Vietnamese film on trans woman wins French award

By Thanh Nguyen, Thanh Nien News

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A still from documentary "Finding Phong," which wins the Nanook Grand Prix at the 34th International Jean Rouch in France. Photo credit: A still from documentary "Finding Phong," which wins the Nanook Grand Prix at the 34th International Jean Rouch in France. Photo credit:


A feature-length documentary that recounts the transition of a Vietnamese man into a woman has won a top award at an international ethnographic film festival in France.
"Tim Phong," or "Finding Phong", was named the winner of the Nanook Grand Prix at the 34th Festival International Jean Rouch, which runs in Paris for a month until December 6.
Shot over more than two years, and partly including the subject's video diaries, the film captures the personal life and thoughts of Le Anh Phong, a 30-year-old painter based in Hanoi, before, during and after her sex reassignment surgery.
It also shows how Phong came out as a transgender with her family, who live in the conservative central province of Quang Ngai.
The film is not merely the story of a trans woman, but also offers a glimpse into Vietnamese society and families, especially when it comes to sexuality and gender, Tran Phuong Thao, who co-directed the film with Frenchman Swann Dubus, told Thanh Nien in a telephone interview.
This helped the film win the award, named after "Nanook of the North," a 1922 documentary often considered the world's first ethnographic film, she said.
Though "Finding Phong" has been screened at a dozen of film festivals around the world, including in Scotland and the US, since its premiere in April, she has had difficulties finding a distributor to release it in Vietnam, Thao said.
The film has received great support and positive feedback, but many Vietnamese distributors are still cautious about its theme, she said.
Phong, who is still identified as male in her personal documents, said she hopes the documentary will be screened in Vietnam, where legislators are set to vote on amendments to the Civil Code, one of which seeks to legalize gender reassignment.
"I hope lawmakers and the public can watch the film, so that they can realize that people like me deserve the right to live with their desired gender, happily and healthily."
Phong's story
The youngest of six siblings, Phong said she felt like a girl since she was as young as eight.
Her behavior and lifestyle, completely in contrast to the stereotypical Vietnamese man who is supposed to be tough and smoke and drink heavily, was "weak" and "gentle" in the eyes of her sisters.
Her brothers, who saw her as "too effeminate," often jokingly called her "pe de" -- an offensive Vietnamese term for gay and trans people. Her parents also realized that their youngest child was more like a girl than a boy, but they did not know what the issue was.
At 20 Phong left home for a university in Hanoi, and got a job at the Hanoi Water Puppet Theater, after graduation. During the years in Hanoi, plagued by loneliness and agony, the painter felt an increasing urge to make the transition though she was also torn by the need to "be a good son" to her parents.
In the end, at 27, Phong decided to follow her urge and also agreed to take part in the filming of "Finding Phong."
"I wanted to keep some memories of the years when I was still a man. But I also wanted to show people that transgender people are just like anyone else, desiring happiness.
"I hoped it would be some kind of encouragement and guidance for other trans people who are still hesitant and lost about which direction to take."
Hopeful as Phong was, her coming out was expectedly rough. Her siblings and father supported her decision, though most of them did not quite understand why she wanted to become a woman.
Her mother, who had always preferred boys to girls since having her first child, however, felt it was "misfortune" and wondered what she did wrong in her previous life to have "a child like this."
With Phong constantly telling her family she could lead a happy life only as a woman, her mother became more understanding though she was worried about Phong's future and sorrowful about her "misfortune" at not being able to have her own children.
Speaking to Thanh Nien, Phong said though she is still struggling with problems like the legality of her personal documents after the transition, her life "is very happy with the love of my family and people around me."

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