DocLab – Documentary Film Studio in Hanoi
“For me “culture and development” means that people are provided with tools to express themselves, to be helped to think independently and critically, to be able to develop their creativity and take their initiatives.”, says Ngyuen Trinh Thi, independent documentary filmmaker in Hanoi. Thi returned to her home country, Vietnam, after spending many years in the United States, where she studied journalism and filmmaking among other things. Here, documentary films had primarily been a domain of the Vietnam Documentary & Scientific Studio, which produces films by order of the government. A free documentary film scene was practically non-existent, which was due to numerous causes: There was no access to work opportunities, production budgets and distribution channels, as well as to training opportunities, contacts to the international scene and knowledge about the development trends of documentary films elsewhere in the world. This was augmented by the pressure of censorship and the lack of interest of the general public, which equated documentary films with propaganda. So there were many different obstacles preventing a documentary film culture from developing in Vietnam.
The determination of filmmaker Thi to change this situation encountered the initiative, “Culture and Development” of the Goethe Institute, which had identified documentary films as a focus in the Southeast Asia region. Due to the fact that there was no institution available as a partner for the reasons already mentioned, they decided to select the filmmaker with vast experience and a knowledge of both worlds, the international scene and Vietnam, as the Goethe Institute's partner in this special case. Thi worked together with a group of filmmakers and artists to elaborate a concept for a centre for documentary films and video art, described as "a centre with its focus on education, art, research and experimentation". The name was suddenly there, DocLab, a lab for experiments and a Vietnamese play with the sound of words and their meanings, and the right place was also found promptly: in the building of the Hanoi Goethe Institute, as, due to the cultural agreement, this was the only place with free access and a censure-free area.
The DocLab opened its gates in September of 2009 and systematically began working on all of the weak points which Thi saw in connection with documentary films in Vietnam. Mediating experience with reception is essential in developing a documentary film culture and finding a public. Accordingly, a film library with must-see documentations from the whole world, which is accessible for filmmakers, artists, as well as the general public, was established at DocLab. DocLab produces translations and subtitles for the films – with a program that was written by members of the young DocLab team, - as an absence of foreign language skills often constitutes an obstacle for the public. In addition, films are shown regularly on a weekly basis and include documentations, as well as video art and experimental films.
Equipment, basic courses and workshops
Besides providing access to films, the studio also offers access to equipment: Cutting stations, cameras and sound equipment are available free of charge to filmmakers and students. Above all, though, DocLab offers qualification courses for beginners, but also at the advanced level. There is an average of 200 applicants for 10 spots in the basic course, an impressive figure which confirms the relevance of the centre at the same time. Very often, the participants are students and recent graduates in diverse fields of study, but they also include artists and filmmakers. “These young participants are truly hungry for learning, creating and expressing themselves through film-making”, says Thi.
The basic course generally lasts 3 months and mediates knowledge from all of the relevant areas of filmmaking During the course, the students produce their own short film. While doing so, they are supported by the team in Hanoi in addition to experts from the region, as well as from Germany. In line with the “Train the trainer” principle, young talent associated with DocLab is already moving into the pool of tutors which supports the courses with advice. In the meantime, DocLab has already carried out the 4th basic course and more than 20 films, viewed by enthused audiences, have been produced. No indoctrination films, no propaganda material, but rather personal impressions, viewpoints and critical looks at the students' own society can be viewed on the movie screen there. An unprecedented internal view.
Besides the beginners' courses, DocLab also offers specialist workshops, such as for sound production, post-production or for developing ideas and writing scripts, depending on the needs that have evolved in the course of time. This way, many a beginner has already taken several courses, thereby developing into a very promising filmmaker. They continue coming to DocLab, as a meeting point and a place where they can share with others in the field. A scene is starting to form, which is also attracting the attention of international filmmakers, festival managers, as well as cultural centres and institutes of higher learning – both from Vietnam and abroad. This way, DocLab has been able to build a dense network of partners who have been able to achieve a high level of fame within a very short time.
Regular screenings and Networking
Today, it is hard to imagine the cultural scene of Hanoi without DocLab. DocLab events promise a high level of quality and always bring with them a fresh wind of something novel, controversial, stimulating. The screenings have gained a regular public, are attracting more and more young Vietnamese to a place where they may ask questions, are invited to think critically and discuss with like-minded individuals.
Abroad, too, films from DocLab are representing the independent documentary film scene of Vietnam at international film festivals such as Yamagata, Oberhausen and Visions du Réel and convincing people with a very personal view of Vietnam and its problems, which is of universal relevance at the same time. DocLab productions have already been awarded numerous prizes. Due to her excellent contacts, Thi is irreplaceable in networking with the Southeast Asia region and international experts.
Another stage of networking began in 2012 as a result of the collaboration with the regional documentary film project, DocNet Southeast Asia, which is supported by the EU: Coordination of DocNet Southeast Asia is headquartered in the Hanoi Goethe Institute and DocLab is an indispensable partner with its film productions and as a training centre. A rewarding partnership for both parties: The initiative supported by the EU, which aims to network filmmakers from Southeast Asia and improve conditions for documentary filmmakers, offers the DocLab students a platform for intercultural exchange and the opportunity to present their films at a regional documentary film festival, which will be taking place in Jakarta in November 2012 for the first time. On the other hand, DocLab is providing young talent for the network.
Besides the three employees, two of whom started out at DocLab in the basic course and who provide support for workshops, the film library, website and screenings in addition to carrying out their own film projects, a small production team has also formed, which carries out orders from other institutions and NGOs. Therefore, both the conceptual and operative processes are entirely in the hands of young Vietnamese filmmakers.
Despite considerable resistance, Thi and a small group of Vietnamese filmmakers and artists have succeeded in building a centre step by step with the help of the Goethe Institute which provides training and promotes exchange in the area of documentary films besides having produced a community of committed young filmmakers who are increasingly networked with the international scene, thereby pushing open a door to the world for Vietnamese documentary films.