in which I confessed my feelings to my mother. Worried that we might feel uncomfortable, I set up three cameras: one filming my mother, one filming me and one shooting the scene as a whole. The cameraperson left after setting up the cameras. The entire process took three hours and we had to trim quite a bit. In fact, we were silent for a very long time during those three hours because we are both very clumsy when it comes to expressing our emotions. When facing those closest to us we couldn’t or didn’t dare to express our feelings. Someone once asked me how we ended this scene. Sure enough, at the end I collapsed emotionally and told my mother to leave first. Otherwise we would have continued sitting there even though we were just shedding tears in silence. After she left, I rested my head and arms on the table and cried until the cameraperson came upstairs to switch the camera off.

The advantage of recording and filming is that we would be able to view the situation in a more objective manner. This is especially important because what I understood on that day was not necessarily correct.

Did things change for you after finishing the film?

I made this film with the clear goal of changing my relationship with my mother, and I am now seeing that our relationship is going in a very positive direction. When I turned our life into a documentary and then had my mother watch it with other spectators in the cinema during the Golden Horse Film Festival, she was suddenly able to look at our mother-daughter relationship with some distance. She started to really understand what had happened between us and why we were interacting in such a way. My mother is someone who is usually quite moody. After watching this film her mood suddenly became very stable and she was in good spirits for a whole month. I was very happy to see that she received the message that I wanted to transmit.

The interviews with your mother’s ex-girlfriends were a lot of fun to watch. All of them talked very openly. Did you encounter any difficulties in finding and interviewing them?

Most of her ex-girlfriends live close by, so it was not difficult to find them. They agreed to be interviewed for very different reasons. My mother’s current girlfriend likes to talk. The previous girlfriend really wanted to be interviewed. Before we interviewed her we felt quite embarrassed whenever we bumped into her in the neighbourhood. Some came to complain about my mother. In fact, those mothers who live at the bottom of society do not have the “face” problems that those from the middle class tend to have because they understand that this is life and even life with lots of suffering is worth sharing.

How did you assemble your dream team?

The producer Diana Chai-wen Lee had just come back from the US to Taiwan and wanted to help Taiwanese filmmakers at that time. I attended a workshop which she taught. I met Lim Giong, the music composer, 20 years ago when he was a very popular singer. He came to pay respect to the deceased when I was working as a professional mourner. When we then met each other during the Taiwan Cinema Night at Busan Film Festival, I mentioned this encounter to him and he asked me about my documentary. He said that he would be our music composer and told us not to worry about the fees. As for Hou Hsiao-hsien, we met because I used to have a day job with a social activist group. He bravely executive-produced a film made by someone who was not trained in film school. When NHK was investing in the film, we signed the contract in the name of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s company, which facilitated a lot of financial support. There were really many people who helped us throughout the process.

Congratulations on winning the Teddy Award for Best Documentary. The Teddy is the official prize at the Berlinale for films dealing with LGBT topics. What does this award mean to you?

This award means a lot to me. It is a great recognition of everyone who was involved in this film. A film is not something that can be achieved alone, so I am really thankful to everyone who has supported me and who made this film possible. This award is the best present I can bring back to my mom in Taiwan and to everyone there who is working hard for marriage equality at the moment.