Recently I’ve been trying to catch up with some of the movies I missed at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, it’s basically impossible to see all the works screened, and so two weeks ago or so I had the chance to watch A House in Ninh Hoa by Philip Widmann and Nguyễn Phương-Đan, a documentary shot in Vietnam and described as follows on the movie’s official page:
The old paternal house of the Le family, set in a rural scenery at the fringes of the small town of Ninh Hoa, close to the southern coast of Vietnam: A household dominated by women, neither rich nor poor, with chicken behind the kitchen and ‘rice paddies bordering the plot.
Through the everyday life of the inhabitants of the house, the constellation of the extended family becomes visible. A constellation that is fundamentally marked by the course that history took in the second half of the 20th century, and that has made Germany a substantial reference point in the life of the Le family.
One part of the family has been living close to the former West German capital of Bonn for more than 40 years while the other part still resides in Ninh Hoa. The community of the Les includes both relatives that are present and absent, and extends into the realm of the spirit world.
Three brothers embody the trajectories that history has taken: One brother was assigned as a diplomat to the embassy of the Republic of Vietnam in Bonn in the early 1970s. He took his wife and children with him. At the end of the war in 1975, the nation that had employed him ceased to exist, and they stayed in West Germany. Another brother who was a soldier disappeared in the last days of the war. His remains have never been found. The third one was sent into a re-education camp after the end of the war. Today, he is the only male family member left in the house in Ninh Hoa.
A House in Ninh Hoa is the kind of documentary I can easily connect with and relate to, challenging in its form, the movie questions the limits and the ontological foundation of the “genre”, even if it might look just as an “ordinary” documentary, at first glance.
Composed only by static shots, as far as I know there are no camera movements (no even one!), everything in the movie is told in tableaux, sort of Ozu-esque pillow shots, that reveal, fragment after fragment, the family story and the landscape where the movie takes place, and the movie is, to some extent, the very landscapes it depicts. The slow pace of the movie and its insistence on these spaces, domestic and external, build a very specific sense of duration, a cinematic tide that eventually envelopes the viewer in its own rhythm and its own time. This is achieved primarily through the editing, the shot compositions and the use of natural light, all stylistic elements that enhance the digital image, used here its full potential.
The title appears on screen only after 20 minutes or so and while the first fragments of the family stories are hinted here and there, it is only after an hour into the movie that everything becomes clearer, and the complete story of the family is explained in the last scene of the movie, when we see the only male family member left in the house reading from a piece of paper. Widmann and Phương-Đan thus construct the movie by removing information and data, and focusing instead on those elements usually considered secondary or peripheral such as anodyne landscapes and daily activities, presenting the family stories through an elliptical and fragmented narrative.
The afterlife, the connection with the departed and the spiritual world, in particular the brother never found at the end of the Vietnam war, is one of the central elements around which everything evolves for the family and consequently for the movie itself. Not only is the documentary imbued with an ethereal and contemplative aesthetic, but also everyone in the family speaks and moves around like they are themselves ghostly presences hovering around the house, thus evoking in the movie a sense of distance and absence, a metaphysical absence, and becoming in the end a reflection of the ephemerality of life.
Another point of interest of the movie, a major and more problematic one for me, is the position of the camera and the director/cameraman in relation to the people seen in the documentary. In the whole movie the camera is always an absent gaze, that is to say, there is never a look at the camera by the family members and never the person behind it is addressed directly by them. This raises a few questions, while there are no doubts that the story told in the documentary is true (Nguyễn Phương-Đan is a member of the family), A House in Ninh Hoa gives the idea of being composed also of reenacted and staged scenes. Exploring what the documentary form is and how much truth is conveyable through a certain cinematic style and approach, A House in Ninh Hoa is not only an eye pleasing piece of work — the stillness and beauty of the locations, and the shot compositions are outstanding — but also a fascinating dive into the limits of representation and the meaning of “truth” in relation to moving images. A beautiful and thought-provoking film that goes hand in hand with some of my favourite non-fiction works and that reminded me of a line spoken in Jocelyn Saab’s Beirut, My City (1982), a movie and a filmmaker I’ve also discovered in Yamagata. Reacting to a bombed landscape after buildings have been erased and reduced to ruins, the narrator/voice says that, I’m paraphrasing, a filmmaker/artist should try to capture reality, paradoxically, before it crystallizes into an image. A House in Ninh Hoa inhabits this paradox.
Director Philip Widmann was kind enough to reply to some of my questions and observations about the movie, and allowed me to use some of his words in the article.
P.S. The review of the movie was written before we exchanged our opinions and I decided not to modify it.
What is happening on the screen is maybe not entirely true but it is truthful, and personally I consider this more important. Truthfulness unites non-fiction and fiction as both need their inner logic, and unless you deal with public (historical) knowledge, it doesn’t matter if what you speak about is true as long as it is truthful. For the family members of course their truth is more important. But for the viewers of the film it isn’t.
The film is a staging of elements of the family’s everyday life that are punctuated by several discourses (biographical, historical, relating to identity, community, partnership etc.). In the eyes of the writers of the film these discourses are virulent but are rarely played out in the family life. Through the script we tried to infuse traces of these discourses into the scenes of the film. In order to work together, we explained the scenes and their supposed meaning to the family and discussed them. This exchange created a transparency that together with the static camera work relatively clearly delineated what would be part of the film and what wouldn’t, both in terms of framing and in terms of dialogue. Compared to forms that give preference to a mobile camera that follows people around and a way of speaking through interviews, this gave both the people in front and behind the camera a stronger sense of understanding and control.