New Doc Charts How "Vietnam’s Lady Gaga" Became an Activist Banned From Playing in Her Own Country

'Mai Khoi & The Dissidents'

Pop star turned protest singer Mai Khoi is the subject of Joe Piscatella's film 'Mai Khoi & The Dissidents,' which had its world premiere at Doc NYC.

Mai Khoi’s childhood dreams should by rights have been realized when she had a song that topped the charts in her native Vietnam and she was warmly embraced as a role model by her country’s ruling Communist Party.

Only something wasn't right. “I felt something missing inside me,” says Khoi.

A documentary focusing on the artist’s story, Mai Khoi & The Dissidents, made its world premiere at the Doc NYC festival this week. It reveals how the artist was once at the top of the local charts, feted by the Communist government for her patriotic hit "Vietnam," and how she became known as the Vietnamese equivalent to Lady Gaga, thanks to her pure and seemingly effortless pop sensibilities. But then she turned her attention to more serious matters.

These have included the wrongs Khoi sees in contemporary Vietnamese society, among them the corruption she claims stretches to the very top of government, and also the censorship she says curtails any notion of free speech.

Needless to say, Khoi fell out of favor very quickly, and the film charts her continued efforts to raise such issues, by meeting with former President Barack Obama, or attempting at one point to upstage a visit by current President Donald Trump and thereby draw attention to the causes she champions.

At the same time Khoi is trying to record a new record of protests songs, and to find ways to reach her audience despite the fact that she has been banned from playing live in Vietnam, and is apparently under close watch, at all times.

“I think if people see this documentary they will understand my activities and my music more than before,” Khoi tells The Hollywood Reporter from New York, where she attended the premiere. “It will inspire people to care and make a change in society. Especially I hope it will inspire Vietnamese artist to create without thinking about censorship.”

At the time of talking, Khoi was not even sure she would be allowed to return to her homeland, believing the documentary would further raise the ire of a traditionally conservative government she said had done its utmost to silence her, and her music.

“I am very excited by the film,” says Khoi. “But another feeling is I am worried about the reaction of the Vietnamese government after the documentary goes viral. The more popular the documentary, the more the government will hate me. They can enforce a travel ban. They can detain me if I go back to my country. They can do anything they want.”

Mai Khoi & The Dissidents is directed by the Los Angeles-based Joe Piscatella, known for 2017’s Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, which looked at Hong Kong’s then-teenage pro-democracy campaigner Joshua Wong and won the Audience Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival while being acquired as a Netflix Original. 

“I am drawn to unusual heroes who stand up to massive power structures. I like the underdog stories,” explains the director, who now hopes to travel with the film — and Khoi — on to the international festival circuit.

Piscatella and his team capture the growing sense of unease felt by Khoi, and by those around her, including a band member who has his loyalties questioned by a father worried about the attention working with her might bring.

The full access the filmmakers get to Khoi — which meant basing themselves in the flat above the one she shares in Hanoi with her husband — allows for an intimate portrayal of a charismatic artist driven by what she sees as her mission in life, despite the threats of possible incarceration and the effects her actions have, or might have, on those she holds near and dear.

Khoi refuses, flatly, to be hemmed in by a society where — we are told by journalists and by her fellow activists and musicians — silence is the expected reaction instead of dissent. 

“When I left the country the government didn’t know about the documentary,” says Khoi. “Now they know. They know my voice is being heard.”