Academy Delegation Ventures Out to Vietnam
In May 2007, seven Academy members traveled to Vietnam for eight days of film screenings, workshops, seminars and other exchanges with local film professionals and students. Their visit was at the invitation of the Vietnam Cinema Department, the country’s national coordinating body for the domestic and international film industry and part of the Ministry of Culture and Information.
Billed in Vietnam as “American Film Week,” the trip served as the Academy’s prototype for regularly scheduled excursions to countries with developing film industries. The objective is to facilitate artist-to-artist interaction and the exchange of ideas among peers in nations where such opportunities may be scarce – places where there isn’t already an ongoing, established dialogue with the international filmmaking community.
The film industry in Vietnam is very much in transition. Though the country’s communist underpinnings still influence virtually all aspects of life and culture, a move away from government financing and strict government approval of movie projects and content is also evident. Because privatization brings with it both tremendous opportunities and daunting challenges, the Academy members who made this trek returned with both enthusiasm for what lies ahead for motion pictures in Vietnam and some specific ideas about how the Academy might play a role in helping professionals there overcome some of their most pressing obstacles.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, documentary filmmaker Freida Lee Mock, producers William Horberg and Tom Pollock, writer-directors Susannah Grant and Phil Robinson, and writer-director-producer Curtis Hanson visited both the capital, Hanoi, which has a more conservative traditional culture, and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where capitalist energy and entrepreneurial spirit are found in abundance. The group was accompanied by Ellen Harrington, the Academy’s director of exhibitions and special events, and Carl Belfor, the Academy’s chief projectionist, who proved to be invaluable.
In both cities, films that represented the Academy members’ work were screened for the public free of charge, and Q&A sessions followed each screening. “Erin Brockovich,” “L.A. Confidential,” “The Quiet American,” “Children of Men,” “Ice Age,” “Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner” and “Field of Dreams” were presented, as was “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” in honor of that film’s 25th anniversary.
An unusual aspect of the screenings was how translation was handled. Subtitled films are not well-received in Vietnam, nor are those that are dubbed. Instead, when a film produced in another language is screened, there is a live translator – one person for the entire film – who, working from the film’s script, reads all of the dialogue for every character. Well, at least most of the dialogue, as Curtis Hanson discovered during the Hanoi screening of “L.A. Confidential.”
“Near the end of the film, just as the Edmund Exley character begins his explanation of the police department’s corruption, the woman’s voice from the booth suddenly stopped, becoming completely silent,” said Hanson. “Guy Pearce’s monologue went entirely untranslated. When he concluded his detailed explanation of the corruption within the department, the voice just as abruptly reappeared as though nothing had happened.”
When the film was over, the audience – not surprisingly – wanted to know what had happened during the untranslated portion of the film, and Hanson described it for them. He also took steps to make sure that the same thing did not happen when the film was screened in Ho Chi Minh City. “In response to my complaint, I was told that in Hanoi, they had lost’ some pages, but the pages had been ‘found’ and the Ho Chi Minh City screening would not have the same problem.”
Two members of the Academy group had previously been to Vietnam. Freida Lee Mock visited in 1997 to do research for “Return with Honor.” On this trip, ten years later, she felt the country had greater energy – and a lot more motor scooters on the crowded streets. As for reaction to “Wrestling with Angels,” the audience in Hanoi was perhaps less intrigued by the film than anticipated.
“In Hanoi, the theater was packed, but a large portion of the audience was young men,” explained Mock. “I thought that was rather odd, and as it turned out, I think many of those young men were expecting an action-adventure film. There hadn’t been enough description of what the documentary was about, or even just the fact that the film was a documentary. Several people left before the end and some of those who stayed were openly frustrated. A film about a gay activist and playwright was just not what they were expecting, based solely on a literal translation of the title. We learned from that experience and made sure that for the Ho Chi Minh City screening, the film was marketed differently and that the audience would better know what to expect.”
Bill Horberg spent several months in Vietnam in 2001 producing “The Quiet American.” He was struck by how much – and yet how little – had changed during the past six years.
“When we made ‘The Quiet American,’ there was so little infrastructure and so few people in Vietnam who were familiar with the nature of a large scale production,” said Horberg. “We were one of the first Western films to shoot there. Other productions had tried but were unsuccessful because there were just no efficient, reliable means to work with the government in planning and then executing what was needed. And having the government involved in things like approving the screenplay and exporting the dailies was daunting to even consider because it is so different from what we are accustomed to.
“Unfortunately, Vietnam has not yet gone very far in opening itself up and creating a uniform process for international productions. There’s no reliable, streamlined way to get permissions for specific locations or to be able to control locations for filming. And government oversight is still a factor that foreign producers must take into consideration.
“As for the country’s own film production, in 2001 absolutely everything was completely controlled by the government. Now there is a whole universe of entrepreneurial activity there. And the new generation of Vietnamese filmmakers is beginning to make films that would have been impossible before. ‘Story of Pao’ [Vietnam’s submission for the Foreign Language Film category in 2006] and ‘The Rebel,’ which was completely privately funded, are perfect examples.”
Though Emmanuel Lubezki had not previously been to Vietnam, he did see parallels between the current state of its film industry and that of his native Mexico about 15 to 20 years ago, when there were government-sponsored films and just a few independent, privately-produced movies.
“In the government-sponsored films, the Institute [the governmental agency involved] had a heavy influence on the creative process, including the choice of themes and directors,” explained Lubezki. Because the movies were government funded, the filmmakers didn’t have any real need to recoup the production costs. Also, at that time, the technical quality of the films was poor, especially the sound quality.
“All these circumstances made it difficult for most government-sponsored films to find audiences. But the other group of filmmakers, which consisted of film students and a newer generation of filmmakers – many influenced by the American cinema – were more interested in reaching larger audiences and creating a private, independent industry,” continued Lubezki.
“In Mexico in the late 1980s, it felt like we were at a moment of change. I think Vietnam is at that moment right now.”
Many of Lubezki’s films were familiar to Vietnamese students, unfortunately as a result of the rampant piracy – a topic that Tom Pollock was compelled to address with Nguyen The Thanh, vice director of the Service of Culture and Information in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Piracy is preventing Vietnam from establishing a truly successful indigenous film industry,” said Pollock. “I spoke with one of the most successful producers in the city, and he told me there’s no way to make money on films because as soon as they are released in a theater, they are available on the street as DVDs. And unless the government cracks down on the piracy of Vietnamese-produced films, there can’t really be growth that involves international markets.”
Though Lubezki’s work had been seen via black market DVDs, “Erin Brockovich” had played in theaters and on television. The film’s theme of fighting for justice resonated deeply with the Vietnamese.
“At both screenings, the discussion with the audience turned to the issue of Agent Orange,” said the film’s screenwriter, Susannah Grant. “And people in both cities asked if I would make a movie about that. I told them that I didn’t feel I knew enough about the Vietnamese experience to make an honest movie about the subject, but hoped very much that a Vietnamese filmmaker would make that movie, and I told them that it would be a film I would very much look forward to seeing.”
For the delegation, one of the most gratifying aspects of the trip was the ability to identify some very specific areas where the Vietnamese could benefit from some relatively short-term but ongoing interaction with and assistance from the Academy and its members. There is no desire to force American culture on Vietnam – merely to share some of the expertise that can help the film industry in that country to reach its true potential.
“All of us who went on this trip came away feeling that there were some relatively simple things that could make a tremendous difference in helping to move the industry forward,” said Robinson. “For example, very few films in Vietnam are shot with synchronous sound. The filmmakers told us that poor sound quality has tremendously limited their ability to market their films overseas, and that makes financing their films more difficult. If the Academy were to help provide training in this area, it could have tremendous impact.”
In fact, a second delegation returned to Vietnam in May 2008. This group included Academy Sound Branch members Clay Davis, Don Hall and Don Rogers, along with Robert Kennedy, a sound technician from Coffey Sound. They spent two weeks educating filmmakers about various sound recording techniques and practices commonly utilized in American productions.
The results of this relatively small-scale outreach effort are already evident in movies just shot, now shooting, or scheduled for production in the very near future. In fact, the Vietnam Cinema Department has indicated that all films being produced in the country should now capture production sound. Such a proclamation could not have been taken seriously prior to the Academy presented workshops, which focused on the overall role of sound in movies as well as the nuts and bolts of how to actually capture sound during production.