With three feature documentaries behind him, all dealing with some of the big conflicts of our time, Erik Gandini is a politically committed filmmaker and part of a new generation with a new approach to documentary style

Ulla Jacobsen
Jacobsen was previously editor in chief of the DOX Magazine from March 1998 until early 2009. A lot of the DOX articles republished in ModernTimes was ordered by her. After 2009 she worked freelance, until she died in 2013.

ULLA JACOBSEN interviewed him about his view on documentary filmmaking and his latest film “Amerasians”.

Amerasians is the name of a very particular group of people: The children of American soldiers and Vietnamese mothers after the Vietnam War. Since 1988 this group of people have been allowed to emigrate to the US. Approximately 38,000 of 100,000 have resettled in the US.

Swedish filmmaker Erik Gandini has traced some of these people in his new documentary entitled “Amerasians”, which includes those who have already settled in the US and others whom he follows just before they leave Vietnam and again when they arrive in their new country.

The lives of the Amerasians are interesting because in Vietnam they were always outcast since they looked different, and on top of that they reminded the Vietnamese people of the war. Consequently they received the lowest education and poorest jobs. Then suddenly a 1988 law made them into a goldmine by giving them the chance to go to the US to live and work. A big chance for someone living in a poor country like Vietnam, but also a big change. Some adapt very well to this totally different society, while others do not find the freedom and life they dreamed of. The film is in no way sentimental; it simply portrays this group of people who share a specific destiny in a highly transitional period of their lives.

The film mixes 16 mm and DV plus colour and black & white – for an aesthetic rather than symbolic effect. With no voice-over, the catchy pop, rock and country songs dominate the soundtrack. Archive footage from Vietnam is used in an associative manner commenting on the stories without explaining. The background information is given in an introductory text. Right after, the film jumps directly into the middle of the lives of some of the individuals and continues from episode to episode without following a strict chronology. This documentary style is very much in line with an emerging tendency especially seen in young and young-at-heart directors.

UJ: How did you get the idea to make this film?

EG: I was working on a programme for Swedish television, we were going to Vietnam to do a story. During my research, I looked in a guidebook, Lonely Planet, which had a chapter about the traces of the Vietnam War, and suddenly there was this picture of a group of kids with a text saying they were Amerasians – the offspring of American soldiers. I had never heard this word before, and the children were racially mixed. I found that very interesting, I had never thought about the existence of war children before.

We found out there were around 100,000 Amerasians. All their stories and destinies were very similar: Fatherless, searching for their identities and strangers in their own country. I think everybody can relate to that today. It is not a story about the Vietnam War, it is a story about being an outsider. Feeling different in comparison with how you look, or looking different in comparison to the way you feel.

Not many people have looks that have been such a determining factor in their lives. First, it was the reason they were outcasts, and suddenly it is the reason they are golden children, enabling them to take their entire families and children to the US. Through their situation, you see how being racially mixed can really be painful, a cause for suffering, but at the same time an advantage, because you can surf between two different identities. For example if you are both black and Vietnamese, you have two identities, instead of only one.

Erik Gandini worked with cameraman Carl Nilsson, who usually works with advertising and portraits. In the film, his background is reflected in the many arranged portraits of the characters who pose as the camera pans over their faces showing close-ups of their features. By considering they are one particular group defined by their race – they do indeed look different.

CN: We made portraits of many different people. Instead of focusing on one person, we collected images of different persons. We wanted to make something like a collage of all these people, which was why we did it in a very graphic style, filming the persons only in front of a cover.

I am fascinated by looks. All kinds of looks, people and their environments. In this film it seemed like a natural continuation to take them out of their environments and make these portraits that are more graphic, more stylistic.

EG: We didn’t want to make a story about one single Amerasian. We wanted to meet as many Amerasians as we could; we documented a whole group of people – a community. Swedish documentaries are usually about one person, one destiny, in which you really get close to that person. I like that tradition also, but for us it was some kind of a challenge not to follow this concept. We have some strong leading characters, but we met maybe 30 different persons.

UJ: All your documentaries deal with socially relevant issues. Do you see yourself as a political filmmaker?

EG: Political? Yes, I am interested in big events, and I am interested in my own time. I am interested in big events I have a hard time dealing with. Like I am interested in the Vietnam war, the Balkans. Those are big things you read about in the news. When you find your own way into the subject because you meet people who were there and who can tell you the way you should tell the story, then it becomes real and that is what I am interested in. It is not that I want to change society, I want to change the media.

I grew up in a tremendous media environment in Italy in the 70s, when Berlusconi invaded everyday life with the worst commercial junk television you can imagine. That was when I lost something in my relationship to the world, and I am interested in my relationship to the world through the media. That is the central point of our time now. You can experience everything now through secondhand experience. Death, love, catastrophe, war, childhood, whatever, and anywhere on earth – even outer space. But at the same time it seems like we lose something. I feel very lost in my relation to reality. To me, filmmaking is actually a way of recovering something which is lost. That could be called political.

UJ: Do you have any idols in documentary filmmaking?

EG: Recently I saw the film “Haiti – Untitled” by Jørgen Leth (Denmark) for the first time. I was very happy, because sometimes when I look around at documentary filmmakers in Sweden, I feel depressed, because I can’t find any role models. And here’s a guy who is 50 or 60 and makes a film like that at his age. That gives me hope.

I really like this very free way of making documentaries, collecting impressions and following your feelings, your creativity, leaving the rules behind somehow.

UJ: Do you work with a script?

EG: No! Of course I have a vision, an idea of the film I am going to make. But I really believe in chance: in researching and doing the film at the same time. The big privilege of working with a documentary is that you don’t have to work with a script, you can go out and be inspired by what you see, and let things build while you are doing it.

UJ: How is the filmmaking climate in Sweden right now?

EG: I think the best documentaries being made in Sweden right now are the ones that depart completely from the documentary school. The documentary school is really strong: Don’t use any music, get close to the person, the person has to cry, smoke a cigarette, look out of the window and say: “My life is awful” – that’s considered a documentary.

In my opinion the best films like “Lucky People Centre International” are those which are not based in that school.

At the same time I have to say that I come from a country (Italy) were documentaries don’t exist, so I am very fascinated by this culture surrounding documentaries, authenticity. There is such a respect for real people, real sound. If you watch the news in Italy, it is just pictures and speakers- you can never hear a person talk in an interview – people do not know how different languages sound and this is very symptomatic for their whole attitude. But also I get really sick of rules. Unfortunately documentaries in Sweden are still dominated by this middle-aged group who started in the ’60s and ’70s. I am sure we are creating a novel documentary vogue. After their initial enthusiasm for commercial television in the early ’90s, young people in Sweden are now examining the old public service tradition they grew up with, with an urge for keeping it alive.

“Amerasians” has received:

Golden Gate Award: Silver Spire at the San Francisco International Film Festival 1999

Guldantennen 1998(Swedish public television’s Grand Prize for an independent documentary)

It is selected for

Vue sur les docs  (Marseilles) and festivals in Cologne, Rio de Janeiro and Geneva.


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