Director and Producer Tom Weidlinger Talked with Tuyet A. Tran
A VIETTOUCH FORUM EXCLUSIVE 2002 © All Rights Reserved

A Filmmaker's Journey
Tuyet A. Tran © 2002

Viettouch Forum came about as an idea that most artists, musicians, and writers often see, understand, observe and, perhaps grasp social and cultural nuances through their creative perspectives. We think it is the living beauty of thoughts and art that will offer better understandings of cultural differences. We focus on dialogues between artists of Vietnamese origin and their Western counterparts.

In the spirit of Viettouch Forum, we are excited to introduce our viewers to an exclusive behind-the-scene talk with the director and producer of A Dream in Hanoi, Tom Weidlinger, founder of Moira Productions. A Dream in Hanoi won high praise from Variety, the Seattle Film Festival and other critics earlier this year. The movie is scheduled to open in selected theaters in November 2002.

Viet Nam is not an ordinary location for most Western Americans to traipse around exploring memorable tourist-laden landmarks. While we will never know what goes on in the minds of most American tourists, the State Department staff, the United Nations aid workers, and other adventurers who came to Viet Nam --- Director Weidlinger provides us with his personal experience and thoughts.

Tom Weidlinger had never been to Viet Nam, the land that once ran red in a war that he opposed as a conscientious objector. According to Mr. Weidlinger, it was not only a language barrier, but also the physical location, and the local people that presented personal angst, social and cultural challenges. He has much to say and freely shares his perspectives, concerns and delight with Tuyet A. Tran, our editor.

Come along for a tête-à-tête with Tom Weidlinger. The mise en scène unfolds from the last-minute visa approval for his travel to Viet Nam, to the first encounter with the country followed by subsequent discoveries during the ten or more weeks in Viet Nam.

We welcome your thoughts and opinions regarding our new format and these four installments, starting from I. Uncharted Terrain to IV. An Artist's Satisfaction and Some Final Words.

Enjoy your virtual visit…

I. Uncharted Terrain

Tuyet A. Tran (Viettouch):
Have you traveled to Viet Nam (VN) before this project? How long did it take you to prepare or research about Viet Nam before the production?

Tom Weidlinger (TW): I have not been to Viet Nam before. Actually, I had very little time to prepare. I was asked to make the film by the Lillian Lincoln Foundation that funded one of my previous films. Its interest in supporting films about international relations and cross-cultural endeavors coincided with mine.

Viettouch: How long were you in Viet Nam?

TW: I spent ten weeks in Viet Nam for filming, and one month when I returned to show the film.

Viettouch: By way of introducing your movie A Dream in Hanoi to our audience, would you share your thoughts on your decision to document this production?

Did you intend the movie to come across as comedic vignettes about the joint US-VN production perhaps to infuse some common human foibles?

TW: Frankly, I didn't know what to expect when I started to make this film. I thought that the idea of two theater companies, one American and one Vietnamese, trying to perform a Shakespeare comedy in two languages simultaneously in Viet Nam was quite risky and quixotic. I was not at all sure if they would succeed, but I thought that documenting the process would result in an interesting film, regardless of the outcome of the theater project.

Viettouch: There were numerous US-VN projects before this play production that never received any notice either by the press, or even any interest outside of the Vietnamese American communities. I am thinking of the annual drive for books and educational tools sent to VN, medical assistance provided by Medecin Sans Frontieres to rural areas of the country, and art exhibits featuring Vietnamese artists shown in galleries particularly in the Northeast, New York City and Washington D.C.

Why do you think a documentary about a joint Vietnamese and American production of A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare would interest the Western audience/market?

TW: At the start, I was not sure that this film would interest US/Western audiences. In fact some of my previous films were about other countries and cultures, including After The Velvet Revolution depicting Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism in 1989. I have found that it is always difficult to interest U.S. broadcasters and distributors in foreign subjects unless the subject has some sensational components, or at least is closely related to conflicts that have been in the news. Nevertheless since I am interested in the subject of cross-cultural relationships, making this film was a welcoming opportunity.

Viettouch: What were the most difficult logistics for you and your crew working in Viet Nam other than language and perhaps cultural barriers? Did you find any of your apriori notions about Vietnamese people and the country changed once you began production and afterwards?

TW: Perhaps the most difficult part was getting a visa approved to come to Viet Nam to make the film. I wasn't sure whether I would actually be able to make the film until three days before I was on the plane to Hanoi.

Once I arrived in Viet Nam I expected that I would have some sort of "minder" or policeman who would accompany me wherever I went. Surprisingly, this person never materialized. I was completely free to make the film without interference. I had also worried that as an American, many North Vietnamese would regard me with suspicion or hostility because of the past history of war. This was not the case. I felt completely welcomed in Viet Nam.

Another concern I had was that the Vietnamese actors, directors, and producers in the film would not speak openly to me in interviews, especially if it meant saying anything critical about the Americans. At first this was true... all I heard were rather bland statements about how wonderful everything was. But as time went on, I think people in the project understood that my intention was not to make anyone look bad and frank acknowledgment of tensions and disagreements could actually be useful and beneficial to all concerns.

II. The Production - Two Crews and the Cinematographer

Viettouch: Did the American Western crew research and prepare in advance before landing in Viet Nam? The movie depicted the difficult moments, from a kiss on stage introduced by a Western actor, to a Vietnamese male actor allegedly chastising a Western actress for portraying a strong willed character, to the long lunch break taken by the Vietnamese crew.

TW: Lorelle Browning, the play's American producer and Allen Nause the co-director had been to Viet Nam before. Lorelle had worked extensively with the Central Dramatic Company of Viet Nam in order to bring an entirely Vietnamese production to university stages across the US.

I do not think that the American actors had much opportunity to research cultural differences beforehand.

Viettouch: Do you think the U.S. production group would have benefited from a modicum of research beforehand that might have saved time and lessened the frustrations?

TW: If you were asking about the theater production group, I would say both "yes" and "no." Certainly if the actors had some time to study Vietnamese in advance it would have helped them.

I think it is one thing to study cultural differences but it is quite another to experience them. I think the Americans in the theater group would probably describe themselves as culturally sensitive and open to differences. However, it is entirely a different matter for them to experience and deal with the actual conflicts.

Viettouch: Would you say these difficulties arose from cultural differences or theatrical styles?

TW: Both. On the cultural side I do think there are differences in what is considered appropriate behavior for men and women -- though getting everyone to agree on exactly what those differences are would be a challenge. On the theater side, the ways of working have some significant differences. For example, Vietnamese actors are expected to show up at the first rehearsal knowing all their lines and having developed a clear conception of the character they are to portray. By contrast, the Americans see rehearsal as more of a process in which they discover their characters (along with learning their lines), and the characters develop through a process of discussion, trial and error.

Viettouch: Don't you think that your movie's emphases play into the misguided Western assumptions that Asian females ought to be meek, or for that matter, long lunch hours seem to be freakishly unique to Vietnamese more than say, Europeans?

TW: No, I don't think so.

III. The Lessons

Viettouch: What would you like to say today for our audience about your overall experiences, frustrations, or thoughts about making a movie in Viet Nam?

TW: Personally, it was an extremely rewarding experience to make this film on several different levels. I really enjoyed working in Viet Nam and made many Vietnamese friends in the process.

Perhaps more important though, the film has already has a small but significant positive impact on two levels, the people who participated in the film, and the others in Viet Nam concerned with the dynamics of cross-cultural relationships.

I edited an entirely Vietnamese version of A Dream in Hanoi, which I took back to Viet Nam in March 2002 to show to everyone who participated in the project.

Prior to seeing the film the directors of the Central Dramatic Company in Hanoi were not particularly interested in further collaboration with their American counterparts. I also showed the screenings to students and cultural groups in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

I think the film provided a significant foundation of better understanding and improved perceptions for both Vietnamese and American groups about one another. Both groups are currently discussing future US-VN collaborations.

One interesting circumstance that I think has led to the film serving as an example of a successful cross-cultural collaboration has to do with the very unusual power dynamics in the relationship between the Americans and the Vietnamese on this project.

The Vietnamese actors, director and producer of the play belong to one of the most prestigious theaters in Viet Nam. They are well known stars in their field. In contrast, the Artists Repertory Theater of Portland, Oregon does excellent work but did not have an equivalent status. Further, the Americans had very limited resources, the actors worked practically for free. Whenever conflicts arose between the two sides, as they invariably do in most cross-cultural collaborations, the Americans did not have the upper hand of power or money to insist on their way of doing things. This was actually a tremendous asset for the production because both sides had to negotiate on what turned out to be a relatively level "playing field." I think this was a rare event.

My observation is that Western foreigners in Viet Nam, even those with the best of intentions working for Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and aid projects, are easily trapped in their own cultural assumptions about the "right" and "wrong" way to do things. Especially when the political and economic resources are within their command had enabled them to enforce their preconceived agenda rather than seeing the actual needs. This was not the case with the theater collaboration. I don't think that this American group is culturally sensitive, but instead they had few options to secure success other than to re-examine their assumptions and learn to work with the Vietnamese production.

Viettouch: I'm curious as to how do you manage to edit a Vietnamese version of your film? Is it different than the English version?

TW: We replaced the English narrator with a Vietnamese one. I had originally planned to provide Vietnamese subtitles until I learned from film people in Hanoi that Vietnamese audiences preferred dubbing.

We translated spoken English into Vietnamese by recording different male and female Vietnamese voices and laid in the Vietnamese over the English speakers. When you are watching an American speak in the film you would hear, at the beginning, a few English words, to establish the speaker which is then mixed down, and replaced with the spoken Vietnamese. Initially, I was concerned that the accents of Vietnamese American speakers whom we used would sound "off" to audiences in Viet Nam. However, the fact that they were translating foreigners actually worked out well. In Viet Nam most foreign films are simply dubbed over with single Vietnamese voice playing all roles, even for a dramatic film.

IV. Conclusion

An Artist's Satisfaction and Some Final Words

Viettouch: Was the process of making this film served as a catharsis for you in some ways, in light of your trepidation and concerns upon arrival to Hanoi, Viet Nam?

TW: I would say the most "cathartic" aspect of the experience for me was returning to Viet Nam to show the film, one year after the filming. Everyone, both the Americans and Vietnamese, took a certain amount of risk, of looking silly, of losing face, by allowing me to film them at unguarded moments and by answering my interview questions truthfully. There was no way of knowing, in advance, whether or not the Vietnamese participants would feel that their trust in me had somehow been betrayed. I was relieved and delighted to discover that they loved the film.

In addition, plans are underway to bring Vietnamese actors to the United States in 2004 to perform the play with their American partners, and the documentary will be shown in tandem with performances of the play.

Some NGOs in Hanoi, including the United Nations Development Fund, are using the film as a tool to promote dialogue between Vietnamese and expatriate staff members. The U.S. State Department is using the film in its Foreign Services Institute to sensitize and train overseas staff.

Viettouch: Would you work in Viet Nam again?

TW: I would do it again in a heartbeat. I enjoyed making this film immensely.

Viettouch: If another opportunity arises for you to work in Viet Nam, what would you do differently, knowing what you know now about working in a challenging environment?

TW: I think I was quite fortunate in my own experience with shooting this film. Because of circumstances peculiar to this project I really was not "prepared" for Viet Nam but I also had little time to formulate preconceived ideas or expectations. So my advice to other Westerners who are contemplating cross-cultural collaborations is for them to go with an open mind and heart but expect to have all their expectations and assumptions challenged.

Viettouch: Lastly, it is difficult at best for those of us who struggle to dispel inherent prejudice and try to change ignorant perceptions. What would your message be, as a Westerner, if given a chance, for countless Americans whose particular mindsets about Viet Nam, her people and culture, remain locked in bitter memories, condescension, harboring derogatory views and fearful suspicions towards the Vietnamese people at-large, once the enemy?

TW: I think that my generation was marked by the Viet Nam War whether or not we went as soldiers to Viet Nam. I was a conscientious objector. I know many American Viet Nam veterans who have returned to Viet Nam in the recent years, made friends with the Vietnamese people and made peace with their past. In fact, producer Lorelle Browning's husband, Marvin Simmons was a Viet Nam vet who visited Viet Nam with fellow veterans in the early '90s. They were deeply moved by the acceptance and forgiveness that they experienced on a personal level. This, in turn, led to the birth of the idea for the Viet Nam-America Theater Exchange (VATE).

My suggestion to people who still harbor fears and suspicions about Viet Nam and Vietnamese is to simply consider the example of hundreds of their countrymen who have transcended the void on a very personal level.

Viettouch: This final thought concluded our interview with Mr. Weidlinger.

We appreciate the generous time that Tom Weidlinger spent with our audience. His thoughtful answers provided hope and insights for future cultural exchanges between the United States and Viet Nam. We wish him much success for his contribution towards cross-cultural endeavors.

Acknowledgement: Director and Producer Tom Weidlinger, Moira Productions, Berkeley, California 2002
A Dream in Hanoi released by Moira and Dateline Productions in 2002.
References: Viet Nam America Theater Exchange (VATE) founded in 1998 by Lorelle Browning. Nha Hat Kich Viet Nam (Central Dramatic Arts Company of Viet Nam) based in Hanoi, Viet Nam.

Tuyet A. Tran © 2002 All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction or dissemination in all formats without a written permission from is strictly prohibited.