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Australian filmmaker mentors aspiring young Viet Nam artists

Update: January, 21/2016 - 10:51
Sharing knowledge: Australian film producer Ross Stewart organises creative projects for Vietnamese youth. — Photo courtesy of Ross Stewart

by Minh Thu

Ross Stewart's desire to leave home and discover the world brought him to Viet Nam. Little did he know he'd end up spending over a decade in a country, and find his dream job.

After studying creative industries at university, he worked as an art event producer in Australia. Needing a break from Western culture, he decided to leave with a friend for Viet Nam.

"Since Australia has no bordering countries, it's always a big step to leave the country and explore the world," he said. "When I left Australia in 2003, it was the perfect time for me to leave and explore the rest of the world. So in that way it was not a difficult decision to leave – it was the beginning of an exciting adventure."

First, he intended to stay in Viet Nam for a year and then travel to Europe or Africa. But 12 years later, he's still in Viet Nam and he never thinks of it as the wrong decision.

"I feel like Viet Nam is my second home, and that Australia is becoming more foreign to me day by day, actually," said Stewart.

Working with youth

After Stewart arrived in HCM City, he stayed to work as a teacher for a local school. He soon began working with students on film projects.

His first one, the 48 Hour Film Project, kicked off in 2010 and has run almost every year since. He also holds an event called Take 5 that sends the winning team on a filmmaking holiday in Hong Kong. One of the most exciting and progressive projects is Project Sci-Fi, which is run simultaneously in Viet Nam and Australia.

"Since there were little to no science fiction films being made in Viet Nam, I felt that it was the perfect time to motivate young filmmakers to challenge themselves to make sci-fi short films," he said. "We produced more than 60 short sci-fi films and they clearly showed that Viet Nam has a talent for this genre."

After two years on hiatus, the 48 Hour Film Project will return this year. Stewart said he hoped to see lots of new faces, whether they were amateur filmmakers wanting to try something new, or professional ones looking for a challenge.

He said he had some pretty crazy ideas on how he could push the development of creative industries in Viet Nam forward. While some countries enjoyed a well-developed and supported industry, Viet Nam's focus was more on developing other economic areas and infrastructure.

When he introduced the idea of the 48 Hour Film Project, which screened all films made for the competition in cinemas around Viet Nam, people said it would fail. But actually, thousands of young filmmakers from all parts of the country participated that helped make it a reality.

Adding to the success, two films from the project were screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

"From my impression of working with the Vietnamese youth, what they don't have in the way of ability and experience, they make up in enthusiasm," Stewart said.

"It's very hard to tell any Vietnamese person that they can't do something, because it just makes them want to try harder to prove that person wrong.

"Older generations need to trust in the youth of Viet Nam and find a way to communicate and support them better. By adding the experience of the old, and the creativeness and enthusiasm of the young is the recipe for success that will push Viet Nam forward into a brighter future."

Currently Stewart holds two positions. He works as a manager and examiner for an English examination in Viet Nam. The other job, his passion, is working to develop creative industries.

He's working on developing a new funding body for independent projects called Vindie, which is running a pitching competition called EVO8. It is offering a budget of VND3 billion (US$140,000) to create an eight-episode series.

"Not only is EVO8 a good opportunity for young filmmakers, but it's also a good chance to bring some new ideas and concepts to Vietnamese TV, which is currently dominated by soap operas, game shows and reality TV," he said.

Stewart seems to have everything he wants in Viet Nam. He said he loves the people, the food, the youth culture and the dreamy aspects of Vietnamese life.

"In some ways, Viet Nam is like Peter Pan's Neverland – a land full of children who never grow up, and pirates who come crashing in and destroy everyone's good time," he said. "There is never a dull moment here, which is probably why I've been here so long."

Stewart said he felt like he had Vietnamese blood running in his veins. He often found himself thinking, talking and doing things like everyone else. Even when he returned to Australia, he still ate Vietnamese food.

Unfortunately, as most of his Vietnamese friends speak English and most his work is done in English, the only time Stewart speaks Vietnamese is on the street. He isn't fluent - yet.

"There will always be a certain part of Viet Nam which will be forever locked away if you can't fluently communicate in the local language," he said. "And until I can master Vietnamese, I will always be considered a foreigner and an outsider. So I will try." — VNS

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