Diem won Best Direction at the world’s largest documentary film festival for his ‘Nhung Dua Tre Trong Suong’ (Children Of The Mist) last November.
“It was such a big surprise,” she says.
While most of the guests at the event were fancifully dressed, Diem wore jeans.
On stage, the 30-year-old girl of Tay ethnicity from the mountainous province of Bac Kan thanked the organizers for giving her the opportunity to stand there with the film she had been shooting for four years.
Growing up in the village of Bung, Diem was exposed to literature from an early age as her grandfather, an elementary school teacher, gave her many books to read. Every day after school, the children of the village would gather around Diem, waiting for her to read them stories.
After graduating from high school, she chose to study journalism in hopes of going to many places and discovering many interesting things to tell others.
But after working for a number of newspapers and TV stations, she realized she wasn’t cut out for the job with her quiet, introverted personality.
After taking film courses at the Cinema Talent Assistance and Development Center and at Varan Vietnam, a group of independent documentarians, she decided in 2012 and 2016 to become an independent documentary filmmaker.
It was a very courageous decision because, while independent filmmakers have complete artistic control over their idea, they must find their own subjects, manage their own finances and find collaborators.
Her first short film was ‘Con Duong Di Hoc’ (The Way To School), which she made while still a student with 2 million VND ($87.39).
For the film, she returned to her hometown every weekend and climbed mountains and waded through streams to visit an HIV-infected woman who was raising her young son on her own.
Diem in traditional Tay attire shooting for one of his films. Photo courtesy of Diem
With just a camera, Diem would follow her into the forest where she would cut firewood and bananas. The mother and son were eating a meal of bamboo shoots just fried with chilli and Diem joined them.
The raw nature of the documentary helped Diem win the Vietnam Cinema Association’s Silver Kite Award in 2013 in the short film category (there was no Golden Kite that year).
After that, she worked on a few more short series before starting her first feature documentary “Children of the Mist” in the fall of 2017.
The 90-minute documentary is narrated by Di, a 12-year-old ethnic H’Mong girl living in the northern city of Sa Pa. It is about the clash between ancient customs and modernity in a place where children traditional cultures have access to the outside world.
“I got the idea to make a movie when I followed Di up a hill to play and saw the kids innocently playing a game of bride-catching. thinking that in a few years their game could become real”.
She started going to Sapa five or six times a year to record Di’s life. But she didn’t just record incidents and instead dug deep into the character’s life despite not knowing the H’Mong language.
With the camera on her shoulder, she closely followed Di wherever she went: to the rice fields to work, to school, to weddings and funerals in the village where her parents took her.
What she remembers most from those trips is one time she fell into a pit dug by pigs while accompanying Di’s family for a drink in a hilltop house.
She was covered in mud. Di’s parents, both drunk at the time, helped her.
Halfway up the hill, Di’s mother blew a melodious leaf trumpet and her father told a story, and Diem was so engrossed that she forgot to turn on the camera.
Diem became such a friend and sister to Di that she was sometimes worried, even angry, when the girl started drinking and flirting with the boys.
A photo from ‘Children Of The Mist’ with Di (R) who was 15 in 2020
Di’s mother and sister married men who had kidnapped them, which is quite common in H’Mong society.
Diem worries that his little sister doesn’t have the freedom to choose the person she loves, in a world where customs still weigh down on family, class and poverty, just as the mist shrouds this place.
In the end, she married the person she loves after turning 17. She even has a daughter now.
“Di’s story reminds me of two of my close friends who also got married right after finishing 9th grade. I was very sad at that time,” Diem recalled.
Early in her career, she faced a lot of opposition.
Lien To, her mother, strongly opposed her plan to quit a regular job at a major news agency. There were times when she even scolded her, but Diem was silent.
Close friends also advised him to take an easier path.
“But there were also people who supported me,” Diem says.
A close friend let her stay at home for six months while her brother lent her the camera, which she only returned after three years.
Tran Phuong Thao, herself a director and teacher of Diem in Varan Vietnam, said that when the latter initially told her about the idea of making “Children Of The Mist”, she talked her out of it and suggested that she pass. rather on television.
Diem told him, “TV doesn’t suit me.”
During the first two years of filming, Thao helped her, but not as a producer and only as a senior mentor.
Working with her, she realized that Diem was very determined.
Diem recorded thousands of raw footage in four years. His biggest challenge was raising funds to hire people to edit the footage, transcribe and translate the H’Mong language.
She contacted dozens of agencies to apply for funds, but it wasn’t until 2019, two years after launching the project, that she received her first grant.
it was from korean organization and that opened the doors to more funding.
After watching the final product, Thao said it was really Diem’s movie because it reflected who she was.
For Diem, the Best Director award is the biggest recognition she has achieved in her budding career.
“Now the sponsorship process will be easier, which will allow me to pursue my passion even more.”