Documentary filmmaker has passion for fashion

September 25, 2007

Documentary filmmaker has passion for fashion





Nguyen Hai Anh is one of the few female directors in Viet Nam and has lensed 40 documentaries for HCMCity Television. Thu Huong talks to her about her latest, a five-part series on traditional costume.

Inner Sanctum: How did you become a documentary director?

I was the second runner-up in the entrance examination into Ha Noi College of Drama and Cinema when I was 17 years old. One year later, I won a scholarship for a seven-year-programme at Sankt Petersburg Institute for Theatre and Cinema. After having successfully gained my master degree, I spent three years working for Sankt Petersburg Television. I officially started working as a documentary director for TFS in 2000 after one year of unpaid co-operation with the studio.

Several months later, I was astounded when the Viet Nam Cinema Association’s Festival honoured me with its Silver Kite Award (the festival does not have a gold prize) for my documentary entitled Teacher Nguyen Van Xuan. What surprised me most was that TFS had submitted my work without letting me know about it. Admittedly, the documentary hadn’t been made in anticipation of entering that contest. Right after the documentary was screened, Xuan and his four-member family, who all suffered from mental illness, received help from philanthropists nationwide. This incident has strongly proved the great value brought by documentary filmmaking and has fuelled my desire to devote my entire life and career to this film genre.

Inner Sanctum: What ignited your curiosity for your documentary on Viet Nam costume history since the Hung King period?

Fashion is my special interest. I remember that at every party that I attended while I was studying abroad, my traditional Vietnamese dresses always attracted great admiration from my foreign friends. And I was further inspired when I saw how the traditional ao dai has been promoted for the past 10 years. Admittedly, I started searching for information and writing script five years ago.

Inner Sanctum: Could you give a brief introduction about its content, production procedure and the current filming process?

The desire to discover and record true representations of real objects and to provide information related to costume culture of Vietnamese people over the generations at a popular level, both directly and indirectly, has given birth to the documentary. It could be said that the film will present a general yet interesting panorama of Viet Nam’s unique and ancient arts and fine arts. On top of that, the work will examine currents that have had a great effect on cultural exchange in the country’s modern and ancient society.

We began filming in March of 2007, and at this point we have completed 80 per cent of our work. We will finish the initial process by October, and we expect to have a final product by early next year. The documentary’s anticipated release date is next summer.

Inner Sanctum: What makes In search of Vietnamese Costume differ from your other work?

This documentary is my brainchild and a labour of love as well. It has also been the cause of my worst headaches! I’ve never needed to travel so much and so far to collect information for filming. And for the first time, I sometimes become discouraged due to exhaustion and homesickness. Admittedly, producing a TV series requires female directors to be in good health and demands a great deal of flexibility. Filming this documentary has really been the biggest challenge I’ve ever had to overcome.

Inner Sanctum: Your name has always been associated with short documentaries, which normally last no more than 20 minutes. Why did you choose to develop this film into a TV-series? Is it a way of renewing yourself?

I don’t think changing screening time is a method to renew my work. It should be the topic and how I choose to deal with that topic that helps to renew me. Both the 20 minute documentaries and the five episode film, each episode lasts about 20 minutes, need new elements. I never cling to any special theme and I hate using familiar techniques while creating new films. Each documentary is a new creation and I encounter new challenges, which I find really motivating.

Inner Sanctum: You’re considered an investigator of Vietnamese folk and traditional culture. Why are you so interested in such topics?

Several people say that I always succeed with films which aim to paint human portraits, whereas some others conclude that I’m most successful at folklore. In fact, I never stick to anything in particular (as I’ve mentioned above). The reason is very simple. If I find a character or topic that is worthy of a documentary and can bring true social benefits, I will definitely use that character or topic. Moreover, I love investigating things that grab my attention even though I haven’t got a clue what to make of it. That’s the reason the themes I choose to explore tend to vary and differ from each other. This film isn’t an exception. Fashion has always been a passion of mine, since early childhood. I love it, however, I knew nothing about it. That’s why I decided to study it.

Inner Sanctum: Clothing habits are true expressions of culture. Have you ever thought that you’re being too ambitious by deciding to intertwine all the various dress cultures of a nation over the course of 4,000 years of complicated history in a TV series?

If I decide to do something, I am determined to complete the task at all costs. If I fall in love with something, I’ll love it wholeheartedly until the end. As a result, sometimes when I look back on my work, I realise that the theme that I chose to film was really a great hardship. I think I’m a bit bold. Anyway, we’ve already made it to over the half way mark of the filming process.

Inner Sanctum: What do you think are advantages and disadvantages of being a female director?

Flexibility, gentleness, and patience are the most striking advantages that female directors have over their male counterparts, especially when they have to interact with difficult partners or unapproachable topics. As a documentary-maker, I have to depend largely on my relationships in the real world in addition to observing my crew. For instance, while filming a documentary on espionage, I hunted for information from all possible sources and also tried to contact many different VIPs. Having a chance to talk with them would have been a problem if I hadn’t been flexible and patient, and successfully persuading military officials to provide information or interviews is very tough work! So there are those advantages. To successfully tackle difficult topics, a female director must also be determined and strong-willed, two characteristics that are associated with the male personality. Furthermore, female directors often have tighter schedules because of their womanly role in the family, not to mention they often have poorer stamina than their male co-workers.

Inner Sanctum: Which qualities do you think any documentary director must have?

Documentary-makers and certainly anyone working with any kind of social science should have a warm-heart and a sincere attitude. Their work must be based on good intentions for the work to contribute to vast or permanent social changes. Directing is a job consisting of collective arts, hence, it requires that the director have a comprehensive knowledge of many other kind of arts like dancing, theatrical art or photography. The most important quality in a director is a willingness to constantly update his/her social knowledge so that their work won’t die young.

Inner Sanctum: What’s your latest plan for the future?

Well, that’s my secret. I love randomness and surprising other people so could I keep it to myself? — VNS

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