Invisible Nation : Exclusive Interview with Director Vanessa Hope

Invisible Nation  : Exclusive Interview with Director Vanessa Hope


Invisible Nation : With unprecedented access to Taiwan’s sitting head of state, director Vanessa Hope investigates the election and tenure of Tsai Ing-wen, the first female president of Taiwan. Thorough, incisive and bristling with tension, Invisible Nation is a living account of Tsai’s tightrope walk as she balances the hopes and dreams of her nation between the colossal geopolitical forces of the U.S. and China. Hope’s restrained observational style captures Tsai at work in her country’s vibrant democracy at home, while seeking full international recognition of Taiwan’s right to exist. At a time when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated the ever-present threat of authoritarian aggression, Invisible Nation brings punctual focus to the struggle of Taiwan as it fights for autonomy and freedom from fear.

Director : Vanessa Hope

Producer :  Vanessa Hope, Ted Hope, Cassandra Jabola, Ivan Orlic

Distributor : Abramorama

Production Co : Double Hope Films, Seine Pictures, 100 Chapters Productions

Genre : Documentary

Original Language : English

Release Date (Theaters) : May 24, 2024, Limited

Runtime : 1h 25m

Invisible Nation1

Courtesy of Abramorama

Exclusive Interview with Director Vanessa Hope

Q : When Tsai Ing-wen (the first female president of Taiwan) was elected in 2016, people, like any other woman of her age, coming from a political background in Taiwan, may not associate her with the title of an authoritative leader, but she nevertheless leads the country. And in this film, you did grant an interview with her, what was your impression of her characteristics? I really adore her how she served the coffee to her own staff. 

Vanessa Hope: I agree with you completely that Let’s start with your first comments because they’re very meaningful. She is someone who is unmarried and who has no children. And for that, she did receive criticism from Beijing. There was a sort of misogynistic backlash against her saying, if you haven’t had children, then you can’t think long term. If you’re not married, you’re Too emotional. If you’re a woman and you wear a skirt, then you can’t be in charge of the military.

So she had to withstand all of that kind of criticism from China. And. I feel she did it well and with a kind of support from the people of Taiwan who I think are sophisticated and progressive. The Democratic Progressive Party she represents really has advanced democracy in a way I have not even been able to experience in the United States where we don’t actually have equal rights for women in the constitution in the United States.

 I was learning from her and I was so respectful of her modesty and her humility and how down to earth she was. When I was interviewing people who worked with her in that first year, they were saying she would make us coffee. When she became chair of the Democratic Progressive Party and her first campaign, she brought people in, they were just putting like pennies in piggy banks to support her.

She would make people coffee. She is not about standing in ceremony or being hierarchical and yet she’s very brave and very strong because she’s really the first president of Taiwan to use it. the name Taiwan in an international context and to really stand up for Taiwan’s sovereignty while maintaining peace to not be pushed around and bullied by Beijing, but to have cats and dogs and be this very sweet modest person who ‘s very smart and people just respected her. It was so refreshing. It was so inspiring, especially coming from the United States at that time where we ended up electing someone who never should have been president. 

Q : Right. It’s hard to miss because when she visits the high school, all the female students, their eyes lit up, giving an adoring look, she even has her own YouTube channel. I’m curious to know how she reaches out to the younger generation? Not just her speech, but at the same time in social media and all those aspects. So could you talk about how she approached social media? 

Vanessa Hope: Yes. So I think you’re absolutely right to talk about the younger generation because they’re the ones who have a stronger sense of a Taiwanese identity that’s linked to Taiwan’s democracy, which was formed in 1996. So when the Sunflower Movement happened in Taiwan, and that was really youth driven, saying, we don’t want some trade deal with China that hasn’t been approved properly in the legislature.

You can’t turn our country into a dictatorship. She was in the crowd with the students. And, she goes and speaks with students regularly. Yes. She does social media. She has a YouTube channel. She made what I thought was actually one of the best campaign commercials I’ve ever seen because one of the details of her character I learned in interviews was how much she loves to drive, but how hard it was to be president because she was not allowed to drive herself.

She had to have a security detail and other people had to drive with multiple cars around her. So she lost that pleasure of hers. And, her father had auto mechanic car dealerships and all of that. So she was confined, but in this campaign commercial that was for the current president, Lai Ching-te(Current president in Taiwan from May 2024) and his vice president, Hsiao Bi-Khim, They’re all sitting in a car together, and President Tsai is driving, and at that time, he was her vice president, Lai was in the passenger seat and Hsiao Bi-Khim was in the back seat, and it was like a demonstration of how driving is like, driving safely and is like strong and steady leadership.

But then she, then they pull over to the side of the road and she very sweetly, after this exchange gets out of the car and steps aside and then lies and takes the steering wheel and Hsiao Bi-Khim takes the passenger seat. And you know that this steady leadership will continue, that she’s handed this government off to a great team who she’s elevated and worked with and who can continue this course of peace with strength and standing up for Taiwan’s sovereignty and equality.

Q : In the Olympics, Taiwan was represented as a Chinese Taipei and doesn’t have a seat in the United Nations or WHO. It’s hard for our country to comprehend because Taiwan doesn’t function as a normal country in an international society. So obviously your film will be an intriguing film to tell the world about Taiwan, but as a Western media, what else should we do? 

Vanessa Hope: I love the two examples you gave. So let’s start with the Olympics, Taiwan is still called Chinese Taipei. And in our film, we show you that there was a time when Taiwan could actually be represented as Taiwan, when it had full diplomatic recognition from the United States and other countries, and it was in the United Nations. So this story needs to be better understood, internationally, because it is a status.

It’s being able to be represented as Taiwan in the Olympics that Taiwan should be allowed to reclaim. So with the Paris Olympics coming up soon, at the end of July and beginning of August, this is something international media should be talking about. And I think they should reference the fact that once upon a time, Taiwan was represented as Taiwan.

This is not something new, and this is something that matters. For Taiwan’s international standing and ability to negotiate for itself. And in terms of the United nations, actually, I was just in Washington, DC, invited by the American bar association, international law sections. So the very established lawyers who are international from Japan to I met lawyers all over in DC, and they were establishing very clearly that in international law.

Taiwan is a country and that resolution 2758, which is what China used to say, Taiwan cannot be in the UN because Taiwan is a part of China, is a misinterpretation. They’re manipulating this political resolution and misusing it. It has nothing to do with Taiwan. Resolution 2758 gave the People’s Republic of China, the China seat.

In the United Nations, that’s fine. Taiwan is fine with that. Taiwan is saying The republic of China also deserves a seat and just because the military dictator Chen kai-shek who lost the civil war to Mao and communist china and fled to Taiwan just because Chen kai-shek said He could not agree to a two state solution He wanted to one day control China.

That is no longer the dream of anyone in Taiwan. The people of Taiwan want to be appreciated as Taiwan and to be able to be in the UN as Taiwan. And that actually seems very important because as we saw with COVID, you have a global health crisis and Taiwan has so much knowledge to contribute.

They’ve been on the front lines with SARS and COVID and they’ve got a top. Healthcare system. They’ve got brilliant doctors in the medical system. I mean They’re so well educated in Taiwan that the majority of politicians have multiple advanced degrees: their doctors Their PhDs, their lawyers and then they go into politics. So it’s a really impressive democracy that the United States and other democracies can learn from And that absolutely needs to be supported by the international community so that it’s not invaded, 

Q : The Chinese military invasion could have been imminent when the Chinese President Xi Jinping talked about the possibility of attack on Taiwan. But considering the PLA, People’s Liberation Army, their military size is actually 20 times bigger than Taiwan. So obviously Taiwan actually needs the U. S. support. I’m curious to know what you think of the U. S. position for defending Taiwan? Because they’ve been actually, deliberately vague about how the U.S defend Taiwan in the past. But President Biden said Yes, when the reporter asked the U. S. president about defending Taiwan. So I want to ask you about what you think of the U. S. position on defending Taiwan? 

Vanessa Hope: I think that President Biden knows Taiwan, that when he was in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he actually went to Taiwan. And that fact that he said four times that the United States would defend Taiwan, I think it did give clarity to a policy the U. S. refers to as strategic ambiguity, the idea behind it was to not encourage Taiwan to provoke a war The United States will only come to Taiwan’s defense.

If it’s to defend Taiwan against an invasion from China. But really it’s, 70 years of clarity that Taiwan is not provoking China, Taiwan does not want to provoke. China and the United States, I think will come to Taiwan’s defense, but I think it will need to be in concert with. Japan, the Philippines, Australia, Europe, we need to know that there are other countries supporting it because the U.S. can’t do it alone. And as you said, China’s military is 20 times the size of Taiwan’s and they’re very close. The person in our film, Matt Pottinger, who had been on the national security council in the Trump administration, Taiwan has a new book out that’s called The Boiling Moat, and it’s steps to defend Taiwan.

And he feels the boiling moat is the Taiwan Strait, and that the Taiwan Strait is the difference between the position. Taiwan is in and the position Ukraine is in, that it’s possible to defend Taiwan and deter China through the Taiwan Strait. 

Invisible nation2

Courtesy of Abramorama

Q : Wow, that’s an interesting perspective. Even though the former president in Taiwan, Chiang Ching-kuo, showed the path of democratic transition when the former president in Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, took over, it had the Chinese influence back then. I’m curious to know how the Taiwanese reacted when Ma Ying-jeou was elected and compared tothe elder generation and the young generation, because they might have a different perspective about the former president.

Vanessa Hope: Yeah. So it’s funny you mentioned Chiang Ching-kuo and Ma Ying-jeou because Ma Ying-jeou was actually Chiang Ching-kuo’s translator, when Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law in 1987. And I think that Ma Ying-jeou was educated at Harvard Law School. In fact, we share a mentor in someone named Jerome Allen Cohen, who I worked with at the council on foreign relations, but who was my Joe’s Harvard law school professor But also in the same class professor to Annette Lu, her Taiwanese name is Lu Hsiu-lien and she went back and became vice president. The first female vice president in the democratic progressive party under Chen Shui-bian. It came after li dong hui. So And Ma Ying-jeou, when I interviewed him, was very pleased that I knew this history, and I knew because Annette Lu actually shared a prison cell with Chu Chen, who’s in our film.

She was part of the Kaohsiung Eight in 1979, who were speaking up for democracy and human rights, and were thrown in prison for seven years. They were in the same cell. So Ma Ying-jeou was trying to help get Annette Lu out. I think that the Chinese Nationalist Party, the KMT, which both Ma Ying-jeou and Chen, Chiang Ching-kuo are from has evolved to a certain extent from, Chiang Ching-kuo was the son of Chiang Kai-shek.

He was the dictator’s son. He started to loosen some of the restrictions on the people of Taiwan. We still need to absolutely credit. The transition to democracy with the people of Taiwan fighting in their social movements for democracy and human rights like Chen Shui-bian and Annette Lu I think that there is a Understanding on the part of the KMT that Taiwan And the people of Taiwan do not want to be apart of china so the dilemma is how to negotiate with china because their major trading partner, and because you don’t want them to invade, you want peace.

And will you get peace by giving in to what China wants? If you look at Hong Kong, it doesn’t seem to be a good way to go because the one country, two systems deal was always intended for Taiwan. Deng Xiaoping came up with that idea and they were just testing it on Hong Kong. And you saw in the film in 2019, the people of Hong Kong peacefully protesting and being cracked down on, and now they’re essentially part of China’s dictatorship.

So I think the Democratic Progressive Party is much clearer and less delusional about the fact that China is not going to play nice. They are not going to be [sweet. If you do agree that Taiwan is part of China, which I don’t think that the Chinese nationalist party wants to do. So both parties are walking this very difficult line.

Both parties want to maintain peace and Taiwan sovereignty and way of life and democracy and not lose that to China. They have slightly different strategies on how to deal with China. I think my Joe agreeing to the 92 consensus was his fudge, his way of pretending we can say we’re part of one China, but we don’t agree on what that one China is.

There’s all of this fuzzy diplomatic language that to a certain extent has served both sides, but it feels like it’s no longer serving both sides. And so the young people of Taiwan are very much more for the Democratic Progressive Party. And it’s only really the much older generations who maybe had fantasies.

The Chinese Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo and Ma Ying-jeou, have a fantasy that they can take back China and influence China. That their government is going to prevail. And I think that is no longer feasible given the very different trajectories of the two sides, China and Taiwan, how democratic Taiwan is and how verging on totalitarian China is.

Q : Speaking of that, Taiwan rapidly changed last 20 years the first country in Asia to legalize same sex marriage and all that. How much it has changed or what needs to be changed.

Vanessa Hope: Sure. Have you been to Taiwan, by the way? 

Q : I have visited Taiwan once when my father took me down there for a couple of days, and my school trip in High School, but it was a great experience because their knowledge about Japanese culture is amazing compared to how little I know about Taiwan.

Vanessa Hope: I ask you, because I find it so fascinating that so many people in Taiwan, if you ask them, will tell you that even though Japan colonized Taiwan from 1895 to 1945 and Taiwan was Japan’s model colony. And being colonized is not so fun. They much prefer having Japan colonize them than the Chinese dictatorship that came with Chiang Kai-shek, which was brutal and much more violent. vicious and in a way the Japanese built up a lot of the infrastructure and schooling and everything in Taiwan did a lot of good.

So I have a person in the film, Mei Sing Yang, who was born in Taiwan, speaks Japanese and then went to live in Japan and then came back. I think that the progress Taiwan has made in the last 20 years is really significant. As you said, advancing with same sex marriage, transitional justice with the authoritarian past and the Chinese nationalist party actually dealing with how to open the records of people who lost family members to the Chiang Kai-shek regime.

This has been major apologizing to the indigenous people. I think today Taiwan needs more economic support from the United States, from Japan. They need to be able to diversify trade relations away from China so that they’re not dependent on China. And I think the people of Taiwan, are very concerned about their cost of living as people in the United States are as people everywhere are right now.

But I think that strengthening the friendships that Taiwan has with countries like Japan, where it does feel a cultural affinity and a love that comes through and the United States and other countries in that first island chain that Taiwan is a part of, I think that’s going to be very significant for Taiwan going forward.

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