Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lights! Camera! Vietnam!

Now I know how Brad Pitt must feel. After three days of wearing microphones, getting cameras shoved in my face, and repeating the same lines over and over to ensure every angle has been covered, I've had my taste of the famous actor's life (for a fraction of his money).

I think I'll stick to my day job.

Not that my ego didn't appreciate it. I was the star of the show! While I didn't get my own trailer, or a personal assistant, the only reason a director, cameraman, and sound engineer flew to Vietnam from New York City, and hired a local production company, van, and driver, was to watch me to go through the motions of pretending to find a home in Hanoi.

For those who haven't been following our story, some months ago I wrote about my lovely new apartment in Hanoi. A few days later, a New York producer contacted me to see if I wanted to be on a popular US cable TV program called House Hunters International.

The program follows US expatriates as they look for properties to buy or rent overseas. I was familiar with the show's format: the expat looks at three properties, the audience gets to guess which apartment is chosen, and then there's the reveal.

What the hell; it sounded fun! And because Hương had basically found the apartment, and the show wanted me to have "an advisor," it was agreed that she and I would do the show together. So Hương and I filmed some camera tests on her digital camera, mailed them to the producer, and after some weeks the producer wrote back to say the project was on.

The Crew
I was asked to block out three full days, Saturday through Monday, from 8:30 AM to roughly 7:00 PM, for the shoot. The plan was this: I would pretend to look at three apartments, including the one I actually chose. Two of those apartments would be with a local real estate agent; the one I chose would have been found by Hương through the Internet – as it actually was. That way, we could tell a fairly truthful story, but still fit it within the program's format.

Saturday morning. Hương and I met the crew near the Hanoi Opera House, a few blocks from my home. They were all young, hip, New York City white guys with a solid blend of professionalism, humor and attitude:

  • Tom Langan, the director, a low-key bald and bearded 30-something: the guy who makes the creative decisions, tells us what to say, and tries to keep everyone happy.
  • Joe Lipari, the cameraman, thin and fit from carrying a big, heavy $120,000 camera all day. Joe is up for two Emmy awards this year...a definite pro!
  • Dave Scaringe, the sound man, responsible for sticking microphones on people's bodies and boom mikes in their faces, and trying to get a clean sound amidst Hanoi's incessant noise ("a sound man's nightmare"). He handled with humor what would have driven me up a wall!

In addition to the NY crew, we had Nam, the local media company rep, who served as translator and general support, and a government censor named Joe, who despite speaking no English, was supposed to ensure that nothing we did besmirtched the name of the glorious Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Regardless of his presence, within minutes we were all cracking wise, dropping "F"-bombs, and it all felt very much like home.

The next three days are a blur. The first day, we hooked up with Adrien Bouriaud, a young Frenchman who was cast as my realtor. After some shots in his office, we went off to look at the two apartments he was supposed to have shown us. Adrien, Hương, and I worked well on camera; we successfully feigned interest, suppressed our grins, and more or less did whatever Tom told us to do, and had a fun time doing it.

The second day was shot mostly in my apartment. The crew loved the place, and it looked GREAT on camera. We hid some of my stuff so it could look like we were seeing it for the first time. My friend Phuong was roped into coming over and pretending to be my landlady. An inside joke was, despite the fact that Phuong is one of the most fluent English speakers I know, she was supposed to have limited English ability, so Hương would have to translate. I haven't stopped giving her shit about it yet.

On the third day, I was left alone with the crew for the morning, which was mainly about "Hal enjoying life in Hanoi." In the afternoon, to shoot the "back story," we went to my friend Kevin's house, and pretended that his room was my old apartment. I had originally wanted to use the actual place, but my old landlords had refused to let us shoot at their house because, like everyone else in Vietnam, they fear their government, and were concerned that a camera crew would call attention upon themselves. I feel very fortunate that Kevin, his wife Keiko, and their landlord stepped up to let us film in their house.

In all, it was a gratifying, exhausting, and somewhat surreal experience. For me, it was less an opportunity to play movie star than a chance to showcase Hanoi's charms. Given that, for many Americans, Vietnam remains a war and not a country, I also hope that showing an American blending into daily life – learning the language, buying groceries, navigating traffic – might help some Americans to see Vietnam as a modern nation, in all its humanity and chaos. I was the face on camera, but my hope is that, in the end, Hanoi itself will prove to be the star.

The show is expected to air toward the end of the year. I'll keep you all posted! Meanwhile, if you want any autographs, you'll have to speak to my agent, thenkew, thenkew, thenkew...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Vietnam's War in Color

We did not feel guilty. We killed to save our homes. That's why we had no nightmares, unlike the Americans...

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a remarkable two-part documentary, called Indochine: A People's War in Colour, on The Discovery Channel. As remarkable as the content of the film is the fact that it was shown in Vietnam.

The film uses a combination of archival footage and eyewitness testimony to tell the story of Vietnam's tumultuous 20th century, beginning with French colonialism, and including Japanese occupation, the independence war against France, and later, Vietnam's Civil War and U.S. intervention. Incredibly, all of the footage is in color.

This is not a gimmick or a result of post-production. During their research, the producers of the show discovered that much of the original footage – those grainy images of Việt Minh fighters firing anti-aircraft weapons against the Japanese, French forces surrounded at Điện Biên Phủ, and camouflaged NVA fighters moving down the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" – had in fact been shot on color stock. Indochine: A People's War in Colour brings this footage to the public for the first time.

What is the emotional effect of color? Color takes the war from the realm of history into the realm of personal experience. Whether viewing agrarian life in the 1930s, or late 1960s urban Saigon, color evokes a sense of immediacy that black-and-white film cannot. You see Hồ Chí Minh as a thin, aging man with wispy hair smoking his cigarettes and sitting in quiet contemplation, and you feel yourself beside him. You see schoolchildren studying in the Cu Chi Tunnels (Địa đạo Củ Chi), their faces illuminated by candlelight, and you feel their earnestness. This is not history. It is real.

Adding to the emotional impact are the eyewitness testimonies that accompany the footage. Vietnamese and French soldiers who took part in the siege of Điện Biên Phủ describe their feelings as you watch the jungled airstrip assailed by artillery. Mothers talk about seeing their sons for the last time as you watch soldiers in Hanoi getting onto trucks to go fight the war down south. Watching their young faces under oversized helmets, I could see the students I teach every day. They were the same faces.

Indochine: A People's War in Colour was first aired in May, 2009. Beforehand, it had been heavily advertised on The Discovery Channel and, among Vietnam's expatriate community at least, was eagerly anticipated. Then, on the night it was scheduled to air, it simply wasn't shown. Government censors had apparently pulled the show, with no explanation. So the fact that I was able to watch it nearly a year later, seems to indicate a reversal of government policy.

Nothing in the program should be seen as particularly threatening to Hanoi's government. The film briefly touches on the communist mistreatment of North Vietnamese landowners in the late 1950s, but Hanoi has long (for the most part) acknowledged the atrocities. If anything, the film shows tremendous sympathy to the people of Vietnam who, irrespective of political allegiances, bore the brunt of the century's burdens. One can only wonder what provoked the government's original ban...other than a general, knee-jerk sensitivity to political content.

I've written before about how little Vietnam's wars continue to play in modern Vietnamese memory (see William Calley and Vietnam's Spiritual Renewal). While not exactly an irrelevant subject, war seems to be hardly ever thought about, even by those old enough to have experienced it.

Watching crowds in Hanoi saying goodbye to their soldiers from places I pass every day, however, I couldn't help but reflect on how much this country had endured. And it made me see the faces of my neighbors, those old enough to have lived through those difficult times, differently.

A friend has just alerted me to the fact that you can see the film on YouTube. By all means, check it out!

Friday, April 9, 2010

April Update

Some of you may have noticed: I have disappeared in recent weeks. It isn't that I don't love you. I've just been busier than a mosquito in a nudist colony, happily engaged in work and other things. I have been taking notes for future blog posts, but it's been difficult for me to sit down and put them together. And because I hate to bore you with postcard details about my life (I've always wanted this blog to inform), I assumed I had nothing to tell you about.

But then it occurred to me, the fact of my busyness IS worthy of a post. And here's why: Vietnam is a land of opportunity. With a population approaching 90 million, and annual economic growth between 6 and 8%, Vietnam is replete with economic opportunities for locals and foreign expatriates alike. Mine is a success story, and I'm happy to share it with you.

First, some background. A little over a year ago, my situation in the states had become difficult. In the depressed economic climate of the time, I was finding my job options to be limited. I was certainly employable, but hating the corporate opportunities that were coming to me. And while I have nothing against living a slackerly, Bohemian lifestyle, a recent divorce had saddled me with debt, and I was eager to shake off the burden.

As I explained in my inaugural blog post nearly a year ago, The Road to Hanoi, I had spent most of the early 1990s as an EFL hobo in Asia, and always maintained this line of work as a fall-back option. With the combination of debt and job dissatisfaction, it seemed a good time to cash in my chits.

I chose Vietnam for a number of reasons: my love of the food, my fascination with its history, and the fact that I've just plain liked a lot of the Vietnamese people I've met over the years. But self-interest was part of the equation. I bet that, with my combination of skills and experience – Master's degree in education, experience in the EFL publishing industry, corporate instructional design background, and technical skills – there would be opportunity for me in this rapidly growing economy.

And I was right. I looked at English teaching as a stepping stone. But because I believe that the journey should always be as rewarding as the destination, I wanted it to be a stepping stone that I could put a little heart into. And it has been – teaching in Vietnam has been an enormously satisfying experience, and one that, in my new role, I am not entirely giving up.

But now, I have a new position, one that has been created to take advantage of my unique talents. My title: Blended Learning Program Manager. What the hell does THAT mean? Unfortunately, I cannot give you all the details about the position, but it involves curriculum design, writing, educational technology development, and all the other things I love to do. I've moved from the classroom to a position that involves me deciding what GOES into the classroom for the school as a whole. It involves shifting my focus from tactics to strategy, and I'm excited to tackle the challenge.

And here's the best part: I've signed a two-year contract. The earliest I'm likely to leave Vietnam is March, 2012. So you can expect my ramblings from Hanoi to keep coming to you for awhile.

April will be a little slow on the publishing front. Upcoming posts include musings on a recent documentary about Vietnam, more food descriptions, Chinese medicine as Vietnamese home remedies, and of course, the film company is coming from New York City THIS WEEKEND to film my episode on House Hunters International. I'll be blogging about all this and more! But all this will roll out after I've settled into my new position.

The message for readers, I believe, is this: if you are trying to decide what to do with your life, and the world outside beckons, head into it. Fortune favors the bold. And if Vietnam seems an attractive option, I can assure you that it is.