Interview: Minh Quý Trương
Images from The Treehouse (Trương Minh Quý, 2019)
To the disappointment of his parents, Trương Minh Quý quit film school in 2008 to pursue independent production. He went on to complete nine shorts and two features, and in August, the 29-year-old director returned to Locarno to present his latest film in the Filmmakers of the Present section. The Tree House is set in 2045, about 33 million miles away on Mars, which is now occupied by humans. Although cinema has become a bygone hobby, the film’s narrator has taken his camera with him with the intention of making a movie.
For a fleeting moment, Quý’s voiceover informs us, the audio captured by his microphone reminds him of the winds on Earth. While his voiceover is transmitted from the Red Planet, the images appearing on screen arrive from Earth, specifically the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Through these images we encounter people uprooted by local authorities after the war, as Quý articulates a sense of longing from a place of exile. Collaging together fragments of U.S. military archive material, improvisatory camerawork, and BBC newsreels, The Tree House tends toward the historiographical rather than the historical, asking who can claim authorship over certain images. As the film takes us from an abandoned cave to a traditional Vietnamese longhouse, the slippage and fragility of post-colonial memory is represented in the interplay of ethnography and fiction.
In Locarno, I sat down with Quý to discuss his career so far and the process of making The Tree House, which screens in Projections at the 57th New York Film Festival on October 5 and 6.
Can you tell me about your home and family?
My homeland takes a very important place in my filmmaking. In 2013 I came back to my hometown, Buôn Ma Thuột, a small city in the Central Highlands. It is a very interesting area with a lot of coffee plantations. A long time ago, I asked myself why I should make the film. It’s a deep spiritual discovery about myself. There’s nothing special about my family, the film’s not dramatic in that way. We live in the city and in the farm. I tried to find a certain beauty in the banality of my family’s life. The line-drawing house you see in the film is small, thin, and high, and has three floors. Our house is exactly the same. It’s typical of what we have in the city because we don’t have enough land.
Why did you quit film school?
I was afraid that if I continued at the school I would not be able to work independently. It was too safe—it was a machine. To quit was quite radical and my mother wasn’t happy. I want to experiment with narrative and try to focus on editing because it’s the most interesting part. I played the characters myself. I called my style “available cinema”: I use whatever I have. To be shown at festivals is just the luck of the moment.
What gave you the idea to make The Tree House?
The original idea is from the very abstract image of a lone house on a mountain that I saw a while ago. That image was haunting. I developed it, but the origin of the film was an abstraction.
Because you splice newsreel footage from the war with your own portraits of local people, this strikes me as a very political film. Can you give some context as to how the message of the film fits into present-day Vietnamese society and culture?
It’s political but I didn’t really try to make it that way. Thinking about home inevitably leads to questions of politics and authority. It’s about people who have been made homeless by the authorities that reject their lives in forests and caves. The central story is of Hồ Văn Lang, a man who lived in the forest after his family’s house was bombed in the war and, after more than 40 years, was forced to move back to the village. The war seems to be the origin of everything and I cannot avoid that.
Was your starting point something more philosophical? You thank the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard at the end of the film. How does he influence your work?
Gaston Bachelard is the one that gave me a lot of inspiration at the very beginning. I read The Poetics of Space. It is a very interesting philosophy about the metaphysical meaning of home. It is very poetic, I feel very visually inspired. Bachelard says the house is the center of the universe, as within it you can find every element of the universe. The place belongs to the “immemorial of space”—it brings us back to the origin of our humanity. In every house we find the idea of the cave. The house shelters us like a cave.
What about Jacques Dournes, also thanked at the end?
He is an anthropologist who wrote a lot about the indigenous peoples in the Central Highlands during the French colonization. He has a different relation to the area. His writing is very poetic. It is not from the mind of the colonist to write about the “minority people.” His 1950 book Populations montagnardes du Sud-Indochinois (The Montagnard Population of South Indochina) helped to give me information about the tomb houses [tin huts where loved ones communicate with the souls of their deceased relatives, according to the practice of the Jarai]. Combined with my interviews with the local people, I tried to bring forth not only the informative elements but also the poetic essence of the tomb houses.
The combination of poetic essence and the more anthropological, informative elements seems to me a question of language. What is the role of the different languages in the film?
I think the important thing is to keep the difference between languages clear. For the interview with Hồ Văn Lang, I knew I had to show the translator in the frame. I needed to let the audience rely on the process of translating—the process of trying to understand the different languages, cultures and people. Contained in the difficulty of understanding different languages is the difficulty of trying to understand different people.
Can you explain the decision to have a voiceover by you, the director?
I tried not to have a voiceover but it didn’t work. I wanted to make it more like a documentary but what I wanted to say I had to say in my own voice. I am a filmmaker and I have the choice of how much I reveal about myself. These people, the subjects of the film, always share memories of their homes and their families. But it’s not fair that I don’t. By telling the story about my own memories using voiceover, I become a kind of character as well.
You use a great deal of archival material from the U.S. military and NASA’s audiovisual library. Could you talk about that process?
It is from the very wonderful nonprofit website archive.org, the online database for almost everything. I typed in certain keywords such as “Vietnam,” “the Vietnam War,” and then selected different categories (images, photos, movies). I found loads of footage from U.S. soldiers, including the footage we see in the film. It was actually from the same province, the same town that I started off in. I made a link. The connection between the past and present is so strong.
One film that is quoted is called The Refugees (1968). It is a documentary made by the U.S. Department of Defense about the Vietnamese villagers who fled their villages to take shelter in newly built resettlement camps. Can you speak about your selection of this?
The people move to a resettlement camp, to build houses. It’s very political, made by the American side. Most of the people we see in that particular film are South Vietnamese who must restart their lives all over again. There are so many portraits of the people. I am mostly interested in the children’s faces: they are so curious about the camera. Especially in that part near the end, it’s very emotional to see all the children of the past look into the camera.
In contrast to this we see photographs by Cambodian photographer Chhay Thi Rantanakiri which blur out faces of the indigenous population. What do you mean to say?
He took the photos in 2015 in collaboration with ADHOC Cambodia, the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association. The BBC uses these photos. When I read the article three years ago, I was so shocked by the images. It’s like seeing ghosts without faces, it’s scary. In the film I blur out the boys’ faces. I’m trying to say something about anonymity, about the right to be unknown.
You include the 1986 song “Tình Hoài Hương” by Thái Thanh. Can you explain its significance?
That song translates to something like “nostalgia,” or “longing for your home.” I love the singer. She is old, around 85, and lives in the U.S. now. I saw her first performance in 1985 when she arrived in the U.S. after a difficult time in Vietnam. She sang this song and then at the end she cried. I was so moved by this, I realized how much she loved Vietnam. The song was different: she changed the lyrics to “far from home.” I used it primarily because it is a very beautiful song, but also because it is about being homeless and relates to the aftermath of the war.
Can you talk about your collaboration with sound designer Ernst Karel?
He went to Vietnam in 2017 to hold a workshop in Hanoi that I took part in. It was very short, only two days long. I spoke to him about this project, and then recently we started working together. I sent him some images and asked if I could send the cut. We spoke a lot over email. He said he liked the film and said we should keep the film as it is. We didn’t work face to face—he was in the U.S. and I was in Vietnam. We had to finish everything as fast as possible for Locarno. He finished one version and then uploaded it for me, I watched it, wrote some notes, and he changed it. It was lucky that before working with Ernst, I had worked with another sound engineer in Hanoi, Arnaud Soulier, for the sound premix. Then Ernst continued working on the materials, and that’s why we could finish everything for the sound in such a short time.
By accident your cinematographer forgets to replace the lens cap at one point and keeps the camera rolling. The voiceover references Agnès Varda in this shot. What other directors did you have in mind making this film?
During the making of this film I didn’t think of anyone specifically, it’s too tiring. But that shot reminded me of Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I. She forgets to stop the camera from rolling. The director of photography in my film forgot too. It was so wonderful and I had to make the link. A perfect accident.
The Tree House isn’t your first film set on Mars. What made you want to return?
My 2014 short film was called Mars in the Well. It was my first collaboration with another person who wasn’t a filmmaker. It was based on a conversation we had about the political situation in Vietnam and about the government’s ideas of bringing people to Mars. In that film which is set in the future, they are already successful in bringing people to Mars. It’s a parody of their political ideology. The government politics isn’t based on the ideology of anything real—Mars is their ultimate utopia. This time, in The Tree House, the filmmaker is already on Mars but instead it’s another sort of home. It creates a distance, answering our bigger question: where is our next home?
Laura Davis is a writer and programmer living in London.