The Mississippi, Mekong juxtaposed
A documentary shot during a journey from Seattle to New Orleans looks to strengthen ties between Viet Nam and the US. It is scheduled to air on VTC 14 on May 20. Director Lai Trong Tinh speaks with Viet Nam News's My Ha
about his experiences during filmmaking.
Inner Sanctum: A documentary about your trip along the great Mississippi River sounds like an ambitious project. How did it all happen?
We first wrote a proposal to compare the impact of climate change along the Mississippi and Mekong rivers and won the sponsorship of the US Embassy in Ha Noi. We felt it would be too expensive to do just one documentary about it, so the idea of a series of shorter films caught on.
Climate change and the global warming have been affecting the eastern coast of the US from Florida to Louisiana. Studies from the University of Louisiana have shown that the coastline has been receding, with more and more land submerged in water.
We were interested in how best to inform Vietnamese viewers about the impact of climate change in the vast Mississippi basin, and decided to use the Mekong Delta as a point of reference. We wanted to draw attention to the consequences of building dams along the Mekong and the subsequent floods caused by changes in river embankments and dikes. But we also learnt that if the Mississippi basin were affected by climate change, it wouldn't impact the American economy and population as severely as the developments along the Mekong River would impact Viet Nam. The Mekong plays a far more important role in our country because the delta is our biggest rice-producing region.
Climate change is not just a distant threat; it is a real danger that looms over us.
Inner Sanctum: What impressed you most about the US?
When preparing for this trip, I was curious to see for my own eyes two things: I wanted to find out why Americans feel so strongly about freedom in general and to see if there are any traces of racism still left in today's society.
We picked an itinerary that took us from Memphis, Tennessee, to Venice, Louisiana, the location of a battle in the American Civil War that ended in 1883.
My fourth-grade teacher used to read to us from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We looked forward to those sessions because Tom's adventures opened a whole new world for us. That was in 1984-85, one year before doi moi.
When I grew up, I read other books about the Civil War period, such as Gone With the Wind and Uncle Tom's Cabin. I read about Martin Luther King and wished I could visit his museum, built at the site where he was assassinated. We were actually a few hundreds yards from it but it wasn't in our agenda.
Unfortunately I wasn't feeling joyful as if I were little Tom travelling along the great Mississippi river. I was more overwhelmed by questions of racism and slave liberation and the fate of all human beings that were defined by the Civil War.
I wanted to visit a cemetery in Vicksburg, where we learnt that people who died during the Civil War were buried: black and white, officials and slaves, soldiers from both the North and South. The ideals they fought and died for—the questions of social status and skin colour that separated them—now seem faded.
The war ended over 100 years ago but it helped shape today's America. And the values it brought about are still very present in the minds of Americans today: they become very alert when their freedom is questioned.
Inner Sanctum: Why did you start off in Seattle?
Right before our trip, we learned that Seattle has become the sister city of port town Hai Phong in Viet Nam. We met with Vietnamese students studying in Seattle who were competing for a King of Pho title in a cooking contest.
Seattle is named after a Native American Chief Sealth, who spoke these famous words in 1852: "Will you teach your children what we've taught our children? The earth doesn't belong to man; man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man does not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself". This saying adorns the walls of the office of the US Geology Society (USGS) we visited in Vicksberg, a clear reminder of humanity's unceasing attempt to control nature.
Inner Sanctum: What else did you capture on film?
We visited the USGS and the American Corps of Engineers. They have spent more than US$100 billion building levies and embankments along the Mississippi River.
Another study from the scientists at the University of Louisiana showed that the Mississippi has continuously changed its course over the past 1000 years. In the past century, it was forced to stay in one place. The latest floods have been powerful and destructive.
I was just pondering that maybe our poverty is a blessing. Because we didn't have money to build big dikes and fix the course of the Mekong, we have to live with its seasonal floods, which eventually brought in alluvial soil to nourish the surrounding fields.
Inner Sanctum: What did the American engineers think of that?
Well, people at the USGS thought it was possibly true, but the guys at ACE just laughed.
Inner Sanctum: Filming in New Orleans and not mentioning jazz is an oversight, don't you think?
Yes, definitely. We were lucky to be there during the French festival and captured the mood of the city in our footage. But the trip was too short. We hope to come back to do a documentary on jazz. — VNS