Producer/Director/Cameraperson/Editor Sandy Northrop talks about finding the interview subjects for VIETNAM: The Next Generation, dealing with restrictions from the Vietnamese government and America’s memory of the Vietnam War.
What led you to make VIETNAM: The Next Generation?
I lived in Hanoi, Vietnam from 1997 to 2001 and made two previous films there that used the Vietnam War as their springboard: Pete Peterson: Assignment Hanoi and Vietnam Passage: Journeys from War to Peace. These films premiered on PBS. VIETNAM: The Next Generation is about the kids born during and just after the war. While their parents’ lives will forever be plagued by memories of a devastating war, this generation looks forward. They, like the nation, have come full circle. This film completes my desire to tell the complete story of postwar Vietnam.
How and why did you choose to profile the people featured in the film? How did you meet and develop a relationship with them, and gain their trust?
I interviewed over 50 potential candidates, traveling from Hanoi in the north through the central region of the country and finally on to Ho Chi Minh City. I wanted to find stories that, when put together, would show the diversity of the Vietnam I had come to know. I needed to contrast the new generation of whiz kids and entrepreneurs in the cities with those who still work in more traditional jobs such as farming and road building. To round out the portrait I also wanted stories that would reflect the rich cultural traditions of Vietnam, to address the fact that it is a communist nation and also one of the poorest countries on earth. If they could speak English for my American audience that would be a plus, but not essential—I speak poor Vietnamese and everyone laughs when I talk—but I actually understand it fairly well. My assistant cameraman was Vietnamese, and he often stepped in to translate.
Before I took off on a four week-long research trip I collected suggestions from friends in Vietnam. Henry Nguyen, a Harvard-educated Vietnamese-American was on that list. All the other names were useless. I started from scratch. In Central Vietnam, the local people’s committee recommended a young landmine victim who was the sole support for her family. From the minute I met Phuong harvesting the last rice before a storm, I knew she would be a great story.
In Saigon, I walked the streets for three days looking for the right street kid to profile. In the city’s central market, I found Loan peddling lottery tickets. She said she had a brother. I asked to meet up with them later. I didn’t think they would show up. Not only did they show up, but they tled me down a back alley to their home which they shared with 20 other street people. Their level of concern for each other, the way the household operated and the depth of their poverty could have become an hour-long film by itself.
Building the Ho Chi Minh Highway had dominated the news for most of the time I lived in Vietnam. I knew it was a story I needed to tell—but who to tell it? I drove up to the many construction camps dotted along the highway in central Vietnam. I found Tien sitting in a decrepit shack filling out forms at a decrepit desk. With great pride, he told me about his job and its hardships, then pulled out a dog-eared photo from his wallet of his father who had worked on the original Ho Chi Minh Trail. Bingo! I had found my subject.
Finding someone to represent Vietnam’s rich cultural tradition was difficult. I went to Vietnam’s state-supported music conservatories and Tran Minh Dang best fulfilled my criteria. Through Dang and his wife Thuy, I knew I would be able to show a typical marriage, including the couple’s daily life and how there is an emerging middle class now in Vietnam.
What were some of the obstacles and challenges you faced in making this film?
You have to be both intuitive and aggressive when filming in Vietnam. You often don’t get to the truth until the third interview. Filming Dang, the music student, was very difficult. He agreed to be in the film then repeatedly never showed up. I thought I had worked this all out, and then he called to say that his dad was dying and he had to return to his village. With a tight schedule, I decided to return to the conservatory and choose another candidate. While sitting in the dean’s office, who walked in but Dang. It turned out that he was afraid that being in the film would imperil his chances of being offered a job at the conservatory when he graduated and, worse yet, might jeopardize his hopes for a future leadership position in the Communist party. Dang, like most Vietnamese, was only being polite. Everytime he said yes, he really meant NO!
In editing the section on Phuong, the farmer, landmine victim and single mom, I learned an important lesson. After leading with her loss in the first rough cuts, I realized I was giving away all the drama in her story in the first few minutes. Eventually I realized that the most effective way to tell her story was not to lead with the fact that she had lost her leg, but to set up the hardships of her day-to-day life, then let the audience see that she is a landmine victim without commenting on it myself. That way the audience is more caught up in the drama.
What was it like working abroad while making your film? How were you received in Vietnam?
Vietnam is a communist nation and still very tightly controlled. For the first two programs I made in Vietnam, I had to submit a working script for approval and was accompanied or followed everywhere I went. There was no blanket permission. Permissions had to be secured at the local communist party level. Most of the time the party officials just say “No.” It’s easier not to go out on a limb. I have learned to stage quiet sit-ins, returning the next day… and the next… until they just want to get rid of me.
But for VIETNAM: The Next Generation I had an advantage. The government liked the first two films I had made and now trusted me. They allowed me to travel throughout the country without a pre-approved script and without an official “minder.”
What impact do you hope this film will have? What was the audience response been so far?
There’s a simple phrase that is used over and over when describing Vietnam today: Vietnam is a country, not a war. I’d like Americans, especially our Vietnam veterans who still carry such painful memories of the war, to know that the war really is over and that a new generation is carving out a positive future.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Making independent films is never easy and there are many days when I wonder why I do it. But the answer is simple. Only by making my own films do I have the opportunity to depict the world as I see it.
I worked for many years as an editor on others’ films. About 15 years ago, I realized I no longer wanted to make other people’s statements. At the same time the smaller digital cameras made it more economically feasible to do just that.
Although I still hate fundraising, I love being a one-woman band and the chance to tell the stories I want to tell.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Pick a person whose work you respect and offer to apprentice for him or her. Be patient. Ask lots of questions. Chances are good that when a paying job opens up, you will be in line for that job.
Cameras are cheap now. Tape costs nothing. Start making your own movies and learn from your mistakes.
I’ve been making films since 1972, but it’s only in the last few years I’ve learned how to tell a story well. It’s all about storytelling. Audiences soon forget flashy camera moves and fancy effects. When theyıre rehashing the film over the dinner table, itıs the story they remember.