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French director talks about perks of making documentaries in Việt Nam

Update: November, 11/2018 - 09:00
French and Vietnamese directors Swann Dubus and Trần Phương Thảo. — VNS Photo Hồng Vân
Viet Nam News

Finding Phong by French and Vietnamese directors Swann Dubus and Trần Phương Thảo has made its name at international film festivals. 

It is the first film in Việt Nam to document a transgender person and the sex change process in real time. It centres around Phong, a native of the south central province of Quảng Ngãi, who works as a make-up artist for the puppets at the Thăng Long Water Puppertry Theatre in Hà Nội. 

The movie takes audiences through Phong’s first 24 years as a boy to a then joyful chapter after he underwent the process.

The documentary was screened at a number of international film festivals and finally hit cinemas in Việt Nam in October. Dubus talks to Hồng Vân about Finding Phong and the documentary scene in Việt Nam.

Inner Sanctum: How did the idea of ‘Finding Phong’ come about?

Gerald Herman, who was later the co-producers of Finding Phong, introduced us to Phong in 2012. Phong had told Herman about his problems and his decision to change gender. Herman was moved by Phong’s story and then proposed the idea to us.

That year many movies about transgender people were released, but we thought it would be much more interesting to document Phong’s struggle and the transgender process in real time. So it took three years to finish the movie with a total of 220 hours of filming.

At the beginning, it was mostly Phong’s video diary. During that time together, we tried to offer advice. It also gave us time to figure out what we could do, how we felt, which style we should follow and how we would articulate this diary.

We also made it very clear with Phong and the producer that we didn’t have to make a film. We were experimenting with something. The most important thing was Phong, so if at any point he felt that he didn’t want to continue the filming process, we would have stopped. 

We didn’t have any expectations at the beginning, so we just tried our best to tell the story.

Inner Sanctum: Is Phong a typical transgender case in Việt Nam?

Phong is a lucky person and totally deserves it. Her family is amazing. She has supportive friends and a stable job in a prestigious state-run institution. She is not exposed to violence or sexual harassment that unfortunately I guess many transgenders in Việt Nam have to live with.

What is positive is to show a normal transgender person with normal job, not a celebrity. Many people tend to see being transgender as extraordinary. Yet they are just normal people trying to adjust between feelings about their own gender and the biological reality of their body.

Inner Sanctum: The movie has several emotional moments. How did you manage to be there to capture these private moments?

At the beginning, it was Phong’s video diary. When we met her, the producer said we should start filming right away because many important things were going on. But we didn’t really know her. It was intimate. How could we jump into her life with a camera and film her? So we had the idea of giving Phong the camera. Phong was very happy with the idea. It was a relief for her to talk to camera. This was the first step of the movie.

At first, she said: “I don’t want you to follow me with the camera because everyone’s looking at me. I want to be discreet.” But after a while, Phong became more comfortable with the idea of being filmed. When she went to Thailand to see a doctor for the first time, she said: “OK my life will change. I have future in this centre.”

Everything changed, she was so happy to be filmed, she became so excited. She was so happy that she just wanted to live and feel life. She became fed up with the camera that she had to carry everywhere. So this was the second part of the film, and the emotions are very different.

In the third act of the film, the emotions come from her family. It was Phong’s biggest concern. She was not scared about surgery or anything like that, just the reaction from her mother. So as soon as her mother accepted her choice, everything was fine. Three different emotions, three different ways to represent this story.

Inner Sanctum: What are the advantages and disadvantages when the two of you, as husband and wife, work on the same project?

Two is better than one. We have different skills and compensate for each other. I’m in charge of technical stuff, she’s more about the relationship. She’s a good listener. She’s a woman so when Phong talked about issues with her body, she was more comfortable. They were like sisters.

The last film we made is about workers at a construction site in Hà Nội. For Thảo, it was difficult for her to go to the place, spend time to drink beer with them at night, sit on their beds. It was much easier for me.

Working as a couple with one foreigner and one Vietnamese is also very interesting because sometimes I feel that people want to explain what’s going on. They think I don’t understand so they start to explain from scratch. That provokes interesting things. It’s good that we have different feelings too.

Inner Sanctum: How is your filmmaking experience in Việt Nam different from in Europe?

I have been here for 11 years, and we have made three films. My two previous films were made in Madagascar. I mostly work outside Europe. Everywhere has good and bad things.

In Việt Nam, it’s easy to make film because you can live on little money. Sometimes we earn no money for six months or even a year but we have a house and a motorbike, and food is cheap. You can’t do that in France as food and rent are so expensive.

It is also very easy compared to Europe in the way that people here are open to the camera, and enjoy it. We couldn’t have filmed Finding Phong if it had been in Paris. People would have asked why we were filming them and could have been very aggressive. Here people are cool with that.

In Europe, many subjects have already been filmed. Here there are so many good stories that nobody has done before. There are so many characters and amazing stories. I want to film all of them. I’m so excited with that.

We’ve always had a good relationship with authorities. I have made films on social things like drugs, workers, transgender and sometimes tricky issues, but we never have any problems. VNS

 

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