FEATURE/Years after death of migrant worker, filmmaker dissects Taiwan's policing, racial discrimination
By Teng Pei-ju, CNA staff reporter
"What killed Nguyen Quoc Phi wasn't merely those nine shots," Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Tsung-lung (蔡崇隆) told a charity screening of his latest documentary, "And Miles to Go Before I Sleep" (Chinese title: 九槍, literally "nine shots").
In front of a full house in Taipei, Tsai said the 2022 Golden Horse Best Documentary winner seeks to tell "the parts of the story left untold" since Nguyen, a 27-year-old Vietnamese migrant worker, was shot by Hsinchu County police officer Chen Chung-wen (陳崇文) on Aug. 31, 2017.
The documentary, which premiered at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in November last year, features 30 minutes of previously unseen footage from Chen's bodycam.
It can be a "painful" watch for many, as cineast Wen Tien-hsiang (聞天祥) notes.
Perhaps more disturbing than the 12 seconds in which Chen fired those nine shots -- and perhaps why, as Tsai claims, police sought to keep the bodycam footage out of the public eye -- is what ensued as Nguyen lay bleeding to death.
The footage shows Chen and community watch members preventing paramedics from checking on Nguyen, who police said had ignored repeated warnings not to get into a nearby unlocked patrol car and occasionally picked up rubble to throw at them.
"He won't hurt," Chen says, as a wounded yet silent Nguyen is moved from a dirt path onto a stretcher by a second ambulance crew that arrived some 17 minutes after the shooting.
In the final moments of his life, Nguyen simply mumbles sporadically some words that none of the native speakers and linguists approached by Tsai have to date been able to decipher.
Nguyen was declared dead at hospital, having suffered out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA) en route.
A post-mortem found traces of both alcohol and methamphetamine in Nguyen's system, as well as nine gunshot wounds on his body.
More than an isolated case
The shooting sent shockwaves through Taiwanese society five years ago. Human rights groups accused Chen of police brutality and racial profiling, while others said Nguyen was to blame for his own death after breaking into a private vehicle and wounding a community watch member prior to his confrontation with Chen.
In an interview with CNA, Tsai, a reporter-turned-filmmaker, said the incident had been "simplified" as "a conflict between the migrant worker and the police officer."
"It was an isolated case, but it was also more than an isolated case," the 58-year-old director said. Tsai argued that the rare incident had exposed a lack of professionalism among police officers, as well as decades-long discrimination against migrant workers in Taiwan.
According to Tsai, critics of his documentary on social media have accused him of trying to put the police in a bad light by placing blame for the shooting on Chen and seeking to absolve Nguyen.
However, Tsai said that if he was to publicly blame any individuals using his film, "I will say those in power...(who were) responsible for fostering professional police officers" in Taiwan, such as the head of the National Police Agency and the Minister of the Interior.
The lack of professionalism of police officers is found in Chen, who fired nine times at an aggressive and yet essentially naked and unarmed man, he said.
Chen and other police at the scene also failed to send Nguyen to hospital in time, and another officer picked up shell casings before forensic investigators arrived, he said.
Nearly a year after Nguyen's death, the Control Yuan censured the Hsinchu County Police Bureau for multiple "failures" by Chen and the backup officers.
The top government watchdog determined that the "overuse" of the firearm, the delay in getting medical help for Nguyen, and the backup officer's tampering with crime scene evidence were the result of inadequate police training.
Meanwhile, Chen was sentenced to eight months in prison, or three years probation, for "negligence in causing the death (of Nguyen)." In December 2019, an appeal court reduced Chen's sentence to six months.
During the trial, Chen said he had been left with no choice but to fire at Nguyen, as he had tried in vain with pepper spray and a police baton to stop the migrant worker from assaulting other people.
The 22-year-old officer, who had been on the job for less than two years, acknowledged being "very nervous" and unaware of how many bullets he fired during the commotion.
In Tsai's mind, Chen never meant to kill Nguyen, with the director noting that the young officer had also been broken by the tragedy.
Society should go beyond the idea of either supporting the migrant worker or backing the police and look at the "systematic problem" of law enforcement, he said, as it could affect every person living in Taiwan.
One can advocate for the rights of migrant workers while calling for reforms to the police system, which is essentially an act of support for all the police officers, Tsai argued.
Push for positive change
After the charity screening, Tsai told the audience he would "have some qualms" should he not make the documentary, which also includes interviews with the family of Nguyen and Chen, as well as a number of senior police officers.
"To me, it (the footage) is visual evidence...to the sense of distance, distrust, misunderstanding, and stereotypes that Taiwanese people have held toward migrant workers" since the government began recruiting them from Southeast Asia in 1989, Tsai said.
Migrant workers, despite their contributions to Taiwan's economic growth, are "deemed expendable" by their employers and "dismissed" by the public, said Tsai.
Tsai, who is also employed as a communications professor, runs a community space in Chiayi County with his wife, Nguyen Kim Hong, which provides legal and mental health counseling to migrant workers.
Tsai expressed hope that his film would provide some food for thought to its audience, especially young adults, and subsequently motivate them to push for positive changes.
Young people, according to the professor, are more likely to demand equal rights and justice and, more importantly, can be the future employers of migrant workers or the policymakers of the nation.
And miles to go before I sleep
Speaking of the English title of the documentary, Tsai said it was an extract from Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," in which the American poet ponders on the tranquillity of woods before recalling his unfulfilled commitments.
Nguyen was just one of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Taiwan who have traveled miles from home to improve their lives, Tsai said.
Burdened with a heavy responsibility to support their family, Tsai said that many migrant workers were unable to return home despite feeling homesick or facing hardship in Taiwan.
"Nguyen Quoc Phi, likewise, had carried such burden until he fell into final sleep," he said.
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