Books and films a window into Atayal culture

I saw the short film Msgamil: Once Upon a Time (泰雅千年) while visiting Smangus in August last year. I then saw Through Thousands Years* (走過千年) at the Ethnographic Film Festival. Msgamil is a short film produced by Chen Wen-bin (陳文彬) about the historical migration of the Atayal. Through Thousands Years, by the Atayal director Pilin Yabu, documents the process of the making of Msgamil.

Illustration from Words from Yaba

I recently visited Taichung to talk with Dr Lin Yih-ren (林益仁) at Providence University (靜宜大學). Dr Lin very kindly gave me DVDs of both films and also two books about the production of the films. The books, titled Words from Yaba (Chinese: Yaba的訪; Atayal: Kay na yaba), are both bi-lingual with one edition in Chinese and Atayal and the other in English and Atayal. The text is beautifully illustrated by Wang Yong-cheng (王永成) and also includes photos from the making of the films.

The book takes the form of a series of letters written by Pilin Yabu to his children while in the process of making the documentary. The letters convey lessons about the gaga, the moral code of the Atayal that is inherited from the elders. These lessons teach about many important aspects of Atayal culture such as weaving, hunting and the meaning of facial tattoos.

The most important lessons though come from placing these lessons in a contemporary context surrounding the making of a film in an Atayal community. By placing the wisdom of the gaga within the context of contemporary events it shows how the culture adapts to changing circumstances. The letters from a father to his children also shows how the gaga is actively transmitted to the next generation.

The documentary reveals that there was a lot of conflict in the film making process. This is discussed in some more detail in the book. The book ends with contributions from six experts discussing Pilin Yabu’s documentary and the controversy involved in the production of the film. There is an emphasis on learning lessons from this rather than placing the blame on any individual.

Words from Yaba is a unique window into the contemporary world of the Atayal. Its multi-lingual format and two related films combine to make an important and accessible body of work for multiple audiences.

The books and DVDs are published by the Shei-Pa National Park (雪霸國家公園). They are available from the Government Publications Bookstore (國家書 松江門市) in Taipei and Wu-nan Culture Enterprise (五南文化廣場) in Taichung. They can also be purchased online at

*This is the English title that was used in the film festival. The English title on the DVD is The Moment Run Through.