Interview with Director of ‘Children of the Mist’, Hà Lệ Diễm
To celebrate the recent extension of The Whickers’ Bursary Scheme, we asked recipient of the Whicker DocEdge Bursary 2020 and Director of the multi-award-winning feature documentary, Children of the Mist, Hà Lệ Diễm some questions about her experience as a first-time Director.
The Whickers first met Vietnamese Director, Hà Lệ Diễm at DocEdge Kolkata in March 2020, an international documentary pitching forum for Indian and Asian filmmakers in Kolkata, India. Diem was the recipient of our second ever Whicker DocEdge Kolkata Bursary for her project Children of the Mist. The bursary, worth £3,000 was created in 2019 to offer support to early-stage projects from countries, which for economic or socio-political reasons, do not have access to the same kind of development, training and distribution networks that are available elsewhere in the world.
Fast-forward two years, and not only has Diem garnered the support of the Sundance Institute and completed her debut documentary, but she has also premiered and won the Award for Best Director at IDFA 2021, screened at festivals around the world and received critical acclaim across the board.
Set in the North in her homeland of Vietnam, Diem’s film sheds new light on an unseen world and at its heart is a universal take on what it means to grow up. At the centre of the story is Di, a 13-year-old Hmong girl about to face the destiny of many teenage girls of her ethnic group: bride kidnapping. It is a film about the holy time of childhood and its disappearance. Variety called it “extraordinary”, a “modestly scaled but beautifully presented Vietnamese production”. You can watch the official trailer HERE.
To celebrate the extension of our Bursary Scheme to three new regions this year (find out more HERE), we spoke to Diem about her experience with Children of the Mist and her extraordinary journey, so far.
Can you tell us about ‘Children of the Mist’ and how you came upon the story?
I was born and raised in the mountains of Northern Vietnam, in an ethnic group called Tay. I was exposed to literature at a young age since my grandfather, a primary school teacher, gave me many books to read. When I was a child, I had three very close girlfriends. Everyday after school, my friends would gather around me, waiting for me to read them stories. These are the best memories of my life. This idyllic childhood was brutally interrupted when two of my friends got married at a very young age. I never forgot this trauma.
When I first met Di, the main protagonist of my film, she was playing with her Hmong friends in the mountains and it reminded me of my own childhood. I wanted to make a film about it, about this beautiful time that all of a sudden can just disappear. One day, Di asked me: “Will your film bring me back to my childhood?” It’s not something a child her age would normally ask. I think she could already feel it slipping away.
You won the £3,000 Whicker DocEdge Development Bursary in Kolkata in 2020. How was that experience and what did it mean for your project at that time?
I filmed for three and a half years in a Hmong village. I don’t speak Hmong language and I couldn’t understand what I was recording, I just filmed everything with my feelings. Di and her dad only helped me with basic translation from time to time. I didn’t have the budget to work with a Hmong translator to translate my footage. We attended DocEdge Kolkata in 2020 and it was a great support to win the £3,000 Whicker DocEdge Development Bursary in Kolkata. We used this money to work long-term with a young, very talented Hmong translator, who helped us not only with translation but also to understand many cultural issues. Finally I could understand everything in my footage! It was a very time consuming process, but also a great feeling to fully understand the actual content of my material!
As a Vietnamese filmmaker, how difficult was it during those early stages of development to raise funds for your film?
In Vietnam we don’t have any funds for independent documentary films in early stages. We had to look for it outside of Vietnam, but it was such hard work. At first I thought it was an impossible mission! Especially for an inexperienced filmmaker like me. I was lucky to get the help from my producers in Vietnam who supported my film from the beginning. They watched all the footage I brought back from the field (more than 100 hours) and gave me their feedback and advice. They worked for three years and never asked about their salary! I worked on short documentaries for NGOs, newspapers and television channels in Vietnam to find the money to go to my protagonist’s village and for my living. For filming, I borrowed a second-hand camera from my friends and the microphone from TPD Centre – a centre that supports young filmmakers in Hanoi. I used this equipment until the end of the shooting.
My protagonist and her parents allowed me to stay in their house, shared their meals, brought me everywhere, taught me their culture. Di’s mother even taught me how to dye indigo fabric! I was cooking for them, doing some house work… I even took care of the buffaloes as if I was part of the family.
After three years, we realised we had to look for funding to finish filming and editing. My friends helped me write the film proposal and taught me some English. My biggest difficulty was raising money to hire people to edit the footage, transcript and translate the Hmong language and for the post-production stage. I applied for funds, but it was only in 2019, two years after I began the project, that I received my first grants from AND Fund, Busan International Film Festival and DMZ Docs Fund in Korea. It opened doors to many other funds and I received so much support and kindness. The production was able to pay decently to all the people who worked on this film and I am very proud of that!
Did winning the Whicker Bursary help in any way to access further funding or make new connections in the industry?
I remember the first time I met people from The Whickers in Korea, at the DMZ Industry event. They had such a positive attitude about the project that it gave me great confidence. From this moment, we stayed in contact and I knew that I could ask for advice and support from them at any moment, for any issue.
Why was it so important for you to share Di’s story with the world?
I think it’s our generation’s story to lose childhood suddenly and I feel it is so unfair. I can’t bear it. In this film, I wanted to talk about this insidious feeling of sadness and loneliness that we have to face alone growing up. It’s so tough and so scary to go through.
How did it feel to premiere your debut documentary, ‘Children of the Mist’ at IDFA in 2021?
Super! Wonderful! Overwhelming! It was a moment that I will never forget!
Because of the COVID lockdown, we couldn’t check the final DCP version of the film after finishing the post-production. The post-production company shipped it directly to IDFA. After this, I flew to Amsterdam and when I finally saw it on a big screen, I cried with happiness! And the theater was so beautiful and packed with audiences!
At the award ceremony, IDFA people asked me and one filmmaker from Belarus, who also had his film in the International competition to sit near the stage with a bunch of cameras, lights around. We were shy and thought that there was no way we would win any award, because so many talented filmmakers were there with their films! So we decided to run and hide, we were sitting on the last row of seats, far away from the stage, eating candy and talking nonsense. And then, big surprise! The Belarus filmmaker won two awards and I did too! We couldn’t believe it until the awards ceremony ended!
Have you managed to screen the film in Vietnam and how important is it to you that Vietnamese audiences see it?
We decided to keep the rights in Vietnam and we are looking for a distributor here. The film will have its Vietnamese Premiere screenings at Hanoi international Film Festival this month. All the tickets were sold out in 5 hours! It’s an important chance for us to show the film to the Vietnamese audience and to prepare the national release. We also have plans to show the film in remote rural areas where Hmong people live.
What advice would you give to emerging directors from regions of the world that lack the infrastructure to support documentary making?
- Try to seek every opportunity to learn for free through a scholarship, workshops, filmmakers groups, university, etc…
- Learn English to open more opportunities
- Ask for help and support from your friends, teachers, family for equipment, budget, places…
- Don’t wait to have enough money to make the film, we will never have it, and if we wait for it, we just wasted our time. Go for it!
How are your cats?
(During the making of Children of the Mist, The Whickers’ team received regular updates about Diễm’s furry friends. As far as we are concerned, they are part of the filmmaking team).
They are doing so well, enjoying the countryside lifestyle in the mountains of Northern Vietnam with my parents. They love to hang out at night to play and catch bugs, birds and lizards. Now they are my parent’s “real daughters” instead of me! One of my cats always runs back to our house if we call her, and if my mom wants to get up early, she even tells my cat to wake her up in the morning, and the cat does! She runs into my mom’s room, meows to wake her up! My cat is standing in front of our house every day waiting for my mom back from the field, how lovely she is!