Home page

Chapter summaries

Chapter Twenty-Six

Here, let me excerpt some interviews that have appeared in different journals.

Thanks to my viewers I have survived

Interview with People’s Artist Trần Văn Thủy
Tuesday April 24th 2011, by SV

In his conversations with us, this maker of many documentary films laden with emotion, due to their relationship with truth, informed us that he likes to make documentary films only because this kind of film reflects life in a truthful way without fiction, without role-playing, and without fabrication.

Sir, in your first films, you showed yourself to be deeply preoccupied with war. In what ways have you continued to be close to this theme?

Among my films, it seems that there are three or four that have to do with war: The People of My Homeland, Betrayal, A Story From the Corner of a Park, and The Sound of a Violin at Mỹ Lai. Over the past several decades, we have spoken too much about things we have “gained” through warfare. My feeling is that we have perhaps arrived at a time when we must make an honest accounting of the things we have lost through warfare. This is very needful and will benefit Vietnamese in the future.

Documentary films play a large role in reflecting social life, but these days filmmakers pay little attention to documentary work. Do you have any thoughts you would like to share with them?

I wish to say right away that to make an honest-to-goodness documentary film that will be beneficial and create an upheaval in the spiritual life of a society is not the slightest bit easy, especially in Vietnam. Perhaps due to this, though several thousand documentary films are made in the world each year, documentary filmmakers with international reputations can be counted on the fingers of one’s hands.

Documentary films are “easy to make, but difficult to make well.” I chose to make documentary films because they are close to the life that concerns me. They aren’t made up. They don’t have actors playing roles. They aren’t fabricated. In my opinion choosing one thing or another depends on one’s preferences and abilities. I would not urge all young directors to make documentary films. I remember, about twenty-five years ago, when the Vietnamese-French director Trần Anh Hùng returned to the country to introduce The Taste of Green Papaya, he said to me, “When I get to be fifty-seven years old, I’ll make documentary films.”

You have shown your films and discussed them with audiences in many places throughout the world. What reactions have people had to your films?

I have held more than a hundred showings at famous American universities, and at conferences on cinema, sociology, and politics in Germany, France, Italy, England, Belgium, Australia, and, most frequently, the United States. I have made many new friends as a result of these trips. One must remember that these countries have people of high intelligence who enjoy independence of thought, but they received me in a very warm and sincere manner. And I think that they came to have a deeper understanding of Vietnam.

Do you wish to share any thoughts with our audience?

I am grateful from the bottom of my heart to my viewers. It is thanks to them that I have survived. Sometimes I have answered questions posed by the press, both within the country and elsewhere, as follows: ‘What most dominates my thoughts when I have an idea for a new film, or about the choice of a topic? My ability to believe steadily in the things that I pursue, and my ability to venture through prohibited regions, is due to those who watch my films. It is indeed a fact that when I decide on a “dangerous” episode in a film, or when I write a “thorny” script for a film that will cross the border and arrive at an international film festival… I think only of the viewers.

Thank you sir!

From Tintức Online [“news online”]

After more than twenty years, the story of kindness comes to Viennale 2008.

Director Thủy, is it true that your film The Story of Kindness has just been shown at the Viennale (Austria) Film Festival?

Yes. The Story of Kindness was shown at the Viennale Film Festival last October 25th. According to BTC, this is the largest and the longest in duration of all international film festivals It is organized once every two years in Austria. There is no competition for prizes at this festival. The program is made up of 120 full-length narrative and documentary films and about fifty short features from all over the world. The films that most concern the festival are artistic or political in nature.

The Viennale shows only films that have been made in the past two years, but isn’t it true that The Story of Kindness appeared twenty years ago?”

Yes, this is a problem that bothered me when I received the invitation. I began shooting The Story of Kindness twenty-three years ago, and it appeared twenty-one years ago in 1987. I emailed this information to my friends on the organizing committee, and received a most informative response from them. The Viennale Film Festival was to show films made in 2007 and 2008, but along with this, each festival honors a number of special individuals and includes a few programs dealing with the history of cinema. The Story of Kindness was shown under that rubric.

How did the festival come to know of The Story of Kindness, and what kind of value did they set on this film?

Mrs. Varena, who is on the festival’s executive committee, sent me an email saying that The Story of Kindness was chosen by an American director—Mr. John Gianvito (the director of the films The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein and Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind), who was in charge of a number of programs in the festival. The program in which I was concerned had the following films: The Story of Kindness (Trần Văn Thủy, 1987), Time of the Locust (Peter Gessner, American, 1966), Interviews With Mỹ Lai Veterans (Joseph Strick, American, 1970), and SayKomSay (Robert Kramer, French, 1998). The title of this program was “Lessons and Lesions: Vietnam.” Mrs Varena also said that they hoped to learn more about Vietnam and about Vietnamese cinema, so as to have a new outlook compared with the points of view to which they had previously been exposed. I also received a letter from John Gianvito. We had gotten to know each other at the Robert Flaherty Film Symposium in 2003 in New York. John said that the reason he chose The Story of Kindness to show at the Viennale Festival was because it was “famous and very appropriate to the times.”

An international film festival would surely demand a copy of the film with guaranteed technical quality. Did that present any difficulties, when they chose The Story of Kindness?

The festival looked all over to find the best 35-millimeter celluloid copy available. They contacted Japan, where the film had been shown in 1989 as part of the opening ceremonies of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. They had a 35-millimeter celluloid copy that had been very well taken care of, but it had Japanese subtitles. Then they contacted France, where they had purchased the right to show a celluloid copy of the film as part of the Cinéma du Réel festival, but this copy had French subtitles. They even looked for the film in Germany—it had been shown in the 1988 Leipzig festival where it had won the Silver Dove Award, but that met with no success either. The copies used by Channel 4 (in England) and SBS (in Australia) had English subtitles, but they were not celluloid copies. They communicated with me about obtaining the original copies made in Vietnam, but those copies are by now damaged, and the formalities for requesting them were very complex. I asked if it was always necessary to have 35-millimeter copies or not. Their reply was that they always tried to show each film in the form that it had when first produced, to show proper respect for all aspects of the film, including those of sound and images, etc. They were also very concerned with restoring films to their original condition by using copies stored in film repositories throughout Europe.

What were your feelings when The festival organizers remembered The Story of Kindness?

That people should spend time and effort to seek out a film that has been before the public for such a long time is a source of happiness to us. The Story of Kindness is also a film that was very special to me in my career as a documentary film-maker. From the time that it was made, it was a most unusual film, and its career was attended by a number of quasi-miraculous events. I also have many memories of colleagues: Hồ Trí Phổ, Lê Văn Long, Đỗ Duy Hùng, Mai Trung Kiên, Lê Huy Hòa, and Phan Minh Hương—people who shared many trials with me in order to make this film; people who ensured that the film would arrive at the desired destination.

Interview by Thuy Phương, November 25th 2008 in Wikipedia, the Open Encyclopedia

Trần Văn Thủy

“Let us protect and awaken the quality of decency”

SGTT—Anyone who has seen Hanoi in Whose Eyes, The Story of Kindness, and, most recently, A Barbarian of Modern Times, will understand how preoccupied Trần Văn Thủy is with the destiny of human beings, with the actual lives of people living in wretched circumstances, and with true spiritual values that are gradually being cast into oblivion. In the lonely, fading light of dusk, and before altars to ancestors, he recounts the hardships that attended every stretch of film, which, when you hear them, are as strange as legends of ancient times…

What was on your mind when, in A Barbarian of Modern Times, you chose to make a film about the scholar Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, the editor-in-chief of a newspaper in the north printed in the quốc ngữ alphabet, a distinguished translator, and a cultural critic imbued with a native Vietnamese spirit.

I should say from the start that the idea and the impetus for this film came from the family of old Mr. Vĩnh, and in particular from Nguyễn Lân Bình, his paternal grandson. He took care of all the details; I was just one among many people who created the film. An additional point is: my thoughts are always dominated by one concern: we must recognize the true values and strengths of our people; if we do not, we will be committing a great offense against our ancestors. I believe that a great people must have a culture worthy of the famous people within their culture.

Our elders in days of yore were people of great ability and accomplishment; there are endless things belonging to those times that we need to study. To encounter Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh and the various other people in his generation at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the 20th century is to encounter momentous historical problems. It is to see the feelings of people who loved their country, but many people of that era have been misunderstood, portrayed in a distorted way, and smeared with dirt. When I consulted old documents, both within the country and elsewhere, and traveled to France to look at old records belonging to the regions that were once French colonies, and the files left by historians and researchers, I truly became dizzy. The adversities faced by Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh throughout his life came to obsess me. He was a person whose heart and soul were bound up with the fortunes of his country, a child prodigy of outstanding achievement in every realm he worked in; but in subsequent eras he was regarded as a foreign agent, a subservient “boy” writing for the French, a reactionary, and these accusations extended to his children and grandchildren. I am always of the belief that our country has had huge numbers of people who dearly loved their country, and that, for the sake of future generations, we must deal decently with these people, even if they may have had their own ways of being patriotic. Professor Phan Huy Lê, the chairman of the Scientific and Historical Association of Vietnam, says in the film, “In assessing the achievements of Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, if we say only that he was the father of Vietnamese journalism, that he was a great promoter of our national writing system, and that he was an outstanding translator—that is still not commensurate with what he did. We must also acknowledge a still more significant point: that his greatest achievement was in the realm of thought. He was among the first democratic, reform-minded thinkers of Vietnam.

We have had nearly four hours of watching your documentary films, and the viewers have paid close attention from beginning to end, and are unable to escape a feeling of being cast adrift at the conclusion of the final scene. What is your secret? How do make such attractive films?

I often share the thought with my young colleagues that truth and completeness are not the only goals of a documentary film. Truth and completeness are the goals of a legal decision or a work of scientific scholarship. Attractiveness is always my primary goal. If a documentary film is to be attractive, it must strike a nerve within contemporary society, so as to make people reflect on their own lives, on how they are living, and on what they must do in order to live better, more conscientiously, more decently. In a society full of admonitions and threats, people are thirsty for rules of living, rules of right behavior, ways of governing the country, settling people’s hearts, achieving reconciliation between former enemies, and respect for differences… These are all “hot” topics; what need is there to search far afield in such places as the US, or China? Making a documentary film is not just a matter of saying all the things you think; you must also speak of things that are bothering the majority of the viewers; you must touch on the deep places in the destinies of human beings, and make people reflect on these things. That is the code, the key, that opens the path I travel on.

A contradictory situation is developing: material prosperity is destroying relationships between people. What are your thoughts on this matter?

In 1992, when I made the film There Was a Village with the NHK Broadcasting Station, I described the pure, warm, neighborly spiritual life that existed in a poor Vietnamese village where people lived by digging up earth which they molded into pottery vessels. I could never figure out why the Japanese were willing to spend their own money for me to make a film about my individual feelings, about a poor village of that sort, and why they even were willing to rent a helicopter to help with the filming. When we watched the film together in Tokyo, The Japanese said to me, “This is a legend of our times!” Only then did the answer come to me: The Japanese had been poor like the people in the film, and had been kind to each other like the people in the film; and they knew better than anybody that prosperity can make human relationships turn bad, and they wanted their children and grandchildren to grasp these facts. And this is something to which we in Vietnam have not yet awakened.

We are now all busy chasing after growth of the economy—how could we concern ourselves with human feeling, morality, or decency? In my heart of hearts, when I think of happiness and sadness in the context of society as a whole, I feel intense pain. At the beginning of the century, old Mr. Phan Châu Trinh advocated raising the intellectual level of the people. This is still very much a contemporary issue. The intellectual level of a people, in my conception, involves a more comprehensive understanding of things, which should include a love of peace, an attitude of trust, and a willingness to live and let live; and to not indulge in obstructionism and slander as is the current fashion. The ultimate cause of this slander is a deterioration in human dignity. In the final analysis, the problem of Vietnamese society is the problem of human dignity. From bribe-taking, the buying and selling of office, the formation of cliques… to the problem of saying one thing while thinking another… I think that from the time of the first appearance of the human race, people have always been taught that they should say what they think. But perhaps there has never been a time when speaking untruthfully has become as common as it is now. Resisting the deterioration of our lives is precisely the problem of resisting the weakening of human feeling.

Every single film of your has created an upheaval in public opinion due to the fiercely oppositional stances you take with regard to the problems of human life and they create troubles for yourself as well. What has enabled you to maintain your peace of mind and ability to work in such a firm and stable manner?

I’m not especially good at dealing with affairs; I just try to accomplish to the full the things that I regard as useful. And I’m not at all oppositional or courageous. Whatever a situation requires, I do. I’ve been an irreligious fellow, and I encountered death in warfare many times, a great many times, but now I understand that there are a great many powers and abilities around us and above us that we are unable to see. I have lived with dreams when I made the film about old Mr. Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, and was provoked to copious tears… and I spoke of these dreams at the end of the film. The truth is that at the end of this professional road of mine, I have come to appreciate the fact that the strength necessary to be able to shield oneself, and to conduct one’s spirit to the desired goal, is much greater, more exhausting that the strength necessary to merely make a film.

In the book And If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas, through a series of straightforward and sincere dialogues, you touched on the deepest aspects of the psychology of Vietnamese living in the US—the upheavals, the separations, and the sorrows brought on by the history of a people; isn’t that so?

Actually I lack the necessary prerequisites to do what needs to be done—to touch on the deepest aspects of the psychology of Vietnamese living in the US, as you said. After having made contact with many people in the Vietnamese community in the US. I am anxious about a point I raised in the film There was a Village—if you go to the end of the sea, past all the oceans and all the continents, going on continually without ever stopping, you will eventually return to your own homeland, your own village… Because many Vietnamese in distant places do just that—travel on and on past all the seas and continents—but in the end they are unable to return to their own homelands, their own villages. This is close to being a true and direct sociological investigation of the Vietnamese community in the US. I have had the good fortune to go many places—with the mindset of a country fellow going to the big city, I like to observe the life of the people, draw close to their stories, and understand the blows that life has given my countrymen in France, Germany, England, Italy, Belgium, Australia, Japan, and the US… and to find out about the ideological clashes of the past century so that some portion of their souls can be restored to my people who have been torn apart by war and by years and months of suffering one hardship after another, and help people from many different backgrounds understand each other better and draw closer to each other…

As you look back over your life, what discoveries do you make?

When I look back over the things I’ve done, I see many miraculous and fortunate things that have come about through the invisible aid of spirits, things, for the most part, that have achieved their desired aims. People often say that, however you act, life will always deal with you in the same terms; but when I look deeply into the dubious areas of history, I see that most people of ability who accomplished great things for the people and the country had dark destinies. I have a utopian dream that we can do something so that later generations will not fall into ways that have led to failure and collapse in the past, that we can do something to resolve all the mistakes we have made in the past, that we will have the ability to resolve our divisive hatreds, so that every child of Vietnam can love his country in an equal manner.

Writer Nguyễn Ngọc

Writer Nguyễn Ngọc: I can say without hesitation that he is the best maker of documentary film essays in our country. He has something a little reminiscent of Trịnh Công Sơn, because his wonderful blending of images and words greatly enhances the material he uses. He is a profound literary essayist in the guise of a film director who in all his work is face to face with the crucial problems of human existence.

How can you maintain yourself in a state of belief, when you have to live your life perched on an abyss?

Five or ten years earlier I would not have dared to answer this question. But now I have enough self confidence to say that everything I do takes its point of departure from the viewers. I made films in circumstances where everything was lacking, and in a period when everything was forbidden; but I thought only of the viewers; I didn’t think about my superiors, or about censorship. And when I began a film, I never worried about whether I would have sufficient funds, or about whether my film would win a prize… People often say that “schemes are made by people, but success is up to Heaven.”

In your daily life, you often act as a benefactor to poor students, handicapped children, and have saved funds penny by penny to build seven small bridges and a school in your village; is that the case?

Trịnh Thanh Nhã

Drama critic Trịnh Thanh Nhã: His strongest characteristic, and the one that most involves him in difficulties, is his extreme directness. This directness is the quality that we should respect most in the work of an artist. He always goes directly into the most urgent issues of the times, with a sensitivity and sense of civic responsibility worthy of the highest respect.

I have done much more than that, ma’am. During the past seventeen years, I have built eight bridges, all large, wide, handsome, and strong, an elementary school, a nursery school, a kindergarten, a youth center, a living community, close to a hundred wells with pumps supplying clear ground water, and many thousands of meters worth of paved village roads. I have given stipends to poor people and children handicapped due to the after-effects of agent orange. I have built graves for ancestors, established hamlets, and many other things besides. My village was originally poor, dilapidated, and beset with hardships of every sort, but now it is a beautiful place. I don’t think of this work as “charity” because that word suggests the bestowing of favors. What I do is done simply from a love of active virtue. When I think of this work, I think of my father (I habitually use the word “teacher” to refer to him). When he was alive, he thought only of rescuing people, of helping people in hardship and difficulty. He helped the starving during the famine of 1945. My engagement with this work is among other things a way of repaying my father for his kindness, and to carry on the projects that engaged his heart and soul when he was alive. But I must add that I am not personally wealthy enough to carry out such large projects. I have the good fortune to have many friends inside and outside the country who love me and hold me in esteem, who, together with international charitable organizations, have enthusiastically supported me in these endeavors.

You refer often to “decency” (tử tế). It seems that this is the quality about which you feel most intensely in all your films.

Probably you still remember some words I wrote near the beginning of The Story of Kindness: “Decency exists in every human being, in every household, in every lineage, and in every nation. Let us be persistent in protecting and awakening this quality; let us place it on our ancestral altars and national podiums. For without this quality, even the most powerful efforts and noblest aims of a community will come to nothing. Let us first of all lead our children, and our adults as well, into the study of how to be human beings—decent human beings—before hoping to train them to be people of power, ability, or distinction.” This Tết I received a piece of calligraphy from an aged friend of mine. It said, “When people are at peace with each other, it is always spring.” What the ancients said was absolutely right.

Thank you, anh Thủy.

Prizes won

The People of My Homeland (Những Người Dân Quê Tôi). Thủy’s first film, shot in the southern war zone; Silver Dove Award in the Leipzig International Film Festival, 1970.

Betrayal (Phản Bội), concerning the border war between Vietnam and China, 1979; Golden Award for Best Director at the Vietnam Film Festival.

Hanoi in Whose Eyes (banned from 1982–1987); Golden Award for Best Film Script, Best Directing, and Best Camerawork at the 1988 Vietnam Film Festival.

The Story of Kindness, 1985; Silver Dove Award at the Leipzig International Film Festival, 1989. Described in the foreign press as “a bomb from Vietnam”; viewing rights purchased by ten large broadcasting stations throughout the world, and shown widely in Europe, Japan, Australia, and the United States.

A Story From the Corner of a Park; Golden Award at the Festival of the Cinema Association, 1996.

The Sound of a Violin at Mỹ Lai (1999); Golden Award at the 43rd Meeting of the Asia Pacific Film Festival.

The title “Witness to the World” (Chứng Nhân Của Thế Giới) at the International Cinema Conference in New York, 2003.

Order In Whose Eyes from the University of Massachusetts Press, or from Amazon.