Vietnamese Director Phan Dang Di Slams Government Censorship of Sex Scenes at Hanoi Film Fest

The filmmaker on why his country is falling behind in Southeast Asia, how Berlinale funding can help and why five crucial minutes hurt his hit "Bi, Don't Be Afraid."

Sitting in a cafe at the Daewoo Hotel Hanoi, Vietnamese director Phan Dang Di is on the edge of his seat and eager to talk. Local and foreign festival films are lighting up screens across his country’s capital for the second time in two years. As one of the local scene's leading young talents, Di has spent much of the Hanoi International Film Festival near the center of the action, popping up seemingly everywhere -- at panel discussions, seminars, screenings and official banquets.

In 2010, Di's debut film, Bi, Don’t Be Afraid, was Vietnam's first feature selected to appear at the Cannes International Critics Week. A moody domestic drama with several bold sex scenes, the film lost five minutes to censorship in Vietnam -- a process Di describes as “very painful” -- and was rendered nearly unrecognizable in its domestic release that same year. Abroad, the film was picked up by Acrobates Films and given a 60-cinema run in Paris, where it sold 10,000 tickets. The film was screened as part of HANIFF 2012 -- again in censored form.

This summer, Di will begin producing his production partner Nguyen Hoang Diep’s directorial debut, Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere, which was awarded 50,000 euro in financing from the Berlinale World Cinema Fund earlier this month and won the MPA-sponsored New Talent prize at the inaugural HANIFF Talent Campus last Wednesday. Di says he plans to begin shooting his second film, Big Father, Small Father, and Other Stories in the fall.

STORY: Berlinale World Cinema Fund Selects Filmmakers From Vietnam, Argentina, Mongolia and Turkey

Taking time out from his hectic schedule at HANIFF, Di spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the challenges and opportunities young Vietnamese filmmakers are facing as their domestic industry gradually grows and opens to the world.

The Hollywood Reporter: What's been your impression of the second edition of the Hanoi International Film Festival?

Phan Dang Di: Well, overall, I think it’s been good. As you know, it’s a young festival and we are still learning, but it’s important that this is happening. It gives the Vietnamese audience a chance to see some of our important older Vietnamese films and also interesting work from around the world. The festival’s new Talent Campus -- where I have done some talks­ -- is also an important step forward.

THR: How so?

Di: Because participating in these kinds of activities is the only way for young independent Vietnamese filmmakers to get their films made and possibly seen by the world now. My own case is a good example. I participated in the Pusan Promotion Plan in 2007 and L'Atelier at Cannes in 2008. Because of these experiences, I not only learned how to make a better film, and met many generous and experienced film professionals, but I learned that there are many ways to get financial support from grants and film funds. I was able to raise $600,000 to produce Bi, Don’t Be Afraid (2010), from different grants such as the World Cinema Fund and through contacts I made during these trips abroad. Before I went abroad, working in Vietnam, I never would have dreamed that I would be able to raise over half a million dollars to produce my first film -- no way. So, having our own Talent Campus that gives these 24 young Vietnamese filmmakers exposure to experienced professionals and knowledge of international standards is a great thing. Of course, not all of the students have polished projects to present; and not all of them are ready. But even if just one or two go on to do some interesting work that makes it into festivals, it will have been worth it. The fact that the Talent Campus was added this year also shows that the government is finally recognizing that investing in young filmmakers is the only way Vietnamese cinema will grow and develop like they want it to. That’s encouraging.

STORY: HANIFF Debuts New Talent Campus in Bid to Boost Vietnamese Industry

THR: What challenges are Vietnamese filmmakers facing in the domestic industry today?

Di: Well, domestically, there are really only two ways to get a movie made within Vietnam. You can try to get your film produced by one of the two main film companies, BHD and Thien Ngan Galaxy, which are very narrowly focused on making commercial horrors, comedies and ghosts stories for a quick profit; or you can get financing from the government. But to get government funding your script must be approved by the censorship board several times -- and it’s almost impossible for anything interesting and alive to come out of this process. The commercial films also need final approval from the censorship board before they can screen. Producers don’t want to risk putting their money into a movie that might not get approval, so they usually submit their scripts for consideration early on, too. For a filmmaker like me, who is interested in telling personal stories, the only option is to go for international funding and grants. It's the only way.

THR: Would you be interested in making more commercial films if there were more funding options?

Di: No, not at all [Laughs]. To make a successful commercial film, I think you need something ... I don't know the word -- a sense of what all people want? I don't know if I have that. I make films for myself. If a company offered me a lot of money for a commercial film, I think I would turn them down.

THR: As a member of the local scene, what do you think needs to change for the Vietnamese industry to continue to grow and flourish?

Di: First, we need to make more movies. There are currently only about 12 to 15 movies made in Vietnam per year -- very few. To do this, we need to create a bigger market. There are about 40 to 50 cinemas in Vietnam, almost all in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, for a population of over 80 million. There are very few cinemas outside the big cities. This has to change. The most important thing for local filmmakers is that the Vietnamese audience always wants to watch domestic Vietnamese films. Anytime Vietnamese filmmakers can make a good quality commercial film, the audience is very willing and eager to watch it. They love Hollywood films too, but they want to see Vietnam and Vietnamese stories. So, we have challenges, but a big opportunity is there.

THR: Does censorship reform need to be part of this process?

Di: Yes, the way they censor films has to change. The people who are in charge of the censorship committee -- even those higher up in the government -- they want to bring Vietnamese movies to the world, but they can’t do that if they continue to keep tight control. It’s impossible. Even compared to other Southeast Asian countries, we are behind. Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines have films selected by big film festivals each year. Vietnam does not. They know this. But if you want to encourage something new, and fresh and free, you can’t also keep control of what people say. What we need now is more openness, support, and freedom.