It was an enriching experience to watch the four films screened recently in Hanoi as part of the Film as a Cultural Heritage event organized by the British Council and the Vietnam Film Institute. The films are all excellent works: Virginia Heath’s 2014 documentary From Scotland with Love; Franz Osten’s 1928 silent feature Shiraz: A Romance of India starring Himansu Rai, a pioneer of Indian cinema; two Vietnamese films: Trần Vũ’s 1974 black-and-white classic Đến hẹn lại lên (We’ll Be Seeing Us Again), and Đặng Nhật Minh’s 2000 movie Mùa ổi (The Season of Guavas).
The films were screened for free on four evenings to packed theatres at the National Cinema Centre alongside a workshop and a conference that discussed the archiving of moving images in Britain and Vietnam. These activities were part of an ongoing two-year cultural project conducted by the British Council to help Vietnam preserve its filmic and musical heritage. Vietnam is one among a few emerging economies such as China, India, Egypt and South Africa that have been identified as those that may benefit from British expertise.
The screenings covered the documentary and fictional film genres and offered a vivid viewing experience of Shiraz in which a Vietnamese narrator translated the film’s written English narration orally. This experience effectively evoked the screening of films alongside live musical performances in the silent film era, reminding that cinema was a young visual art that partook of various arts that came before to create a total sensual experience. The films themselves provided enlightening snapshots into the different cultures where they were made, and along the way, raised ultimate questions about what it meant to be human.
Culled from thousands of hours of archival footage, the 75-minute From Scotland with Love is an epic portrait of Scotland in the 20th century. This film is set to a critically acclaimed original soundtrack which singer-songwriter King Creosote composed based on the footage he saw. Virginia Heath’s documentary sketches the working Scottish men and women who with their sweat and blood have forged a country out of a breathtakingly beautiful land. From Scotland with Love can be considered a counterpoint to German documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki’s insightful critique of cinema, Workers Leaving the Factory.
In this documentary, Farocki argues that throughout its 100-year history, cinema has simply reshot, with a childish fixation to immortalize an original pleasure, the first shot ever made by the Lumière brothers that features workers leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon. Cinema is a self-deceiving capitalistic tool that looks at things from the outside to control and make believe, always shoots workers after work, and whenever possible, hastily moves away from factories, never shows the hell that is inside, and the implications that may arise.
Against this context, From Scotland with Love offers a plethora of scenes about real labor. Scottish men and women are seen working hard everywhere: on the fields, inside the factories, at the docks, under the mines. Cinema, which originally cast working people as its object, seems to be reclaimed here. Workers’ strikes make up an essential part of this film. A dramatic sequence set to King Creosote’s powerful “Pauper’s Dough” song includes footage from the carters’ strike in Dundee in 1911, one of the first strikes in Scotland, and the 1919 Battle of George Square in Glasgow in which the British troops were mobilized to crack down on thousands of workers who fought for 40-hour workdays. Virginia Health’s work is thus a well-sung tribute to the documentary, cinema’s very first genre with its integral working class subject.
A gendered masterpiece
Though Franz Osten’s silent feature Shiraz: A Romance of India, which was restored by the British Film Institute, is also a captivating movie, it can best be read not as a tribute to cinema itself, but to another form of artistic excellence with less Western influence and more Indian authenticity: architecture, as exemplified by the Taj Mahal in Agra. With a dramatic narrative, Shiraz captures the gender dynamic that might have empowered the human genius that created the Taj Mahal in the 17th century. The movie opens with Queen Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the white marble mausoleum, being a little princess caught up in a bloody ambush. Her mother and followers are all killed.
A potter walks by and rescues her. He takes her home, names her Selima and brings her up. His son Shiraz, played by Himansu Rai, who founded the Bombay Talkies studio in 1934, grows up falling in love with her. One day, Selima, now a lovely young woman, is kidnapped by slave raiders and sold to Prince Khurram. Shiraz tries but fails to rescue her. He follows her to the royal palace in Agra. Unfortunately for Shiraz, Selima falls in love and marries the prince. Nevertheless, Shiraz keeps an eye on his heartthrob for years until she dies. Her emperor husband later calls for artists throughout the kingdom to submit designs for a palace to house his beloved queen’s tomb. Shiraz, who has turned blind, creates a superb model and wins the contest. Together, the two men build a masterpiece to honor their love.
Shiraz draws its gender dynamic with a fine brush. In this story, a woman exists in an inextricable relationship with men. Without an independent identity, power or overt talent, she nevertheless plays a vital role. She connects different kinds of men and drives them to heroic endeavors. Selima serves as the wife to a king and the source of inspiration to an extraordinary artist. The ending sequences in which the two men work to build the Taj Mahal with the queen now being dead and passing out of sight sum up this dynamic. The final shot shows the ultimate players in this great human stage: the aging king and the blind artist looking at their joint venture, a crowning human achievement that Tagore hailed as a “tear drop on the face of eternity”.
Giving voice to woman
Moving from India to Vietnam, through Shiraz to We’ll Be Seeing Us Again, one encounters a more feminine cinema. In Trần Vũ’s movie, the woman occupies a more powerful role: she herself is the artistic genius of Vietnamese culture. We’ll Be Seeing Us Again tells the story of a talented quan họ (northern folk music) singer named Nết (meaning “virtue”) living during the French colonization of Vietnam. This film features substantial quan họ performances in which groups of female and male singers deliver musical challenges and responses about love. Nết is forced into marriage with a rich French-educated man though she loves a poorer one with a revolutionary touch. On her wedding night, Nết takes to her heels in a highly symbolic sequence.
She runs away from the rich man’s house and throws herself on her dead mother’s tomb asking tearfully, “Where can I go now, mother?” This is as if, to borrow from the feminist scholar Gayatri Spivak, Vietnamese culture is on the run, fleeing persecution by the French colonizers and the local upper-class. Right after, Nết seeks shelter in a Buddhist temple, again begging a mute, stately Buddha statute in vain, “You understand human misery deeply, please have pity on me, please rescue me!” This profound religious tradition can’t protect her of course, because the husband’s men and dogs are following closely. Nết runs out and away again, toward the river. The film then cuts to a thunderous sky with the year “1945” written on the screen, heralding a stormy but brighter future symbolized by Nết’s lover.
Touching ode to memories
Fast forward in time and we move from this revolutionary optimism of Vietnam in the 1970s to the pervasive postwar skepticism that imbues Đặng Nhật Minh’s The Season of Guavas. If culture is rescued in We’ll Be Seeing Us Again, it is destroyed again in Đặng Nhật Minh’s film. Culture here is a man named Hòa, a kind simple man whose mind is arrested at the age of 13 after he falls off the guava tree in his family’s garden. This accident omens unbearable change that follows: his mother passes away, and his father, a lawyer under French rule, is forced to hand over his house to the new revolutionary government. Hòa grows up under the care of his younger sister into a changing materialistic world, works for a meager wage as a model for fine arts students, and often stealthily visits his old tree and house.
The Season of Guavas’ s slow pacing and understated characterization in which the characters for the most part speak softly and interact politely belie Đặng Nhật Minh’s stringent criticism of the erasure of culture and memories. Even a childlike man’s harmless memories aren’t allowed to exist. After being falsely reported to the hospital for his supposed mental illness and being injected with a high dose of sedative medication, Hòa completely loses his mind, unable to recognize even his beloved guava fruits. The guava tree in the old garden is also cut down eventually, to make way for more parking space. Everything and everyone must give room to change. One can reasonably guess that when Hòa dies, all memories will perish with him.
Here we come to face with the fundamental inescapable transience of life. As the staff of a Japanese film archive told filmmaker Phan Đăng Di, even though celluloid films can last for 500 years, and digital formats can live infinitely longer, there may still be extraordinary circumstances in which everything on earth, our digital footprints included, are destroyed. By its very nature, film is a time-based art, characterized by a time duration. It is thus futile to cling on to some impossible immortality through an inherently temporal medium. So the answer to last week’s conference’s rhetorical question, “What way ahead for Vietnam’s film archives?” isn’t so much how to preserve films through time for future generations but rather how to create public space to screen archival films to interested audiences at our present moment in time.
The screenings of the four above-mentioned films in Hanoi are a good start. Virginia Heath’s precious footage of hard-working Scotland, Franz Osten’s captivating vision of the Taj Mahal, Trần Vũ’s feminine portrait of Vietnamese culture, and Đặng Nhật Minh’s touching ode to human memories show such skills and insight that one should not treat them as belonging to the past, but as a present being stored away somewhere waiting to come out. Indeed, according to Lê Tuấn Anh, the vice head of the technical department at the Vietnam Film Institute, archival films at his place for instance are still being shown, but mostly within the institute’s compounds during relevant anniversaries. Thus, there seems to be much room to improve our screening of time-based art.