Exploring oneself can be a very private journey, but Nashville artist SueAnn Shiah turned her identity quest into a documentary. In HuanDao, she explores what it means to be both American and Taiwanese while riding through Taiwan on a bicycle.
Shiah shot the beautiful scenes on her 450-mile trek through the country. The nation comes alive through her lens: shimmering water, crowded streets in red lighting, colorful food.
“I did not want to create a propaganda piece,” Shiah said. A Detroit native, she graduated in 2014 from Belmont University, where she studied music business with a production emphasis, and minored in Chinese. Shiah wrote, directed and produced HuanDao,
“I knew I wanted to talk about larger issues that are deeply important to me like racism, but the only way I could be honest about this pain was to share my own.”
Shiah talked with The Contributor about HuanDao, released this year.
What inspired you to make this documentary?
The “huandao” trip was one that I had planned to take for two years before the concept of the film came to mind. My collaborator and friend Anne Zhou, she and I often talked about the lack of representation of Asian American narratives in media as well as the lack of women in film/TV production.
I kept telling people about my trips to Taiwan, and my plan to go bike the country, and people were all so interested and said things like “I wish I could do that.” At one point, something clicked where I realized that through art, through film, I could take people with me. That was when I started reaching out to people and developing the film idea.
You took a first-person approach to cultivating the story in HuanDao. How did you come up with your plan for how to shoot it and tell the story?
One big challenge in my life has been attempting to love people and not the idea of them; conversely, trying to make art that shows, not tells. You can’t make anyone believe anything, you can only tell your story, and show them what you know, and then let them make decisions on their own for themselves.
Talk about your time making it.
From the beginning I knew it would be a deeply personal film. So I made sure to shoot confessionals at the ends of days. But on the whole, we just filmed what happened
without a commitment to how we were going to wrap it all together. After shooting, it became clear that the only way to create a cohesive narrative was to write in the first person perspective.
In the film’s description, you say you explored what it means to be both American and Taiwanese. Did making this film help you gain greater clarity into your identity?
Making the film definitely gave me greater clarity in my identity, and it pushed me to find out what both those words (Taiwanese and American) meant to me. It also pushed me to consider how and why we as people embrace these identities often from different perspectives and experiences. In the film, I talk to a variety of “Taiwanese” people who all have different stories of how they ended up on the island of Taiwan. It pushes me to think about the debate we have today, even about who gets to call themselves American and how we define identity and home in others and in ourselves.
What was the most unexpected thing you learned from making this film?
I don’t know if this really counts as unexpected, but I learned how much people mean to me. It matters who you live with, work with, eat with and dream with. That was true in front of the camera, behind the camera and also off camera. I think I knew this on some level inside always, but so much of this was lived out and solidified through the experience of making the film.
What do you want the audience to take away from it?
I want the audience to walk away inspired to go on their own journeys of exploration. I hope that by sharing the beauty that I discovered and the things that I learned, others want to go out and find that beauty too. I hope people think about where they are in life, and how their present intersects with the past, with history. We all live in a context, and if we don’t consider that context, we can’t really see where we fit in the grander scheme of things.
After all, how do you know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you’ve been?
Where can we see the film?
I’m currently doing a grassroots release of the film, so working with colleges and universities predominantly, also churches and community organizations to host screenings and discussions. So if someone wants to see it, consider hosting a screening or getting somewhere near you to host it!