Wrestling with reality

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The recent documentary festival has sparked a dialogue over the flagging quality of Vietnamese films


A scene in the Swiss documentary "Cleveland versus Wall Street" depicting the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. The fictional details in the film captured local viewers and filmmakers alike.

Three thousand people attended the third International Documentary Film Festival in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City from June 8 to 14.

During the event, 14 local and foreign documentaries were screened in pairs at a handful of theaters in Vietnam's largest cities.

While the event was meant to serve as a major boost to domestic film makers, it left the audience feeling that Vietnam's most recent creations were uninspired and lacking in quality.

In one pairing, the tightly directed "Cleveland versus Wall Street" (a Swiss film) was screened alongside the Vietnamese Khoang cach (The gap). Both films sought to depict the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis and the growing disparities between rich and poor.

But Khoang cach was heavily criticized for its rambling narrative and vague perspective"”problems which some viewers considered to be endemic to the whole form.

Born of the battlefield

Tran Moc Hoa (Battle in Moc Hoa), the first Vietnamese documentary was created in 1948, in an effort to catalog the Viet Minh's fight for independence against French colonial troops and prominently featured battlefield footage.

Subsequent documentaries depicted specific battles, anti-aircraft campaigns and life in the occupied territories.

The scenes were diligently recorded by cameramen who risked their lives to get the footage.

Vietnam's documentary filmmakers returned to the battlefield to make Luy thep Vinh Linh (Vinh Linh Tunnel) which won a gold medal at the Moscow film festival in 1971. The film told the story of a tunnel dug just north of the demilitarized zone in Quang Tri Province to protect the town's heavily bombarded civilian population.

Vietnam's soldiers managed to catalog reality so well, in spite of their many privations. But today's generation seems to have a harder time pulling it off.

During the recent festival, many viewers complained that Vietnamese documentaries suffered from noticeably poor production values when compared to their Western counterparts. Others argued that production value wasn't the problem.

"Most Vietnamese documentaries were long on narration and short on images," said Thanh Van, a script-writer for Mekong Film Company, which specializes in historical documentaries and biopics. "It seems that filmmakers fear their viewers won't understand a movie without words."

Van said that Vietnam has proven its ability to teach the world about its history and culture. But it has failed to adapt to captivate modern audiences.

"Many of my friends, who are under 30, say they have never seen a Vietnamese documentary," he said.

Nguyen Quynh, a freelance film editor stressed that the key to a successful documentary is the telling of a good story. But presentation matters too.

 "I cannot deny that several of the latest films exhibited a lack of basic technical skills," Quynh said. "The sound rarely matched the images."

Many viewers at the third festival said they hadn't noticed any improvement in Vietnamese films screened at the festival.

Senior director Dao Trong Khanh said the filmmaker's perspectives seemed to be fundamentally unimaginative.

"When telling a story, they focus on the political more than the artistic aspect, which pushes their products into subjectivity," said Khanh. "The truth has it own touch."

Being able to fund their own films allowed foreign filmmakers greater freedom in their films.

One-minute hope

Director Phan Huyen Thu, who is also a writer and poet, shot to fame after releasing a pair of documentaries in 2007.

The first film chronicles a Nha Trang man who adopts unwanted children and tends a graveyard for aborted fetuses.

The second told the story of poor dialysis patients who live across the street from a Hanoi hospital and are willing to do anything to cover the cost of their treatment.

During a private screening with local artists, Thu recalled being told she needed to go back to school"”that her films weren't truly documentaries.

Later that year, she received Vietnam's highest film awards (the Gold and Silver Kites) for her two films.

"I was shocked. The [awards] just made me feel more puzzled. Is my work trash or treasure? But I don't have time to think about it. My passion pushes me to keep going," Thu told reporters at Nguoi Lao Dong on June 16.

Thu is now in charge of a television documentary shorts series called 1 phut co trong su that (Truth in a minute) which kicked off in 2009.

The project was highly acclaimed by local viewers and was recently expanded into a competition for young filmmakers.

Many hope Thu, as well as other young filmmakers like Dao Thanh Tung, Phan Y Ly will bring new life into Vietnam's domestic documentary scene.

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