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Vietnamese filmmakers win a chance to have their documentaries aired on the Discovery Channel.

Documentary film treatments written by five Hanoi-based filmmakers will be made with the support of the Discovery Channel after winning the First Time Filmmakers Vietnam Contest.

Nguyen Manh Ha's "The Biggest House, the Smallest House," Phan Duy Linh's "The Jam Fighters," Phan Y Ly's "The City Passion," Dao Thanh Tung's "Life and Death in the City" and Hoang Manh Cuong's "The Man Dreaming of the Oscar Statue," were chosen because they depict a Vietnam in flux as it struggles to find a balance of old and new, according to organizers.

The entrants were required to write treatments for 30-minute "story-based" documentaries recording "Vietnam's urban transition." Organizers encouraged the artists to tell stories about people, rather than places or things.

The winners will now work with Uproar Asia, a Singapore-based production company, to transform the screenplays in to films.

Pham Huong Giang's "Countryside's Spirit" and "Ha Long Story" by Dao Thanh Hung were chosen as runners-up in the contest and will be made if any of the others can't be completed for unforeseen reasons.

The completed works will air on Discovery on March 24th next year.

All productions costs, about US$250,000 worth, will be provided by the Ford Foundation.

"Profound, strong and persuasive"

Though the foundation's Hanoi office closed in the end of September, its former head representative, Michael Digregorio, had the idea for the film project last year.

He proposed the contest idea to Vikram Khanna, a friend and vice president of content with Discovery Networks' Asia-Pacific division. After a 15-minute conversation, the two had reached a deal committing Discovery Channel and Ford Foundation to organizing the film contest.

Digregorio told Tien Phong newspaper that Vietnamese filmmakers were full of ideas, but lacked the opportunity to make documentary films with modern equipment.

Vikram Khanna told Thanh Nien he was very impressed with the contest's entries.

"All of the ideas are close to international issues, profound, strong and persuasive."

Khanna also said the competition was not only about these specific documentary films. He said the contest could open the door for more Vietnamese stories told by Vietnamese filmmakers to air on Discovery in the future.

Master class

The seven winning filmmakers chosen have already attended a course on film techniques, financing, crew management, organization and film production as part of the contest. The classes were geared toward teaching them how to make documentaries in Discovery's renowned style.

Hoang Manh Cuong, one of the winners and also a popular director of television games shows, said the course had taught him that the most important part of filmmaking was respecting the audience.

Cuong's "The Man Dreaming of the Oscar Statue" tells the tale of Long, a cinephile who has built a "movie theater" in his home, in which he cranks the film reels by hand and does his own voice-over narration.

Phan Y Ly said she enjoyed learning Discovery-style documentary filmmaking.

She said she learned vital techniques that would help her with "The City Passion," a story of three middle-aged laborers who share a passion for dancing.

Phan Huyen Thu, co-writer of "Life and Death in the City," said Discovery's course helped her understand her own script much more by asking dozen of questions. "Life and Death" is about the closing of Hanoi's largest cemetery, Van Dien.

Nguyen Minh Ha, director of popular television series Lap trinh cho trai tim (Programming the heart), has brought to the competition "The Biggest House, The Smallest House," which follows the saga of Mrs. Nhan, an old woman in Hanoi who is about to be evicted from her home of 50 years.

"The Jam Fighters" by Phan Duy Linh, director of Van nghe Chu nhat (Sunday Show), a television variety show, tells the stories of ordinary citizens and how they battle the capital city's vast web of traffic and the problems it causes.

For whom the bell tolls

Tran Lan Phuong will begin making a documentary about the polluted Nhieu Loc Canal in Ho Chi Minh City when she returns home from France after completing her PhD in film studies.

Director Tran Lan Phuong

Phuong, as she will soon be known, will produce and direct Tieng chuong den (Black bell tolls) and has co-opted Nguyen Ho to write the narration.

The prolific director and writer has been hankering for four years to show the long canal in all its ugliness and the blighted lives of the unwitting people who live along it.

To get her message across, Phuong will rely more on graphic images and less on vocal commentary.

"What I want to emphasize most is the people's insensibility to their polluted surroundings, their indifference to the foul air and the increased risk of getting cancer from living there," says Phuong.

"It is like a warning bell tolling for us and future generations."

Ever-busy Phuong has two more documentaries in her in-tray: one about the Vietnam War named Xin loi, which means "sorry" or "excuse me," and Nhung nguoi Viet Nam o Phap (The Vietnamese in France).

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