Hand-made "films' a Vietnam man's passion

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For half a century, Vietnamese artist Nguyen Van Long has been drawing "films" on paper and other media that he proudly screens, for one viewer at a time, with his own sound effects.

"My film is hand-made"¦ that is the valuable thing. My film is not modern," Long, 63, says in an interview at the one-room wooden house where he has lived his whole life.

For 17 years, until illness forced him to take a break early last year, Long was a fixture at the city zoo in Hanoi, entertaining both children and adults.

There were no plush seats and no wide screen. There was not even any electricity, just Long in the open air with his collection of "films" for viewing by an audience of one.

"I have 250 films. I produced 50, and the 200 others I bought," he says.

At a cost starting at about 20 cents, his shows are a lot cheaper than going to modern commercial cinemas, which in Hanoi are still scarce.

Long pulls out a plastic bag that holds the ingredients of his latest production. A set of flip cards, each about the size of a business card, holds crayon pictures.

His bag also contains the comic book "Thanh Giong" which tells the story of a Vietnamese saint and provides the film's storyline.

Each part of the two-part production consists of 200 well-drawn and colorful small pictures that create a cartoon effect when rapidly flipped.

Like his other hand-made films, it is viewed through a simple box with a hole cut in it.

The 200 bought films are screened through a slightly more sophisticated device, an old American-made viewer, also for an audience of one.

Long says he spends about three days making each of his films, which are adaptations of animal stories or fairy tales.

He says the hardest part is not the drawing which he taught himself but accurately summarizing the story for the script. Long's version of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", for example, had to be encapsulated in 13 "sentence-poems" that he recites to the viewer.

Long's voice provides the sound effects: an insect, a pig, a horse, a train, or a gentle, high-pitched folk song from southern Vietnam.

Sound is delivered through cardboard cups over a string that links Long's mouth with the viewer's ear.

"I am creative," the softly-spoken man says, bundled up in a sweater, a cap and a scarf that belonged to his late father.

Long says other people in Vietnam may have tried to emulate his craft, but their films were simpler and had no script. They also lacked his commitment.

"They did not devote their lives to it," he says.

Long traces his technique to a "cinema box" he saw French people using during the last days of the colonial era in the early 1950s.

"I think I imitated them," he said. "I found it very strange and amazing what they could do."

Long furthered his study by visiting film labs and watching real movies shown outdoors.

"I did not have money to go in. I had to climb the fence"¦ and I tried to understand the theory of making films."

But the film-maker confesses he has not been to a real cinema for a long time.

He says he began showing rented films to the public in 1965.

Long had an official job, as head of the local commune's information department, but 20 years ago he decided he could better support his family by more earnestly pursuing his passion.

At first he looked for an audience in front of schools but then shifted to the zoo.

His family and others, including local authorities, tried to discourage him.

"I did not harm anyone," Long says. "I endured rain and sun. Sometimes I became hungry, but it was a lot of fun."

Some days, he earned nothing.

"But I brought rice to eat and water to drink, so I thought it's like a picnic"¦ and I got exercise from riding the bicycle. That's enough."

On other days, he regularly earned more than VND100,000 (now US$5), a reasonable sum in a country whose annual per capita income is about $1,000.

"I've thought about when I die, who will take over this business," he says, reluctant to entrust his precious creations to anyone outside the family, even though some have expressed interest.

Long says his daughter, a clothes merchant, and his soldier son, are probably too busy with their own careers to preserve his legacy, and he has considered giving his collection to a museum.

How much longer the show can go on is unclear.

"My health is not very good now. If I'm healthy, I will keep going."

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