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the ethnography of compassion

jeni thornley: documentary in vietnam

Muddy Wooden-Ball Competition (2009), Vu Tu Quye Muddy Wooden-Ball Competition (2009), Vu Tu Quye

Its global reach was wide, bringing together over 50 recent documentaries and classic ethnographic films produced across Vietnam, Australia, Cambodia, Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Serbia, Thailand, Turkey, UK, West Papua and several African countries.

The energy of cultural exchange and shared consciousness is a significant quality that visual ethnography offers the documentary tradition. It is also a mode of filmmaking with a strong foundation in Vietnam and in its tertiary education. Vietnamese visual ethnographers are making films from perspectives within their own culture, not as observers representing ‘the other’
—perhaps as a consequence of having achieved liberation from French and American colonisation. Also, it is not surprising that many of the films are working through complex issues around tradition and modernity given the largely agrarian population and its multi-ethnicity—with over 50 distinct groups, each with its own language and cultural heritage.

A significant aspect of the festival was the in-depth discussion after each film. Often two hours long, these were insightful and philosophical, each film providing a doorway into culture, history, politics and society. I wondered whether this depth was connected to visual ethnography itself or Vietnamese culture and the education system. It is a rare film festival that allows such spacious time for dialogue; all too often the market place, the schedule and the sheer volume of documentary ‘product’ rule. Yet despite these open-minded discussions, censorship in Vietnam is a real issue, with some of the festival’s local and international films being banned or cut, sometimes at the very last moment. Nevertheless, the organisers stoically adapted the program in response to this state intervention.

navigating the old and new

The Old Man who Sells Bananas (2012), Tu Thi Thu Hang The Old Man who Sells Bananas (2012), Tu Thi Thu Hang
It’s interesting that Love Man, Love Woman (2007), by Nguyen Trinh Thi, proved unproblematic for the censor, while some other films became forbidden fruit. The film reveals intricate layers around homosexuality and gender in Vietnamese culture by following Master Duc, a gay shaman who serves in a ‘Mother Goddess’ temple. Here the filmmaker brilliantly observes the raunchy, transgressive sexual humour of Duc and his followers. In the subsequent discussion it was suggested that gay sexuality, contained within the tradition of ‘Mother Goddess’ worship, is accepted in Vietnamese society.

Tu Thi Thu Hang structures her film, The Old Man Who Sells Bananas (2012), so that the audience starts out with ‘her’ mis-perception of the Old Man. We see him as a victim too—he seems poor, elderly and abandoned. Skillfully filming with him over one and a half years Hang draws us closer into this man’s life, step by step—from lone individual to family man, to respected wise elder of the village with his Confucian ethics and responsibilities. In discussion the filmmaker describes her process: “Now I have a completely different way of looking at him.” (And so do we). “He is the ‘last man’ who lived in a previous epoch. In his 84 years he has lived through the French and American occupation, and liberation. He has passed through the main eras of Vietnamese history. He has applied traditional wisdom to develop what is an ethical way to live.”

Similarly, Xich Lo in the Ancient Town (2010), by Truong Thi Thuy Ha, explores tradition and modernity by documenting ‘Old Hanoi’ and the invention of the Xich Lo (rickshaw) by French colonists. In an elegantly concise 30 minutes the filmmaker documents the history of French occupation of Hanoi, and through interviews with Xich Lo drivers working today she introduces the viewer into their world. We learn of their sustaining cultural values, their philosophy. Her subjects are well chosen. They become cultural commentators, as if they too are anthropologists of their own lives and work with insight into the cultural value of the Xich Lo beyond ferrying tourists. As the carrier for Vietnamese wedding ceremonies the driver becomes the pivot between ancient fertility traditions of the marriage ceremony and modernity. The film, too, is a text navigating between ‘old’ and ‘new’, encouraging the cultural survival of meaningful tradition.

Muddy Wooden-Ball Competition (2009), by Vu Tu Quyen, also navigates tradition and modernity, in Van village, Bac Giang province. Beautifully filmed, with a luminous observational and poetic camera, the filmmaker follows this traditional ball competition to open up complex structures in village society and the place of elders, women and youth in a transforming culture.

the anthropological imagination

The festival demonstrates that visual ethnography itself is going through transformations from an earlier phase when the question of ‘who speaks for whom’ was less articulated. A genuine participatory, ethical and de-colonising filmmaking is now very much part of current practice internationally. Several of the films suggest a ‘post-ethnographic’ sensitivity, where the filmmaker-anthropologist is not a detached observer, but has a subjective resonance with their film that is often palpable.

Gary Kildea and Andrea Simon’s Koriam’s Law (2005) presents a thoughtful approach to the question of ‘who observes’ by filming philosopher-informant Peter Avarea, from PNG, in dialogue with Australian anthropologist Andrew Lattas. In their open and fluid discussion we become part of an inter-cultural process as the subtleties of the so-called Melanesian ‘cargo-cult’ are deconstructed. Koriam’s Law is also a fine illustration of Kildea’s definition of the ‘Anthropological Imagination’ as “simply to stop and think self-consciously about culture.”

For Ana’s Family (2012), Chinese filmmaker Longxiao Li filmed with an ethnic Lisu family high in the mountains of Yunnan to create his deeply intimate portrait of their life. Living with the family for nearly two years, Longxiao Li films alongside Ana, the child. The visual intensity of this film is heightened by filmmaker and family not sharing a common language—facial expression, gesture is all. This is observational filmmaking at its best; we don’t feel like voyeurs, but are linked to the family through the filmmaker’s patient, close presence. This is especially so with the child, who gives Li her trust; and we, too, feel this trust as viewers. In discussion I sense the filmmaker’s keen social responsibility towards the family; his intention not to exploit them. He wants the film to benefit their lives in some way; it’s as if filmmaker, family and viewer all become involved in some kind of shared exchange.

ethnography of compassion

We Want (U) to Know (2011),  Ella Pugliese We Want (U) to Know (2011), Ella Pugliese
The screening of Ippo Ippo (2010), by Shotaro Wake from Japan, provoked an intense response from the audience. Ippo Ippo is about resilience and transformation, posing fundamental questions about how to live. Shotaro films inside a cancer support group. Climbing Mt Fuji is part of their therapy. The main character is Marsha, a middle-aged housewife. But the filmmaker also has cancer and is a participant in the support group. He does not film himself, but the way he films Marsha is deeply empathic; it’s as if he is residing within the film on several levels. The audience cheered Shotaro as he rose to answer their questions; a powerful emotion swept through the theatre, embracing the filmmaker’s survival in a spontaneous outburst of affection. Shotaro himself wondered if the audience was perhaps also sensing him to be a representative post-Fukishima survivor.

We Want (U) to Know (2011), by Ella Pugliese, is a participatory documentary created with survivors of the Khmer Rouge period. Produced around the time of the Tribunal, amidst the painful process of remembering, the film reveals its own methods of storytelling and re-enactment, along with the potency of the children filming their elders. These participatory methods become part of a restorative justice process. The film develops as a work of mourning—a catalyst to transformative emotional change.

This festival is expansive in scope and intention—its notion of anthropological film also encompassing classic traditional documentaries, such as John Marshall’s Bitter Melons (1971). It is an auspicious beginning, for a festival that promises to become a significant biennial event for the whole Asian region.

International Anthropological Film Festival, curators Johannes Rühl, Dr. Bùi Quang Thǻng, presented by Vietnam Institute of Culture & Art Studies (VICAS), HCMC University of Culture, Department of Culture, Sport & Tourism (HCMC), Vietnam Film Research & Archive Center; Ho Chi Minh City, Nov 10-14, 2012,

Jeni Thornley is a documentary filmmaker and part-time lecturer in Issues in Documentary at UTS, Sydney. She was a guest of the festival with her film Island Home Country (see RT112).;

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 16

© Jeni Thornley; for permission to reproduce apply to

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