video and moving image works
An experimental documentary film on Nhan Van-Giai Pham literary movement of 1950s’ and its legacy of dissent in Vietnamese art.
“I walk on
seeing no street
seeing no house
Only rain falling
upon the color of red flags.”
(Tran Dan, 1956)
Research grant from Art Network Asia (ANA)
(from 2009 project proposal to Art Network Asia)
Brief Project Summary
This proposal is for the researching and making of “Rain Only Falling”, an experimental documentary film about Nhan Van-Giai Pham – the suppressed literary movement of the 1950s and the only instance of widespread intellectual dissidence ever to occur in North Vietnam – and its legacy of dissent in Vietnamese art over the past five decades.
Background of Project
For the last several months, I have started to research and document the survived poets of Nhan Van-Giai Pham (Humanism and Works of Beauty), a literary movement in the late-1950s demanding freedom of expression for Vietnamese writers and artists that was soon suppressed by the Communist Party and state. While some of the founders spent years in jail, others lost their right to publish for three to four decades; a generation of avant-garde artists who promised to revolutionize Vietnamese poetry and the arts was lost. This intellectual dissident movement, starting even before China’s Hundred Flowers Campaign, can be considered the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, and thus far the most important one in Vietnam.
The year 1956 was one of upheaval for the nascent socialist state in North Vietnam. Not only was the countryside in disarray, but no sooner was land reform ended than the campaign to reeducate the capitalists plunged the cities into fear. The whole country was in turmoil, and the atmosphere was stoked by a series of developments that comprised the only instance of widespread intellectual dissent ever to occur in North Vietnam. Commonly referred to as the Nhan Van-Giai Pham period, the interlude received its name from two short-lived periodicals in which poets and intellectuals voiced their concerns and criticisms of the Party and the government.
Among artists and intellectuals that joined the periodicals were poets Tran Dan, Hoang Cam, Le Dat, Nguyen Huu Dang, Phung Quan, composer Van Cao (author of the national anthem), musician Tu Phac, painter Bui Xuan Phai, lawyer Nguyen Manh Tuong, Dr Dang Van Ngu, and philosopher Tran Duc Thao. The first edition of Giai Pham was published in March, 1956. By December 1956, they had published two issues (Fall and Spring) of Giai Pham and five issues of Nhan Van. However this brief period of openness (with some similarities to the Chinese Hundred Flowers Campaign), in which the intellectuals called for freedom of expression and debated government policies, ended two years later as the Communist Party, under the influence of China, suppressed dissent. In 1958, the Party launches a campaign against “saboteurs on the ideological and cultural front”, with a re-education course organized for nearly 500 writers and artists in Hanoi.
Government suppression led to decades of professional and economic deprivation for the participants of Nhan Van-Giai Pham, including long jail terms for a few who were considered to be the key leaders. Little was known about this movement in the south, although some of its writings were well publicized, and the subsequent obliteration of the period from the public discourse also left generations of North Vietnamese ignorant of its development and issues it raised. Under such circumstances, the period became shrouded in a mist of myth-making accounts and commentaries.
Today, in the midst of rapid economic and social changes brought on since late 1986 when the Vietnamese Communist Party adopted a market-oriented development strategy and set out to integrate Vietnam into regional and international networks, issues about culture, tradition, modernity, intellectual freedom, and national identity – issues once dominating the intellectual discourse of the 1950s – have returned to the public arena to be discussed and debated with passion.
After spending decades in silence and seeming to have been eliminated from public’s memories, Nhan Van-Giai Pham is once again attracting attention from at least the intellectual and arts communities in Vietnam as a symbol for artists’ struggle for freedom of expression and the renovation of Vietnamese arts. One example of this current movement is the underground group Mo Mieng (Open Mouth) as they represent the present-day demands for writers and artists. Like Nhan Van-Giai Pham, Open Mouth pursues the policy of freedom of publishing, and to evade officially imposed censorship, the group self-publishes on webzines and samizdats, and uses Xerox machines to print their volumes in small quantities of 40-50 copies.
Although censorship in Vietnamese literature and art today is less oppressive than in the days of strict “socialist realism,” Vietnamese writers and artists still know where the limits are. Direct criticism of the Communist Party’s political power, for example, remains taboo. Nhan Van-Giai Pham, therefore, becomes a bridge that links a new generation of writers, musicians, artists, and intellectuals who have no revolutionary or wartime experience that their predecessors had. It allows them all to speak the same language.
Importantly, issues and demands raised by Nhan Van-Giai Pham in the late-1950s still resonate today with young artists, writers, and intellectuals. Although they may not share the personal experience of the older participants of the movement, the struggle against the tenets of “socialist realism” transcends generations.
Aims / Objective / Goals of Project
This film seeks, through personal accounts, to revisit the contexts in which the intellectual dissent of the 1950s arose, the issues that were raised by the intellectuals, and the state’s responses to such concerns. The objective is to record and visually preserve the oral history of Nhan Van-Giai Pham as the only widespread intellectual dissent movement in North Vietnam and the first of its kind in Southeast Asia.
I strongly believe that the documenting and remembering of Nhan Van-Giai Pham movement and its survived poets itself is a very important task within the shared histories of Southeast Asia, the people, power and freedom of expression. So far, there have not been any film projects that record and present these poets’ stories, sufferings, art and life.
Significantly, the film project also aims to create conversations across different generations of Vietnamese writers and artists about their common issues and demands in different times, about the (dis)continuities in the artists’ struggle for freedom of expression and of what the half-a-century silence of Nhan Van-Giai Pham has meant and will continue to mean for the Vietnamese arts and society at large. Essentially, the purpose of the film is to raise questions and spark further thinking and discussion rather than trying to give the audience a conclusive answer about where Vietnam is going from here as a thinking nation.