Viet Nam's short film revolution
|Calling the shots: Dung Zau, the 22-year-old film-maker (middle) allocates roles to actors, most of whom are his friends at Ha Noi Academy of Theatre and Cinema. — VNS File Photos
Sparked by enthusiastic youths, social networking and the increasing affordability of rented equipment, short film fever has gripped Viet Nam and is starting to draw international acclaim. Cam Giang
It's 7pm on a Sunday night at the end of September, and a hundred young people can be seen on the second floor of Puku Cafe on Tong Duy Tan street. They are working extremely hard to finish their products by 8pm - the deadline of The Ha Noi 48 Hour Film Project 2012.
Over the past three years, making short films has become an increasingly popular pastime among young people. Local and international short film competitions such as Doclab Documentary Project, Yxine Film Festival, the 48 Hour Film Project (48HFP) and the Golden Kite Short Film Award have lured film-makers throughout the country, professionals and amateurs alike.
These films have received increasing acclaim from critics overseas. In May, Turtle Soup, by the Ho Chi Minh City-based independent film group Yeti, won third prize in the Best Film category at the International 48 Hour Film Project. The film was also selected to screen at the Cannes film festival in May along with another short film entitled Hai, Tu, Sau (Two, Four and Six). Last month, six outstanding short films from YxineFF were screened at La Clef Cinema in Paris and received praise from international viewers. The Visitor, another short film made by an amateur director, was selected as one of the top ten films of the 2012 Asia-Europe Film Awards and ended up the second runner-up.
"The time pressure made us feel very excited, as if we were in a big national festival," said Dung Zau, the 22-year-old director of the Red Group. Last year, Dung participated in the 48HFP with another team. But since their film was finished late, it could not be part of the running for the highest award.
This is the second time the contest has been organised in Ha Noi. This year, it has drawn over 53 teams from the capital alone. The rules require competitors to make a 4- to 7- minute film, from writing and casting to shooting and editing, in only 2 days. This means everyone works hard, even forgoing sleep. This year, only 41 of the 52 groups completed their products in time.
|Sharp focus: Young and enthusiastic film-makers often use Canon EOS 7D to shoot their short films, since it costs significantly less while still providing standard video quality.
Anh Ha, an interpreter, says the contest is his first experience in the film-making field.
"I often use my Canon 5D Mark II to film my 9-month-old baby at home. I know a lot about camera technique from the Internet. When I heard that there was a film crew searching for a cameraman for the competition, I thought, why not?"
Ha's team was led by Zoran Rakovic, a professional Australian director. The team includes a dozen other people, from the editor and sound engineer to actors and actresses, who have little-to-no experience in film-making. However, this doesn't mean they can't win, Anh says brightly.
Just a few months ago, a three-minute short film directed by amateur film-maker Nguyen Le Hoang Viet, a student at the National Economics University, created a "fever" among online viewers.
With a simple plot – a grand-daughter introducing her foreign boyfriend to her sick grandmother in the hospital – The Visitor has inspired young viewers to dream of making their own films. Like many amateur directors, Viet, who was born in 1991, found out about the competition via Facebook. He was surprised when he won the prize.
If young amateurs like Viet join short-film contests for various reasons, from "gaining experience" to answering the question, ‘What if I made a film of my own?", professionals consider each event a precious opportunity to approach viewers and potential producers.
"A short film is like a business card for a young professional film-maker," says Ly Thai Dung, a seasoned Vietnamese cameraman.
|Instant feedback:Film quality can be checked immediately on set via the memory card of a still camera. — VNS File Photos
|Action!: Young film makers of Ha Noi competing in the 48 Hour Film Project, many of whom are still in their twenties, take a short break before getting back to the filming process.
|Speed writing: Dung Zau worked with his group to map out a script after receiving a comedy brief for their entry to the 48 Hour Film Project 2011.
He explains that every director who studies at a professional film school like the Academy of Theater and Cinema in Ha Noi or Ho Chi Minh City has to make at least one or two short films before they graduate. Three or four years ago, these films were screened only at their graduation ceremonies or if they were lucky, a cafe or two. The situation is totally different today.
Young director Dung Zau has made four short films, three of which are available online and have attracted over 5 million views. After entering two films into the Ha Noi 48HFP in 2011 and 2012, he plans to send his fourth film to the Ong Vang Film Festival, a biannual short film contest organised at the end of October by the Ha Noi Academy of Theatre and Cinema.
"Clearly, online social networks, YouTube, and email, as well as the newly-launched festivals, provide amazing PR for young film-makers today," says Do Thanh Hai, a well-known Vietnamese director and also a member of the jury board for short film contests at the Ha Noi Academy of Theatre and Cinema.
A former student of Hai, director Le Ngoc Tung has gathered around him a circle of friends who love to make short films. However, it was not until the end of 2008 that his group started to work as a business under the name Rainbow Entertainment Group, which works to help young directors find financial support to make their own short films.
"It is a time for multi-media productions, and many things have become possible now that were not previously. Recently, we have received many letters from companies and individuals who want us to produce films for them," says Tung.
Some months ago, REG received a request from the Get Green project to make a film on the theme of environmental protection. The topic is broad enough for young film makers to develop their own ideas. Tung says that there are many financial supporters who just want to add their name to films with good content, giving directors even more freedom to develop their own projects.
It would be a mistake to pass over another important factor contributing to the rise of short films. That is the use of still cameras, says Nguyen Huu Tuan, a film director.
Previously, filmmaking equipment was largely off-limits to most people. "Even students at film academies considered themselves lucky if they had a chance to touch a real cinematography camera," he says.
Things are much different now. Many still cameras, like the Canon 5D Mark series, feature video shooting capabilities with many added features – bridging the technical gap.
When the trailer of "Searching for Sonny" by 2008, a film shot completely on EOS 5D Mark II cameras, was released on the Internet, it immediately attracted film making enthusiasts around the world, including those in Viet Nam. After the phenomenal success of the film, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II - and later on the Canon EOS 7D - became the standard for short film making in Viet Nam. They are used extensively in many of the short film competitions, including the 48 hour film contest, Chung ta lam phim (We love filmmaking), and Chuyen doi qua phim (Life stories through films).
Many of the films made for these contests, namely "The Safe", "Turtle Soup", "The Snakehead", "Path of the Marble", "Motorbike Taxy", and "Idle Talks", go on to compete in prestigious international short film festivals and are included in screenings in high-end cinemas in the MegaStar system.
The prominent reason for filmmakers to choose a still camera with full HD video function is because it costs significantly less while still providing standard video quality, say Dung.
"A Canon EOS 5D Mark II with full range lenses would cost somewhere around US$10,000, equal to the one-month rental fee for a Red One professional film camera. Also, in HCM City, many shops are renting out 5D Mark II cameras at the cost of US$25 and lenses from US$5-$17 per day. This service has opened up more opportunities for students with limited financial means," says Dung.
Nguyen Khac Nhat, an up-and-coming cinematographer who belongs to a filmmaking group named 2115 and won the Golden Kite Award with a 17-minute short film shot on Canon 5D Mark II cameras, says: "The smaller size of still cameras means that you have more mobility and flexibility in small crowded spaces. They can be set up quicker, require less man power to operate, and produce instant results."
"Our film was shot in more than 10 different small lanes, very limited spaces. In some scenes, we had to shoot people in their authentic daily activities without them knowing it, so still cameras are good because they are easier to hide from people's sight."
However, young film-makers must be careful with technology, as it can be a two-bladed sword, says director Tran Ly Tri Tan.
"Knowing how to press some buttons on the camera doesn't make you a director. We usually joke that when you shoot with still cameras, it is the camera, and not you, who's doing the thinking," he says.
"My observation is that there are more short film contests these days but the quality is not necessarily higher. Short film is a special type of film in itself. I'm worried that a day will come when people make short films the way they make mass-produced TV soap operas," he says.
Prestigious film festivals worldwide take short films very seriously, according to director Thanh Hai. Usually these films are made by talented new directors, but Kar Wai Wong, a seasoned foreign director with multiple award-winning full-length movies under his belt, went "against the flow" with the shorts series "Eros" in 2004, which received exceptional reviews.
This demonstrates that short films are not always a stepping-stone in the path of directors toward full-length movies. Rather, the short is a type of film in itself, which requires just as much talent as a feature, says director Thanh Hai.
"It is time to rethink short films. They need to have a clearer roadmap for development, or the trend of making short films will be nothing more than just a trend," Hai says. — VNS