Vanessa Hope’s “Invisible Nation” offers an affecting portrait of Taiwan through an impressive lineup of interviews, not just with President Tsai Ing-wen, though she’s the most prominently featured, but with an array of historians, activists, academics, and politicians, thoughtfully interspersed with archive footage. Together, they offer a comprehensive narrative about Taiwan’s many paradoxes: being globally influential but systematically excluded, existing in de facto independence but threatened with war if it declares itself such, being of strategic importance but denied diplomatic alliances. In all of these, a common threat looms – that of the People’s Republic of China.
In this way, each account, particularly that of President Tsai, serves as a proxy for Taiwan: an introverted entity not necessarily drawn to power or political theater but compelled to enter this combative arena only to defend the values most dear to it: the dignity of its people, its hard-won democracy, the survival of its culture. In one clip, President Tsai wryly admits that as a little girl she’d wanted to be an archaeologist, where studying the dead would protect her from direct confrontation with the living. She now finds herself captaining a democratic nation where doing right by history means actively contending, negotiating, and defending the ever-complicated present.
From the documentary’s official website, 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.”
We were grateful to have the opportunity to attend its second Northern California screening, this time in Palo Alto. (In October, “Invisible Nation” was screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival).
In the opening Q&A with Kharis Templeman, who leads the Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Hope mentioned that while “Invisible Nation” spans a tumultuous and fascinating period of Taiwan’s recent history, it was also this timing, and the events she captured within, such as Tsai’s second presidential election, that disrupted or delayed the timing of the work. Her film is emphatically not a campaign or party production. Indeed, I found the most striking triumph of this documentary to be its commitment to balance. By “balance,” I don’t mean that the power differences between Taiwan and China were neutralized, or that the film sought to present any sort of false equivalence. I mean that there was a careful blend of Taiwanese voices to speak on behalf of Taiwan and well-informed commentary to demonstrate that Taiwan is not “just a Taiwanese concern.” For every example that the Chinese Communist Party is a credible, urgent threat, there was a compelling reason for Taiwan to be worthy of concern and defense. “Invisible Nation” does not lionize Tsai or sensationalize Taiwan, but efficiently captures how both have, under duress of absurd and hostile circumstances, become extraordinarily creative and resilient.
While an ambivalent or otherwise less-invested audience will serve as a different litmus test for the success of “Invisible Nation,” as a Taiwanese American I was immensely touched by the clear care Hope extended towards Taiwan and the trust she placed in the source material to be worthy of documentation. At a time when so many are clamoring to speak on behalf of Taiwan for their own political or capital gain, it means so much to see longtime advocates, researchers, and caretakers of Taiwan interviewed as the true perspectives of our quiet revolution.
Taiwan’s continued resilience relies on truth-telling, both to reconcile its own historical wounds and to protect itself against the dangerous fictions levied by the People’s Republic of China. “Invisible Nation” is a timely and meaningful part of this project.
I share the wish of many other Taiwanese and Taiwanese Americans that this film has the opportunity to reach every kind of audience; that it is given a platform to inform, educate, and inspire all who pursue dignity and freedom from fear.
The next planned screening of Invisible Nation will be on November 7 at the University of Washington campus in partnership with the UW East Asia Center, the Taiwanese Association of Greater Seattle, and the Seed Kite Foundation, the UW Taiwan Studies Arts & Culture Program.
Learn more here: https://jsis.washington.edu/taiwan/2023/10/28/invisible-nation-2/
Learn more about director Vanessa Hope through her Substack: https://vanessahope.substack.com/
Follow director Vanessa Hope on Instagram: @vhopeful