From Gunshots to Completion: Bringing People Together—Chronicles of the Production for And Miles to Go Before I Sleep
Kite Chen
The first project name for the documentary And Miles to Go Before I Sleep was "Nine Shots", alluding to the violent death of absconded Vietnamese migrant worker Quốc Phi Nguyễn—after realizing that a police officer had arrived to arrest him, Nguyễn attempted to escape and fell victim to 9 consecutive shots. The name indicates clearly what the production and interviews in the documentary wish to convey: the attitude and behavior that most Taiwanese demonstrate towards migrant workers. That is what prompted an entry-level police officer to pull the trigger 9 times on Nguyễn.
Director Tsung-Lung Tsai's desire to make films related to the judiciary, human rights, new immigrants, and migrant workers dates from long before this film. From news reporter to investigative journalist and author of in-depth and research features, step by step, his time working in the media endowed him with a strong sensitivity towards news and social tragedies. It was seminal to his way of interpreting society. This solid set of skills, a keenness on specific subjects, and the ability to dig deeper into a topic or its background, as well as his concern for incidents, people, and their conditions, led him to create a series of documentaries after switching careers: Taipei Licensed Prostitutes, Formosa Homicide Chronicle 1-2, Marriages on the Borders, Oil Disease: Surviving Evil, and so forth. Tsung-Lung Tsai's works prompt viewers to look closely at social issues and their protagonists, beyond the often fleeting and unreliable media reports within our reach.
Creative Shift
The experience accumulated both as journalist and documentary filmmaker have made Tsai a distinguished figure in the realm of investigative documentary filmmaking. Sharing his life with his wife, new immigrant Kim Hồng Nguyễn from Vietnam, in their adopted home of Chiayi caused a shift in his creative outlook, nonetheless.
"When I served as the director for documentaries of PTS (Taiwan Public Television Service), work was very formulaic—submit a project proposal and go do the filming. Filmmaking was radically different outside the system, after I left PTS. It was not so premeditated. I could follow my intuition more."
Leaving the production schedules and approaches of a TV station meant entirely new possibilities in terms of field research subjects, preparation, and production time. Tsung-Lung Tsai mentioned that at the time, Kim Hồng had already started to entertain the idea of making documentaries based on her own life story and culture. Tsai felt that playing a supportive role in a production from her "insider" perspective as a new immigrant could be an interesting process. It was in this manner that Kim Hồng Nguyễn finished her two documentaries, Out/Marriage and See You, Lovable Strangers.
After moving to Chiayi, Tsai and his wife co-founded Khuôn viên văn hoá Việt Nam1 (Vietnam Cultural Hut in Chiayi), a home for migrant workers to gather and hold activities during holidays and weekends. Tsai gained a chance to frequently interact with Vietnamese immigrants and migrant workers in his daily life, engaging in mutual conversations and discussions. Combined with his understanding of Vietnamese migrant workers as relayed by his wife, Tsung-Lung Tsai shared:
"The depth with which I got to know new immigrants was considerably different from that I experienced in My Imported Wife, when I was working at PTS... It was more like watching news or shining a light on topics I believed were worthy of attention at the time. That was my motivation to approach these people. Now, it is the opposite: I come across them in my day-to-day."
During filming in Vietnam, Tsai asked the elder brother of Quốc Phi Nguyễn to stand in front of their childhood home to take a shot of his back, a symbol of his younger brother's reality as a migrant worker.
These immigrants and migrant workers are not just a group representative of certain issues anymore. For Tsung-Lung Tsai, they're people made of flesh of bones, with dreams, life stories, and a wide range of emotions, part of our surroundings and everyday life. It was with this kind of perception and interactions that he assisted Kim Hồng in completing See You, Lovable Strangers, a film centered on the human side of Vietnamese migrant workers. Some people commented during screenings that the documentary could have focused more on the systemic faults and brokerage issues. But Tsai believes that See You, Lovable Strangers is about the stories of people like us. It was never intended to emphasize systemic and structural problems.
"The point of departure for films made by my wife and I is daily life, people's stories. I've done enough films about systemic problems or research and interviews in the past. These serve a meaningful purpose, of course. Nonetheless, I have since come to increasingly believe that perhaps we cannot use reason to deal with everything. The emotional side is very important, too."
Reason and emotion are not mutually exclusive. Films can achieve a balance of both. That could be the ideal for many filmmakers. In this regard, Tsung-Lung Tsai brought up his previous experience filming Formosa Homicide Chronicle 1-2. The films center on the judicial system and miscarriage of justice. It naturally requires a lot of logical arguments and gathering of data. But Tsai stressed that the emotional side, people's stories, could not be missing. A documentary that only presents cold logic will fail to catch viewers' interest. The ratio of reason to emotion is still in favor of the former in Formosa Homicide Chronicle 1-2.
The films produced alongside his wife after moving to Chiayi, however, mostly focus on people and their life stories. Those who appear in these documentaries are also part of their everyday. They often listen to the experiences of migrant workers and immigrants in daily conversations, how they left their homes and moved to an unfamiliar land, and the unfair or differential treatment, even discriminatory behavior, they've had to endure in Taiwan. This transformed his point of view on the lives of migrant workers and new immigrants:
"If we want to influence people with our documentaries, the emotional side cannot be sacrificed, even if a balance between reason and emotion is not possible. I am progressively aware that merely amending the law or adjusting the system will not solve the issues encountered by migrant workers. Prejudice and discrimination, or even chosen ignorance, of migrant workers are present in our day-to-day...
Sometimes, they relate how their supervisors or co-workers treat or talk to them with disdain at work, often using abusive language. Seemingly small matters speak volumes of the views of the Taiwanese on migrant workers, how they're alienated. Even colleagues who are blue-collar workers, too, don't see them as equals. In this kind of circumstance, trying to convince them or amend a system or law to prevent this from happening might not accomplish much."
This taught Tsung-Lung Tsai that trying to dispel prejudices, or even hidden or outright discrimination, through systemic or legal changes would essentially be ineffective. We should first look at the mindset with which Taiwanese individuals or the entire society view these immigrants and migrant workers. The first step is to elucidate the problem and present it clearly.
In August 2017, absconded Vietnamese migrant worker Quốc Phi Nguyễn was shot 9 times as a police officer tried to arrest him. The first thought that crossed Tsung-Lung Tsai's mind when he saw this piece of news being broadcast on TV everywhere was, "Was it necessary to fire 9 shots? Would that officer have done the same if the fugitive had been Taiwanese?" This question motivated him to further understand the situation. The tragedy of Quốc Phi Nguyễn ignited tensions between migrant worker associations and the police force, making them hostile to one another. Voices in support or opposition joined in the heated argument on values like human rights and equality.
The response he'd received after the screening of See You, Lovable Strangers prompted Tsai to contemplate including systemic problems in future productions. What happened to Quốc Phi Nguyễn put into relief the attitudes of many Taiwanese towards migrant workers. Aside from Quốc Phi Nguyễn, Bảo Trân Huỳnh was another migrant worker who fell off a cliff and died when escaping from the police. The stories of these two men served as windows for Tsai to address the wider topic of migrant workers. From the very beginning, Tsai didn't set out to simply talk about isolated situations. What he wished to achieve the most when making this documentary was to simultaneously discuss the overall system and the attitude of Taiwanese people towards migrant workers through these incidents.
"When I saw the news about what happened to Quốc Phi Nguyễn or Bảo Trân Huỳnh, I think I had a better understanding than most people. It was on this basis that I thought to myself, 'if I don't take the opportunity to discuss some relevant contexts through these individual incidents, there might not be a better chance in the future'."

Cameraman Hao-Zhung Zhan and the crew filming the problem of migrant workers-turned-illegal loggers in the Alishan Mountain Range.
Key Points  
By a twist of fate, Tsung-Lung Tsai managed to get the video file from the body camera (bodycam) worn by the police officer at the scene of the Quốc Phi Nguyễn incident. Screenshots or excerpts of the bodycam footage had been shown as evidence in several court hearings in the past. Seeing the entire 30 minute-long video from the bodycam forced the director and his production team to bluntly face the interactions between Quốc Phi Nguyễn, the police officer that fired the shots, and everyone in their surroundings, including government workers that accompanied the officer, paramedics, and even bystanders—the way they treated Nguyễn as he was lying on the ground, bleeding to death from gunshot wounds. These images have tremendous power. It is hard to resist the impulse to cover one's eyes. Getting through the sequence can shake viewers to their core. The team even discussed whether or not to directly make the stirring footage public. That would speak louder than any explanation or metaphor decrying the discriminatory and differential treatment.
But in the opinion of director Tsai, taking the bodycam footage out of context would most likely exacerbate the hostility between the two parties involved. It might turn into a conflict between an individual migrant worker and a cop. Appropriately including the footage in the documentary could help the audience realize that the problem is not entirely a needed overhaul to the system and the law, but might be rooted in the collective psyche. This is what the documentary wants to point out.
"That is how we think of migrant workers. This incident only sets off those attitudes. One aspect of the happening is that the officer fired 9 shots. Why did he do that? Other than his nervousness, there is a mental state that backdrops the moment. Perhaps he has a negative impression of migrant workers and never attempted to understand them. The two groups of policemen that arrived at the scene later did not give importance to life despite their seniority. Even government officials did nothing to improve the situation. After Quốc Phi Nguyễn was shot, bystanders shouted derisively, 'Try to fight back now'. That is our collective psyche."
From Individual to Society
Yet what is a so-called "proper" context that can connect the incident, bodycam footage, and central story?
Firstly, an individual occurrence is juxtaposed with the overall environment. The main thread of the story in And Miles to Go Before I Sleep deals with Quốc Phi Nguyễn, but Tsung-Lung Tsai also overlaps layers of experiences: occupational injuries endured by migrant workers and attempts to escape those terrible working conditions while being chased by the police. A complete picture of this incident is gradually painted by including the perspectives of all those involved, migrant workers, firefighters, senior police officers, lawyers, unlicensed taxi drivers, mountain rangers, immigration officers, and so forth. Everyone is given a voice as news images then lead to their personal interviews. Whether the migrant workers are staying legally or absconded, they oftentimes toil under harsh work environments and poor working conditions. It is them that support Taiwan's modern buildings and transportation to our world-leading electronics industry. While posing to the world as a bastion of freedom and human rights, Taiwan chooses to ignore migrant workers' labor rights, right to survival, and human rights through ruthless arrests and unfair treatment. A multitude of migrant workers' associations have called Taiwan an "island of slave workers" from early on.
With this multitude of incidents and news excerpts weaved together, the audience slowly goes from the Quốc Phi Nguyễn tragedy into an entire overview of migrant workers' life and work in Taiwan. Systemic deficiencies and structural problems become apparent, but the chief reason we cannot overlook is still the way many Taiwanese behave towards migrant workers and deep-rooted discrimination.
Incidents blend and intertwine with four sections of the bodycam footage in this context, lending strength to each other. The beginning of the bodycam footage enshrouds the audience in an uncertain mist, with the veiled facts being revealed one after another. This narrative thread composed of incidents, news reports, and interviews complements with the bodycam footage to portray the reality of migrant workers in Taiwan from a rational perspective.
Quốc Phi Nguyễn is the protagonist of the other storyline. It begins at his hometown, from his childhood to adulthood, family, and why he chose to pursue work in Taiwan. His Facebook posts expressing his feelings serve as off-screen commentary to help the audience get to know Nguyễn the man. The documentary is the story of a real person. Tsung-Lung Tsai said bout this approach:
After absconding from his employer, migrant worker Quốc Phi Nguyễn led a group of Vietnamese friends to build houses for Taiwanese people around Zhubei, Hsinchu County.
"How can this documentary help you visually and emotionally realize that migrant workers are not tools, but human beings, with families and dreams. We often say that one should pursue one's dreams. That is why they came to Taiwan, to make their dreams come true."
This narrative thread centered on Nguyễn's life story is interwoven with footage from the body camera. The news reports about migrant workers' occupational injuries and interviews offer yet another different perspective from the bodycam footage. As we become acquainted with Quốc Phi Nguyễn through images and videos, it is impossible to regard that migrant worker from the bodycam footage, virtually naked and lying on the mud, as simply a blurry face and dismiss him with a label. Viewers cannot pretend to ignore the struggle and pain that overwhelm his body after being shot so many times. Likewise, we will no longer treat migrant workers as merely animals or pieces of flesh instead of humans, stripping them of their human rights. This personal narrative combined with the bodycam footage act on the emotional level, arising empathy in viewers while also eliciting psychological shock.
The bodycam footage alone can shake one profoundly. The rational probe and emotional empathy resulting from And Miles to Go Before I Sleep make it difficult for the viewer to watch from the sidelines or feel it is a distant happening. Even more so for Taiwanese viewers—we cannot pretend we have no hands in the matter. The documentary catches us unawares, forcing us to bear the guilt of this tragedy alongside all of Taiwanese society. The cruel yet authentic images of the bodycam footage are painful to watch. Tsung-Lung Tsai hopes that this pain can bring about tangible actions and power for change. This is the primary intention of And Miles to Go Before I Sleep.
Narrative Adjustment and Balancing
And Miles to Go Before I Sleep set out to interweave narratives from two different perspectives since the very start. One is that of Quốc Phi Nguyễn, the perspective of a departed spirit (roaming in the shadows); the other is that of Tsung-Lung Tsai, director and researcher of the incident (finding the pieces of the puzzle). Being able to obtain the bodycam footage and Nguyễn's social media posts chronicling his emotions increased the amount of materials available on the protagonist. The overall narrative structure thus had to undergo considerable adjustments. The pieces of the puzzle in the documentary consist chiefly of interviews to Li-Ching Lin—blue-collar worker and writer, senior police officers, and other interviewees. Albeit unseen, the director collects these fragments and attempts to piece together a host of systemic issues and uncomfortable truths. The structure built on these two pillars can be discerned in many aspects of the film.
In the opening sequence, when Quốc Phi Nguyễn's family members are interviewed, we are shown the director and cameraman sitting opposite to Nguyễn's family, filmed by another camera. They are about to start the interview. Tsung-Lung Tsai mentioned that this arrangement intends to represent the perspective of the departed spirit, looking on all the research and interviews. This is also meant to create certain distance, so that viewers can shift between subjective and objective viewpoints to get a better understanding of the matter.
In the interview, Nguyễn's father expressed that had it not been for his deteriorating health that prevented him to continue attending court, he would not have settled the dispute through conciliation.

"It is as if he was standing next to us as we conducted the interviews and research. To put it in stronger terms, perhaps all our effort will amount to nothing... As a researcher and journalist, this process is also being observed. The perspective of that spirit is like a bird's-eye view for me, taking in the entirety of the matter."
Another effort to balance the narrative can be seen in the interview to the police officer's family. The media often framed the death of Quốc Phi Nguyễn as a polarizing event, with both sides finding fault with each other. But there's more to the narrative planning of And Miles to Go Before I Sleep than the migrant worker killed by 9 shots and the problematic migrant worker system that backdrops this incident. The statements by the involved policeman's family member and interviews to senior police officers broadened our perspective to show us the situation and challenges faced by junior-rank police officers and the police administrative system, as well as the scene of the act.
In one post-screening Q&A session, Tsai was asked why he did not interview the involved police officer himself. Tsai answered that personal factors played a role in the death of Quốc Phi Nguyễn in addition to social ones. But the documentary's mission is not to deal with these personal factors, but to position this incident in a social context. Therefore, if the replies of the entry-level policeman who fired the shots do not contribute to our understanding of the structural problems, this might unintentionally place too much emphasis on this individual officer instead of shedding light on the more essential issues. That would also turn the narrative into a conflict between two disadvantaged parties, a more black-and-white situation. In the interview, the officer's family member expressed the other side of the story quite clearly, so interviewing the officer himself would not add any significant content to the film.
Furthermore, when discussing the problem of absconded migrant workers in Taiwan, it is easy for fingers to start pointing at each other, especially with regard to problems in the brokerage system. In And Miles to Go Before I Sleep, director Tsai included remarks by a broker stating that they, too, are subject to pressure by businesses, employer demands, and commissions. This statement is perhaps too simplistic and idealized, failing to fully depict their responsibilities and duties, but it is enough to give viewers some awareness of the brokerage problem, so that they are able to grapple with the messy web of problems in this gargantuan system.

Migrant worker advocacy groups organize a migrant workers' parade every two years, with their main request in the last years being to abolish the brokerage system.
Bringing People Together
When the Quốc Phi Nguyễn incident took place in August 2017, Zhi-Lung Zhang, in charge of in-depth documentaries for news program PTS IN-NEWS, also attempted to document and perform interviews on the matter. He began researching news coverage and ended up finding Nguyễn's hometown and family in Vietnam. He also got in touch with Nguyễn's younger sister, A-Tsao, who is also working in Taiwan. As an old colleague, Tsung-Lung Tsai asked Chang to keep the footage and data to serve as preliminary research materials for And Miles to Go Before I Sleep. Also with the assistance of Zhi-Lung Zhang, he managed to contact Nguyễn's younger sister and gain the opportunity to travel to Vietnam and film his family.
At the same time, Tsai recruited some senior-year students to help with collecting a wide range of information for preliminary research, including news reports, incident data, and footage of migrant workers in Taiwan. Emma Lee joined the team in the film's planning stage. Another later recruit was Elvis Lu, with whom the director was not familiar at first, as well as cameraman Hao-Zhung Zhan—an old partner of Tsai's, film editor Hsuan-Kang Tsai, and music producer Min-Chieh Shih. They made the team of And Miles to Go Before I Sleep an assembly of renowned industry figures.
The crew filmed the 2019 migrant workers' parade, with Elvis Lu as cameraman and Hsuan-Kang Tsai as executive producer (the documentary's film editor).
Maybe this is related to the cumulative experience interacting with young students and artists as a professor in National Chung Cheng University. Tsai remarked that from the initial conception of And Miles to Go Before I Sleep, he looked forward to adopting different creative approaches to develop the project, such as collaborative filmmaking. Every member who joined the team did so for more than just fulfilling some specific technical need of the film. They consciously contributed their specialized skills as part of a creative collective, sharing opinions, discussing, and finishing a work together.
"You could say I approached them quite early. I later had an idea: a documentary is not enough. In order to change the mentality and values of Taiwanese society, it must be a diverse artwork. For instance, the film editor can use materials to make their own shorts, and the music producer can take these theme songs as their own independent music. And Miles to Go Before I Sleep is a work we completed through joint collaboration. We're calling it 'documentary' for now. Songs, short films, or even plays—they can turn it into whatever they wish. It's like shooting arrows in all directions, but they share a common theme, that is, migrant workers."
Everyone who joined the production of And Miles to Go Before I Sleep was able to bring their expertise into full play. That might be the reason why no matter whether it's the narrative, ideas, images, or music, these masters in their fields engaged in dialogue and inspired one another, giving birth to a superb, powerful film that doesn't fail to impact viewers.

[1] Khuôn viên văn hoá Việt Nam was co-founded by Vietnamese new immigrant Kim Hồng Nguyễn and her Taiwanese husband Tsung-Lung Tsai in May 2017. They have long devoted attention to issues of new immigrants and migrant workers in Taiwan, as well as the education and culture of second-generation immigrants. Their aim is to build a space for cultural exchange that transcends stereotypical perceptions of Vietnamese people, such as cuisine and performances.。
*Translator: Linguitronics