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Issue # 1427      9 September 2009

Vietnamese films for peace

Le Phong Lan, one of Ho Chi Minh City’s few women documentary makers, has devoted her life to capturing history and society on camera. Most critics agree that if Lan is involved, a documentary’s quality is guaranteed. A skilled scriptwriter and director, Lan used to work for the state-owned Nguyen Dinh Chieu Film Studio and has collaborated with many private studios and television stations. Though her works focus mostly on historical characters, they also include romantic scenes from daily life. She discusses her work and plans for more on wars in Vietnam with Anh Thu.

Anh Thu: Many Vietnamese, particularly youth, are indifferent to documentaries because they want something more entertaining. Some of your works are an exception. What is the key to your success?

Le Phong Lan: My job is very different from that of my colleagues working in film and television. My work is about portraying, not just filming. I would be nothing without real stories and real people from the past, present, and future.

Making a documentary is like growing a tree – both are the results of hard work and are useful for the younger generations. A quality film will improve the minds and knowledge of the youth, while a small tree today will become a big tree tomorrow and play a key role in invigorating our environment.

But young people mostly see beautiful flowers as being much more valuable than trees, because of their rough shape.

I’m lucky because my partners, including cameramen, sound and light technicians, and local and foreign history and culture researchers I interviewed during filming, are skilled and passionate. All of us share a love for making documentaries.

Anh Thu: Like Huyen Thoai Ve Tuong Tinh Bao Pham Xúan An [about legendary Major General/spy Pham Xuan An] your previous films were also very successful in attracting television viewers. What are the key factors that attract the public?

Le Phong Lan: Just the facts. All my works are based on facts I discover, research, and feel. A documentary filmmaker should select the facts carefully and in detail and put them into his/her work in the most simple and direct way.

In my documentary about the life and revolutionary activities of General Pham Xuan An, who worked as an intelligence agent for our country during the Vietnam War and a reporter for the US media, my staff and I tried our best to understand the history and depict it realistically.

During filming, we unearthed facts and myths that shed light on personalities and the silent contributions of the General, who died in 2006, and other Communist Party members.

Before making the documentary, I had little knowledge about war or politics. I spent two years writing the script, reading many Vietnamese and foreign books, newspapers, and documents related to events during the 1950s and 1970s, particularly after the Americans came to Vietnam.

Anh Thu: Do you have any advice for young documentary filmmakers?

Le Phong Lan: My 12-part series Legendary Major General-Spy Pham Xuan An was broadcast on Ho Chi Minh City’s Television Channel HTV9 in late 2007. Though I began work on the film in early 2004, I had dreamed about making a movie on An four years previously. I faced many challenges but I didn’t give up my dream.

I think only your love for documentary making would help you produce quality films.

Some of my friends and audiences asked me: “We saw your talents in documentaries featuring war. Why do you enjoy the topic so much?” I answered simply: “Because in war, you see love.”

I want audiences to care more for life and peace. I want youth to feel scared and say “no” to war after watching my works. Audiences enjoyed my film and shared my success. It’s quite enough for me.

To create a quality documentary, filmmakers should work professionally and constantly spend time on improving themselves. They also need to consider the facts and people from many perspectives.

Anh Thu: Some people complain that many talented directors care more about earning money from movies than producing documentaries. What’s your view?

Le Phong Lan: I don’t think money is a problem in this field. I also love making movies because the job is a result of creativity, imagination, and romance. I chose to become a documentary maker because I discovered myself through the work.

We should not care about a filmmaker’s way of creating something, but we should be concerned about how their product attracts and influences audiences. In my view, a useful work should live for a long time in the minds of audiences.

Anh Thu: What do you think about young directors? If you have a message for your younger colleagues, what would it be?

Le Phong Lan: Younger directors are luckier than my generation, because they have more opportunities to improve their knowledge and filming skills.

Documentary filmmakers like me should not ask audiences to value our works, if we give them poor quality.

Anh Thu: So how can we develop and support documentary film making ?

Le Phong Lan: Human resources. We need active people, who have good minds and knowledge, and professional skills.

They must be open-minded and skilful in foreign languages, so that they can obtain new information and adopt modern technologies from developed countries. Our industry doesn’t need authorities and artists who work in a conservative fashion.

I notice some state-owned film companies produce documentary films every year but do nothing to market their works. They should remedy this.

Anh Thu: Can you outline your upcoming projects?

Le Phong Lan: I quit Nguyen Dinh Chieu Film Studio and am now the director of the Movie, Culture, Sports and Tourism Centre’s southern office.

In my new job, I’m primarily involved in managing a new field. I’m working on three documentaries – on wars in Vietnam, of course, but from different times in history.

One is a long TV series on the Dong Khoi revolutionary movement among the southern people, centred in Ben Tre province in late 1959 and early 1960.

This month I’ll travel to the US and meet some historians involved in researching the movement.

I have also worked with Ben Tre Radio and Television Station to prepare for filming.

Anh Thu: How do you strike a balance between your work and family?

Le Phong Lan: Please ask my husband and two daughters.

Vietnam News Service

Next articleFilm Review by Andy Alcock – Balibo

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