Documentary filmmaker Trần Phương Thảo. Photo tienphong.vn
The 11th European - Việt Nam Documentary Festival is being held by the European Union National Institutes for Culture and National Documentary and Scientific Film Studio from October 1 to 10.
Two independent films by Vietnamese filmmakers were shown as a sideline event of the festival on October 3.
Online Lao Động (Labour) newspaper reporter Anh Thư spoke with filmmaker Trần Phương Thảo about independent documentary making.
Your documentary Đi Tìm Phong (Finding Phong) was the first documentary to be shown at a commercial cinema in 2018. Could you tell us about the film?
Finding Phong tells about a trans woman named Lê Anh Phong who documented the journey from when she decided to undergo sex reassignment surgery to her life after the medical procedure.
It changes thinking about independent documentary making in Việt Nam. It doesn't mean that making an independent documentary is hard work.
The documentary production process was smooth from the start. The film producer had abundant financial resources.
I think that the idea for an independent film needn't come from the director. Finding Phong was initiated by the producer who is Phong's friend. As a director, I did not have to find the character.
Phong believes in his friend and he agreed to film. The theme of the film is a little bit sensitive and related to a real person.
Film-making progress had to not interfere with his personal decision because of health condition.
The producer said she would accept delaying the release of the film maybe five year or 10 years if Vietnamese society has prejudices affecting Phong's life.
That is independence. It means that the film doesn't have a limitation and the crew has the right to make decisions.
How did you get into film-making?
I translated and dubbed films at the cinema club at the French Cultural Centre when I was studying at the Foreign Trade University.
One time, I joined a French crew as an interpreter. The crew made a documentary entitled Gạo Rang (Grilled Rice). It is about Vietnamese cameramen in wartime.
They used their rice to keep their cameras and footage dry. They preferred to go hungry rather than eat rice during periods of food deprivation.
I was fascinated by documentary making because I had the chance to learn about historical people. That brought me to documentary making.
I really want to explore how Vietnamese society is built and how it works from the inside. The most recent film I made is about a road in Hà Nội. It is being cleared to build a concrete bridge.
When Phong and the crew went to the airport to go back home, he told me that "you cannot understand transgender people and what we, the transgenders, think."
I admit there may be things I don't understand but it's important that I want to understand.
I find my characteristics in film-making thanks to my characters. I like ridiculousness and humour.
In your opinion, when did independent documentary become popular to the Vietnamese audience?
I have made documentaries since 2007. I think the milestone for independent documentaries was the first entitled Chuyến Đi Cuối Cùng Của Chị Phụng (Ms Phụng's Last Journey) by Nguyễn Thị Thắm in 2012.
For the first time, there was an 80-minute film. Storytelling is very similar to a motion picture. The way it is done and the characters are real. The drama is made from real life.
The filmmaker should respect reality when he/she shoots real people. They depend on their characters and they cannot decide the time of the shooting.
Obviously, state-owned companies cannot invest in a documentary project if they do not know when it will be completed. Making an independent documentary is a long process such as finding an investor or financial source. Plus, screening it is much more difficult.
What makes a documentary successful?
I think that a filmmaker should do other work to earn money to make a film. Both motion pictures and documentaries cost money.
Normally a film project will take three years to complete. To survive during that time, I do interpretation. Some others do advertising or teach English.
It is necessary to define how long the project will be carried out, in a short time or a long time. Mostly, it is a long time because the character and film development are from real life.
To become a character in the film is really a long journey. Both director and character have to learn from each other. When they really understand each other and have trust, being in front of the camera will be natural.
Both of them have to have a deep and strong drive working together, accept each other and get along well.
What do you think about documentaries made by independent filmmakers?
Vietnamese independent documentaries have no place on the world cinema map.
Each year, the number of Vietnamese documentaries at international and regional festivals is small.
Regional countries like Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia have made many more films than Việt Nam.
This will change from this year because Asian cinema has developed rapidly since 2015. At present, there are funds for Asian cinema.
In previous years, Vietnamese filmmakers had to apply for European and American funds.
In 2020, some projects by young filmmakers from the Centre for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents got grants. — VNS