Mr. Lương Quy Nhân, the chief of Lai Châu’s Department of Cultural Affairs, was a man of Thai ethnicity who was very good and kind. He was also a poet of some reputation. Later on, he became a deputy chairman of Lai Châu Province. When he first came to Lai Châu to assume his duties there, he fell ill and grew feeble. Though I had no medical training, I had to give him injections.
Đặng Trần Sơn and I did everything necessary to start up the department, such as drawing up a plan for establishing offices, a plan for training procedures, a set of guidelines for regional activities, personnel recruitment and instruction, a plan for setting up a performing arts troupe, and so on. In addition, I often organized mobile cinema and cultural teams, traveling to remote mountainous places to set up photo exhibits, song and dance performances, and film shows for the local people there. I organized and led these teams myself. Gradually, I became aware of the great effectiveness of film, a medium inherently more powerful than lengthy speeches and explanations. Film acted quickly and strongly on viewers, especially films dealing with science. From that time on I had a liking for film, because it could be used to express thoughts and feelings on particular problems.
I wrote a letter many pages long to a provincial leader asking for permission to return to the lowlands and study film, so as to come back later for continued service in Lai Châu. But my soon-to-come studies in film school and my later journey to the south were done in obedience to official decisions, and had nothing to do with my own plans or those of the province I served.
Among other duties, I acted as the department secretary, so all office correspondence passed through my hands. Thus one day I saw a notice about a film course with the curious name “Fighting America for National Salvation.” I spoke to Mr. Lương Qui Nhân and asked him for permission to attend the course.
“Oh, sure—it’ll be fine if you go!”
Such was Mr. Lương’s belief in others. I often met “gullible” people like that in my life. But I say this only in jest—actually it must be noted that such people are humane and virtuous. Later on Mr. Trần Độ (a controversial communist leader in charge of cultural affairs), after having lost his position, still signed a decision for me to go to a film festival and to work in France and elsewhere in Europe. And when I made the film The Sound of a Violin in Mỹ Lai, the director of the film company gave me a budget, staff and equipment without an approved script—for the film was still no more than a vague idea in my head.
“Then what shall we do about this?” I asked my boss.
“Well, the document’s right here—it shows that the mountainous regions are regarded as a priority. Shall I make the decision, then?”
Mr. Nhân signed a decision to send me to the film-training course, and signed various other papers as well, including the one to terminate my salary. He said:
“If you can join the course, fine. If not, tear up all the papers and come back here.”
“Our Kinh people are almost never as gullible as that,” I thought to myself…
The roads leading from Lai Chau all the way to Hanoi were very hard to traverse, especially since American planes had begun attacking the area. From Lai Châu I walked to Tuần Giáo, then at Tuần Giáo I had some business that required me to walk back to Điện Biên, which cost me an entire week. At that time, the town of Điện Biên was just a dirt road with a row of thatched dwellings on either side. There was no such thing as a shop to eat at; in the early mornings there were a couple of peddlers selling “bánh cuốn” (steamed rolls) and “xôi” (sticky rice) as snacks for travelers; but as soon as the sun began to beat down, they disappeared so as to avoid American airplanes. Sơn La and Mộc Châu were also very primitive and neglected.
That was in the middle of 1965.
With a ragged knapsack on my back and a cloth bag hanging from my neck—the bag that the artist Đặng Trần Sơn had used originally to carry painting supplies—filled with snacks protected with a lining of banana leaves, I went on, eating by hand as I walked, stumbling along the rough hilly roads of the Northwest. I would walk by day and sleep in hamlets near the road by night.
LTD: Those were the first steps on the “road in quest of cinema” taken by the film director, the People’s Artist Trần Văn Thủy—in both the literal and figurative senses of these terms.
On reaching Thuận Châu, I managed to hitch a ride in a vehicle and arrived in Hanoi a few days later. I went to Cao Bá Quát Street, where the cinema headquarters were located.
That was where students were being recruited. I reported there and presented my papers. The reply I received was:
“The entrance exam was already held two weeks ago—what can you do without that?”
So the game was over! I would have to tear up all my papers and return to Lai Châu, where I would resume my routine work. But, as I considered this, I had a second thought—and began to hope that somewhere in Hanoi there must be some hidden opportunity—while there’s life, there’s hope!
I had no acquaintances, and looked dark and rough, like a zombie. I ventured to knock on a few doors, but the officials I spoke with all said, “I see, but you must take the exam!” I spent a week wandering around. One day I went to the Cinema Department on Hoàng Hoa Thám Street to see if I could find any official there to whom I could present my case and make an appeal. I saw a man with white glasses awkwardly making his way down the sloping street, and found it a bit difficult to guess what sort of person he might be.
“Excuse me, sir, I’ve just come back from the mountains and have a problem, can you help me out?
“What’s your problem?”
After I explained my problem, I asked him, “Can I ask you sir, what your position is here? And your name?”
“I’ve got no position or power at all. I’m Nông Ích Đạt! I’m from the mountain region. I see you’re in a tough situation—you’ve been running around here for several days—things must be really bad for you, right?”
He took my hand and said, “Follow me.”
They went up a flight of stairs and stood before a man who I later learned was Mr. Trần Đức Hinh, deputy director of the Cinema Department, principle of the Cinema School and the person in charge of the new training course.
“Mr. Hinh, this fellow has just returned here from the Northwest. He’s got a bunch of files and documents directing him to come here. The distance was great, and there were bombs dropping all along the way, so be didn’t arrive till the deadline was past. If you don’t give him some consideration and priority, you’ll be wrong. Let me tell you right now that mountain folk like me can’t be found anywhere even if you go digging for seven days. This fellow is of genuine Kinh stock, but he lives and works up there in the mountains. If a Nông, or Lò, or Ma tribesman isn’t available, then you’ve got to give this fellow a chance and train him! Now that his paperwork’s done and his salary terminated, he’d be out in the streets like a beggar! He’s been running around here for days already.”
Mr. Hinh said, “All right, let me see what can be done.”
It was due to sheer luck or God blessing, that I ran into this man Nông Ích Đạt—otherwise, I wouldn’t be sitting here today recounting these tales… Those icy-faced bureaucrats always despised mountain folk as if they were garbage.
Later on, feeling sick and tired of life and desperate in spirit, film director Nông Ích Đạt and his wife took sleeping pills to commit suicide—but they didn’t die! Others managed to rescue them. But they didn’t live very long after that anyway. Everyone felt sorry for this kindhearted, innocent man.
Deep in my heart, I thought I would return to the mountains at the conclusion of my studies anyway, having no intention to compete with city folks in the lowlands. I was aware of my place in society and suffered from the feeling that I was inferior to others.
Mr. Hinh wrote a note as follows to Trương Huy, the school’s manager of academic affairs:
“Please give careful consideration to this case. In the opinion of Mr. Nông Ích Đạt, this case should be reconsidered, because this man has just returned from the mountain region”.
Mr. Hinh instructed me to come to 33 Hoàng Hoa Thám Street—that was the location of the film school. There were just some thatch-roofed houses there, and a large open field…
LTD: Ah, Hoàng Hoa Thám—the name of the fearless man who had given up his life for the sake of freedom of his homeland. This chap Trần Văn Thủy, a “Lai Châu man of Nam Định origin”, who is neither Lò, nor Nông, nor Ma, now stumbling about on this street hungry and dazed, with such an uncertain future before him—how could he have imagined that almost twenty years later (1982), in this very location, an alarmed Phạm Hà was so surprised that he suddenly braked his bike and jumped off, exclaiming, “Oh Thủy! You still haven’t been arrested?” He was referring to the firestorm that “Hanoi in Whose Eyes” had created back then! And before that storm had died down, it was also on this very street, in 1988 that “The Story of Kindness” took off and “flew” to Leipzig in such a mysterious fashion.
It suddenly occurs to me, sitting in the guest room of Thủy’s house, also on Hoàng Hoa Thám Street, that one thing that still seems missing here is a portrait of Đề Thám [Hoàng Hoa Thám], the “Gray Tiger of Yên Thế” a great man whose name and fame is attached to Thủy’s home in such a “cinematic” way. Though he has gone beyond the hilltop of his life, who knows whether this artist will be inspired to make a new movie entitled “Đề Thám,” following the novel concerning Hoàng Hoa Thám called “A Man of a Hundred Years Ago” by Thủy’s close friend Hoàng Khởi Phong.
And that was how I met Trương Quy, a heavy-set and outspoken man (though in his last years of his life he was incapacitated by a stroke and became strangely shriveled up. When people came to visit him, he would be sitting all crouched up, his arms holding on to packs of presents, looking pitiable).
In the end, I was accepted by the school with the following condition: “You didn’t take the qualifying exam, so the school has no idea what your abilities may be like. Try doing the coursework—if you do it well, fine; but if you fail and are disqualified, we will return you to the Cultural Affairs Department in Lai Châu.” In such circumstances I had no choice but to behave and do the work in an obedient, painstaking manner.
The course began in August 1965, and was to conclude in August 1967. I had taken only the first half of the course when an urgent directive came from the Party’s Central Organization Department and Central Reunification Department saying that six cameramen must be sent immediately to the war zone in the South.
The school had 120 students at that time, who were divided into four groups pursuing different curricula: Producing, Script-writing, Filming, and Directing. I was taking the filming course. They did their training outside the city at an evacuation site. On days off, they all would return to Hanoi, while I would remain at the school, focusing on the course materials.
In the first year they studied theory without equipment. Only on two occasions did I get to touch a film camera; an ancient 16-millimeter Admiral from Czechoslovakia. I was never allowed to shoot a scene, but I was allowed to press some buttons on the machine on two occasions. The first time was to test the telephoto lens, aiming the camera at the same subject and trying the telephoto mode, the normal mode, or the wide-angle mode, to see how the image would change. The second time was to test the sensitivity of the film. Using a setting of 21, 18, or 17 DIN (film speed rating) with alternately strong and weak lighting, I opened the lens aperture, then pressed buttons for “sufficiently bright,” “excessively bright,” and “insufficiently bright,” and then developed the images to see what the results were like.
Given such a primitive level of skill, it wasn’t possible even back then for someone to apply for an entrée as an assistant cameraman in a film production company in the North. But it must be said that many people who participated in this training course would become successful—too many even to list their names—and would contribute significantly to the achievements of Vietnamese Cinema. Nowadays, classmates of former times meet annually and reminisce about the period of evacuation to the countryside, and tell stories about their teachers and friends.
One day in the middle of 1966, Mr. Nguyễn Đức, secretary of the School’s party executive committee, called me into his office and said, “The school board and our friends feel that you have made good progress in your studies and have shown a serious attitude…”
He mentioned that the leadership needed people to go immediately to perform missions in the war zones in the South—whether in the 5th zone, the Southern delta, or in Quảng Trị was as yet unknown. “How do you like the idea?” he asked. “Is it OK with you? Do you feel honored?”
I said, “Thank you for the attention you have bestowed on me and for calling me in for a chat. I lived in the Northwest for five years and have grown accustomed to hardship, so I shall have no reluctance to go to the war zones. But I wish to complete my studies. Then, you can tell me to go wherever you wish. Another thing to consider is that when Lai Châu sent me here to study, they hoped that I would return there to continue my services.
“You asked if I feel honored by this. I would like to reply that I do not feel honored, because, the last five or six years of hard work and privation in the Northwest have already given me the highest degree of honor. But it’s a different story if the leadership wants to give me this new assignment. I will obey the orders, though it is my wish to complete my course of study.”
Mr. Đức said, “According to regulations, you must all be party members. The others, like Hiến and Sửu are all party members. As for Tâm and Trường, they’re from the South, so it’s not a problem. Only you aren’t yet a party member. We’ll look into this. Your attitude is good. Your admission to the Party will be a mere formality”
“If you all have come to this decision, then there’s nothing for me to say about it”, I said.
This “special favor” troubled me, and caused me many sleepless nights. I thought that my “improper” family background would make admission to the party next to impossible. Being a party member or not wasn’t important. Far more worrisome was that someone going to my native village to investigate would discover his “improper” background—and then I wouldn’t be allowed to continue my studies; in other words, even my cinematic career would be ruined.
I spoke frankly to Mr. Nguyễn Đức, saying, in effect, “Let me complete my studies, I don’t care where you send me afterward. My family background isn’t simple.” Mr. Đức said that the board would take care of this.
The man who took my papers back to my place of origin to check out my background was Mr. Võ Hoàng Khả, a Party cell secretary. He was a Southerner dispatched by the Army to join the training course as a student. He was a pleasant man.
Only much later when I had survived the war and returned to the North, did Mr. Khả tell me how he had met my father in Thượng Trại Hải Hậu (where my family was evacuated; my home was still in the city). When my father learned of the background check, he shook his head in deep melancholy.
According to Mr. Khả, when he told the local officials of the check, they flatly objected. “This family won’t work!” they snapped. Mr. Khả replied that the leadership required that all people going to the frontline be party members, because it was so fiercely dangerous there, especially for cameramen—very few of them would survive and return intact. I had no idea what kind of report Mr. Khả made to the school, but they went ahead with the plan to admit me into the party.
My admission was smooth and speedy—the only hitch was that the next steps were all rushed forward—I was sent to Hòa Bình province urgently to join a group assembled for training for the journey to the South (known as “đi B,” or “going to the South”). So there was no time for any admission formalities at the cinema school. Only when we were in Hoà Bình preparing to depart in a vehicle for Quảng Bình did someone read out the admission decision to me.
From then till now—late 2012—no one at all in the rest of my family has been a party member, including a dozen or so brothers, sisters, and in-laws, including several who have worked for dozens of years in government.
My younger sister applied to two schools, the Hanoi music school and the Army music school. Though she obtained very high scores in the qualifying exams for both schools, she was not admitted to either, due to her “improper background.”
Having told my story up to this point, I suddenly recalled an unpleasant occurrence…
In the year 2000, when I had just turned sixty, an annual conference of the Journalists’ Association took place in the Hùng Vương Guesthouse. As documentary filmmakers, we were given journalist’s passes to attend the event. It was a long time ago, so I no longer remembers exactly what the content of the conference was—only that there was lots of talking that went on and on, followed by beer-drinking. The conference lasted for several days, and it was on the last day when I came to join a party at its conclusion.
From Hoàng Hoa Thám Street (Hoàng Hoa Thám again!) I turned to Ngọc Hà street. About halfway down the sloping street, I ran into a traffic jam where people and vehicles had come to a halt. I saw a hulking fellow who had parked his motorcycle and was coming up menacingly to a taxi that was parked crosswise in the street. This ruffian yanked the door of the taxi open, dragged the driver out of the vehicle and began pummeling him on the face and nose. The taxi driver had the look of a timid country boy who had come to town to work. There were people crowded all around, but no one said a thing. At this juncture, I raised my voice and said,
“Hey you two! If you have some disagreement, let the police and the laws take care of it—why do you have to hit people like that?”
To tell the truth, when the ruffian hit the young man, I felt as if the blows were falling on my son’s face. Everyone these days knows that intervening in some affair going on in the streets or marketplace can involve you in no end of trouble, but this ruffian’s behavior was too barbaric; I couldn’t contain myself. I raised my voice to a shout: “Stop at once! You can’t hit a person like that! I’m a journalist!”
The ruffian let go of the taxi driver, turned around, charged up to me, seized me by the collar, and said, “F— your mother, you old communist!”
I was overcome with shock and daze. Some old ladies standing nearby said, “Hey sir! Go away, go away!”
There was nothing I could do! This was not a place to talk about right or wrong. What more could be said? I had no choice but to swallow my rage and seek a path of escape. Riding my motorcycle on the road to the Hùng Vương guesthouse nearby, I was like a man in a trance.
“How did that fellow know I was a communist? Ah… I was a journalist, so I must be a party member, a communist. But why did he curse me in such a profane manner? If back then I had never gone to the South and had never become a party member, would that fellow’s curses have been so presumptuous and unreasonable?”
But there are various kinds of party members. People even make fun of it, saying, “Though he’s a party member, he’s a good person!”
At the guesthouse, the first floor was flooded by bright lights, with food and drink spread out on the tables, and crowds of guests producing a roar of conversation and laughter. After parking my motorcycle, I entered the foyer in a daze. The first person I met was Khổng Minh Dụ, who was in charge of A25 in the Ministry of Public Security. He was responsible for cultural security. Given his responsibilities, Mr. Dụ had extensive connections with artists and writers. As far as I was concerned, he was neither close nor distant; he was just someone I could talk with. I still had a poem Mr. Dụ gave me some years later.
Half a year ago the poem was reprinted in a newspaper. When I met old friends at a club, they would kid me about it, saying, “They say you’re badly treated by the security, yet Khổng Minh Dụ, a major general in the Ministry of Public Security, has written a poem in your praise…”
On seeing me, Khổng Minh Dụ said, “You look like a person who has lost his soul, why?”
I didn’t say a thing. Though there were many people about, Mr. Dụ paid attention only to me, no doubt because my expression was so bizarre. Mr. Dụ pulled me to a far corner and the two of us sat down on some chairs next to the wall. He brought a glass of wine over and said, “Come on, drink it. What’s made you so sad?”
I didn’t know how to keep my private thoughts from showing in my expression, but at the same time I felt unwilling to say what was on my mind. What would the point be? And if I talked about it with a person like Khổng Minh Dụ, what would he think about it? But Dụ appeared very sincere: “Well, if something’s bothering you, forget about it—let’s sit with our friends and enjoy ourselves. Drink up!
Only then did I say, “I just ran into something very unpleasant.”
“Then go ahead and tell me about it.”
“I don’t know how this story will strike you, but let me tell you anyway.”
I related the story as it had happened. Khổng Minh Dụ was thoughtful and sympathetic. This made me feel closer to him.
Mr. Dụ said, “I’ll share an experience with you from which you’ll see that there’s nothing out of the ordinary in what you encountered. One day I was going to Hải Phòng with some high-ranking security officers. It had grown dark and rainy, and the road was blocked by bad traffic. Cars were at a standstill and horns were blowing noisily. An old farmer with a rake on his shoulder and a water buffalo behind him was threading his way through the traffic. On coming in front of our car, he struck the hood very heavily and started cursing Đỗ Mười at the top of his lungs”. (Đỗ Mười was then the Party General Secretary).
His curses were fearfully vulgar. They were in fact so profane that they cannot be reproduced here. The Public Security officers sitting in the car had no choice but to endure the cursing—what else could they do? Scold the man? Arrest him?
Mr. Dụ was lost in thought for a while, then said, “So Mr. Thủy, we just have to keep our mouths shut!”
Mr. Dụ’s story gave me some comfort. But that year was also the last year that I was a party member. After having worked on the government payroll until I retired at the age of 60, I didn’t really “rest” at all, but kept on working hard as usual: I made films, wrote books, participated in professional activities. There were countless film festivals and conferences to attend inside and outside the country, as well as some philanthropic work… Even now, I haven’t stopped to rest. I want to rest very much, but it’s not possible. Now, though, if I go out on the streets and some disturbance occurs, such that youths shout the curse “you old communist!” I’ll be a bit relieved that they’ll be cursing someone else, not me…
All text and images are © 2023, Trần Văn Thủy, all rights reserved. Written permission is required for any use.