Film about Taiwanese family donating body for dissection required director to tread carefully, he says
Maso Chen’s slice-of-life narrative The Silent Teacher uses artful approach to get around taboos about death and show the impact on family of matriarch’s decision to donate her body for use in medical students’ training
Taiwanese filmmaker Maso Chen Chi-han has always been keen to direct a documentary about death – a subject he believes would arouse a lot of fear in people, especially in a Chinese society. So when a local television station invited him to direct a film about so-called “silent teachers” – people who donate their bodies for medical training – he said yes.
“I knew very little about silent teachers in the beginning. I even mistakenly thought that silent teacher is referring to the lecturer of the anatomy class, before I realised it is in fact the body that’s lying on the table,” says Chen, 38. “But I found it really unbelievable. Why would people be willing to donate their remains for dissection?”
To find the answer to his question, Chen accompanied a group of medical students through a semester of anatomy classes, closely observing the process. At the end of the six months, the television station suddenly withdrew its proposal. But since the topic had already piqued his interest, Chen decided to go it alone.
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He turned to the College of Medicine at Fu Jen Catholic University, which was always short of cadavers for anatomy class. The first subject the filmmaker had his eye on was a former member of the university’s staff who died, and whose decision to donate his body for dissection aroused such strong objections from his blood relatives that his wife – the only one who accepted his decision – fled Taiwan to hide from them. The episode, which does not feature in the film, offers a hint at how controversial donating one’s body to medical science can be in such a conservative society.
Despite the initial setbacks, The Silent Teacher became Chen’s first full-length documentary. He was introduced by the university to Lin Hui-tsung, who made the perfect subject for the film, as his late wife, Hsu Yu-e, became one of four silent teachers at the faculty. Lin regularly visited the campus to speak to her body, which had to be soaked in formalin for a year in preparation for dissection.
“He is a lifeguard trainer, so to a certain extent he is passionate about life and is the kind of person who is willing to help. I would always go and find him and we’d chat about whatever,” says Chen, who slowly built a relationship with Lin.
Chen, who ultimately completed the film on a budget of NT$4.8 million (US$160,000), found that money materialised whenever he ran out of funds – raised from various public funds, through crowdfunding and investments by friends and family.
When the documentary was ready to premiere, Taiwanese celebrity couple Blackie Chen Chien-chou and Christine Fan volunteered to help promote the film by having Fan record a theme song.
“It felt as though Mrs Lin was secretly helping me so I could finish the film. I never believed in this kind of thing, but there were too many instances of serendipity,” says Chen.
Given the taboos about death, Chen approaches his subject artfully, preferring a slice-of-life narrative that looks not just at how the family grieved for the loss of a member, but also how they carried on with their lives. Over a two-year period, he followed Lin to his swimming classes, the anatomy professor to a wedding and the medical students to hospitals when they began their internships.
“There are touching moments, but I did not include too many of them.I don’t want the audience to cry from the beginning to the end. Rather, I would like audiences to see how Lin went through this journey and how silent teachers impact those around them,” says Chen.
Similarly, Chen avoids showing directly scenes of dissection so as not to put his audience off. Instead, he uses a combination of sound and images of the tools being used to portray the process in a realistic way and ensure it has an impact on audiences.
“There is no need to hide it or embellish it. I want to present it as close to reality as possible and let people decide if they still want to donate their bodies afterwards,” he says.
Still, Chen admits it can be a lot to take in. He himself could not decide whether to donate his body for research after his death until he brought the topic up with his wife who, to his surprise, gave a resounding “yes”to the idea.
“She said, ‘You will not feel anything after you die anyway. Why do you care so much?’ That was when it struck me I have been contemplating death from the perspective of someone that is living, which is why I was scared,” says Chen. Both he and his wife signed up to donate their bodies for medical research.
Even so, it is not his goal to persuade others to take the same path. “There is no right or wrong. It is not to say body donation is the more noble thing to do,” says Chen. “The purpose of a documentary is not to give you an answer, but to throw you a question.”
The Silent Teacher opens on September 14
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