In Vietnam, the Jarai people engage in a spiritual practice around tomb houses – small huts containing mementos from deceased community members. They form the basis for a formal experiment in Truong Minh Quý’s The Tree House – where the image literally turns negative to explore the local customs around death and the afterlife. They are one of several spaces tied up in the film’s explorations of displacement, home and belonging. Presented through the lens of a filmmaker on Mars in 2045, the present day is a distant past given a critical distance; one that allows Quý to interrogate his own filmmaking practice as a majority Kinh filmmaker capturing images of the country’s indigenous communities.
The central figures of the film have long been displaced from their original homes. Hồ Văn Lang lived in a tree house for 40 years following the bombing of his home during the Vietnam War, and was discovered by local authorities in 2013. Since then, he’s appeared in international press several times, often patronisingly referred to as “the jungle man” or “Vietnamese Tarzan”. Quý’s depiction of him is far more considerate however, presenting him as a victim of several displacements. Meanwhile, Ms Cao Thi Hậu’s community formerly lived in caves and forms part of a small group who still speak the Rục language, which has no written form. They now inhabit lookalike houses and are looked down upon by the nearby military presence.
Ms Hau is often depicted in the community’s original cave and is able to recall the story of her own birth in such a space. The cave’s presence on screen is a consistent visual reminder of the nature of displacement and the eroding of minority traditions in the country, and Quý explores the phenomenological nature of home with a poetic approach inspired by Gaston Bachelard, frequently capturing the inside of one of the newer homes, with the family’s child exploring its components. With Lang’s former tree house as the inspiration for the film’s title, Quý explores the structures of homes through a simple line drawing in a notepad, which expands throughout the film; starting as a drawing of his own childhood home before expanding into a form that follows Lang’s description of the tree house. That form is later joined by the backdrop of the mountains home to Ms Hau’s family’s cave. It’s a meeting of subjectivities that becomes increasingly valuable when the director reflects on the nature of the Jarai people’s tomb houses; discussing whether or not he would have the right to be buried in one. The question of being allowed to even capture such images on film reaches a fervour when he utilises archival film from a US Army “relocation” program that left an indelible scar on the province of Quảng Ngãi. Side by side, his own clapperboards in the same location clash with those in the historical footage – both an acknowledgement of the Vietnam War’s long-standing impact on the area and an interrogation of the right to capture a subject on film.
In The Tree House, the nature of memory plays an important role. As it’s various stories lucidly interact through the lens of an unknown future on a planet thousands of miles away, the history of Earth feels almost like a collection of memories that have morphed into a dream. Perhaps we won’t even care to watch films in the future, especially if we move towards an imagined future in an unknown place. Perhaps we will even let go of the phenomenological associations of home. Quý’s film makes us appreciate how much of a loss that would be.
Speaking after a screening at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Quý discusses the representation of marginalised ethnicities in Vietnam, the film’s use of archival footage from the US Army, the influence of Gaston Bachelard, and how a feasible move to planets beyond our own might change conceptions of home.
As someone who grew up in Vietnam, what were your first experiences of hearing about the communities we see in the film like?
My generation grew up in the years after the Vietnam economic reforms in 1986, so we were the first generation living in a changed society. But strangely, we don’t have the notion or feeling of the Other in Vietnam. We have 54 ethnic groups in the country, which is quite a lot. And the majority ethnicity is my own – the Kinh people. 90% of the communities are Kinh people, unless you go to the mountains, the countryside or specific areas where you’ll see different people.
In Vietnam we have this very strange feeling that we are a homogenous society, and in a way, I guess for the young people – even for me before – the concept of racism didn’t exist. My high school was in the Central Highlands, which is a special area where people are more sensitive to the problems that different ethnicities face. My school was considered one of the “bad schools”, one of the worst in the city, and in my class there were two or three students from the native ethnicities. But if you go to other high schools, like the better ones, you will not see these people.
The government is obsessed with making us feel like we live in a homogenous society; that we’re a society where all different people are living in peace, but actually it’s not like that, you know? In Vietnam we have a different kind of peace. When tourists go there, they see that the society is so lovely and everyone is always smiling, but that peace has come from the silence – it’s come from ignoring the real problems. It’s not come from a real understanding. When it becomes truly open and more democratic, only then we will face the real problems, because so far people have lived without knowing the others.
When did it feel right to approach making a film involving those communities, and what did it feel like entering into those communities for the first time, especially with translation being needed?
For this film, it was quite natural that the characters of the film had to be from the ethnicities existing in those locations. The film came from a blurred image – an abstract image – in my memory about a lonely house in the mountains some time ago. So, in the research we went to the mountainous area to search for a house that looked similar to the one in my memory, and naturally it became about the people living there, because the location is there.
And the translation is actually a very interesting aspect of the film. For Lang, it was very clear from the beginning that I had to show on screen that we needed a translator. Even though I don’t say how hard it is for him to adapt to the new environment after so many years, by showing the translator I think the audience gets the point. And that’s something I learnt from Shoah by Claude Lanzmann, where the whole film is actually about the process of translation; we hear the native languages and the translated ones in all of the interviews. Translating is not only a necessary process for understanding different languages, but also a realisation of differences. And Shoah also inspired me to think about the importance of oral histories, of the stories that are told based on memories, stories that inevitably carry the gravity of imagination. Translating and imagining – perhaps these are the ways to see what is no longer present for the eyes. But Ms Cao Thi Hậu already left the cave some 50 years ago and already uses Vietnamese quite well, so it is somehow natural to talk to her in Vietnamese. Those in the audience who are not Vietnamese may not get it, but most of the interview with Ms Hau is in her native language.
And what was it like entering into the tomb houses that we see in the film? They are such personal spaces where we see people mourning – was it difficult to build that trust?
That’s the point that made me feel a bit of a dilemma, because there were no difficulties when I approached them – they were very open. If somebody approached you or I and said that they wanted to make a film with us it wouldn’t be that easy, you know? But they accepted it so quickly and so easily that I felt a bit bad about myself. I had a certain kind of feeling that you get when you have more power than others, especially when you come with the film camera and you have the perfect excuse to approach them and ask them to do what you want. And so that’s why I talk about it in the film.
That scene where you address your gaze as a filmmaker is really memorable. Could you talk about how you approached the US Army ‘relocation’ films from the Vietnam War that you placed side by side with your own rushes?
I found the footage on archive.org. I think that’s the perfect website; it’s free, it’s clear, it says where the archive is, and whether it’s free or not for you to use. Before we started to shoot, I was searching for footage about the Vietnam War, and I was quite surprised when I discovered this footage from the American troops. It interested me that it was the same people who were displaced in the Quảng Ngãi province, which is also the hometown of Lang after he was found in the forest.
When I saw that people in the same location almost 50 years ago had to move because of the war, I needed to find a way to make that connection. But the other connection is filmmaking itself, because in the archive footage you can see very obviously the filmmakers – the soldiers. They’re using the clapper to mark the date and the shot; exactly like I’m doing in the same location.
I wanted to ask about using Mars as a tool for looking back at the present from the future. The way you use it is detached by just the right amount, but it’s also so prominent. What was your initial interest in utilising narrative aspect that as a tool?
It started with my short film Mars in the Well (2014). I worked with another director, and we were talking about this “Mars One” project to take people to Mars that was shared everywhere at the time – the idea that they paid for you but would never be able to come back. And at the same time, the leader of the communist party in Vietnam said something about how in 100 years’ time Vietnam can reach the goal of socialism. We tried to connect those utopic ideas together.
But for The Tree House, the idea of Mars didn’t appear until late in the editing process. I was editing for about a year, going through a lot of different versions, and most of them failed. When you start out you stick to the same ideas and you don’t change much. You just keep sticking to it and only change small parts – there’s no radical change. So, for the last bit of editing I wanted to go completely to that radical point. When I freed my mind the idea of Mars came back, and I said “why not?”
I felt the film needed a certain detachment, as you said. And to me, Mars isn’t necessarily a metaphor, because it is something you can consider realistic. It could happen. The idea that we as humans have to be far away from home has already happened. So, in the film, Mars is like a screen to project our imagination onto, to make things a bit more interesting for the film. But the foundation of that idea is something real; it’s about our life, how we have to move away from home and be homeless in the true meaning of that term.
And that notion of being away from home really ties up the end of the film, and you also mention Gaston Bachelard in the credits. Could you talk about his influence on the film? How did it shape your explorations of the meaning of home?
I think that without him, I would not have been able to make this film. The Poetics of Space is very poetic and imaginative, with how describes the house from different perspectives, different layers. It was something that was waiting for me to adapt in some way, because the way he writes is very figurative – you can see images in your eyes as you are reading his book. There’s the dual existence of home that he talks about. Home is not only about physical things – architecture, materials, location – because it’s also spiritual and about memories. With that understanding in mind, the challenge was balancing those two things in my film. There’s the physicality of the house, the camera bending around the house to let you know what kind of material it is made of, and also there’s the memories of the people living in that house, which says something about their spirit.
And there’s some great imagery in that book, like when he says about the house being the centre of the universe. At the beginning of my film you see the movement of the camera along the mountains and then you see the small house with the small light – that was one of the inspirations I had, amongst others!