Less apology, more self-confidence

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German director and screenwriter Jan Schütte (C), head of the 2nd Hanoi International Film Festival jury, and Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti (L), a member, arrive for the festival opening on November 25

I was at home watching the awards ceremony of the 2nd Hanoi International Film Festival on TV last Thursday. My best friend, who was also watching it, sent me a message saying: "OMG, what kind of ending song was that!"

She meant the terrible addition of an English translation that didn't fit with the music of the Vietnamese song whose title was Viet Nam chao don cac ban (Vietnam welcomes you), and which wasn't a good song anyway.

The message of this song and of the festival in general was one of warm welcome and gratitude to just about everyone foreign filmmakers who sent their films and came to give advice and judge, and to people at home and abroad who were interested in the festival and its films.

For my friend, this was too "provincial."

I recognized her feeling of embarrassment but did not necessarily agree.

It reminded me of the times I visited a nail salon run by Vietnamese-Americans in the US. They would play an English song sung by a Vietnamese singer and enjoy it, the imperfect English accent and all. Then a white American customer would walk in and the women would quickly turn off the music, suddenly self-conscious and aware that the English accent was bad, and that the customer might snigger.

During the 2nd Hanoi International Film Festival there were moments when I felt embarrassed too, but not because of the bad English translation or other organizational problems, of which there were not few. There were some serious technical problems during screenings, especially at Screening Halls No. 3 and 2 at the National Cinema Center, such as the mismatch of the sound and image tracks.

But these problems annoyed rather than embarrassed me. I was embarrassed by the Vietnamese staff at the cinema and festival offering unnecessarily profuse apologies, especially when there were foreign audiences around. I, in short, was embarrassed that my friend, the Vietnamese American manicurists, and the staff at the screenings felt embarrassed. 

This makes me remember some comments made by an American intellectual and promoter of Vietnamese literature in the US whom I once interviewed for an article about the state of Vietnamese literature and the local aspiration toward the Nobel Prize for literature.

He said Vietnamese intellectuals might be "crippled by a sense of inferiority" that was not uncommon among intellectuals in former colonial countries and any aspiration for the Nobel itself was tempered by this.

In her monthly column Through the Lens, film critic Do Thuy Linh shines the spotlight on Vietnamese cinema. She also wades into the ongoing discussion among local filmmakers about how to make movies that aren't just recognized in Vietnam but also abroad. This English graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, the US, admits to having a vested interest in seeing the quality of Vietnamese movies improve. Thuy Linh may be reached at dolinh54@yahoo.com.

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I don't totally agree with him. Comparing yourself with established standards is important and unavoidable. You are both what you think you are and what the world perceives you to be. Winning Nobel Prizes and Oscars and Palme d'Or/Golden Palm and being known worldwide for organizing a good international film festival are nice recognition. But they shouldn't be what you aim for. They should only be the inevitable results of your efforts toward something else: the ideals of art.

At the awards ceremony, Dr. Ngo Phuong Lan, head of the Bureau of Cinematography, gave a carefully-crafted speech in which she emphasized that we "can't and shouldn't" compare the nascent Hanoi International Film Festival with the leading international film festivals in the world with their decades of organizing experience.

But conscious or not, there is always comparison. With the Vietnamese organizers and public, the comparison is shown in an obvious, though understated, ambition to measure up to international standards. With international observers, it is a conscientious effort to judge fairly based on international standards.

On Friday, the day after the festival ended, I read an article on Vietweek titled "Low profile Vietnam film festival wraps up" which summarized the local media's observation of the little attention the festival garnered globally. The article quoted Patrick Brzeski of The Hollywood Reporter, one of the few foreign media agencies to cover the event, as saying the festival had "plenty of promise" despite problems, such as the "knuckle-bitingly bad" English subtitles.

Broadly speaking, bad translation is also a technical problem. If technical problems arise, we only need to offer a short apology, quickly fix it, try your best to ensure it doesn't happen again, and move on to something more important: having an international film festival that doesn't emphasize glitz, glamour or even scale, but quality.

I believe this will attract international attention, including movie stars, in the long run. We shouldn't set the bar low on quality. Why don't the Vietnamese organizers be ambitious and say with confidence that they aim to uncover films and talents that can rival the best international film festivals?

We should not dismiss established international standards, but nor should we revere them; we should treat them as they deserve to be treated.  

I'll use two high-profile Iranian movies to illustrate my point: Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation," which won this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and Mani Haghighi's "Modest Reception," also a recent film whose leading actress is Taraneh Alidoosti, one of the judges of the festival.

Iranian films, not the cat's pajamas

The festival organizers spent a great deal of money and time to secure the copyrights of the likes of "A Separation" and Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's French language film "Amour," which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year. They wanted to offer local audiences sophisticated world cinema and believed this would enhance the prestige of their festival.

This was all good. My only reservation is that in the future, if the organizers want the Hanoi festival to be unique as Dr. Lan said in her speech, they shouldn't worry too much about getting high-profile films. Instead, they should focus on showcasing what they believe are the best films, whether they are high-profile or not.

In fact, if the organizers are confident and bold, they will select good but lesser-known films. This is what international film festivals vie with each other to do: to become the ones to discover new films and talents. 

As for the two Iranian films, though they are good, they are not all that good for me. Vietnamese filmmakers admire Iranian cinema for its exploration of daily life and ability to make great films on low budgets.

I love the few Iranian movies I've seen such as "Children of Heaven" for the same reasons. But "A Separation" and "Modest Reception" exploit simplicity to such an extent that they become tortuous and pretentious.

"A Separation" also won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, and the Golden Globe. It is about a couple who file for divorce because the wife wants to live abroad so that her daughter can enjoy a better life. But the husband wants to stay in his home country to take care of his father who has Alzheimer's. The wife's dream of going abroad, which seems to have a political overtone, is the root cause of the complicated plot about a murder charge that follows.

As their divorce case is still in limbo and the wife moves back to her parents' house, the husband has to hire a poor, religious woman to take care of his father. A misunderstanding causes him to charge this woman of stealing his money. As she protests, he angrily pushes her out of his house. She falls on the stairs and later has a miscarriage.

Filled with loud and angry arguments and fights, the film revolves around the questions whether the husband knew the woman was pregnant before pushing her, and whether her miscarriage was indeed caused by the accident.

The answers to these questions and the moral implications that ensue set the context for the other, ultimate court case: the couple's divorce and the daughter's decision which of her parents she'll live with.

The idea here is that no character is free of moral blame. It turns out the husband did know the woman was pregnant, but he has to lie because he can't let himself be imprisoned since he has to take care of his daughter.

As for the woman, she testifies against the husband even though she thinks her miscarriage might have been caused by a car accident earlier when she tried to protect his father who wandered on to the street.

The characters and the film as a whole seem unnecessarily guilt-ridden to me. It is as if with their purist religious beliefs, the characters can't forgive themselves, even though common sense tells me they are loving, albeit imperfect, human beings who just try to protect their own families and that their supposedly selfish intentions are easily pardonable, if not justified. What kind of God would punish human beings for these kinds of sins?

This trapped social, religious, and moral landscape of adults drives the 11-year-old daughter into a very difficult position: Should she stay with her father, Iran, and the old world or follow her mother to a new one? Asghar Farhadi doesn't reveal the daughter's decision and lets us find our own answers.

Majid Majidi's 1997 movie "Children of Heaven," which was nominated for the Oscar in 1998 but didn't win it (Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful" won that year), ranks higher for me than "A Separation."

But it is as if the ultimately beautiful, uplifting spirit of "Children of Heaven" has taken a plunge in Iranian cinema, as if Iranian children and filmmakers have grown up, grown old, and fallen from heaven and are hitting the ground.

My questions for Asghar Farhadi, and any artist for that matter, are: Does growing up necessarily mean growing old? Would real life really force the daughter into such a corner or is this just what you imagine life to be? And if this is life, and separation is indeed so terribly hard, do we have to take hardships with such a defeatist attitude? Why shouldn't the filmmaker offer the daughter at least one equally viable option: to go with her mother and discover a new world with a reasonably contented heart so that her father can stay behind and rebuild his life?

Personally, I want to see light in art, not some naïve, rosy light, but the light of the best of the human spirit which I see around me.

I saw light in a much more modest film, a 15-minute short titled "Bermula Dari A" (Starting with A) by Indonesian filmmaker BW Purba Negara, which won the best short film prize at the Hanoi festival. It is a humorous story of a blind girl teaching a deaf and mute boy to speak. The filmmaker said he made this film in the context of Indonesia's numerous kinds of rampant discrimination against people with disabilities.

Yet, suppose Asghar Farhadi also sees the faults of his characters and their world as I can easily do and does have suggestions, why doesn't he offer them in the film? Censorship? If it is indeed censorship, I have nothing more to say, except that "A Separation" is a bit too "loud" for my taste.

If it is not censorship, then there isn't really any other reason why the filmmaker withholds solutions than that he's playing superior to his characters.

This attitude is quite marked in Mani Haghighi's "Modest Reception." This movie, in which the director himself plays one of the two main characters, is about a mysterious couple who distribute large bags of money in a poor mountain border area and explores how different types of people receive these gifts. During their journey, the couple increasingly take on the role of God to test human nature. The result of this test, however, is so unoriginal that I thought at the end of the film, "much ado about nothing."

So as far as she can, Lan, who is a film critic herself, should challenge prestigious international film festivals in a big, exciting, and creative way. Let's be bold in judging and selecting even the world's best films for instance, and do away with the red carpet altogether, and introduce to the world a carpet of a new color, say blue, or better yet, brown. Why not?

As People's Artist Dao Ba Son, who directed "Long Thanh Cam Gia Ca" (Song about the Musician of Thang Long Citadel) said about his decision to use brown as the dominant color of his movie about the biggest name in Vietnamese literature, 18th-19th century poet Nguyen Du, brown is the Vietnamese color. It is the color of a wet-rice civilization, of the earth, of the roof of the pagoda, and the village communal house. But of course, I'm speaking figuratively here.

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