We could begin by romantically describing them as underground workers! Actually, their office is located on the ground floor of the Goethe Institute in Hanoi rather than in some secret, subterranean location. In a sense, though, it’s quite appropriate to describe the work they do as ‘underground.’
They are a group of cinephiles and filmmakers who call themselves Hanoi Doc Lab, a group established over two years ago with financial assistance from the Goethe Institute, which also provides them with an office. The founder of Hanoi Doc Lab is documentary maker and video artist Nguyễn Trinh Thi. At the Lab, she has been organising a range of activities with her colleagues. They have been holding screenings, discussions, and simple filmmaking workshops, and they also provide editing facilities for filmmakers who are just starting out.
Lined up along one wall of their small office are rows of DVD shelves and compact TV screens. To the other side there are computers for editing, blank CDs, hard discs and tangled cables. People pop in and out all day – artists, academics, writers…
During the Lab’s workshops, the participants are taught to write scripts, shoot and edit films. As a consequence, Hanoi Doc Lab has acquired many new friends, some of whom are upcoming filmmakers keen to collaborate with them. Most of the work that the Lab produces are documentaries and experimental films and videos.
When Hanoi Doc Lab holds screenings, they use the small side room in the Goethe building. This room has hosted such films as Jia Zhangke’s 24 City, though it isn’t an auditorium as such. It’s basically a multi-purpose space that can be transformed into a gallery. When I went to visit the Lab in April, the space was being used for artist Nguyễn Manh Hung’s show, Living Together in Paradise. He had made an installation consisting of model condominiums scraping the mock sky. But rather than produce replicas of the modern condo, the ‘skyscrapers’ in the installation look like the crowded low-rise buildings that populate the Hanoi urbanscape.
Material and Method
Because of state censorship, it’s almost impossible for a casual stranger to discover home movies or amateur films by themselves, or the early amateur works made by the upper classes in the distant past. State authorities exert tight control over filmmaking through such measures as the compulsory requirement to apply for shooting permits, or through the operation of the official studio system. Up until recently, the majority of filmmaking activities took place under the rubric of these studios. Feature films, propaganda features or propaganda documentaries were made by official filmmakers who received extensive training.
Thi told me about her experience of shooting the documentary Chronicle Tape Recorded Over. She had intended to travel along the route that was used as a passage for troops and supplies during the war, from the north to the south, and during the trip she would record the stories and testimonies of the ordinary people who lived along that route. On her trip to one of the villages, she was arrested by the local police officer, and was charged with filming without permit. Thi was taken for questioning and almost had to spend the night in jail. What the police didn’t know was that she was secretly recording her interrogation. After this incident, her documentary became an unfinished, ‘tape recorded over’ chronicle. This is a shared dimension of experience for Vietnam’s documentary makers and video artists. They too can be taken in for questioning simply for going out with a camera and shooting.
Doc Lab: Result
Filmmaking in Hanoi still caries a risk, though the situation in urban centres is easier than in rural areas. In places where everyone knows everyone, and news travel quickly by word of mouth, the filmmaker and his or her documentary subjects may run into trouble quite easily.
For this reason, making personal films, experimental films, or home videos in Vietnam is not that easy. But, having said that, Hanoi Doc Lab holds a collection of very interesting work (and very brave work, considering the risks the filmmakers were taking just from shooting their films without permit). There are films about a domestic argument with the filmmaker’s mother, films expressing an individual’s frustration, and documentary records of an ordinary person’s everyday life.
Underneath It All (Do Van Hoang, Pham Thu Hang & Mguyen Hong Hanh) observes the life of a teenager who decides to drop out of school, leaving her rural hometown, to work in a construction site in the capital. She now lives in the construction camp with all the other young men on the site. The documentary observes her and her friends and records her working. The filmmakers interview her male friends on the site, who worry about her. (I was told that migrant labourers such as this young woman is a recent phenomenon in Vietnam. During the war people would stay in their locality. With the liberalisation of the economy many people have moved to urban areas to look for work, and this has brought with it a number of problems.)
The film starts by following the girl into the construction camp, which is separated from the main road only by a plastic sheet which flaps in the wind. The construction workers sleep on wooden beds behind this flimsy sheet. We watch the hard physical labour extracted from this girl and her co-workers as they carry bricks and shift concrete. As the documentary progresses, we build up an image of a 16 year old girl from a very poor background, who has been forced to go to the metropolis to find work, to find the kind of work that’s far too physically demanding for someone her size. All the men interviewed say that things usually end badly for construction site girls, and they fear that she will be heading in that direction. At the same time, the documentary observes the display of affection between her and some of her co-workers. The way they touch and hold hands leaves this viewer, at least, a little concerned about what may come.
But the point is that the film doesn’t allow us to judge. Instead, it asks us to watch carefully. To this extent, Underneath It All reminds me of those contemporary independent Chinese documentaries that show us, with great astuteness, the lives of anonymous, ordinary people, especially the way that they turn their backs on techniques for manipulating cheaply emotional responses. There is no need to dramatise the difficult lives of people such as this young construction worker. The closing shot of the documentary observes her in dirty work clothes, resting on the pavement in front of the construction site. She sits on the pavement watching other well-groomed young women in short skirts and glamorous clothing walk past, one by one, and we can’t tell what’s going through her mind.
A few other striking documentaries observe the vendors who ply their trade around the Long Bien bridge. In Section No. 8 (Pham Thu Hang), the officials are constantly checking the vendors on the bridge and trying to drive them away. (Throughout this shooting process, the filmmaker was also constantly being driven away, as the vendors didn’t want to be captured on video. They feared that this would expose them to the officials.) Another documentary called The Mouth Gets Wet (Tran Thi Anh Phuong) is about a community of vendors under the same bridge. They didn’t want to be filmed either and were constantly shooing away the filmmaker.
Perhaps the most radical work in this group is the banned documentary At the Water’s Edge (Do Van Hoang). The film observes a group of elderly men who strip off and swim in the river around Long Bien bridge. These men believe that swimming naked keeps them strong, and they want to honour this old tradition despite the fact that it is now prohibited. Among this group of elderly swimmers is a young woman who swims with them in swimming costume. The film slowly reveals why she hangs out with these elderly men. She is a mentally unstable young woman who has run away from home, and now works as a prostitute. Her one hope in her sad life is to appear on TV to apologise to her mother for running away.
Like the other documentaries in the group, At the Water’s Edge focuses on observing the texture of everyday life of these swimmers, alternating with sequences interviewing them. This group of people exists at the margins of society, and whatever it is that they have to endure comes out slowly in the film – through silent observations, sequences showing small, incidental things, or the little slips that people make as they are talking. The film begins with an astonishing shot of the men swimming naked in the river, before gradually building up a bigger picture through the details that tell us that they are not mad. For them, this is tradition, and although it is now a banned tradition, they will carry on doing what they have been doing for decades. Then the film introduces us to the friendly, chubby young woman. The film observes her for a while, swimming with the men, before cutting to an interview with her. She eventually reveals her personal tragedy, but, like the Lab’s other documentaries, the film doesn’t end by inviting us to judge. All we can do is observe, look closely at the lives of these ordinary, anonymous people, and perhaps take note of the way that their suffering or fleeting happiness can ultimately be traced back to the bigger system that’s weighing down on them.
Hanoi Doc Lab members told me that screening films is no less difficult than shooting films. The state also exerts tight control over the exhibition side of things. In Vietnam, in order to screen films in public, exhibitors must submit a copy of each film for vetting before they can be screened. When Hanoi Doc Lab tried to show the Long Bien documentaries, they were prohibited by the censorship office with the reason that the films represent ‘an inappropriate image of the country.’ The control is less rigid if screening activity are held in collaboration with foreign embassies or international institutions. (This is one of the reasons why Hanoi Doc Lab organise screenings with the Goethe Institute.)
Hanoi Doc Lab’s momentum is tremendous. They currently hold regular workshops and organise regular screening events at the Goethe. Although the Goethe’s funding will probably run out in a few years time, I sincerely hope that the group will be able to continue their great work.
In my trip to Hanoi, I didn’t manage to come across old or contemporary home movies and amateur films that would have told me something about the lives of this city’s inhabitants. (Having said that, in a future blog I will tell you about the absorbing, otherworldly experience I had watching un-subtitled old propaganda films at the Vietnam Film Institute.) In a way, this long blog feels to me a bit like a home movie – a montage of fragments and re-recordings that evoke the richness of the time I spent talking, exchanging ideas and enthusiasms with the admirable team at the Hanoi Doc Lab.
We’ll be screening their documentaries during BEFF6. Meantime, you can follow their work here:
Translated by May Adadol Ingawanij
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