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Forging a Path Forward for Vietnamese Cinema

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To mark Women's History Month, The CREATV Company talks to head of production Irene Trinh to find out about her career, highlights and the evolution of the industry

Forging a Path Forward for Vietnamese Cinema

In honour of Women's History Month, The CREATV Company salutes the achievements of tenacious, visionary women who dared – by forging new narratives, pumping up the volume of unheard voices, and blazing new trails – to change our industry for the better.

In the first of a two-part Little Black Book series on women in the vanguard of the film and creative industries in Vietnam, we have a chat with The CREATV Company’s head of production, Irene Trinh.


Q> As the percentage of women in key production roles grows, are you optimistic the industry is finally heading towards greater gender equality?

Irene > Actually, in film production, women are on top! It’s in the technical crafts that we have a lower presence, and I hope it’s evolving. Though of course, female directors are still far and few. There are plenty of female executive producers, producers, production managers, line producers, etc. We still need to work on the crafts side – cinematographers, editors, etc. But having been around for 16 years, I’m now starting to see the evolution.


Q> Tell us how you started out as a producer?

Irene> I began working for the Toronto International Film Festival [tiff] after a referral and one-on-one introduction from the late Doug Dales, founder and CEO of PS Production Services Ltd. to David Overby, one of tiff’s most prominent programmers. At the time, David was international programmer for tiff and Berlin simultaneously. Right then and there, he hired me as his programme coordinator. I’d remain his coordinator from 1996 to 1999 (the year of David’s passing).

Doug also arranged (privately, I wouldn’t find out until almost a decade later) for me to meet producer Pamela Davenport – who took me under her wings and taught me to produce – beginning with her as a production coordinator for feature documentaries and sales/distribution of a catalogue of films and docs from around the world. Again, unbeknownst to me, the Primedia Catalogue belonged to Doug Dales.

These humble beginnings were my formative years in filmmaking. After two feature documentaries with Pam, I would move on to production management on two series for Discovery Channel Canada. From there, I moved on to short films and commercials.

These days, I’m often confronted with the children of friends afraid to get a hand up in the industry – but I always go back to my own roots and remind them: it’s not a hand-up, it’s a door open. It doesn’t matter how it opened, it’s what you do once inside that matters.


Q> Saigon Eclipse directed by Othello Khanh was the first film made in Vietnam since the government opened production to private companies. What was it like being part of this forefront of overseas Vietnamese filmmakers?

Irene> More accurately, Saigon Eclipse was one of three films made with the opening up of production to private companies. They were released in this order: The White Silk Dress (Dir. by Luu Huynh – began shooting first), The Rebel (Dir. By Charlie Nguyen – began principal photography afterwards) and then Saigon Eclipse (the main actress from The White Silk Dress joined Saigon Eclipse, likewise main actor Dustin Nguyen and supporting actor Johnny Tri Nguyen, joined us upon completion of filming The Rebel). This is something I remember very well, as it was how we negotiated with each other that first year when all three films came out – and in the end, we settled on that order. I.e. in order to avoid saturating the market with all three films, we etched out a schedule that allowed each film to have its prominence in theatres.

Since then, I’ve produced The Legend is Alive (Dir. by Luu Huynh), De Mai Tinh (Dir. by Charlie Nguyen) and in between and afterwards, films directed by Victor Vu and Ham Tran respectively, and co-produced with Tim Bui (Producer, Three Seasons; Dir., Powder Blue). For me, that was the wave we were riding.

It’s not to say we were better than others – we just happened to all congregate in Vietnam at the same time, and together we forged a path forward for Vietnamese cinema. We brought our western education and training back to our eastern roots and working alongside Vietnamese filmmakers, together we helped to create audience demand.

But coming back to Vietnam, in the first place, takes me back to the beginning, meeting Doug Dales in early 1996. When I met Doug, I was a bright eyed 24-year-old mother of two. I was also executive director of an arts organisation called the Vietnamese Society of Motion Picture Pioneers. We held several multi-disciplinary art festivals at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. At an event, Doug was in the audience, heard me speak and asked to be introduced to me.

As an executive director of an arts organisation, you’re always in fundraising mode and that’s what I thought I would meet Doug to do. It turned out, I was very wrong. In fact, he offered to help me break into the film industry… and I was baffled by that. I’m not sure if it is fate, luck or whatever, but on the subway ride to his office that morning, on the cover of MacLean’s (Canada’s equivalent of Time), mega-Canadian producer Robert Lantos was on the cover. When Doug asked me what I wanted to do, I had the hutzpah to pull out that magazine cover, showed it to him, and said: This is what I want and who I want to be!

And that’s the exact path Doug lead me down. Guided me down is a better way of putting it. And it was this friendship, my kindred spirit that lead me, guided me back to Vietnam. In fact, the first two trips back were my husband and I and our kids, and his partner and kids. We would tour Vietnam from North to South, from South to North and beyond. And around the same time, my husband had been going back and forth on films such as Ham Tran’s short, The Anniversary and Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American – and so, ultimately, we had to decide: do we just want to retire in Vietnam or should we just go for it while we were still young and had the energy to make a difference? Clearly we chose the latter, as it’s been 16 years now.


What takes, perspective, stories and methods do you think Vietnamese women in the industry are in a unique position to offer?

Irene> My friend Kathy Uyen (an actress from California, who we brought back for Victor Vu’s Passport to Love) just directed her first feature film. Prior to that, she co-wrote How to Fight in Six Inch Heels, which we produced together with Tim Bui. In both films, women chart untried paths in Vietnam and both films did well at the box office. Meaning, female empowerment, and heart tugging films (aka Chick Flicks) definitely have a place here. And I think generally, emotional story-telling – it’s a real driver. Directors such as Viet Linh (French-Vietnamese female director) have paved the way for us.


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The CREATV Company, Fri, 12 Mar 2021 11:25:20 GMT