Film: Twelve Nights [Shier ye 十二夜]
Producer: Giddens Ko 九把刀, Sophia Sui 隋棠
Cinematographer: ZHOU Yi-hsien 周宜賢
Performers: Dogs at an unnamed shelter in Taiwan
Breeds featured: Taiwan dogs, Shiba Inu, German Shepherd, Basset Hound
Production information: Atom Cinema, 2013 (Taiwan)
** Promotional photos come from the official Facebook site; others are mine.
Twelve Nights, a documentary about dogs in a Taiwan animal shelter, hit the theatrical circuits this Friday, November 29th. I had a chance to see it premier at a sold-out screening in the midst of the Golden Horse Film Festival.
Here’s an early preview that I shared via Facebook:
A rough translation of the overhead narration (which is not present in the film):
What if you only had twelve days remaining? How would you like to pass your time?
[Intertitle: What is the happiest time of your life?]
Just quietly enjoy some time with your family? Eat a meal of your favorite food? Join your friends at the beach and chase the breaking waves? Shelter your children one last time? Sit together, and watch one last sunset? Or… would you want more time?
[Intertitle: A lifetime's journey, counting down in 12 days]
[Intertitle: Production credits (listed above)]
Everyone was handed a pack of tissues as they entered the theater (though some of us had come prepared anyway). “You’ve all got your tissues? You know what to do,” said director Raye somberly as she briefly introduced the film.
Who are the emotional masochists who choose to purchase a movie ticket, enter the theater, and purposely watch a film that they know is going to bring them to anguish and tears? I didn’t get a chance to survey the audience, but I noted that it was comprised of a mix of male and female (possibly leaning more towards women), mostly audience members aged forty or younger.
The film came together through the efforts of a young group of animal lovers. Raye, a commercial film editor who initiated the project, began taking her own footage, but had a hard time finding financial support. It wasn’t until she came upon a willing cinematographer, Zhou Yi-hsien (周宜賢), that producer Giddens Ko (九把刀 a.k.a. “Nine Knives,” a prolific writer and sometimes film director) entered with the necessary backing. After the screening, Ko noted, “I used to say that the most valuable thing I’ve ever purchased was dreams. But now I think the most valuable thing I can purchase is hope.” The driving motive of the film, according to Ko, is not to depress everyone about the monstrosity of the situation, but to inspire change.
Indeed, the film is radically different from any previous documentaries I’ve watched which address the topic of homeless Taiwan dogs. Twelve Nights looks and sounds like it should screen alongside mainstream, commercial features with high production values, though I suspect the actual budget was relatively low. There were no “actors” to pay, after all. Most of the crew is comprised of volunteers, and all of the proceeds are going to animal welfare charities anyway.
It’s a film that holds together with a desperation and sincerity befitting the gravity of the topic. They desperately want people to come and watch this film, not for their sake, but for the animals. And as art is motivated not by profit motives, but by a resolve to understand and transcend time and space, Twelve Nights is so much more than that fatal deadline indicated in the title, or the duration of entrapment in this “shelter” that is more accurately described as a death-row prison. Rather, the aesthetic choices delicately balance hope and devastation, inevitably tipping one way or the other at times, but doing so with grace and sensitivity. How do you convince people to actually purchase a movie ticket and sit through such a painful film, after all? And once there, how can you justify making them stay? Why do you want to expose them to animal suffering and cruelty, and the visage of real death? Must we see these things to know that they exist?
I think there are many valid ethical questions when subjecting audiences to screen violence of any kind. Let me try to explain how the film navigates these issues through its three outstanding features – cinematography, narration, and music.
As should be evident from the preview, the quality of the visuals is gorgeous. Alarmingly so. Natural winter lighting contrasts the torture of captivity by casting so many brutal details in a warm, golden glow. Yet, this is not to say that the documentary devalues the gravity of the situation by beautifying it. There is so much shit, piss, blood, vomit, and other discharges from the very first day that it should be clear that the filmmakers are not trying to sanitize the issues at all.
Day one begins with intake. We watch a group of newly collected dogs get dragged out of their cages and marched into their kennels at the end of catchpoles, fighting and defecating themselves every step of the way. All of them resist in some way, no matter what their condition — old, young, barely weaned, mangy, fit, injured, pregnant, limping. There is even a Shiba Inu, nicknamed “Little Japan,” who arrives relatively groomed and sporting a new-looking collar. She, like every single dog scanned that day, is not microchipped. And one by one, you see terror and confusion cloud over their eyes when they’re finally moved into their kennel.
This is the important thing though… You see their eyes. You see their faces and their whole, expressive bodies. When photographing dogs, this is such an essential rule, but so often the cinematography must make compromises to withdraw back to human-centric narration. Not here. Even when the dogs burrow underneath the raised kennel platforms to hide and cower, the camera tracks and follows, maintaining canine eye levels. When you see the concrete floor slick with excreta by the end of the intake session, the thought of sharing that stooped view with the dogs becomes nauseating. Yet this is the only way to emulate canine perspective, and begin to understand the conditions in which they live and die (though the limitations of the medium can’t transmit the primary way dogs perceive — through olfaction). In the entire documentary, you barely see any human faces, you barely even hear the shelter workers’ voices. Locked in on animal visages, the cinematographer was able to elicit more personality and more charisma from every single one of these documentary subjects than some purportedly dog-centric films starring trained animal actors.
Despite what is suggested in the preview, there is no overhead narration. No extra-diegetic, God-voices at all, dictating how we should feel and think. This was a very conscientious decision on the part of the filmmakers, who wanted to decrease the level of anthropomorphism, while acknowledging that we can’t fully escape the anthropomorphic impulse to narrate in our effort to make sense of the very reason for this documentary’s existence.
Humans want to tell, and to hear stories. It’s clear that the dogs possess emotions that hint at many of their own stories, but how do they want to be narrated? This is what the skillful cinematography allows us to contemplate, and it is also what the textual intertitles nudge us to see with clarity. A few dozen dogs are given code names, which confer personality — not to excess. Anyone who spends time observing dogs, whether twelve days or twelve years, knows that personality will naturally manifest. And with the evidence of personality, or what is being debated as “personhood” in some circles, comes the moral responsibility to acknowledge that terminating a life means silencing the stories that came to shape that creature’s personality.
This, I think, is the most heartbreaking aspect of the narration for me — knowing that all these dogs had a past, one that probably was intertwined with humans. So even Twelve Nights cannot avoid sloganeering, but I find their mantra of Adopt, don’t abandon 領養, 不棄養 to be less antagonistic as the American counterpart, “Don’t breed or buy while shelter pets die.” Animal welfare agendas in Taiwan similarly aim to shape pet owner behavior, but not necessarily on the level of reproductive control. I admit, I twitched reflexively when I saw that dogs from this shelter were adopted out without spaying or neutering. Upon reflection, such details remind me that this documentary is about trying to rearrange value systems, and even empathetic “insiders” are not immune to having their beliefs questioned. On the whole, I feel that the narration eschewed dogma, judgment, and sensationalism. Yet, “facts” are ever neutral, and always gesture towards context.
For example, we are told right at the outset that of the 400 ~ 450 dogs witnessed over the course of the filming, at least 53 of them did indeed make it out of the shelter. For the rest, the film serves as the last remaining record of their existence. What these numbers signify to the viewer is instantly so much more than mere numbers. They are reminders of hope, as well as a way to prepare the viewer for the heartache that follows.
This heartache is meant to produce its own agenda. The filmmakers want their audience to react strongly enough to desire change. But they’re also trying to let you know at the outset that the something positive is in view. In the post-screening Q&A, Giddens Ko shared a particularly touching anecdote. He spoke of how they’d already resolved to rescue as many dogs as they could, abandoning the impossible notion of maintaining “objectivity.” Yet, he was trying to steel himself against the emotional outpouring that he knew would hit. At least, he didn’t want it to happen in front of the camera.
On the day the film crew was to witness a round of mass euthanasia, Ko was completely prepared to turn off his emotions. He happened to look over at one of their volunteers, an EMT who regularly visited the shelter and became a part of their documentary efforts. His friend, built like a “homicidal maniac” (in Ko’s words), literally the appearance of a man of steel on the outside, displayed absolutely no resistance to the circumstances. He let himself cry freely, openly, and with great sympathy. Here was a bulk of a man who has to confront the brink of life and death, both in his career and by choice through his volunteer efforts at the shelter, and yet he had no inhibitions about expressing his feelings for these animals.
In short, the stake of these dogs is more important than your hangups about whether or not you should cry in front of others. This is something that the director wanted to remind potential audience members who say they want to watch the movie, but don’t want to be seen crying in front of their friends, or strangers. We legitimize these issues by allowing them to seep into public, and emboldening ourselves to appear vulnerable to others.
Briefly, I want to acknowledge the score provided by Owen Wang 王希文, a talented young composer whose name has quickly risen among the ranks of Taiwan film. The soundtrack is intimate and minimalistic, consisting mostly of sparse piano, acoustic guitar, and chamber orchestration, complementing the cinematography with a similar elegance. Most importantly to me, there are no “theme songs” to speak of, where some maudlin lyrics penned for a pop star destroy the mood by closing out with some gross overtures of marketable sentiment. Many a Japanese dog movie is guilty of setting such booby traps in the end credits, and also too many other animal welfare documentaries than I care to list…
While the soundtrack to Twelve Nights is memorable, it does not overtake the voices of the dogs themselves, which is constant in a noisy kennel environment. Director Raye knows to employ music, silence, and noise judiciously. You do have to hear the voices of the dogs at times, but the audience is spared the sensation of hearing them all the time. Music is offered as an important psychological retreat. When a film is as heavy as Twelve Nights, it is not at all a bad idea to create as many ventilation points as possible, so as not to suffocate the viewer before they make it to the end.
So I heartily approve of this film’s inclusion in the Golden Horse festival lineup, and completely respect anyone who has the heart to purchase a movie ticket and see it during its theatrical exhibition. At this point, I do not know of screening prospects outside of Taiwan. If a DVD becomes available later, I’ll update with information.