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Winning over a film grand jury in post-war Vietnam

Vietnam Heritage, October-November 2011 -- Dang Nhat Minh, born in 1938 in Hue, wrote the script of and directed When The Tenth Month Comes, also called Love Does Not Come Back, which was produced in 1985 by Vietnam Feature Film Studio. It won the Special Jury Award at the 1985 Hawaii International Film Festival and the Golden Lotus prize (first prize) at the Vietnam Film Festival in1986. In 2008 CNN (Cable News Network) voted it one of the best 18 Asian films of all time, and called it ‘A vivid portrayal, from the point of view of a young Vietnamese widow, of the legacy of the Vietnam war’.  John Charlot, who was a research associate at the Institute of Culture and Communication at the East-West Center in Honolulu and in charge of the Vietnam section of the Hawaii International Film Festival, wrote in the Los Angeles Times of 26 August, 1990, that in 1985 Vietnamese Vice-Minister of Culture Dinh Quang had asked Judith Ladinsky why her U.S. Committee on Scientific Cooperation With Vietnam did not add culture. She agreed it should, and they drove to the Vietnam Cinema Department, packed up the best film they knew and put it on a plane for the Hawaii International Film Festival. ‘In Honolulu, we opened the package and were surprised there was a Vietnamese cinema industry,’ Charlot wrote. ‘We saw very quickly that Dang Nhat Minh’s When The Tenth Month Comes was a masterpiece. Richly photographed, deeply poetic, expressing strong emotions in an elegant filmic style, this work had something to say and a special way of saying it. We accepted it as the first Vietnamese film to be shown at an American film festival and nominated it for our East-West Centre Award. The jury gave it an honourable mention and much praise.’
The following is an edited excerpt from Dang Nhat Minh’s book Hồi Ký Điện Ảnh [Memoir of a film-maker], published by Văn Nghệ Publishing in Ho Chi Minh City in 2005.
Dang Nhat Minh: 
I began conceiving the film When The Tenth Month Comes which  depicts my family’s tragedy and the pain of millions of Vietnamese who lost relatives in the American War, while I was sheltering from rain at a makeshift teashop on a dyke in Que Vo District of the former Ha Bac Province (now Bac Ninh Province). In the distance in a field I saw a group walking. When it got closer I saw it was a funeral. They wore funeral head scarves, which are white. They included a woman and a boy of about seven. The people in the café told me the woman’s husband had died in the war. Only recently had this been accepted. The widow was carrying out a ritual to make a memorial for him in the village cemetery. No one knew exactly where the remains were. The woman became Duyen in When The Tenth Month Comes The film begins with Duyen coming home after a trip to look for her husband. Exhausted, she falls out of a bamboo boat crossing a river and Khang, a teacher at a local school, rescues her and retrieves the death certificate from the water. Duyen wants to keep the document secret because she does not want further sadness for her sick father-in-law. She asks Khang to write her in-laws false letters to keep their spirits up. Khang writes Duyen love letters, which fall into the hands of Duyen’s sister-in-law, and there is a scandal because Duyen is understood to be married still. Khang is sent to a faraway school. Duyen endures the pain of this until her father, on his deathbed, insists that she call her husband home. Seeing Duyen is hesitant, her seven-year-old son goes to the post office himself. On his way, he gets a lift on a military vehicle. The soldiers hear the story and steer back to the village. As they arrive, the father-in-law dies, believing his son has returned. The villagers realize Duyen’s husband has died and excuse Khang. Duyen expects him to come back.   My script had to be passed by the Department of Cinema, which it was, except for Khang's falling in love with Duyen. To me the romance was the essence. I decided to tone the relationship down. The film company appointed an executive producer, who had never been one before, and provided me with an obsolete camera, which destroyed many metres of film. I had to borrow a camera from the Institute of Malariology, Parasitology and Entomology, of which my father had been head, for the second half of the film. The Soviet Government had given it to the Institute to make films about malaria but the institute had hardly used it. When we were half-way through, at short notice, cameraman Nguyen Lan told us he was going to teach in Cambodia for a month. The crew could not wait, so I decided to go on with his deputy, Pham Tien Dat. Lan threatened to quit the film. The president of Vietnam Feature Film Studio, Hai Ninh, stormed into the studio and demanded that we wait, but saw that things were going satisfactorily with Dat. A few days later Hai Ninh sent us cameraman Nguyen Dang Bay. I had to deal with the three people's styles and keep consistency. I invited Le Van to play Duyen, the stereotype of bereavement through war of millions of Vietnamese women.
 When we finished filming, Hai Ninh asked us to remove a scene about an event in which Vietnamese believe the living can meet the dead, one of my favourite parts. It had came to me by accident, inspired by a fairy story about a young couple. The husband had died because of an injustice, and, in a dream, come back to tell his wife to look for him at Mach Ma Market. They met and the husband told the wife what had happened, so she could report it to the authorities. According to the story, Mach Ma Market was in Quang Yen District, Quang Ninh Province. One day, on the way to Ha Long Bay, I stopped in Quang Yen and was startled to realize the place I was having a cup of tea was Mach Ma Market. Later, on on another trip to Ha Bac Province, I read the book Bac Ha Administrative Geography. A chapter about markets listed the times and places of the event (known as chợ âm dương in the province, literally living and dead market) in which the living and the dead meet. Our president, Hai Ninh, was concerned that his higher-ups might think the scene condoned superstition and punish him. Under pressure from him, I compromised and omitted the chợ âm dương.  Hai Ninh invited his superiors to watch the film, for the purposes of censorship. Perhaps never before had a Vietnamese film been so severely inspected. Vice-Minister Dinh Quang was supportive, his fellow vice-Minister Vu Khac Lien uncertain if it was the right time to touch the pain, loss and destruction the war had entailed; he said that not until 15 years after World War II had the Soviet Union permitted the production of the film The Cranes are Flying. In Vietnam the American War had just ended, but only in a sense: it was still going on in the Southwest. Youth had to be encouraged to the front. We filmmakers needed to seek opinions from as many high-ranking officials as possible.  They took turns to examine the film - vice-Ministers, Minister, members of the Political Bureau, head of the Central Party Organization Committee and Party General Secretary, Mr Truong Chinh [in Hanoi]. The film went through 13 examinations. I went before all kinds of hearings, non-stop, feeling like an accused. Ahead of a screening at Mr Chinh’s house, I told my co-workers I hoped it would be the final trial. Mr Chinh, together with his family, watched the film after dinner, in their living room. I sat in a corner, next to Le Van. We  nervously looked for any expression on the the General Secretary’s face. He was quiet, showing no reaction. When the lights went back on, he slowly walked toward Le Van, shook her hand and said, ‘Very touching!’ His secretary told us to go home and he would impart the General Secretary’s opinion later to the officials of the film company. We went home, nervous, wondering if ‘Very touching’ was final. After we screened the movie to Mr To Huu, a Political Bureau member, he said only, ‘Touches the right chord. People will like it.’ Not until long after did I understand what he meant by ‘the right chord’. It was the pain, the loss caused by the war in each Vietnamese family.  After the screening at the General Secretary's General’s house, Hai Ninh stopped asking me to show the film for approval. The examinations were over. The film was praised by audiences all over the country and overseas. It was probably the first Vietnamese film to go beyond the borders of Vietnam after 1975 [when the Vietnam war ended]. I received a scholarship from the French Government to study in France for a year. A month after I arrived in Paris, the French Foreign Ministry officially screened my movie at Cosmos Cinema in the rue de Reinnes. The invitations were formal and elegant, with the signatures of Foreign Minister Roland Dumas and Minister for Culture Jack Lang. After watching the movie, writer and journalist Madeleine Riffaut hugged me, tears brimming. She wanted to be my adoptive sister. Thanks to the film I made numerous new friends in Paris, both Vietnamese and French. I got an urgent call from the Vietnamese Embassy. Ambassador Ha Van Lau told me that the Hawaii International Film Festival was inviting me to Honolulu. They had bought me air tickets. Ambassador Ha Van Lau called Vietnam to ask for permission. The Ministry of Culture refused to allow me to go to the United States. At the festival When The Tenth Month Comes? received the Special Jury Award. This marked the beginning of a long journey for the film around the world. I heard about a screening in Honolulu in November, 1985, from an acquaintance. Vietnamese boat people had learned there was to be a Vietnamese Communist film and they surrounded the cinema with protest banners. Fifteen minutes before the start, the police got a phone call threatening an explosion. After an hour of inspection, the police allowed the audience in. Some boat people went in. The screening finished amid applause and tears, including from boat people.

By Dang Nhat Minh
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