The audience cheered and clapped as the screen faded to black at a cinema in Hanoi.
The applause was not for a sold-out Hollywood blockbuster, a Vietnamese action movie or a tear-jerking romance.
This time, the audience was cheering for Finding Phong, the first independent Vietnamese documentary to be screened in the country's top cinema chains.
This marks a milestone for the independent documentary making industry in Vietnam, where such filmmakers have struggled to find support as well an audience that typically thinks documentaries are stuff you watch on TV for a few minutes before switching channels.
Finding Phong premiered on October 2 in HCMC.
More than 200 people showed up to meet Phong, a transgender person who underwent male-to-female surgery in Thailand to achieve her dream of becoming a woman.
Very few of them are likely to have known that it took four years for Finding Phong to be screened in Vietnam’s cinemas, although it was very much a movie made in the country.
“We brought the film to major cinemas in the country, but they refused to screen it. They said it would not attract an audience,” said Tran Phuong Thao, who co-directed the film with her French husband Swann Dubus.
Thao was referring to 2015. The film had been finished in 2014 and she was looking for a way to have it reach the masses.
“The cinemas weren’t wrong. They needed to get something back for screening a movie. Who’s going to cover all the cinema costs if no one pays for tickets?” Thao told VnExpress International.
Thao’s struggle is not new for Vietnamese independent filmmakers. The latest edition of this story is one that goes back to 2004.
History and prejudice
2004 is considered a landmark year for independent documentary making in Vietnam because the first “Varan” filmmaking course in the country was launched then.
Varan is a documentary style originating in France that focuses on capturing the nature of events and people without filmmakers’ direct interference.
The courses opened a new chapter in Vietnam’s documentary history, which had been dominated until then by government-funded propaganda films.
But the first Vietnamese independent documentary filmmakers soon found out that their movies, despite being made with a lot of passion, could not attract an audience.
Vietnamese audiences have a prejudice against documentaries and are reluctant to see them, said Bui Thac Chuyen, the first Vietnamese filmmaker to win an award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival Cinéfondation, a foundation dedicated to support young creators worldwide.
“They think of documentaries as old war films funded by the government for propaganda. They don’t think it’s worth their time,” Chuyen told VnExpress International.
Therefore, documentaries are typically screened only in cultural centers in Hanoi and HCMC for a small audience. Even annual documentary festivals are attended by a limited number of viewers, no match for entertaining Hollywood movies that dominate cinemas.
The small audience image also meant that cinemas and production companies invest more in screening Hollywood films, ignoring documentary projects that also require financial support, Chuyen said.
Nguyen Tran Khanh, a representative of Blue Production, the partner company in releasing Finding Phong, explained the viewing habits of most Vietnamese when he said: “They assume that documentaries are meant to be watched on television, and they only know documentary films via awards, not commercial distribution.”
Tran Thanh Hien, an independent director and former instructor at documentary center Hanoi DocLab, said most independent documentary filmmakers have to seek funding outside the country.
“Filmmakers usually have to find financial support from international film festivals in Asia or Europe. There is very limited support from Vietnam,” said Hien.
Although the government-funded Studio for Documentary & Scientific Film offers funding, it is only for members of this organization who usually make government-ordered documentaries, he said.
“The lack of finance forces filmmakers to take up side projects to make a living, creating more challenges in the already difficult filmmaking process,” Hien added.
Before Finding Phong, another documentary had garnered public attention. In 2014, Madam Phung’s Last Journey, a film about a drag queens performance group directed by Nguyen Thi Tham, marked the first time that a documentary was screened in a cinema in Vietnam.
The film was at first independently distributed by Blue Production at cultural centers, said Khanh. As it attracted lots of public attention, Madam Phung’s Last Journey was later shown in two cinemas in Ho Chi Minh City and one cinema in Da Nang City.
But Finding Phong has taken another, bigger step in getting documentaries to the general public as it was screened at the country’s top cinema chains in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
“It is a milestone when the distributor can negotiate with the cinemas,” said co-director Thao.
The film has come out when the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in Vietnam is finding its voice, another breakthrough in a country where sex and gender orientations are still taboo topics not openly discussed.
The year the film was completed, 2014, was also when the first VietPride event was organized. This annual event now gathers thousands of people marching for the rights of the often ostracized community.
While Finding Phong was being screened at international film festivals in 2015, Vietnam’s main legislative body, the National Assembly, approved a law that allows transgender people to change their legal gender identity.
In the revised Marriage and Family Law that took effect on January 1, 2015, the article prohibiting "same sex marriage" was removed.
Even Vietnamese film authorities have supported Finding Phong by giving it the P rating, suitable for all ages, although the film has “sensitive” scenes showing pictures of human sexual organs.
‘Quality, not category’
But there are other aspects of Finding Phong that have kept the audience interested.
The film, released on October 12, 2018, has been assigned screening slots in cinema throughout October.
“Finding Phong is a very good film. It blurs the border between a documentary and a feature film and shows that the value of a work of art lies in its quality, not category,” said Pham Thu Hang, an independent documentary filmmaker.
To a transgender person, coming out and convincing family members of his or her desire to change sex is an extremely difficult task, given the social norms and prejudices in the country.
In Finding Phong, however, Phong’s optimistic and lively personality generates a positive vibe. The characters’ natural dialogues and Phong’s excitement when discovering the feminine changes in her body add to the optimistic feel.
Thao and her husband Dubus have also included Phong’s own video journals, which capture her most personal thoughts, expressed in imaginary conversations with her mother, the person who was most difficult for Phong to persuade.
“Transgender is a good topic, but the way the filmmakers crafted the film was even better. It touches the audience’s emotions. It touches my emotion,” said Hang.
The film made its international debut at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema (BAFICI) in 2015. In the following two years, it won six international prizes, including the Grand Prix at the 2015 Jean Rouch International Film Festival and Official Selection at the 2015 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.
Hang, whose debut feature has recently been premiered at the DMZ International Documentary Film Festival in South Korea, is confident that Vietnamese audience will learn to appreciate good documentaries because of Finding Phong.
“Most of them just haven’t seen a good film yet,” she said.
Chuyen was also optimistic about the future of independent documentaries in Vietnam. "When people pay to see a documentary, the filmmakers will be more motivated to pursue their path."
“Finally, people have started to notice Vietnamese documentaries,” he added.
Hien said he believes that the film will be a good first step for documentaries to reach the general audience.
Cinemas will also see that there are good values of showing a documentary. “They might screen more films in that category for this reason, even though they won’t make much profit from those films,” he said.
“Finding Phong will set a good premise. Viewers will see that they can learn more from a documentary than a regular Hollywood movie.”
Story by Dat Nguyen, Bao Ngoc