Fragment of a filmmaker’s work: Swann Dubus and Tran Phuong Thao
Since Workers’ Dreams, directed by Thao alone, you have co-directed your films. How did you meet and how do you work together?
We met at Cinéma du Réel in 2007 where we were presenting our films Workers’ Dreams and L. Ville. We saw each other a few months later in Saigon where I was running a workshop at the film school. We discussed cinema a lot and said that we could maybe work together. Thao studied in France with the idea of coming back to make documentary films in Vietnam, at a time when not much was happening over there in the field. I found the idea attractive and moved from Paris to Hanoi a few months later.
Our tastes and desires come together even though we are very different. Generally I film and Thao records sound, but we can change roles if necessary. Thao invests enormous energy in human relationships. She is very open, funny, generous. As for me, I remain more distant. I assume responsibility for the technical side of the shoots and Thao brings a more unbridled kind of creativity. She talks and I write... Everything we do professionally is the outcome of long and sometimes spirited discussions but is fully accepted by both of us.
Being a woman-man duo opens a lot of doors. For exemple, Thao can spend the night in the bed of Phong’s mother to film an intimate conversation, something impossible for a man. On the other hand, I can settle down under a tent with workers I’ve just met to drink a beer and have a discussion. They would be really ill at ease if a woman did that... The relationship between the Vietnamese and Westerners also plays an important role sometimes. Paradoxically, I have the feeling that being a foreigner is sometimes an advantage because it rouses a kind of curiosity. People we meet ask me questions about France, my family, my work... Which allows me to naturally do the same with them.
All your films attempt to follow or accompany a transformation or a process. You don’t judge, you don’t explain. The relationship with the people you follow is at the heart of the film. Where does the desire to make these films come from? How do you establish these relationships, this trust each time?
The desire to make a film always comes from the encounters we make and their form depends on the relationships that we build with the people we film. I am convinced that this desire must be shared with the people you film, that it has to be a pleasure for everyone to work together, even if we sometimes deal with painful subjects. At the end of the day, the films are as much ours as those of the people we film because we conceive and make them together. We don’t aim to deal with a subject, but to discover it through the personalities we film. From Workers’ Dreams to Pomelo, the characters always “taught” us to understand the realities they were facing. For example, for Workers’ Dreams, Thao would wander around the working-class neighbourhoods of the industrial zone close to Hanoi and she discovered its reality through two young worker women who guided her in this society to which she was an outsider.
For our first co-direction on the film With or Without Me, we did a lot of scouting in the provinces of North Vietnam, particularly affected by heroin and HIV. We met a hundred odd families until we found our two main characters, in Diên Biên. We decided to work with them because they themselves had a profound desire to make a film. We talked a lot about the representation of heroin in Vietnamese media. What Trung and Thi showed us in their daily lives was totally different from the spectacular clichés spread by TV or cinema... Reality was much more frightening because it was much more pernicious. Together we discussed how to film the slow and implacable process that leads from addiction to death. They told us: “Before we die, we are going to be the heroes of a film, even if we are negative heroes.”
The experience of Finding Phong was different. It was the film’s producer who introduced us to Phong. Phong was at that time a very shy, ill-at-ease young man. He was deeply unhappy and cried a lot. We first declined the producer’s proposal because we knew that it would mean as much making a film as accompanying Phong in an uncertain and painful process. In addition, we didn’t feel especially close to the issue of the transition of transgender people. We thought there already existed a lot of films on the subject and that we had nothing special to say. The producer finally convinced us by saying that through Phong’s story, we could also deal with subjects such as family, work and the question of gender in Vietnamese society. That seemed pertinent and we launched into this long-term adventure.
At the beginning, we didn’t know Phong very well and we didn’t want to be intrusive with our boom mike and big camera: we were talking about very intimate questions related to one’s identity and body. We then decided to entrust Phong with a small camera so that she could keep a filmed diary and decide herself what she wanted to show. In this way, we got to know her better through the rushes that she gave to us each week and through the discussions provoked by these images. When Phong’s transition started, she was in a totally different state of mind. She was so happy and lived these moments with such intensity that filming them herself became a hindrance: she wanted to live these moments fully, without having to worry about a camera. We then took a step forward and the images we filmed became more important than those of her filmed diary. So the film’s form naturally reflects Phong’s psychological and physiological trajectory. We started the shoot as simple acquaintances and at the end we were like brother and sisters. The form of the film also recounts the evolution of this relationship.
Pomelo is just as much a story of meetings. We filmed a neighbourhood being destroyed, but the starting point for the shoot wasn’t that. We wanted to make a film about the young people who come from the country to Hanoi to learn a job. Thao had noticed a hair salon that trained some thirty odd apprentices who came from all the provinces of North Vietnam. We shot for a few weeks in this salon and understood that we weren’t going to be able to complete the shoot because the entire neighbourhood was to be razed in the coming months for the construction of a ring road. So we widened the subject of the film by meeting a group of workers in charge of the destruction of the neighbourhood. As they came from the same provinces as the hairdressers, the two groups seemed to mirror each other in an interesting way...
On the construction site, the workers were at home. In the beginning, the workers and the “rag pickers” who are in the film were hostile to the idea of being filmed. They thought that they were doing degrading, humiliating work. Then Huy, one of the protagonists, said: “What are you ashamed of? Working to feed your children and pay for their education?” And the other workers also thought it was important to film what they endured daily in Hanoi in order to show it to their families and to other Vietnamese... From the moment they invited us to follow them, this space became a kind of open-air studio where we could film all the situations that appeared before us. It made us feel quite elated because this is a world foreign to most inhabitants of Hanoi. Similarly, in With or Without Me, we were invited by our drug-addicted protagonists in spaces where it seemed complicated to film (the bus station where they gathered or drug-dealing spots), but as they know the rules that govern these places by heart, we just had to follow along behind them to find a place in the setting and figure out what was happening. Paradoxically, it was a lot less complicated filming in these places than in institutions. The hospitals in Finding Phong, for instance…
Interview conducted by Christophe Postic.
Debates led by Christophe Postic.
In the presence of Swann Dubus and Tran Phuong Thao.
With the support of the Institut français in Hanoi and our special thanks to Frédéric Alliod.