Ordinary lives, extraordinary stories

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 Davide Dominici, an Italian independent filmmaker, takes photos of children at the Thay Pagoda in Hanoi. He spent nearly three years in Vietnam making seven short documentaries about people and traditional arts in Southeast Asia./ PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVIDE DOMINICI

A handicapped man who earns living by fishing in muddy waters part of the Saigon River; an old man who writes calligraphy for people at a temple in Ho Chi Minh City; a monk who follows a Vietnamese syncretic religion in the Mekong Delta province of Tay Ninh people living ordinary lives in Vietnam fascinate Davide Dominici.

The Italian independent filmmaker compares his feelings to the people's fascination for ancient monuments in Europe.

"The beauty and the complexity of European old monuments translate for me, here in Asia, to individual life. Sometimes you just meet people that have a story about themselves and that struggle in a way you cannot find back in Europe."

So Dominici decided to "capture the essence of their life and keep them on record" so that he and others will have something to look at somewhere in the future and, and "maybe to learn something" from.

After almost three years in HCMC, Dominici has made seven short documentaries, each 10-15 minutes long.

Five of them were screened last month at Decibel Lounge in downtown HCMC as part of a series named Southeast Asian Portraits, while two others are in the process of being finalized.

All the films feature people whose jobs that Dominici feels will completely disappear or transform so much that they will not be recognized any more by coming generations.

This impending disappearance is an "important element" in the choice of his subjects, Dominici says. 

Another element is that they are people who work with their hands and their bodies, and who perform their jobs with passion.

He did not set out to find such people; it was a chance encounter that set him off on his quest, and his "finds" continue to be random a news item in a newspaper, or an arresting sight as he walks around town.

He met his first-ever subject, Chu Ba Cut (uncle "crippled" Ba), whose real name is Tran Van Cho, on the banks of the Saigon River. Cho, who lost his arm during the Vietnam War, lived in a hut behind Saigon Pearl one of the city's luxury apartment complexes.

Dominici says he was first struck by admiration on seeing how Cho managed to catch fish in muddy waters with a net and one arm. However, in the 15-minute film on Cho, the filmmaker tells a much deeper story; the story of a lonely man who chosen to close his heart to life, after misfortunes and pain he has faced and experienced for many years.

The filmmaker was riding around the city during the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday when he ran into the subject of his second film - Van Tien, a 82-year-old calligrapher at the Le Van Duyet Tomb in Binh Thanh District, HCMC.

A native of the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap, Tien comes to the city every Tet and writes characters meaning good luck and peace that people buy for the occasion. He does this for three straight months. Dominici says Tien not only writes characters, but also draws many "meaningful pictures."

He was riding a scooter in Cambodia when he heard some "interesting music." He followed the sounds and found a group of people playing some instruments that looked traditional.

His tour guide, who was accompanying him then, told him that the ancient-looking instrument was called arak and usually played when somebody was sick as a prayer for that person to get well soon.

The story and the music remained in Dominici's mind as "something very beautiful and unique." He returned to Cambodia a year later, looked for people who played the instrument and made his third film.

The man, who calls himself a mudfish that "searches in the mud of human race" for "unique stories" that he can share, has also been charmed by traditional Vietnamese arts. 

One of his films features historian Nguyen Duy Hong's stories about collecting and preserving rare materials related to the country's traditional art of water puppetry; and in another, a Hanoian female artist of tuồng (Vietnamese opera) reveals her thoughts and feelings about the art's sorry state as modern art forms dominate in Vietnam.

Dominici says it takes him about four months to finish a film, starting with identifying his subjects and approaching them, with help from his Vietnamese friends or journalists who wrote the stories about the people he wants to record.

Since he is a foreigner, when he approaches people and offers to film them, they sometimes think he is planning "something bad" like filming and selling the films for money. So, he spends time making people understand who he is, where he comes from, and what and why he is doing what he does.

Once he wins their trust, he starts filming, then edits and finalizes the work. Since his is almost a one-man show, it takes him longer to complete a film, but he is still happy doing it.

The filmmaker, who left Vietnam for his home country not long after the screening, plans to return to Southeast Asia later to continue his project.

So far, he has not sought any sponsorship for his projects.

"I think that the privilege of being independent is being able to choose my stories and doing exactly what I want with them," he said.

Moving on

Dominici started working in the entertainment industry as a model, although he studied language and literature at university out of a passion for storytelling.

He attributes this to the fact of being born and raised in Milan a city of fashion. From modeling he turned to being a commercial actor, and finally, "with some luck and skills," he turned to acting.

"Everything evolved naturally," he says.

His passion for storytelling returned gradually when he was working in the Czech Republic and had the chance to do independent filming projects, said Dominici.

He lived in the Czech Republic for seven years and produced several short films that were screened at a few festivals before following his Vietnamese friend to visit the Southeast Asian country.

Dominici finds Vietnamese "more reserved and quiet" than Italians, but there seems to be almost no privacy here "everything is shared."

For instance, a xe ôm driver can sleep on their motorbike right on the street, and people love chitchatting in open spaces like street stalls rather than at home, while in Europe, stories are only exchanged behind the door.

"I greatly enjoy spending time outside, and watching people live their lives," Dominici said.

During his stay in HCMC, Dominici spent weekends at an orphanage run by the Dieu Giac Temple in District 2. He played with the kids, taught them drawing and helped raise funds for the center, including calling for donations during the last screening of his short documentaries.

Dominici plans to visit another Southeast Asian country next, but he says he will always be attached to HCMC, where he felt right at home. He says the thought of its bustling residents, always on the move, continues to energize him.

(Some of Davide Dominici's documentaries are available here.)

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