Rain Only Falling,an experimental documentary film on Nhan Van-Giai Pham literary movement of 1950s’ and its legacy of dissent in Vietnamese art
Submitted by Nguyen Trinh Thi
“I walk on
seeing no street
seeing no house
Only rain falling
upon the color of red flags.”
(Tran Dan, 1956)
Brief Project Summary
This proposal is for the researching and making of “Rain Only Falling”, an experimental documentary film about Nhan Van-Giai Pham – the suppressed literary movement of the 1950s and the only instance of widespread intellectual dissidence ever to occur in North Vietnam - and its legacy of dissent in Vietnamese art over the past five decades.
Background of Project
For the last several months, I have started to research and document the survived poets of Nhan Van-Giai Pham (Humanism and Works of Beauty), a literary movement in the late-1950s demanding freedom of expression for Vietnamese writers and artists that was soon suppressed by the Communist Party and state. While some of the founders spent years in jail, others lost their right to publish for three to four decades; a generation of avant-garde artists who promised to revolutionize Vietnamese poetry and the arts was lost. This intellectual dissident movement, starting even before China’s Hundred Flowers Campaign, can be considered the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, and thus far the most important one in Vietnam.
The year 1956 was one of upheaval for the nascent socialist state in North Vietnam. Not only was the countryside in disarray, but no sooner was land reform ended than the campaign to reeducate the capitalists plunged the cities into fear. The whole country was in turmoil, and the atmosphere was stoked by a series of developments that comprised the only instance of widespread intellectual dissent ever to occur in North Vietnam. Commonly referred to as the Nhan Van-Giai Pham period, the interlude received its name from two short-lived periodicals in which poets and intellectuals voiced their concerns and criticisms of the Party and the government.
Among artists and intellectuals that joined the periodicals were poets Tran Dan, Hoang Cam, Le Dat, Nguyen Huu Dang, Phung Quan, composer Van Cao (author of the national anthem), musician Tu Phac, painter Bui Xuan Phai, lawyer Nguyen Manh Tuong, Dr Dang Van Ngu, and philosopher Tran Duc Thao. The first edition of Giai Pham was published in March, 1956. By December 1956, they had published two issues (Fall and Spring) of Giai Pham and five issues of Nhan Van. However this brief period of openness (with some similarities to the Chinese Hundred Flowers Campaign), in which the intellectuals called for freedom of expression and debated government policies, ended two years later as the Communist Party, under the influence of China, suppressed dissent. In 1958, the Party launches a campaign against “saboteurs on the ideological and cultural front”, with a re-education course organized for nearly 500 writers and artists in Hanoi.
Government suppression led to decades of professional and economic deprivation for the participants of Nhan Van-Giai Pham, including long jail terms for a few who were considered to be the key leaders. Little was known about this movement in the south, although some of its writings were well publicized, and the subsequent obliteration of the period from the public discourse also left generations of North Vietnamese ignorant of its development and issues it raised. Under such circumstances, the period became shrouded in a mist of myth-making accounts and commentaries.
Today, in the midst of rapid economic and social changes brought on since late 1986 when the Vietnamese Communist Party adopted a market-oriented development strategy and set out to integrate Vietnam into regional and international networks, issues about culture, tradition, modernity, intellectual freedom, and national identity – issues once dominating the intellectual discourse of the 1950s - have returned to the public arena to be discussed and debated with passion.
After spending decades in silence and seeming to have been eliminated from public’s memories, Nhan Van-Giai Pham is once again attracting attention from at least the intellectual and arts communities in Vietnam as a symbol for artists’ struggle for freedom of expression and the renovation of Vietnamese arts. One example of this current movement is the underground group Mo Mieng (Open Mouth) as they represent the present-day demands for writers and artists. Like Nhan Van-Giai Pham, Open Mouth pursues the policy of freedom of publishing, and to evade officially imposed censorship, the group self-publishes on webzines and samizdats, and uses Xerox machines to print their volumes in small quantities of 40-50 copies.
Although censorship in Vietnamese literature and art today is less oppressive than in the days of strict "socialist realism," Vietnamese writers and artists still know where the limits are. Direct criticism of the Communist Party's political power, for example, remains taboo. Nhan Van-Giai Pham, therefore, becomes a bridge that links a new generation of writers, musicians, artists, and intellectuals who have no revolutionary or wartime experience that their predecessors had. It allows them all to speak the same language.
Importantly, issues and demands raised by Nhan Van-Giai Pham in the late-1950s still resonate today with young artists, writers, and intellectuals. Although they may not share the personal experience of the older participants of the movement, the struggle against the tenets of “socialist realism” transcends generations.
Aims / Objective / Goals of Project
This film seeks, through personal accounts, to revisit the contexts in which the intellectual dissent of the 1950s arose, the issues that were raised by the intellectuals, and the state’s responses to such concerns. The objective is to record and visually preserve the oral history of Nhan Van-Giai Pham as the only widespread intellectual dissent movement in North Vietnam and the first of its kind in Southeast Asia.
I strongly believe that the documenting and remembering of Nhan Van-Giai Pham movement and its survived poets itself is a very important task within the shared histories of Southeast Asia, the people, power and freedom of expression. So far, there have not been any film projects that record and present these poets’ stories, sufferings, art and life.
Significantly, the film project also aims to create conversations across different generations of Vietnamese writers and artists about their common issues and demands in different times, about the (dis)continuities in the artists’ struggle for freedom of expression and of what the half-a-century silence of Nhan Van-Giai Pham has meant and will continue to mean for the Vietnamese arts and society at large. Essentially, the purpose of the film is to raise questions and spark further thinking and discussion rather than trying to give the audience a conclusive answer about where Vietnam is going from here as a thinking nation.
Methodology / Implementation of Project
As the film is about contemporary poetry, literature and art, I would like to experiment with new documentary forms, keeping the film fluid with the use of a hybrid/liberated form/approach rather than the conventional documentary styles. My methodologies will include numerous genres of filmmaking; these include, but are not limited to, oral history, photography, cinema verite, personal, montage, performance, and documentary.
I envision the film project as having two main stages: 1) To establish an archive of research materials and interviews with the survived poets and artists of Nhan Van-Giai Pham as well as writers and artists of later generations on the movement in particular, its place in history and public memories, and on the subject of freedom of expression in Vietnamese art in general; and 2) To produce a feature-length experimental documentary based on collected interviews and materials.
The funding from this grant will be used towards the research and production phase of the project. At the end of this phase, I will have finished with collecting materials, conducting interviews, and will have established an archive of research materials and interviews that will be available to the public. This archive can be used for educational and research purposes. The later phase – editing, post-production, and distribution – will not be included in the grant proposal.
Since this is to be an experimental film, it would require a lot of searching for various types of materials beside the conventional sources such as interviews. These would include, but are not limited to, the searching for images from documentary and feature films, personal photographs and old publications, as well as songs and music from the 1950s and 60s.
I intend to conduct and film interviews with the survived poets and artists of Nhan Van-Giai Pham period – most of whom are in their 80s and 90s - including the most important figures of the movement such as Le Dat, Hoang Cam, and Huu Loan; and the non-conformist writers and artists of later generations including Hoang Hung, Bui Ngoc Tan, and “Open Mouth” group. Among the most important questions to be asked would be: 1) Why, or in what contexts, did Nhan Van-Giai Pham occur? 2) What is Nhan Van-Giai Pham’s place in history and public memories? 3) What have been the impacts of Nhan Van-Giai Pham movement and of its suppression on the Vietnamese art and society? 4) What has been the situation of freedom of expression in Vietnamese art and literature since Nhan Van-Giai Pham? 5) Compared to the 50s, what has changed and what remains the same in writers and artists’ issues and demands?
In the work I have done so far for this project, I have experienced great acceptance and openness from writers, artists, and researchers. So far, I have received confirmed collaboration and participation from Le Dat and Hoang Cam – the co-founders of Nhan Van-Giai Pham and the most important figures of the movement who are still alive (both are in their late 80s); Duong Tuong, a prominent poet and literature and art critic, who will act as the adviser for the research of the project; dissident writers Hoang Hung, Bui Ngoc Tan, and the Open Mouth group. I’m confident that the research for the film will result in a rich and invaluable archive of materials of the period, of the movement, and of Vietnamese artists of different generations on the subject of freedom of expression.
Timeframe of Project
I propose that the research and production of the film project will have a one-year timeframe - from April 2008 to the end of March 2009. This one-year period will include research, interviews, collecting materials, organizing and categorizing of footage and materials for the archive, building the website, outreach efforts such as searching for the host of the archive at a university or research center.
Projected Output of Project
The archive of research materials and interviews resulted from the research and production stage of the project (within the scope of this grant proposal) will be available to research centers, universities, and the public. This archive - including texts, photos, video, and interviews - will be a good source of information for research and educational purposes. I intend to donate this archive to a research center or university, especially in Southeast Asia.
The end product of the project will be an experimental documentary film, but funding for the post-production and distribution stages of the film will be sought upon the completion of this proposed research and production stage.
Target Audience of Project
The project’s target audience will be intellectual and arts communities both within and outside of Vietnam. Additionally, I feel the film’s broader theme of art and humanity will appeal to a more general audience as well.
To disseminate information about the project to the target audience, I intend to create a website for the project in both Vietnamese and English where texts, interviews, short clips and other related materials on Nhan Van-Giai Pham will be presented.
Internationally, the greatest formats for the discovery and dissemination of information for documentary films are film festivals and educational outlets such as universities and libraries. As with my previous documentary film, I plan to submit “Rain Only Falling” to as many film festivals as possible. Additionally, from my current experience working with an educational film distributor in the United States, I believe that the film will have great potentials for distribution among educational outlets, universities, and libraries overseas.
I strongly believe that the project will have an impact on the intellectual and art communities, particularly the young artists and intellectuals in Vietnam today. As mentioned above, as the issues and demands raised by Nhan Van-Giai Pham in the 1950s were those that today’s young writers, artists and intellectuals can relate to, I believe that the film will be able to spark further thinking and discussion on freedom of expression as an important aspect of art and society.
The Berlin-based independent literary forum Talawas has done an invaluable job of making the primary texts of Nhan Van-Giai Pham available online, starting with Tran Dan’s poetry collection, j? jo?cx. Radio Free Asia has also devoted 11 programs to the movement. I believe that this film will be able to add to these initial efforts to preserve this important part of history. As films have their particular advantages as a medium of documentation and transmission, the audio-visual archive as well as “Rain Only Falling” will be able to make an impact on the public with more immediacy and accessibility.
The art form of experimental and artistic documentary filmmaking currently does not exist in Vietnam, with documentary filmmaking still being virtually dominated by the state and the government-controlled television. The project will greatly help not only me develop as a documentary filmmaker, but also independent filmmaking in general within Vietnam.
My commitment to the development of this project has been demonstrated by my individual initiation of researching for the project during the last several months with my own resources. I intend to actively look for additional funding for the completion of the project.
The support of the ANA grant will be an invaluable aid in the development of this project. I hope the samples provided of some of the early research work and this proposal prove worthy of your consideration.