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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXmuWecIQos

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?

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