Glaring at the shark

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A new film about Vietnam's Hoang Sa islands teaches the lesson of Vietnam: an underdog should stand strong and face its opponent head-on


André Menras interviews the wife of a missing Binh Chau Commune fisherman in Binh Son District, Quang Ngai Province. Last month, Menras premiered his film about Vietnamese fishermen and their families along the central coast, whose lives have been disrupted by China's encroachment on the Hoang Sa (Paracel) Archipelago, also in Quang Ngai.

André Menras has never shied from controversial topics in Vietnam.

In 1970, he was arrested by the Saigon puppet government for raising the flag of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam in front of the US-backed regime's congressional headquarters.

For the act, he spent three years in a southern prison, only to emerge as a symbol of international solidarity with the Vietnamese people's struggle for self-determination.

While in jail, his fellow prisoners gave him a Vietnamese name he has since lived up to: Ho Cuong Quyet "Ho" standing for Ho Chi Minh and "Cuong Quyet" meaning determination.

Now, after years of solidarity work as the chairman of the L'association d'Amitié et de Développement des Échanges  Pédagogiques France-Vietnam (France-Vietnam Association for Educational Development and Exchange), Menras has turned his lens (literally) on China's encroachment into the Hoang Sa (Paracel) Archipelago.

On June 28, the new filmmaker premiered his first film, Hoang Sa Viet Nam: Noi dau mat mat (Vietnam Hoang Sa: the pain of loss) about the problems Vietnam faces as China encroaches on her islands at a seminar on East Sea issues in Paris, France.

The 56-minute film explores the lives of the women and children left behind by fishermen husbands and fathers who have gone missing at sea and/or have been impoverished by China's policies in the East Sea.

New to filmmaking, Menras, who holds dual Vietnamese and French citizenship, said completing the film was not without its difficulties. But he also said the documentary was about more than suffering, it was about courage.

Menras said he first read about Vietnamese fishermen who were arrested and bullied by Chinese boats as they fished in the Vietnamese waters around Hoang Sa in 2006.

Many families have gone bankrupt after paying hefty ransoms to Chinese ships that have become notorious for holding Vietnamese fishing boats hostage in the waters around Hoang Sa. Some of the Chinese ships have even stolen whole Vietnamese boats, and large hauls of expensive equipment.

Back in Vietnam, several fishing families have seen their relatives never return from trips to Hoang Sa, with some blaming the disappearances on Chinese bandits.

"I was so shocked and outraged that I couldn't sleep for many nights," he told Thanh Nien, adding that he has followed news about Hoang Sa ever since.

"I felt more and more concerned about the situation. So, I decided to help protect the fishermen, because I think protecting Vietnamese fishermen is the same as protecting Vietnam's independence and sovereignty."

According to Menras, he then took two trips to meet with fishing families in the Ly Son Island District off the coast of the central province of Quang Ngai. But this was as close as he's ever gotten to the shores of Hoang Sa, though his goal was to film there.

Although Vietnamese authorities did not prohibit him from traveling to the islands, and many fishermen expressed their support for his idea, Menras could not find a local boat captain willing to take him to Hoang Sa.

Early this year, he came back to Quang Ngai and visited Binh Chau Commune in Binh Son District, where he spent several days living with a fisherman's family. But again, boatmen there wouldn't take him to Hoang Sa.

"Perhaps people are concerned about my safety," he told Thanh Nien.

Menras then returned to Ly Son for a third time to shoot his film with the help of a Vietnamese crew.

"Coming back to Ly Son once again, I became a familiar guest of the island's residents. They understand my feelings about local families' losses." Many families from Ly Son and Binh Chau have seen relatives detained by Chinese boats in and around Hoang Sa.

Although Menras already knew many of the painful stories of local suffering, he said it was hard to hold back his tears when he interviewed fishing families in person. He said the widows and orphans had to tell their stories in broken sentences for the same reason.

For months, groups of widows would go to the beach, waiting for their husbands who had been missing for months or even years, said Menras. Many had given up and had graves built for their loved ones. They now burn incense for the dead.

"They have love for their nation, and the willpower to not make concessions," Menras said. "This is solidarity; this is the beautiful faithfulness of human beings."

Menras was also mesmerized by the resolve of impoverished fishermen.

For example, Tieu Viet La in Binh Chau was detained by China four times. He was beaten forced to pay huge ransoms that put him in debt to the tune of VND400 million (US$19,546). Still, the fisherman said: "Hoang Sa is very near here, so how can I not miss it? It is part of Vietnam."

Menras also said he was moved when 73-year-old Bui Thuong, an experienced ocean diver, told him the greatest danger to divers were the large sharks known to prowl Vietnamese waters. However, Thuong told the Frenchman the Vietnamese strategy for facing a large predator: "We shouldn't run away immediately, but glare at it. It won't attack us."

Menras said he was taken aback.

"Thuong's answer reminded me of Vietnamese stance against bullies "˜Glare at the shark' to survive." 

The film's main purpose is to give fishermen, widows and everyday people the chance to say whatever they want to say, Menras wrote in an email to Thanh Nien.

"Then they will be able to release their pain, to express their love for their hometown and their country. Their country can hear their calls and share the experience with them. The international public can also react in outrage and support them," he wrote.

However, Menras said he cut his 90-minute version of the film to nearly 60 minutes, because he worried that no-one would want to watch the documentary if it was too long.

"I feel guilty about that, because in some ways I didn't totally respect the messages of the people I interviewed. I'm sorry. But, I tried my best to keep the main points."

Menras is now trying to have the film televised in France to raise funds for widows, orphans and impoverished fishermen in provinces along the central coast. At the same time, he also hoped the film would be aired in Vietnam as soon as possible. Menras only hopes his work can make a difference.

He said that his raising of the Viet Cong flag 40 years ago was an act of solidarity.

"Now, I consider the film a small flag of solidarity. I believe the flag will call for many more flags."

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