Huynh Ba Long, who currently works at the Treû Publishing House, has appeared in a number of reality television programmes. He spoke to Mi Ly about his experience making human interest programmes about individuals with disabilities.
Inner Sanctum: How are reality television programmes that are based on human-interest stories executed?
The basic building blocks for such programmes are their characters and stories. If the characters and the story are interesting, the programme will be successful. Thus, preparation for both is very important.
Specifically, three aspects should be given the utmost importance, while making a programme: preparation, official filming and post-production. Preparation involves contacting the character, studying his/her living situation and interviewing local residents and authorities to ascertain their living situation. I used to be incharge of the production of a programme called "Ngoi Nha Mo Uoc" (Dream House).
The researcher can visit the locality and conduct real-time interviews with local residents and authorities, rely on information from readers, or on stories relating to the subject that have been published in newspapers. In addition to tapping all these sources of information, the programme makers should not ignore ascertaining their characters' living situation.
Inner Sanctum: Can you share any major challenges you might have encountered in your career?
There was one when I was working on the programme "Dream House".
Sometimes, the poor have a tendency to take advantage of our compassion. At the time, I visited a family that had two pretty daughters, who were suffering from a condition called "crystal bones". The two girls were obedient, their mother was also a lovely woman and the father also had some physical malformation. After talking to them, we decided to make a programme based on their life.
They lamented about their hard life, but they intentionally forgot to mention that they had appeared on another programme and due to the publicity generated from that programme; they had received hundreds of millions of dong from eager benefactors.
On the day we were to officially begin filming, I led a group of 20 people to their house to set up our equipment. However, their neighbours revealed that the family was only pretending to be hard-pressed and had been telling lies. They had used the money collected following the earlier programme for gambling and even took advantage of their own children's condition.
As a result of this revelation, we had to cancel the programme and I was at the receiving end of colleagues' ire. My team and I considered it a career accident which had led to time and effort being wasted, and a loss of about VND10 million (US$470).
Inner Sanctum: How can we fact-check a story when using it for a reality television programme?
We should base it on our intuition and information from the character, his/her neighbours and local authorities. Having enough sources at our disposal should ensure that the programme is considered to be close to reality. We should also understand that we make programmes to earn profits, not to do charity and that we must be mindful of keeping production costs in check.
Inner Sanctum: What should the programme makers do if a character intentionally tells lies?
A trip to the person's locality can resolve all problems. At present, reality television programmes that have just gone into production will of course encounter obstacles. We need to be exhaustive during the first year and expect a slow rate of progress. When our production has stabilized, we can shorten the time it takes to finish the programme.
If a programme meets difficulties, the makers should search for new avenues or even consider changing the yardstick for choosing a character.
When we make programmes, we debate a lot about the standards, based on which a character is chosen. Our programmes always have sponsors, who are firm. The more viewers the programmes attract, the more they like it. They want to evoke the viewers' compassion, although sometimes this might go against our production norms. We want to give our characters a pair of wings to overcome poverty and we also do not want to manipulate the viewers' feelings.
Sponsors sometimes understand this, and at times they don't, which results in a prolonged debate. Anyway, in the end we must accede to our sponsors.
Inner Sanctum: If you avoid characters that suffer from some disability or are poor, will the programme lose its attraction?
I think not. Examples of people overcoming difficulties, poverty, domestic violence or their unlucky fate are plentiful, as long as you use a good television language. We should understand that disabled people also do not want to be identified as disabled, as they think that they were unlucky in being physically challenged. If we label them as disabled, it will amount to discrimination.
Inner Sanctum: What do you think of programmes focusing on disability that are aimed at manipulating viewers' emotions?
I oppose them. We need to treat the disabled with equality and as normal people. They should be praised for their achievements and not be noticed only for their disability.
I had once made a programme about a boy named Tran Ton Trung Son, who was a victim of the Agent Orange herbicide used during the Viet Nam War, and who could only move two of his fingers.
He ended up studying at Harvard University in the United States and was very bright and wanted to be known, "not only for being disabled, but also for excelling in his studies". In the US, Son is respected as a normal person, but in Viet Nam, he is only considered a poor disabled boy.
Son and many other disabled persons do not need our excessive compassion. Son understands his strengths. His father is a well-educated man and has always taught Son to stand on his own feet, so that everyone respects him for his intelligence.
But there are some disabled people, who think that their existence should be sponsored by the society, which means that we must take care of them. They feel hostile a bit towards life. Their thinking is partially a result of the stigma the society attaches to disabled people. We, as a society, need to rectify such thinking. — VNS