Interview: Tobie Openshaw

Tobie Openshaw is a South African-born filmmaker living in Taiwan for 18 years. His work has been seen on documentary channels such as National Geographic, Discovery, and Al Jazeera. Tobie was in Taiwan during the Sunflower Movement. The following interview took place on October 3rd, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  So the first question I wanted to ask is, how did you first become involved in documenting Taiwanese activism? What were the causes you documented?

Tobie Openshaw:  I first came to Taiwan in 1998. I was a documentary filmmaker in South Africa. One of the first things that caught my eye when I came to Taiwan were the betel nut girls. That was a very unique part of Taiwan’s culture and society, so I started working on that and documenting that as something that was unique and different, as well as with the notion of acting as a voice for the voiceless.


Photo credit: Tobie Openshaw

These girls are misunderstood and people say, “Oh, they’re bad girls, blah blah blah.” So I wanted to find out the real story. That was something that worked on and off on, both in terms of film and photography, for a long time.

But in South Africa, we came through a period of civil unrest. We had riots and protests that turned violent at every turn all the time, so it was something that I was very, very familiar with. As I became more aware of Taiwan’s political issues and where there are protests and so on—it probably started with the Wild Strawberries—I went there and took some photos and started to get some idea of the undercurrent of Taiwan politics.

Before that time, I was living in Taoyuan, not in Taipei. I was working as an editor for an English magazine, keeping my head down and earning money and keeping my family going. But with the Wild Strawberries, I got this impression of someone having a peaceful protest and not pushing for confrontation, yet also staking their case clearly.

One thing that I also need to mention clearly is that as an outsider, as a foreigner in Taiwan, there are still today people that say that you’ve got to be careful if you participate in any kind of protests, because you can be deported. Because it’s not on your ARC, it’s not on your job description. So I’m always at pains to make it clear that I am not a participant, but an observer and a documentarian. My personal feelings about the cause that is being protested are set aside and I’m willing to discuss them, but that is not what I am doing when I am out there.

Then I just heard that night that the student had occupied the Legislative Yuan and I thought, “Wow, I want to see what’s going on.” And I did. This was my first sight of the events there when the students were on the roof singing and waving their cell phones and I realized right away that, “Wow, there are a lot of people there.” I was really on that first, second day, I think actually it was the second night of the occupation. Because I have a full time job, so I had could only go in the evenings and that kind of thing.

I was immediately struck by the sort of easygoing and almost festive atmosphere and yet with so many people. Right from the first time when I arrived there, I could tell that this was something significant, that may seem like, “Oh, we’re having a party out here in the streets,” but there was a lot of support for it.

Photo credit: Tobie Openshaw

Brian Hioe:  So what kind of things did you do to document the Sunflower Movement?

Tobie Openshaw:  I would go regularly, like I said, mostly in the evenings and just photograph and film and record the things that caught my eye and the things that I saw. Then I got asked to shoot for France24, the French news channel, so I spent about three days doing that. Just shooting stuff for them.  We had a producer come out here.

Before that, on that first day, I happened to shoot an interview with Ma Ying-Jeou for The Economist. That had been set up long before the Sunflower Movement happened, but obviously, the questions centered around that part. And I was just really struck by that he was not having a good time. You could tell that he was under a lot of pressure. What was coming out of his mouth, I felt was very rote. I really didn’t feel that he had a good grasp of the depth of this issue.

So yeah, I shot for France24, and basically a lot of the time, I was just soaking up the atmosphere. When I came there that night and the first few nights, there was no cell phone coverage, and the cell phone companies came there with their trucks and pulled up their masts, and there was free wi-fi. Again, I just thought, “Wow. There’s more to this than just a bunch of kids on the street.”

And then, I was also shooting for another channel called Raptly, which is a channel based in Germany, but they’re basically a stock news agency, so they buy footage from people all around the world. But they really are only interested if there are clashes. They always said, “If there are any clashes, any police clashes.” After awhile, when the thing sort of settled itself out and I could see which way it was going, I would just tell them that it’s not about the clashes, that’s exactly the point of this thing, that it’s about peaceful, about being non-confrontational with the police, and that both sides are honoring that idea.

But it was very hard to sell that idea to them. Things started to get organized and there were public bathrooms, water supplies, people set up stations where you could charge your phone. And then came the night of the Executive Yuan occupation, so that was a bit more violent and a bit more chaotic and a bit more activity there. So I went there with my friend Jonathan and, again, we basically just covered the activity there.

Photo credit: Tobie Openshaw

Always I was struck by the police officers just standing there, doing their job, and you could see that they were getting very tired. And the way that the public, when they changed shifts, they would clap and be like, “Good job!” and that kind of thing. That was really great. In front, this guy kept saying, “Mr. Policeman! We are not the enemy! We are all Taiwanese!” That kind of thing.

I was also struck by the way that people on the ground and social media were marshaling people. The guy directing things at the Executive Yuan would say, “We heard that the police water cannon is over on that side, everyone go to that side!” And everyone would go in that direction. You’d also get bits on Facebook. So the way that this played out in real life, with people and on social media, and it was managed through social media, was a landmark event. There was one guy there who had an asthma attack and there were like ten medics there on top of him, helping him. And someone else was live streaming all the time, doing his live stream.

Tsai Ing-Wen showed up on the night of the Executive Yuan incident and that was another thing. I’ve met Tsai Ing-Wen about three, four times now, before she was president. And I just always felt that she’s a real mensch. She’s really a warm human being. And she came there and sat down the ground and showed her support. Of course, when she left, the water cannons came.

I also actually left around 2 AM or so, because it was getting really late and it didn’t seem like anything was going to happen. So soon after I left, the water cannon did come. But the thing that really got me was when I came outside, because everything was going on inside that compound, and finally I was exhausted, it’s 2 AM in the morning, waiting for things to happen, and trying to get things shot and so on. And I thought that I was going to go home. And I came outside and the street was just packed with people. I was just like, “Whoa.” People were just standing there. Nobody was going crazy. That was just so powerful to me. I still choke up a bit when I talk about it.

So I left and then the water cannon came. Afterwards, it’s in people’s interest to talk about police brutality and that all these people got hurt. But coming from I come, given my perspective from South Africa, where protesters kill each other, never mind the police, people have got it really good here in terms of the police allowing civil disobedience and public protest. My impression is really that the police were almost apologizing. There were multiple warnings and then they were like, “Look, we’re going to have to do this, we’re going to have to take you out of here now, because this is actually illegal.”

I should probably disclose at this point that in South Africa, I did my national service in the military. And at the time when we had major unrest in the black townships. So I did three months in the township in uniform. So I’ve been on the other side in uniform, with a rifle, on an armored car. Even at that time in South Africa, I felt, “These people have a right to be here. They have the right to do this.” Our rules of engagement were clear. If someone had a firearm or a hand grenade, you were supposed to shoot. But, again, it was this kind of contract. If they kept it reasonably peaceful and so on, you were supposed to keep your distance. So I do look at it from both sides.

Photo credit: Tobie Openshaw

And, again, just purely from my outsider perspective, yes, the occupation of the Legislative Yuan was sanctioned by the owners of that building, the legislators. They said, yes, we are allowing this, they have the right to be here and protest. But the Executive Yuan was a different story, that belongs to a different arm of the government and that was an illegal occupation. They had the right to remove you.

An interesting point is why that happened at that time. I don’t know, because I was always just on the fringes, I was never really embedded in the movement because I kept myself outside as an observer. But what I do know is that the effect was definitely to energize the movement, because it was getting towards, “We’re just sitting there in the building now and nothing is happening.” It’s a sad fact that when your protest is running out of steam, generating a bit of violence will reenergize it. I believe that is certainly what happened.

So yeah, like I said, just going there every day and soaking it up. All the medical supplies and all the medical volunteers, people making coffee, carrying it around, the fact that you could buy stuff online and send it there. That was just amazing. And the way that these kids stepped up and arranged it. Making things organized, so it wasn’t just chaotic and messy and things like that. And that’s something that I also don’t really know how mechanically that worked. Like, “Oh, let’s just run into the Legislative Yuan and occupy it,” morphs into something that regimented and organized so quickly. It’s still a real surprise to me. But a pleasant one.

Brian Hioe:  Looking at the social movements in the years before the Sunflower Movement, did you see the tendencies which eventually led to something like the Sunflower Movement breaking out? For example, rising Taiwanese identity with regards to the Wild Strawberry movement and so forth. You also see the growth of self-organized protest movements. That all came together on an enormous scale when it came to the Sunflower Movement.

Tobie Openshaw:  I was not really that aware of the dynamics of what was going on before that time. So I guess when I came there and I saw how it grew, it suddenly all made sense, and I realized it was obviously about way more than the cross-strait trade agreement. And that this was the expression of a very strong and long dormant sense of, “We want to make our voices heard, we have had enough of being told what to do. We want to be the ones to tell now.”

Brian Hioe:  Along those lines, did you see the movement as about a large set of issues? Because between the different movement participants, I’ve tended to find that there were three different layers. Opposition towards the black box, above that, opposition towards the KMT or China, and the minority might be opposition towards free trade. How did it appear to you at the time? Did most people seem to be opposed to the black box? Or the KMT?

Photo credit: Tobie Openshaw

Tobie Openshaw:  I think I saw all three that you mentioned. And, of course, all the other people who latched onto it, such as the anti-nuclear people and indigenous people.

Indigenous issues are something that I’m particularly interested in. I remember seeing this indigenous guy one day that was really funny, he was saying, “People tell us that we don’t understand the trade agreement. We understand it very well. We indigenous people have had these agreements pushed on us before. We used to live out in the plains, but now we live up in the mountains. We had to fight with our bows and arrows and spears. You must fight with your words, because we don’t have any more space for you in the mountains!” [Laughs]

It was just really cool. So like I said, the things you mentioned about transparency, the KMT, and China were the main issues and everyone interpreted those in their way. But that’s what brought everyone together. But other people also grabbed that platform and ran with that. I think it was a very broad based civil protest event, which incorporated a lot of groups. And that people paid attention to.

Brian Hioe:  Did you notice anything in particular regarding indigenous participation? I also am interviewing a lot of people involved in the space they organized. From the people I talked to before that, they said that they participated in movements before, but it was only after the Sunflower Movement that it became more and more of a mainstream issue.

Tobie Openshaw:  So yeah, I think that the Sunflower Movement opened up the avenues for those things and it showed people that protest can work. Number one and number 2. Going back to a bit about what I said regarding what my previous impressions were, I certainly saw that the impression of the easily bruised strawberries was not true. I saw that kids there were being really brave. That was something that very strongly shifted my perception. Now these kids, if you push them, they will actually do what needs to be done, and they will do it well.

Brian Hioe:  Where do you think that came from? It’s interesting to me that young people are suddenly concerned with social movements in the last few years.

Tobie Openshaw:  I can’t say, because I’m not Taiwanese, I’m not privy to those kind of dynamics. And I would be very interested to hear what people who have more insight into that would have to say.

But in terms of indigenous people, quite a few people that I know today are leaders of the indigenous movement were also in the Sunflower Movement. Such as Savungaz. She was there and she was at the forefront. So now with the indigenous protest that’s going on at the MRT station, I see that they try to incorporate a lot of things, but they haven’t been able to get the kind of momentum.

Photo credit: Tobie Openshaw

So I know that, maybe skipping ahead a bit, you wanted to ask if you think something like this could happen again. Yeah, I think that this happened at a moment which was right for it to happen and it grew and had momentum. To artificially start that again is not easy. I think it’ll have to be something which really grabs people. If China fires the first missile, we’ll see something.

Brian Hioe:  What do you think the lasting effects of the movement have been? In terms of Taiwanese politics or identity.

Tobie Openshaw:  I think it was a ground shift in the political discourse and the political sphere in Taiwan. I’m convinced that Tsai Ing-Wen was elected because of the Sunflowers. I spoke to Frank Hsieh, I interviewed him, and it was interesting to me how he was at pains to say that, “We support the students in their efforts.” And he was at pains to say how it was not a DPP thing.

While I am sure there was some DPP support, I do believe that they kind of let the students do their thing, so I know that they could also see the shift happening. And so I think Ma Ying-Jeou learned a lesson and that every government after him will know that you can’t just push shit through. You can get a very strong pushback on that kind of thing. And it’s the kind of pushback that can make or break a party.

So then it came to an end and watching them cleaning up the floor of the legislature, and cleaning up the gates where all this stuff was stuck on it, and the cleaning of the glue off the tape, I thought, “Yes. This is about occupying the moral high ground.” Because all throughout you could hear people saying, “Oh, they’re just a bunch of hooligans, just a young kids, and they should go back to college and university and study.” I told my son, who of course wasn’t participating because he’s not Taiwanese, that if he was there and this was his thing, I would be right there beside him, as his parent. And I heard stories of professors coming to class, and there are only five students there, and they would be like, “Why aren’t you out there with your classmates? What are you doing here?”

We felt the power of the masses then, of a mass movement of democracy.  There’s no arguing with the power of 500,000 people on the streets. I remember I took a friend from South Africa with me, who was also an activist back in the day, and we just walking, because there were tears in our eyes because it was so amazing that there were people handing out free food and free coffee wherever you go and that kind of thing. It was really an amazing experience for us. Honestly, this is why I live Taiwan, because do this kind of thing.


Photo credit: Tobie Openshaw

Brian Hioe:  What do you think that social movement activist are doing now? From the people that you got to know then and what they’re up to now.

Tobie Openshaw:  Generally, I could just say that many of those people found this huge responsibility thrust on them, did the best they could do with it, and now sometimes want to take a break, because that was a lot of heat. Lin Fei-Fan I know has gone off to study, Chen Wei-Ting had his troubles with charges of harassment. So I think a lot of them have sort of hunkered down and maybe just continued their education, which is a good thing. I know that Jiho, who worked in the Presidential Office, quit, and he’s running for the city council in Keelung.

I think that all of these people are politically conscious and they can see the power, like with Jiho, and my friend Kolas, who was not in the Sunflowers, but became a legislator because she wanted to make change. They realized its a hard road. Once you’re in the legislature, you have to play by those rules. That was Jiho’s problem too. Suddenly, it’s rules, rules, rules, when he was all about breaking the rules. It didn’t work for him. And so I think many of those people did find after awhile that the reality of continuing to be political activists just weighs on you. It’s hard work. It can suck your soul.

Brian Hioe:  Do you have any thoughts on how China looks at the political circumstances of Taiwan after the Sunflower Movement?

Tobie Openshaw:  I would certainly hope that China is damn scared. That they, you know, there’s lots of talk. And there’s lots of conspiracies. I don’t know about those things. I don’t know what arrangements or agreements that Ma Ying-Jeou could have had with China. But I think they certainly would have realized that they can’t just push through something in. The population will push back.

If they thought of any kind of soft takeover or semi-soft takeover of Taiwan was possible, they probably would rethink that now. And good. That’s not my personal opinion coming in, but obviously democracy is to be desired.

Photo credit: Tobie Openshaw

That’s something I tell my foreign friends. That in Taiwan, I have lived and experienced democracy at work on the ground in its purest and most effective form.

It was interesting. I actually had an interview with Chang An-Lo during the movement, which I think is probably quite exclusive. That was just really bizarre. He was urbane and a gentlemen and he had this beautiful office, with all these Chinese decoration, and his staff members just wait on him when they hand him a piece of paper.

He spoke about these ideas and he said things like, “When a friend wants to give you a gift, it is rude to refuse that gift. We should not refuse this gift that China wants to give us.” And then, two or three sentences later, he’s like, “But you know, China would be justified in attacking Taiwan if we don’t accept the trade agreements.”

So it’s like, your friend offers you a gift, but if you refuse it, he can kill you? You just go, “What planet are you from?” But he was scary to talk to. Afterwards, my translator was afraid, like, “I gave them my card. They know who I am!”

Brian Hioe:  Along those lines, what do you think the international influence of the Sunflower Movement could be?

Tobie Openshaw:  As I said, it was really hard for me to sell the idea of the Sunflower Movement to an international press. Because they are only interested in violence and clashes and things like that, and they are not interested in in-depth analyses or things like that.

Photo credit: Tobie Openshaw

I know that people from the Sunflower Movement went to SOAS in London and spoke there and people from Hong Kong were there and took notes. And a few months later, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong happened, and you could see the lines exactly the same as they were in the Sunflower Movement. So certainly Hong Kong activists have learned something from it.

I believe that any kind of activist movement can learn very, very valuable lessons from the Sunflower Movement, but it also does go both ways. Any movement that tries to be this non-violent may well find itself completely squashed by a more violent government. Both have to play this game for it to be successful. The government has to have in some way, to be able to say that, “Well, we recognize your right to protest in this way, and we are going to let you do it.”

Unfortunately, we know that very little of the Sunflower Movement news and the bigger picture stories made it out to the international world. I had the piece on France24, which included a very long interview on Skype with J. Michael Cole. At least that went out. But that’s just France24. It’s not CNN. So I think that what you are doing, getting out there, getting it in a format where it’s digestible, is a great idea.