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Documentaries made by a younger generation of filmmakers provide gritty glimpses into reality

Hard Rails Across a Gentle River, a collection of 4 short documentaries about life around the Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi, has won the Best ASEAN Documentary prize at the Salaya International Documentary Film Festival in Thailand. The work also got an honorable mention at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival last year.
Vietnam's newest blockbuster, Cuoi ngay keo lo (Love Puzzle), is another escapist romance comedy about beautiful professionals who wear expensive clothes and drive fancy convertibles and antique scooters. It's an insipid and shallow advertisement for consumerism that is so rife with cliché it makes me want to take a break from fiction altogether and talk about something more real: documentaries.

The Vietnam National Documentary and Scientific Film Studio and the European Union National Institutes for Culture will host the 4th annual Europe-Vietnam Documentary Film Festival this June in Hanoi and Da Nang. Hopefully, we'll see some of the names of some new young filmmakers associated with three important film workshops currently operating in Vietnam.

One is run by the French film school Ateliers Varan across the country, one is the Goethe Institute's Documentary Filmmaking and Video Art Center (DOCLAB) in Hanoi, and the other is the Ford Foundation-funded Center for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents (TPD), run by the Vietnam Cinematography Association in Hanoi.

I've seen a number of films by both students and instructors at these workshops. While some films, especially those by the more seasoned filmmakers, are more sophisticated than others, they share a common sympathy for their subjects, who are often the less fortunate in society. All in all, these filmmakers are struggling with the right questions and grappling, in some cases successfully, with the essential tool of a serious artist: a distinctive voice or style.

Life in Vietnam seen through the cameras of these documentary filmmakers has nothing to do with classy convertibles. In Hard Rails Across a Gentle River, a collection of 4 short documentaries from DOCLAB that which just won the Best ASEAN Documentary prize at the Salaya International Documentary Film Festival in Thailand last month, the street vendors working on or around Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi struggle to make ends meet.

Similarly, in the less-sophisticated shorts from TPD, we see the harsh living and working conditions of local masons, workers who produce toxic coal cakes and elderly trash collectors.

But the best work I've seen come out of the filmmakers associated with these workshops is Trong hay ngoai tay em (With or Without Me), a film about drug addicts in the northwestern Dien Bien Province made last year by Swann Dubus and Ateliers Varan student and instructor Tran Phuong Thao.

This film, which was screened at the 2011 Marseille International Documentary Film Festival, is a beautifully shot documentary, if we can use the word "beautiful" to talk about a portrait of 2 young men painfully struggling with drug addiction along a major trafficking route from Laos to China. This film follows the observational, or "direct cinema" approach characteristic of Ateliers Varan in particular, and of documentaries about social issues by the younger generation of local filmmakers in general. In this approach, the filmmaker tries not to be intrusive and lets the events unfold naturally. The film is often shot with a hand-held camera and doesn't have a narrator, which is in contrast with the traditional, expository and arguably more manipulative documentary approach in which the filmmaker uses an omniscient "Voice of God" narrator and/or a lot of interviews, as in TV documentaries.

Before With or without Me, Tran Phuong Thao made another interesting film, Giac mo la cong nhan (Workers' Dreams) about the young women who came to Hanoi from the countryside to work for multinational corporation factories in industrial zones. These two films make her one of Vietnam's more socially conscious filmmakers.

In her monthly column Through the Lens, film critic Do Thuy Linh shines the spotlight on Vietnamese cinema.

She also wades into ongoing discussion among local filmmakers about how to make movies that aren't just recognized in Vietnam but also abroad.

Thuy Linh may be reached at dolĩnh@yahoo.com

Tran Thanh Hien from DOCLAB is also developing his own style. In a 7-minute documentary about trains titled Tren nhung chuyen tau (Train Journal), which is available on YouTube, Hien builds up a dramatic story with a series of shots, without even once interviewing the subjects as commonly practiced by other observation-style filmmakers. We see this attempt at pure observation again in the Hard Rails collection, in which Hien's shots of people sitting and talking around a street vendor under Long Bien Bridge sets the stage.

There are differences in style between the Ateliers Varan, DOCLAB and TPD films. In films about social issues for instance, they all follow an observational, non-narrator approach, but the DOCLAB films are more experimental with camerawork and editing, while the TPD filmmakers, who are generally younger, seem less confident that they've gotten their point across and unfortunately beat a dead horse with melodramatic music closing many of their films.

But telling the differences between filmmakers trained in the same school is more difficult. Of the TPD filmmakers, it is two high school students, Vu Duy Anh and Ho Thanh Thao, who stand out from the crowd in both positive and negative senses.

The technical qualities of their films are poorer, but unlike others, they don't use music to set the tone. They don't have to, because we have no confusion about their tone, or where they stand on the issues. They use their own voices as the narrator and confront their subjects with provocative questions, following the third common approach of documentary filmmaking called "participatory". Vu Duy Anh rails against game addiction among junior high school students and Ho Thanh Thao objects to unsanitary junk food being sold to children outside school gates.

My money is always on filmmakers who have an opinion about an issue and don't shy away from voicing it. It's fine to try to observe and let life speak for itself, but when it comes to sweeping social and political issues, serious documentary filmmakers should take a stand and make it clear. There is no 100 percent objectivity anyway, even with seemingly pure observations, like Tran Thanh Hien's work, because as critics of this approach point out, when filmmakers choose to document a particular topic, they are already influenced by certain beliefs. It's the same with the editing process in which filmmakers edit materials in a certain way.

The constraints of censorship are real, but once documentary filmmakers are committed, they can find subtle yet clear ways of getting their points across. I have in mind veteran documentary filmmaker Tran Van Thuy, who is widely considered Vietnam's greatest documentary filmmaker. Watching his two most famous works made in the 1980s, Chuyen tu te (Story of Kindness) and Ha Noi trong mat ai (Hanoi through Whose Eyes), a Vietnamese audience would have no confusion about who and what he is really criticizing, though his narrators never say it explicitly (after they were made, both films were banned for a few years before being allowed to be screened).

Whereas it's Thuy's subjective passion that gives his films their power, it's Tran Phuong Thao attempt at objectivity that sells Workers' Dreams, an otherwise strong film, a bit short. The film deals with big topics. They range from the difficult working conditions of factory workers employed by multinationals, the lack of economic options in the countryside, the gap in living conditions between the cities and the countryside and between the working class and the upper class, and the psychology of being contented with working mechanical jobs for low wages as shown by one of the women in the film, and the film's somewhat ironic title.

In a documentary, serious charges against serious societal ills can only be considered assumptions until proven otherwise. But Workers' Dreams observes and interviews 3 female workers in their daily struggle to work and apply for jobs to suggest its points. I say "suggest," not "prove" because, typical of the observational approach, Thao doesn't make her presence and viewpoint clear. She doesn't use a narrator and the interview questions are generally cut out of the film to feign objectivity. Though this approach works fine in With or Without Me, which has narrower social and political implications, addressing what emerges as one of the biggest challenges that Thao's workers face - being cheated by job brokers who charge high fees - doesn't come close to addressing the fundamental economic challenges of Vietnam.

Thao's film employs a kind of "objective" sympathy: everybody is sympathetic. In this timidity, the film is less of an artistic achievement, it doesn't move us any closer toward real social impact. If Thao doesn't push these issues explored in Workers' Dreams further and develop her response to them in subsequent films, she'll risk becoming only a product of the Ateliers Varan workshop, rather than an individual filmmaker and artist with a unique voice.

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