Hà Lệ Diễm: "Culture is the outer flesh that makes up a film."

Vietnamese filmmaker Hà Lệ Diễm's debut feature Children of the Mist is a name that has been popping up in the festival circuits and clinching awards since late 2021. Taking place in the town of Sapa in the northwest highlands of Vietnam, the documentary follows the journey of  Di, a Hmong pre-teen. Between the leisurely friendships Di has with her peers and tumultuous familial relations, Hà captures Di’s moment of reckoning with the imminent threat of bride capture (coj nyab in Hmong, meaning to bring [home] the bride, or zij poj niam, meaning to grab or to drag the woman). In this interview, SINdie speaks to Hà about her approach to documentary and the thorny issue of accessing, representing, and thinking about cultures.

How did you come to know Di's story?

There have been many stories about human trafficking, mainly women, across the border in the newspaper. At first, I visited Sapa on my own—I was there for more than a week, but I did not manage to speak much with the people there. While they could speak Vietnamese they were rarely forthcoming with me. I would say that it was difficult to approach them because the Hmong are still wary of people from the city.

A few months later, I took part in The Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE)'s programme 'Cụng, Đụng, Chạm' (‘Collide, Contact, Touch’) where I met Di. I stayed at her house as Di's father was a fellow participant. After the programme ended, I stayed for another few months. Initially, I only planned to film the childlike delight and simplicity that I observed, but gradually, I learnt about the tradition of bride capture from stories told by Di's cousins. They were apprehensive of abduction. For one, what apparently happened was that people came during the wee hours of the night and waited at the entrance of the house to capture the bride, scaring her into fleeing right in the middle of the night. Two or three days later, when she came back from her grandparents’ place, the boy’s family was still there waiting for her and had settled in as temporary house guests. Eventually, she was taken away.

I had also heard stories about girls getting kidnapped and tricked into being sold across the border. Where Di lived was very near the border, only two hours away from the Mường Khương border gate. There were also other stories at Di’s school. Between 2018 and 2019, one of Di's schoolmates was brutally murdered while on the way to school. As the distance from home to school for some of them could reach up to 10km, some of them opted for shortcuts—small, deserted, and thus less safe paths—despite being told to take the main road.

I went into filming with no clear conception of what the film would look like, nor did I have a script or any idea about the structure of the film. I simply followed the character for a period of time. It was only in post-production that  I began to think about what I was going to do with the footage.

Did you think about who your target audience was when you began shooting?

When I was starting out, I was very interested in making films about children that are also for children. I noticed that there were many films and cartoons for children, but it was not the case for documentaries. When I went to Sapa, I screened documentaries about how children in other regions go to school for the kids there to see. The film was an hour and a half long, with only English subtitles translated on-the-fly by me. At the time, the kids were not quite proficient in Vietnamese even. Still, they loved the film and sat through the whole thing without falling asleep. I suppose that films open up a space, a different world that is quite peculiar for children.

I still enjoy making documentaries for children. It is hilarious when I say this, because my producer and editor told me that my work is a horror film, not a film for children. They showed it to their pre-teen daughter who watched it from start to finish, and the producer immediately called me and exclaimed, "I just showed my kid the final cut today, she didn't fall asleep after watching it, thank goodness!" When the film was screened in the Czech Republic, there were some overseas Vietnamese who brought along their children. One boy was only in his teens and he did not fall asleep either. I thought to myself, thank goodness, these kids stayed awake.

Making a documentary often requires the character to have time for the filmmaker. The last time I went to Sapa, I wanted to make a film about the women there, but they were too busy and didn't have time for me. I realised that children have a need to share their worlds as well as spend time together with me. So, I love working with children.

You mentioned that while in production you didn’t know what the film would eventually look like. In such a position of uncertainty, what motivated you to pursue the project through the three years?

The first year was packed with fun. I went to Sapa around five to six times a year, up to a month each time. The weather was cool and pleasant. I did not shoot much then, only for around three or four days each trip, but I went out with everyone very often.

Di's parents took me everywhere, including to a funeral one time. Hmong funerals are lively. Those who wanted to cry, cried; those who wanted to drink, went outside and drank, laughed, talked freely. I did not bring my camera along, so people remarked, "Ah, you’re also attending the funeral, but how come you didn't bring your camera?" I really liked just hanging out like that and I also went to work with everyone. Whenever I wanted to film something, I picked up my camera, and when I did not want to shoot anymore, I left the camera behind and went down to the field to plant rice with Di's family.

Di's mother took great interest in dressing me, but the clothes were very tight, as she was petite while I was plump. She tried to stuff me in the shirt which made me look like a sausage. She made me wear the outfit to the rice field. After a few days, I couldn't breathe anymore: it was too tight. So I took off the shirt and wore only Hmong pants with my usual top.

Generally, Di's father likes to talk about cultural traditions. He explained to me that this village was established by a Hmong couple from China a few hundred years ago. The village was originally near a very large banyan tree on the other side of the valley, which he took me on a tour to. A few times when Di's father worked with iSEE in programmes about trafficking and kidnapping of women, he also invited me to come along. 

From 2018 onwards, when I saw Di grow up, I became more anxious for her. She was impulsive and liked to talk to friends of the opposite sex. At the time, Di's family got into some problems and the parents often quarrelled. Not being heard at home, Di felt lonely and was easily enamoured by the boys who lent her an ear, took her out, and bought her food. I was very afraid that Di would be abducted, especially because she was rather gullible and had a great compassion for people. Then, in 2019, Di was captured.

The film does not shy away from unflattering moments of the characters’ private life, such as arguments between family members. Is direct realism, though not necessarily reflective of the whole real-life truth, sufficient to justify exposing the less-than-pretty sides of "domestic affairs''?

I think it is very human. Mother scolding their children like that is everywhere, the mannerism is very Asian. At a screening in Taiwan, an audience member said that seeing Di's mother scolding Di reminded her of her own mother because her mother scolded her the same way. It was similar to how my mother scolded me back in the days. At a screening in the Netherlands, someone also mentioned the resemblance with her relationship with her sister. The scolding in the film comes up in a specific minority-ethnic family life, but is in fact very commonplace.

When I filmed, everyone was fully aware of the camera’s presence. There was an understanding that when people consented to being filmed, they would let me. When they did not, I would turn off the camera. Like when Di talked to Vang, there was a moment when she abruptly covered up the lens with her palms, signalling to me that she did not want me to film her anymore.

Before each shoot, I would ask Di and her parents if it was okay for me to shoot this and that, where and how I should position myself to shoot something. They would let me know for example where they would plant rice in the field. As a result, my way of working already implicitly let the subjects know what I would film.

International press reporting on the film suggests that outdated customs are in conflict with Di’s modern mindset. Do you agree with this claim?

I simply followed Di and did not intend to tell a story about culture or bride capture. I think culture is the outer flesh that makes up any film. Bride capture is part of the Hmong culture, so is the way they dress and make clothes. These elements of course would inevitably show up in the film. They constitute a space that envelopes the characters, affecting how they breathe and think. Culture is therefore much broader than the issue of bride capture.

When Di's parents first talked about bride capture, it seemed harmless. Di's father explained that it was an innocuous custom: in the past, when two lovers were forbidden to marry by their parents, they would drag themselves home and present the parents with a fait accompli. But when I heard stories from Di's cousins, I realised that it was not right. The girls were so terrified of such threats!

With my film, I just wanted to tell a story about childhood. Seeing the kids play, I wonder why I no longer have such a free imagination. Once upon a time, I saw the world very differently: I looked at a tree and I could imagine a house of dwarves. I then wondered when childhood parted ways with me and through what events people are made to grow up. I was led by that question during production. The same went for editing.

Most of the time you don't interfere with the story and let the events unfold themselves. But there are times when you intervene, such as your affirmative response to Di asking if you are upset with her. Do these moments infringe on your ideals of a documentarian?

My camera leans more towards the observational style; nevertheless, the characters are always aware that there is a camera and a person behind it. People still treat me as a human being and converse with me. The interaction is inevitable.

When Di was still at Vàng's house and had yet to return, her parents told me that they considered me as Di's sister, as their own child. They asked me to help Di and I agreed, in that I would help “drag” Di back. I help Di as someone whom her parents regard as Di's sister, whereas the filmmaker is not supposed to. At the moment, I thought to myself, I held the camera, but I was also a human with the right to my feelings and opinions. Many times, I disregarded the concerns of a filmmaker and went ahead with expressing my thoughts and sentiments.

The film ends with no definite resolution of Di's future. Was the decision to conclude filming entirely your own judgement, or was it partly due to other external factors?

I stopped filming more than a year after the bride capture incident when Di left Vàng. Afterwards, Di was enrolled into a boarding school in Sapa. I followed Di to the new boarding school and filmed her for another year. A lot of interesting things happened but they didn't make it into the film.

My starting point was to find out how childhood ends. In the film, Di's childhood has ended.  What follows will be like in Di's real life. I don't think the ending is unresolved; for me, it is already satisfactory. The filmmaker has found the answer for her inquiry. As for the subject, the filmmaker should just be a part of the character’s life.

Interview by Dan Tran
Translated from Tiếng Việt by Dan Tran
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