Vietnam Documentary Film: History and Current Scene
Nguyen Trinh Thi

Vietnam is perhaps one of the youngest countries in the world with regard to their histories and traditions of independent documentary film production. After some 50 years of socialism that kept Vietnamese cinema under the wings of the state, independent documentaries only started to develop in Vietnam in the first decade of this century, a dozen years after the low-cost digital video camera and computer-based editing software began revolutionizing independent filmmaking around the world.

Although cinema was introduced to Vietnam (then a French colony) as early as at the turn of the 20th century—soon after the Lumiere brothers held their first public screening at the Grand Café in Paris in 1895, it was not until after Vietnam re-established itself as an independent nation in 1945 that Vietnam’s national cinema could fully develop.

In 1953, President Ho Chi Minh signed the 147/SL Decree to establish the Vietnam Movie and Photography Enterprise, making the official birth of Vietnamese cinema as a state-owned apparatus. With the end of the Indochina War with the French, and the division of Vietnam into North and South beginning in1954, there were two Vietnamese film industries, with the Hanoi industry focusing on propaganda films and Saigon producing mostly war-themed and comedy films.

Between 1956 and 1959, state-owned cinema institutions were established in Hanoi—the Vietnam Film Studio (later split into the Feature Film Studio, the Documentary and Science Film Studio, and the Animation Studio), the Movie Distribution Company, the Cinema Department, the Cinema Newspaper, and the Hanoi Cinema College. This institutional structure for managing national movie activities in Vietnam has remained largely unchanged over the last 50 years.

Domestically, Vietnam produced more documentary than feature films, and had established a local history of documentary production, with the Hanoi-based cinema industry focusing on documenting the Vietnam War. Between 1965 and 1973, for example, 463 newsreels, 307 documentaries and 141 scientific films were produced, in contrast to just 36 feature films and 27 cartoons. Films during this period include the documentaries Du kích Củ Chi (Củ Chi Guerillas) in 1967 and Lũy thép Vĩnh Linh (Vĩnh Linh Steel Rampart) in 1970, which included footage from battles.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, studios in the former South Vietnam turned to making Social Realism films, focusing on heroic efforts in the revolution, human suffering created by the war and social problems of post-war reconstruction. Well-known documentaries during this period include Pham Ky Nam’s Nguyễn Ái Quốc – Hồ Chí Minh (1975), and Le Manh Thich’s Đường dây lên Sông Đà (Electric Cables Upon Da River, 1981).

Outside of Vietnam, the Vietnamese documentary films until recent years were shown only in film festivals in Eastern Europe. Water Returns to Bac Hung Hai, for example, won the Golden Award at the 1959 Moscow Film Festival.

Social reforms in 1987, and the shift to a market economy brought about by doi moi (perestroika), dealt a blow to Vietnamese cinema, which now had to struggle to remain relevant in a landscape including video and television. With government subsidies sharply slashed, the number of state-produced documentary films sharply declined due to high cost of production and high risks of financial loss. 

Now a Vietnamese documentary classic, Tran Van Thuy’s 1985 film Chuyện Tử Tế (Story of Kindness, or How to Behave) symbolically marked the end of the post-war subsidy-period cinema and the beginning of the contemporary period.  Story of Kindness—which won multiple domestic and international awards including the Silver Dove at Dok Leipzig film festival in 1992—is a very rare Vietnamese film produced before Vietnam's socialist subsidy period ended in the late 1980s which did not cater to the usual official propaganda lines, but actually showed the independent spirit of a filmmaker. Thuy, as all other filmmakers of that time, was working within the state-controlled film system, yet he was brave to the extent of risking his own security to make a film that forcefully pursued the truth. Originally banned in Vietnam, Story of Kindness—which explores the realities behind the nationalistic slogans to reveal troubling scenes of Vietnamese life—was released in 1987 only after the intervention of Communist Party leader Nguyen Van Linh.

Tran Van Thuy (b. 1940)—who was trained in cinematography at Hanoi Cinema College, and the Moscow Film School under Roman Karmen, and worked for the Central Documentary Film Studio since 1977—has received widespread acclaim and become Vietnam’s best-known contemporary documentary filmmaker. His other award-winning films include My People, My Village (1970), Betrayal (1979), Hanoi in One’s Eye (1982), The Blind Masters Examining The Elephant (1990), and Tolerance for the Dead (1994), and The Sound of the Violin in My Lai (1998, which won the 2000 Best Documentary Film Prize at Asia Pacific Film Festival, and the Golden Dove Prize at Dok Leipzig).

Beside Thuy, another popular award-winning filmmaker of the Documentary Film Studio was the late director Le Manh Thich, who had a compassionate approach to his subject matter and created films that were filled with poetic imagery. Thich’s film Installing Electric Cable at Da River won the Golden Dove prize at DokLepzig in 1982, and Return to Ngu Thuy (1998)—in which Thich returned to a village where he had filmed the heroic wartime deeds of its women in 1971—received the best short film prize at the Asia Pacific Film Festival in Taiwan in 1998.

Films produced by the Vietnam Documentary Film Studio and other state-owned producers characterized the Vietnamese documentary films—with heavy voice-over commentaries telling the audience what to think; and sound rarely synchronized with the image.  For many years, these were the only kind of documentaries that the Vietnamese audience has been exposed to.  Most of the audience in Vietnam, therefore, do not know the differences between documentary films, newsreels, and scientific films and would perhaps view them equally as related to propaganda films.

Until as late as about ten years ago, documentary filmmaking in Vietnam had still been monopolized by the State with the Vietnam Documentary & Scientific Film Studio holding the central position. During the past decade however, initial efforts have been made to broaden the documentary filmmaking scene and capabilities in Vietnam. Independent documentary films started to be produced in the biggest cities in Vietnam—Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang—but still haven’t been widely accessed and recognized due to the continuing government censorship and control on a national level.

Below are the three most substantial documentary programs over the past decade in Vietnam:
  • Since 2004, Paris-based organization Atelier Varan has facilitated five documentary workshops in collaboration with state-owned cinema institutions in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang to train documentary filmmakers to make observational films;
  • TPD Center (under Vietnam Cinema Association, initially funded by the Ford Foundation): Since 2007, TPD’s programs have focused mostly on training high-school students to make documentary and fiction films;
  • Founded in 2009, Hanoi DocLab is a locally created initiative for documentary filmmaking and video art which has been funded by Goethe Institut. Through its diverse training, workshops and regular screening programs, as well as its editing lab and video library accessible to the public, the center aims to cultivate a new generation of Vietnamese independent filmmakers and moving image artists, while also encouraging the development of a local audience.
2007 was the year that marked the appearance of independent documentary films from Vietnam among the international film festival circuit. Those include Nguyen Trinh Thi's Love Man Love Woman—exploring the issue of homosexuality and gender within Vietnam's Mother Goddess Religion; and Tran Phuong Thao's Workers’ Dreams (produced as part of the Varan workshop in 2006)—which talks about the dreams of young women who came to the big city from the countryside to work for multinational corporation factories, which won the Pierre and Yolande Perrault Grant awarded to a young filmmaker at Cinema Du Reel 2007.

Since 2012, short documentaries produced during Hanoi Doclab’s workshops have been screened at various film festivals, including Hard Rails Across a Gentle River (a combination of four short films produced by Doclab) which won the Special Mention at Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2011, and the Best ASEAN Documentary prize at the Salaya International Documentary Film Festival in Thailand in 2012. Doclab films—with their personal and experimental approach of filmmaking—have also been screened at international gallery and museum programs within the context of contemporary moving image practices.

In 2013, Duong Mong Thu's Mrs. Bua's Carpet also produced during Varan’s workshop in Da Nang—focusing on a woman who recounts her experiences from the Vietnam War during which people in her village took different sides—received the Ogawa Shinsuke Prize, the top award in the New Asian Currents section covering films and filmmakers never before featured at Yamagata.

The new waves of independent documentary filmmaking in Vietnam, instigated by the above-mentioned groups and their workshops, are still fragile, however. Although film workshops and educational programs at Varan, TPD, and Hanoi Doclab have provided an important impetus in establishing the scene for independent documentary films in Vietnam, the local context still presents many obstacles against efforts to sustain these initial momentums, among which are the lack of distribution channels for such films and strong government censorship.

Television channels in Vietnam, for example, rarely commission or purchase independently-produced films for broadcasting. Instead, a small number of filmmakers have started to explore potential productions for international televisions including Arte, BBC, Discovery Channel, and other regional outlets as well.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) currently provide perhaps the most important client base for independent documentary filmmakers in and around Hanoi, while their colleagues in the south can rely more on working for fiction film crews or on commercial gigs.

However, independent documentary filmmakers should not expect too much from international TV channels and NGOs in the long run. Television channels worldwide have been and probably continue to cut or suspend the commissioning of documentaries. Respectively, as Vietnam now has just joined the rank of middle-income nations, donors will inevitably pull out substantial aid and NGO funding for the country in the coming years.

Film festivals—which in other countries typically provide a significant outlet for non-commercial independent documentary films—unfortunately do not provide such a role in Vietnam since all the film festivals in Vietnam, including the longest-running Vietnam Film Festival founded in 1970, are still largely government sponsored and controlled. Strong government control in Vietnam is still largely responsible for restricting local audiences’ access to independent documentary films.

In such a restricting environment, bottom-up efforts by local alternative spaces such as Hanoi Doclab and TPD in reaching out to pockets of viewers—though still limited to mainly include high school and college students, graduates, and urban artists and professionals—are extremely crucial for the development of both the individual independent filmmaker and the establishment of a film culture and a critical local audience for documentary films in Vietnam.

Other new strategies for independent films to find audiences, however, are already underway in Vietnam. Hanoi Doclab, for example, now release all of its films online using Youtube and Vimeo, as well as working with international and regional online and streaming video distributors with strong educational interests.

Another example— YxineFF, a non-profit online short film festival founded in 2010—also points out to independent documentary producers the same tendency: the increasingly undeniable presence of online film distribution. With a progressively longer string of sponsors including cultural foundations, private companies and individuals, the online festival—which places a stronger emphasis on fiction films, but also screens documentaries—now claims to have increased its number of views through its social networking pages from a million in 2010 to 2.5 millions in 2012.

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