Between Past and Future:
Documentary Films on the 2/28 Incident in Taiwan

By Sylvia Li-chu Lin

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 21, no. 1 (Spring 2009), pp. 46-71

With the lifting of martial law in Taiwan (July 1987) the taboo against many formerly sensitive and controversial issues, such as the 1947 February 28th Incident and the persecution of dissidents generally referred to as White Terror, disappeared. Literary and cinematic works mushroomed over the subsequent two decades in an attempt to re-create this suppressed part of Taiwanese history. While scholars in Taiwan and overseas have examined these artistic representations of atrocity, little attention has been paid to documentary films, in which eyewitnesses, victims, and victims’ families come forward to tell their stories, often aided by archival film footage and newspaper clippings. These non-fictional records of the past purport to convey what “really” happened, but it is precisely because of this claim to truth that they need to be examined with care. The mnemonic reliability of eyewitnesses and survivors needs to be called into question, not to discredit their experience but to achieve a measured understanding of the past. Furthermore, the power of visual images demands that we study the determining role played by the manipulation of camera lenses and interviewers in recapturing historical events in documentary films.

This essay focuses on two films, Scars of the 2/28, and Postwar Era and the 228 Incident, and explores some of the central issues involved in documentary films on atrocity, such as the conflict between respect for victims of atrocity and a search for truth, and the privileging of “historical facts” over memory and commemoration. I argue that a constant clash inevitably arises between memory and history, for these documentaries are concerned with the past and the future, but never the present. On one hand, the representational strategy is dictated by a teleological need to explicate historical causality; on the other hand, these texts, though attempting to “remember” what happened, are oriented toward a future where government atrocity is avoided. In other words, the purpose of remembering is not so much to keep from forgetting, but to serve as a medium for reconciliation. It remains a challenge for documentarists in Taiwan to reach the instructional aim of a documentary without losing sight of its constituent component of human faces and the memory of their suffering.