THE SPLIT HORN: LIFE OF A HMONG SHAMAN IN AMERICA can be watched in the Hmong language on SAP (Secondary Audio Program).
An Interview with SPLIT HORN filmmakers Taggart Siegel and Jim McSilver
THE SPLIT HORN is your second film about the Hmong. How did you get involved with the Hmong?
Taggart Siegel: At a 1984 Hmong art exhibit in Chicago, I read a description about Hmong culture by Dwight Conquergood, an ethnographer from Northwestern University. I was struck then that the Hmong come from a 5000 year-old shamanic culture, but that they had suddenly lost their homeland and were then being thrown into the melting pot of American society. At the time I was working on my MFA at Columbia College in Chicago. I knew straight away that this had to be my thesis film. The prospect of meeting a Hmong shaman who would share his life on camera was exhilarating. Immediately, I began filming different families, leaders, experts. However, even with thousands of Hmong refugees arriving in America at that time, it was still difficult to meet a shaman. Finally Joe Davy, an anthropology student fluent in Hmong, introduced me Paja Thao, a 49 year-old shaman who had just arrived from war-torn Laos. I was honored and privileged to meet Paja, and my life has not been the same since. A new friendship began that has lasted for almost twenty years.
I will never forget Paja's nervousness as he was preparing for his first shamanic ritual in America, hoping he could reunite with his ancestral spirits. It was so moving to be in the presence of a deeply spiritual man, a powerful healer who has given his life to help others. Soon after I met Dwight Conquergood and he became an expert consultant and producer along with me on the first film, Between Two Worlds : The Hmong Shaman In America. It went on to PBS and is still used in many universities.
How did the documentary THE SPLIT HORN come about?
Taggart Siegel: After directing and producing a fiction feature film and several short films, I had a strong urge to return to documentaries. In 1996 I bought one of the first small digital cameras and set out to reunite with Paja and his family. It had been twelve years since I completed the earlier film, and the changes in his family were dramatic. Paja's younger kids were now teenagers, and older kids had grown and had families of their own. But I was stunned and saddened to find that at that point none of the kids were helping Paja with his shamanic rituals.
The way I went about documenting the family changed too. With the earlier documentary, I had a cameraperson and a large crew, but with the digital camera, I could shoot it myself with only an audio person. This meant I could be unobtrusive, which allowed me to capture particularly intimate moments in the family's life.
The family welcomed me back warmly and for the next five years I visited them two or three times a year, filming the emotional events unfolding in their lives. I was very fortunate to have Jim McSilver come on board in 1998 to help produce and edit THE SPLIT HORN. His dedication and commitment was unyielding. Together we carved out the film with additional producing support from my wife, Sarita Siegel and production coordinator Teri Lang. Telling untold stories and capturing rare moments on film compels me to share it with a larger audience.
What were some of the challenges involved in making the film?
Jim McSilver: Our biggest challenge was to create a personal, dynamic story that spanned 25 years and captured the struggles of Paja's family in their homeland, in war, in refugee camps, to their arrival in America, and finally to the incredible adjustment to life in America. Early in the editing process we knew how the film would end. Figuring out where to begin the story was much more difficult. Many powerful scenes had to be eliminated or cut down substantially in order to remain true to the story and fit into the one-hour show. We knew the glue to the story was the narrator, and once we realized that voice had to come from within the family, many things fell into place. Having Chai, Paja's 14 year-old daughter narrate the film became the audience's doorway into the Thao family and a bridge to a deeper understanding of Hmong culture.
The language barrier was the other big challenge in the editing process. We worked with very dedicated translators whenever we could, but neither Taggart nor Jim speak more than a few words of Hmong (although we're still learning slowly). So initially we had to rely on translations and a good bit of luck when cutting the interviews together.
After we completed the English version, we faced one final unexpected challenge. Since in many ways the film is about the relationship between the older and younger generations, we felt it was important that the Hmong elders many of whom don't speak English also be able to understand the film. We decided to do a Hmong-language version (which can be heard on the Secondary Audio Program on most newer TV sets). The challenge was that since the most common Hmong written language was created in the 1950s and is still very new, many of these same elders don't read it. So we had to re-record the voice-over and many of the film's interviews in the Hmong language. Again we had to rely on good translators to ensure that we told the story correctly. However, the real hero of this process was Chai, the film's narrator. With no formal training in reading Hmong, Chai re-did her entire narration so that her parents and relatives could understand the film.