Like father, like son

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George Burchett at an exhibition in Hanoi last August, with digital paintings he made on his iPhone and iPad about the capital city's village life

Like so many contemporaries, George Burchett first knew about Vietnam through the wars it waged for independence.

But he had a vantage point as they were covered in exemplary fashion by his late father Wilfred Burchett, a legendary journalist known for his fearless reportage of conflicts in Asia, anti-colonial views and support for liberation movements.

The Australian artist decided to discover more of the country after seeing photographs that his father took in 1955, one year after the country's victory against France.

The "stunning photos," as George described them in an interview with ABC Radio, show a brighter side of wartime, children going to school and workers going to factories, against all odds.

He went back to Vietnam in late 2011 and has continued his father's journey by exhibiting the photos and taking more.

George Burchett was born in Hanoi in 1955 and lived there for two years before the family left for Moscow and other countries. They were rejected by Australian government for Wilfred's controversial writings.

He returned to Australia after the father died. But, he said, life has not been easy as the prejudice and "politicized history" about his father still lingers.

The photo exhibition held in Hanoi in September 2011 was a commemoration of the 100th death anniversary of his father, who'd had the opportunity to meet and talk with Vietnam's leaders including President Ho Chi Minh, General Vo Nguyen Giap, and Prime Minister Pham Van Dong.

It showed a hundred black and white photos taken between 1954 and 1966, with many of the people caught at various moments in daily life "without war," including Ha Long Bay (1955), children playing by the Hoan Kiem Lake (1966), farmers in rice fields and the New Year's market in Hanoi.

George told ABC Radio in an interview that there is a "humanism" about the photos that should be appreciated.

The photos show many simple people trying to live peacefully, doing ordinary things in very difficult times. "I think there's a great moral lesson in there."

His favorite photo is one captioned "Ploughing Dien Bien Phu: turning Dien Bien Phu from battlefield to rice field." Dien Bien Phu, the capital town of the northern mountainous province of Dien Bien, is best known for the famous Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954), during which the region was a breadbasket for Vietnamese liberation forces who defeated French troops and ended colonization in northern Vietnam.

He said his father is well known to previous generations of Vietnamese people, and the exhibition introduced him also to the new generation.

"There're many young faces in this exhibition, of many young people who were fighting the French and the Americans.

"Now I observed the exhibition, young people looking at the young faces and thinking maybe, this could have been us, this could have been me, or this could have been my father, or my sister, or my uncle.

"So these are very interesting dynamics in the exhibition. I see people, especially Vietnamese people, looking at it in a very personal way, because it's their country, and it's their history, but seen through a foreigner, a Westerner's eyes," he said.

George said by following his father's legacy, he is not trying to defend the latter's political points of view or anything else, but because he finds that the legacy is still relevant and a matter of interest.

"We are still dealing with issues of war and peace, we're still pretty much stuck in the logics of war versus the logics of peace. So, to me, there are still lessons to be drawn from the visual materials he left, which are the photographs and films," he told ABC Radio.

George said he is trying to return to his father's history and at the same time, continue the old man's steps in a new path.

He said he is still waiting to discover more about Vietnam, as his experience in Vietnam so far has been locked in history with all the stories of Vietnam War.

He said his parents used to talk to him a lot about the Vietnamese leaders and struggling people during the wars, and his home would have people from all over the world visiting, those who were on board on the anti-Vietnam War movement.

"And now we have a new Vietnam," he said, noting that he has had enough time over the past couple of years to see all the contradictions of a country that is both socialist and incorporates most elements of capitalism.

"As an artist, it's interesting to deal with all these. I am still finding a way to visually express it," he said.

"I'm trying to discover my Vietnam, because until now it was my Vietnam through my father's eyes and his experience," he said in an interview with Vietnam Television.

Since the exhibition of his father's photos, George and his family have spent most of the time in Yen Phu Village, in a less busy corner of Tay Ho District, Hanoi.

He has been making portraits of the villagers and exhibited them at the village last August.

The digital paintings were made with software on his iPhone and iPad. He made them briefly while sitting at a café of his friend in the village, also a foreigner, and watching locals pass by.

The paintings do not cater to details. He said he wanted to keep them plain and simple, just like life in the village. 

George said the villagers gather in their front yard to talk every evening after dinner, or go fishing, while children play around, like a big family of which he is a part.

He said the childhood stories from his parents, and the respect for his father, a big friend of Vietnam, has always given him "this warm feeling" about the country.

Besides the urge to discover Vietnam as an admirer, George also has the call of an artist to look at the "vibrant contemporary art scene" in the country.

He said Vietnamese people are still trying to figure out their own place in contemporary art, caught up as they are in the "whole contradiction" between tradition and modernity.

He said his works about Vietnam would show how he manages to channel all the contradictory ideas, historical, political, or artistic.

George is working with his son, a filmmaking graduate from Sydney, to continue the family's legacy of discovering Vietnam.

A documentary project will start from the northern province of Thai Nguyen, where Wilfred Burchett met Ho Chi Minh in 1954, and go through the country. The father and son duo are looking for other partners for the filming.

He said he wants to show his projects to people in Australia first and the world later. 

"I am Vietnamese, I'm from Hanoi." That is how he, a little boy, introduced himself to friends in Moscow where the family had moved to after two years in Vietnam.

He said he is still feeling the same. "I have just fallen in love with Hanoi, probably like my Dad."

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