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Oppression, statelessness, demolition themes drive Vietnam projects at Southeast Asia Film Lab – Singapore

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Diverse aspects of the human condition are key drivers of the projects from Vietnam selected at the Southeast Asia Film Lab, which is part of the Singapore Media Festival.

Linh Dan Nguyen Phan went to film school in New York and then went to Vietnam and worked as a cinematographer and also directed a few shorts. The filmmaker’s debut feature, “If Wood Could Cry, It Would Cry Blood,” adapted from the autobiographical novel “Tam Van Phong Dao” by Vietnamese comedian Mac Can, will delve into his childhood as the middle child in a family-run traveling circus. The film centers on the three siblings who, together, sustain their family by performing a knife throwing act.

The abiding theme of the film is oppression. “Women in peril has been a trend in entertainment, the smaller the weaker the girl put in danger was, the more thrilling the performance is,” says the filmmaker. “This real story raises awareness on the issues of dedicated roles of women that I could relate to. Set during the French Resistance War in Vietnam, the children are searching for themselves in a shifting culture that is losing bits and pieces of its culture along the way. The country’s struggle at the backdrop of the story parallels these children’s fight for their independence from the oppressions of bigger forces. By borrowing these people’s life, I hope to introduce a different chapter of Vietnamese history while expressing some of my own repressed emotions.”

The project is currently in the last stages of development and has begun the financing stage. The team attended the Busan Asian Project Market where the project received the ArteKino International Award.

Mai Huyen Chi was editor-in-chief at MSN Vietnam, but decided to switch careers and studied for a masters degree in screenwriting in London. Writing credits include “A Brixton Tale” and “The Girl from Dak Lak.”

“I chanced upon a stateless community on the Mekong in Long Xuyen city in 2014, when I tried my hands at documenting the impacts of the hydroelectric dams upstream on people’s lives,” says the filmmaker. “That ambitious idea yielded nothing, but my encounter with this community led to an impromptu short documentary, ‘Down The Stream’.”

The filmmaker’s Singapore Lab project “The River Knows Our Names,” follows on from the documentary. It is set in a floating, stateless community on the Mekong, where a little girl tries to keep everyone together while the adults fall out over the purchase of new identities that help them move ashore.

The project is at an early stage of development. “My collaborators and I, we are aware that this is not our story. This are some people’s real lives,” the filmmaker adds. “The project is aimed to include the stateless men, women, and children of the Mekong in the process. In the script development stage, we had planned to live with the community and travel upstream to the Cambodia-Vietnam border and beyond. Due to COVID, that has not happened. We are still developing the projects and have traveled with it to some labs, workshops and online co-production markets. But we are going to take time to develop the screenplay, which will only make sense after substantial field research.”

Meanwhile, demolition is a theme in Pham Hoang Minh Thy’s project “Daughter of the Mountain God,” where a young female director is guided by a forest thief to find locations for her film in a mountain that is being demolished for construction. Minh Thy, who is currently pursuing a masters degree in critique in film theory debuted with the short film “The graduation of Edison,” which was selected at SGIFF 2019. “Live In Cloud-Cuckoo Land,” her latest short, co-directed with Vu Minh Nghia, was selected at Venice’s Horizons strand in 2020.

“Every time I am down, I will come back to my mother as well as the mountains to heal. But in the last few years, perhaps the mountains, my homeland and nature are the ones who need to be healed,” says the filmmaker. “Most of all, I wanted to make a movie that could heal myself with the dizzying changes, preserving a bit of urban memory and my generational memory – what people are selling out there.”

The biggest issue that emerging filmmakers like Linh Dan Nguyen Phan, Pham Hoang Minh Thy and Mai Huyen Chi face in Vietnam is that of censorship.

“The biggest challenge would probably be the censorship laws that is a big debate in our country right now. There are a lot of restrictions when it comes to the topics we can mention and because there are no set rules, it is very difficult for filmmakers, especially new ones, to navigate,” says Linh Dan Nguyen Phan. “The filmmakers in Vietnam are working together to initiate positive movements that I hope will help to create a new path for Vietnamese cinema and help emerging filmmakers get a chance to tell their stories truthfully.”

“Vietnam is notorious for its censorship. You do not need graphic images to be censored. You only need some visuals that painted the country ‘in the wrong color’,” says Mai Huyen Chi, adding that funding, infrastructure and distribution for independent films remain difficult too.

“History has shown that filmmakers elsewhere have sprung from challenges and made wonderful movies. If we shift the angle, the fact that historical and political challenges have suppressed innovative and authentic storytelling could mean that there are plenty of stories that have not been told about this country, this people, us. And people, especially the young ones born into an era with more freedom in the mind and an abundance of equipment and resources, yearn to do just that,” adds the filmmaker. “I have strong faith that the Vietnamese independent cinema scene will soon thrive for good reasons.”

By Naman Ramachandran – Variety – December 1, 2021

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