When the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam announced Ha Le Diem as the winner, the Vietnamese director was surprised.
Diem won the award for Best Directing at the world’s largest documentary film festival for her ‘Nhung Dua Tre Trong Suong’ (Children Of The Mist) last November.
“It was such a big surprise,” she says.
While most of the guests attending the event were fancily clad, Diem was in a pair of jeans.
On stage, the 30-year-old Tay ethnic girl from the mountainous province of Bac Kan thanked the organizers for giving her the opportunity to stand there with the film she had shot over four years.
Growing up in Bung village, Diem was exposed to literature at a young age since her grandfather, a primary school teacher, gave her many books to read. Every day after school children in the village would gather around Diem, waiting for her to read them stories.
Thus was born her love for storytelling. After finishing high school, she chose to study journalism in the hope of going to many places and discovering many interesting things to tell others.
But after working for a number of newspapers and television channels, she realized she was not cut out for the task with her quiet and introverted personality.
After taking filmmaking courses at the Center for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents and Varan Vietnam, a group of independent documentary filmmakers, in 2012 and 2016 she decided to become an independent documentary filmmaker.
This was a very brave decision because, though independent filmmakers have complete artistic control over their brainchild, they have to find their own topics, take care of their own finances and find collaborators.
Her first short film was ‘Con Duong Di Hoc’ (The way to school), which she made while still a student with VND2 million ($87.39) funding from TPD.
For the film, she would return to her hometown every weekend and climb up mountains and wade through streams to visit an HIV-infected woman who was raising her young son alone.
Diem in traditional Tay attire shooting for one her films. Photo courtesy of Diem
With just a camera, Diem would follow her into the forest where she would cut firewood and banana. Mother and son would eat a meal of just fried bamboo shoots with chili and Diem would join them.
The raw nature of the documentary helped Diem win the Vietnam Cinema Association’s Silver Kite Award in 2013 in the short film category (there was no Golden Kite that year).
After that she worked on a few other short series before starting her first feature-length documentary film ‘Children of the Mist’ in the fall of 2017.
The 90-minute documentary is narrated by Di, a 12-year-old ethnic H’Mong girl living in the northern town of Sa Pa. It talks about the clash between old customs and modernity in a place where children from traditional cultures have access to the outside world.
“I came up with the idea of making a movie when I followed Di up a hill to play and saw the children innocently play a game of capturing wives. Suddenly I felt scared thinking that in just a few years their game could become real”.
She began to go five or six times a year to Sapa to record Di’s life. But she did not just stand by to record incidents and instead dug deep into the character’s life though she did not know the H’Mong language.
With the camera on her shoulder, she closely followed Di wherever she went: to the rice fields to work, to school and weddings and funerals in the village her parents took her to.
What she remembers most from those trips was a time when she fell into a pit that had been dug by pigs when accompanying Di’s family to drink at a house up a hill.
She was plastered in mud. Di’s parents, both drunk by then, helped her out.
Halfway down the hill, Di’s mother blew a melodious leaf trumpet and her father narrated a story, and Diem was so engrossed that she forgot to turn on the camera.
Diem became a friend and sister to Di so much so that at times she was worried, even angry, when the girl started to drink and flirt with boys.
A still from ‘Children Of The Mist’ with Di (R) who was 15 years old in 2020
Di’s mother and sister married men who had kidnapped them as is fairly common in H’mong society.
Diem worries that her little sister will not have the freedom to choose the person she loves, in a world where customs still weigh on family, class, and poverty, just like the mist shrouds this place.
In the end, she married the person she loves after turning 17. She even has a daughter now.
“Di’s story reminds me of two of my close friends who also got married right after finishing 9th grade. I was very sad at that time,” Diem recalled.
At the beginning of her career, she faced a lot of opposition.
Lien To, her mother, strongly opposed her plan to quit a regular job at a major media agency. There were times when she even scolded her, but Diem just kept quiet.
Close friends also advised her to take an easier path.
“But there were also people who supported me,” Diem says.
A close friend let her stay at her place for six months while her brother lent her the camera, which she returned only after three years.
Tran Phuong Thao, herself a director and Diem’s teacher at Varan Vietnam, said when initially the latter told her about the idea of making ‘Children Of The Mist’ she had dissuaded her and suggested that she should instead move to television.
Diem told her, “Television is not suitable for me”.
During the first two years of filming Thao helped her but not as a producer and only as a senior mentor.
While working with her she realized Diem was very determined.
Diem recorded thousands of raw footage in four years. Her biggest difficulty was raising money to hire people to edit the footage, and transcript and translate the H’Mong language.
She contacted dozens of agencies asking for funds, but it was only in 2019, two years after she began the project, that she received her first grant.
This was from a Korean organization and it opened the doors for more funding.
After looking at the final product, Thao said it was truly Diem’s film since it reflected who she was.
For Diem, the best director award is the greatest recognition she has got in her fledgling career.
“From now on, the sponsorship process will be easier, which will enable me to chase after my passion even more”.
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