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Young filmmakers show they are unafraid of tough topics and the challenge of reviving moribund industries

 
Scenes from Dai chien Bach Dang (Bach Dang battle). The cartoon, which blends 2D and 3D techniques, depicts scenes from the famous naval battle that took place on the Bach Dang River in northern Vietnam in CE938 against the invading army from southern China's Han state.

It was just a graduation thesis for six Vietnamese students and they were aware that making an animation film on an epic moment in the nation's history would not be easy to make. They were also aware that getting the slightest thing wrong would expose them to a lot of criticism.

They'd had no previous experience, their skills were raw and they did not have much money, but the students were not deterred because they were driven by the loftiest of ambitions.

Nguyen Thanh Duc, one of the animators, told Vietweek that their aim was to rekindle pride in their nation among the Vietnamese people. They also felt it was a need of the hour.

 "It is sad that we are Vietnamese but many of us know the history of other countries better than ours.

"We know we are young and new, however, we just want to devote effort as much as we can. Making the cartoon was a combination of learning and doing for us."

In the event, Dai chien Bach Dang (Bach Dang battle) did make history of sorts. While it was not the first animation film to feature Vietnamese history, it was the first one to gain public attention and acclaim via YouTube.

Google Dai chien Bach Dang and the first page is full of links to the animation film.

It just a few weeks after it was posted at the end of June, the cartoon, which blends 2D and 3D techniques as it depicts scenes from the famous naval battle that took place on the Bach Dang River in northern Vietnam in 938 against the invading Chinese from the southern Han state, attracted nearly 166,000 visits, 1,300 comments and 4,500 likes.

In an ingenious ploy, Ngo Quyen, then a general, planted wooden poles with iron tips in the river. The stakes were invisible during high tide. General Ngo Quyen and his fleet then lured the Chinese over the hidden stakes, and as low tide occurred, the stakes impaled and disabled the enemy's vessels. This was a decisive battle in Vietnamese history, ending a millennium of Chinese domination.

Most of the netizens have heaped praise on the short film that is about seven minutes long, although some pointed out some technical defects.

"In my opinion, the film should have English subtitles to get more viewers and let the world know our epic history. The cartoon has been made at the right time," wrote one.

The group of young animators -Vu Duc Thinh, Dinh Ngoc Chinh, Nhu Thi Thuy Diep, Nguyen Thanh Duc, Tran Hau and Dang Minh Quyen - have been feted by their school principal, teachers and many others.

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Dang Vu Thao, head of Vietnam Animated Cartoon Film Studio told Tien Phong newspaper in an interview that he highly appreciated the effort of the young students that would contribute to re-energizing the local cartoon industry. He was, however, worried that that the difficulties of raising capital and finding distributors would soon quell the passion and enthusiasm of the youngsters.

Before Dai chien Bach Dang, several longer cartoons including 60-minute Hao khi Thang Long (Spirit of Thang Long), Giac mo Loa Thanh (Co Loa Citadel's dream) and Tran Quoc Toan have dealt with historical themes. However, these films, produced over the two past years by Vietnam Animated Cartoon Film Studio, remain unpopular and not many people even know about them.

For now, the Hong Bang University students are confident they will continue to make animation films down the road, although they see the difficulties ahead.

"The young filmmakers have passion, but making a cartoon requires big investments of time, money and skill. If there is a stable fund to back the industry, I think it will thrive," said Duc.

The power of truth

Another youth unfazed by the difficulties of a tough profession or tough, controversial topics is young documentary maker Hoang Huyen My.

My's documentary Ban la ai? (Who are you?) has won the Bup Sen Vang (Golden Lotus Bud) 2012, the annual award instituted by filmmaking project We Are Filmmakers (WAFM).

WAFM was launched by the Center for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents (TPD) and Vietnam Cinema Association in 2009.

Ban la ai? follows a tomboy named Sun as the 20-year-old grapples with her sexual orientation as a lesbian and the stress it has created in her family.

 
Hoang Huyen My, director of Ban la ai? (Who are you?), a documentary about a 20-year-old tomboy named Sun who grapples with her sexual orientation as a lesbian and the stress it causes in her family

Sun has to "pretend" to be a girl when she is at home, as her relatives do not accept that she loves to dress like a boy and is in a relationship with a girl.

The film ends with Sun's brother discovering the "abnormality" of his sister and her parents deciding to send her abroad for studies.

One of the real achievements of the film is obtaining Sun's consent to do it.

My told the Ha Noi Moi newspaper that before making the film, she did not know much about lesbians or the homosexual community.

"It was not until I met Trang (Sun) and sympathized with her that I became aware of the issues involved. The homosexual community is treated unfairly, although many of them have tried to live well and devote themselves to society. At first, I felt compassion for Trang, as she has to struggle much to stay true to herself. Then, I began to respect her courage. To win acceptance and public respect, she agreed to be in my documentary."

My said she did not aim to change the local bias towards homosexual people, but bring true emotions and empathy to viewers. She also hoped Trang's family empathized with her better on seeing the film.

In fact, My has been so taken up with the topic that she is planning her next film on lesbianism as well.

Some senior filmmakers had expressed worries recently that the local documentary industry has suffered a big setback in the last decade, confined to being part of television programs.

A clutch of young filmmakers including My have revived it.

The screening of 14 documentaries selected from a bunch of those made in the last five years by students of TPD on June 11 in Hanoi as part of the European Documentary Festival kindled new hopes for local non-fiction filmmaking. The short and long films surprised the audiences with their lively approach to daily life.

Nguyen Huong Tra, a young female documentary maker, said she was confident that Vietnamese documentaries will do well despite the obstacles.

"Many have advised me to switch careers. The difficulty in making documentaries, rejection from sponsors and being hard-pressed for creative ideas"¦ these have nearly overcome me at times. But I just keep telling myself that I should follow my passion till the end," said Tra whose documentary Cau duyen (Pray for good chances in love) was shown at the festival.

Thu Hang, another female documentary maker, said that she choose to make them not only because of her ardent love for it, but also because she believes it will be a "good springboard to take Vietnamese cinema beyond the nation's borders.

Le My Cuong, a young filmmaker whose maiden venture, Nhoc nhan nghe than (Exhausted coal miners), an eight-minute documentary on the hard life led by coal miners in Hanoi, won many local awards before being selected for screening at the festival, spoke of a deeper motivation that keeps the younger generation going.

"The important thing here is we can say what we want to."

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