Independent filmmaker Nguyen Thi Tham’s latest documentary Chuyen Di Cuoi Cung Cua Chi Phung (Madam Phung’s Last Journey) marks the first long documentary in her career.
The 90minute-film was among the short listed documentaries from Southeast Asia to be shown at an on-going documentary film festival in Ha Noi. It was also one of nine entries at the International First Films Competition held from March 20 to 30 in Pompidou Centre, Paris.
Tham spoke to Culture Vulture about his latest foray into the world of documentary filmmaking.
Could you tell us how the documentary was made? What is it about?
The documentary is the first long film I’ve made. It tells a story about a travelling troupe in the south. They travel to perform in the rural areas in the centre, the south and the Central Highlands of Viet Nam. Most of the travelling troupes’ members are gay and these troupes are popular in the south.
I started the film in August, 2009. At that time, I did not think to make a serious documentary. I borrowed a camera and spent my money making the film. I stayed with the troupe for about four months in total. I was both director and camerawoman.
Varan Viet Nam, an association of documentary filmmakers based in France gave me a little sum which helped me continue shooting the film. I finished shooting in October, 2010 but could not complete it because of a lack of money.
I decided to edit the film at the end of 2011. The film editing process is very hard work because the first version was about 70 hours. My French teacher Aurelie Ricard from the Varan association came to Viet Nam to edit the film for free.
Early this year, I went to France for post-production with support from the French Ina Post-Production Company. I tried to ask for money from organisations involved with the gay community and independent film producers. But they couldn’t provide it.
What motivated you to make the film? Does it focus on homosexuality ?
I knew travelling troupes when I was small living in a remote area in the Central Highlands. The troupes went to my area during the summer vacation or Tet (Lunar New Year). Many people asked me why I made film about homosexuality. But I did not intend to make film about that.
The most interesting part is the adventures of the travelling troupes’ unsettled life. The second reason was that I’ve always been keen to cover working class issues. Their experiences inspire me a lot, in particular their expression. Possibly, I’m from the same class.
You stayed with the travelling troupe. How were you accepted by the troupe?
It was fate. It is now difficult to find out travelling troupes in HCM City. Because they no longer exist in the big cities. They drift to the rural areas. Accidentally, I see some troupes on the road when I go to Nha Trang City in the south. I went to Phung’s troupe and waited for two hours.
Phung was glad when I asked her if I could stay with them while shooting the film. She wanted to make the travelling troupes popular. At first, I stayed and moved with them for three days to Phan Rang and Phan Thiet.
I think a lot about behaviour. But my sincerity convinced all the members. The relationship between all the members and I was nice. However, my presence was sometimes a disturbance. In particular, when the troupe’s business suffered, performers were very superstitious and they thought it was become the filming was unlucky.
At that time, I felt lonely and didn’t want to talk to anyone.
Your film was one of the nine documentaries featured at the International First Films Competition held in Paris. What is the thing you remember the most about film production?
Phung was the person who was most keen on watching the film. She died while we were editing it. That caused a lot of distress for a long time.
The film was among 144 selected from 2,700 films around the world. It was shortlisted with eight others to vie for the award.
It was a very precious time for me appearing in the big documentary film festival. I have ten days consecutively focusing on watching documentary films. It helped me know more about the global trends in documentary film making.
The film won the special award at the 2nd Chopshots – Documentary Film Festival Southeast Asia. It was sent to two film festivals in South Korea. I hope to sell it to the French television channel Arte. It has been shown in the 6th European-Vietnamese Documentary Film Festival in Ha Noi and HCM City. I want to show the film without profit.