Artists are Trees

Novelist Nieh Hualing calls herself a tree – with roots in China, the trunk in Taiwan, and all the leaves and branches in the United States.
Nieh Hualing is a tree of exceptional expanse. Her 24 books of fiction and essays have influenced generations of writers. The prestigious International Writing Program she co-founded in Iowa, USA, has hosted writers from more than 140 countries. She has endured civil war, political persecution, two emigrations, and widowhood.

The New Zealand screenings of One Tree Three Lives, a film on Nieh’s life, are tonight (6pm) at Paramount Theatre, Wellington, presented by the Confucius Institute at Victoria University, and at Aratoi (1 Sept, 6pm).

More than a biography, the film is a portrait of a writer, and of a writing community, with voices of 26 authors, such as Mo Yan (Red Sorghum), Su Tong (Raise the Red Lantern) and Yu Hua (Brothers).
It is a statement on the generosity of an artist, insight into China’s turbulent history, and a love story with Paul Engle, a poet who died suddenly, so the film is also an account of loss. And humour: once you hear the laughter of Nieh and Engle, you may just become a lighter person.

Director Angie Chen has known Nieh for more than forty years, which allows for intimate access. ‘Auntie Nieh’ shares personal photographs, letters from Paul, and the silk dress she plans to be buried in. She permits the recording of a private telephone call, and dialogue with an electrician who may or may not be overcharging.
We see images of a childhood in wartime poverty, then Nieh’s glee in a large American supermarket. We see a twenty-four year old convincing her family to flee the Communist Revolution, and soon being the sole provider, and then, age 86, afraid of an icy path. We see the ‘White Terror’ in Taiwan, and then discrimination in the USA.

Like Nieh, Director Angie Chen has lived in China, USA, and Taiwan. Like Nieh, she has received international recognition: her films Der Besuch (1980), My Name Ain’t Suzie (1985), This Darling Life (2008), and One Tree, Three Lives (2012) have screened in festivals from Toronto to Taipei, Caracas to New York, Hong Kong to San Francisco. Both Chen and Nieh consider themselves outsiders, and trees, and maybe all artists are trees: we have a need to penetrate this world, this earth. We reach beyond it, with all our might and insight. We name what we see. We trust.

One Tree Three Lives (Angie Chen, 2012) 95 min, at Aratoi, 1 Sept, 6pm.
Director Angie Chen will be present.

Currently on show at Aratoi: Intersecting / Intersections – Barry Ellis, until 1 September; NZQA Top Art Exhibtion, until 1 September 2013; Pūwawau, until 15 September; Square & Compasses – Freemasonry in New Zealand, until 8 September.