Written by Nguyen Duc Tung for Hanoi Grapevine
Do not copy or re-post without permission from the author and Hanoi Grapevine.
On the evening of 27 Jan 2019, TPD hosted the screening of “Đừng đốt” (Don’t Burn) by People’s Artist, director Dang Nhat Minh. Below is the exchange between the director and the audience at the screening.
What brought you to the book and why did you decide to make it into a film?
Back in 2005, The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram created a sensation in Vietnam. My father is a doctor, so I also read the book. I like it but at first there was no intention of making it into a film. Each page is a story, so it is difficult to convey it all. But after reading Fred’s article – the American veteran who kept the diary of doctor Dang Thuy Tram for 35 years, I realized there was a lot of invaluable materials: how he discovered and studied the diary, how it haunted him, or the opposite perspectives within Fred’s family, … From that point, I decided to make the film.
Could you share with us an unforgettable memory when making this film?
It was probably the international spirit. There are many foreigners in the film crew. There are 2 Hungarian musicians, 7 American actors, and many others. When I went to the US to prepare for filming, all the actors had already learnt the script by heart. They said that they felt very touched and sympathized with Vietnamese people. Don’t Burn was screened at most universities in the US. The screenings attracted a large audience and there were also veterans among them. I remember most of all that there was a young colored audience who said that he had a brother who died in the Vietnam battlefield and felt very resentful. But after watching the movie, he forgot all the grudge, and felt sympathy for the loss on both sides. Japanese viewers also like this movie very much. At the Fukuoka Film Festival 2009, Don’t Burn won the Audience Award – the only award in the festival.
Was there any detail in the movie that you had to extenuate due to political reasons?
I am a director, an artist, I don’t engage in politics. Things like erasing the past or looking toward the future are not my duties. I just thought that on this side are people with affection, family, love. The same for the other side. That was why Ms. Dang Thuy Tram won over this American soldier. I met him before filming. I asked when reading the diary so many times, what impressed him the most. Fred read me a couplet: “Ai oi co biet chang ai/ Tinh thuong se chap canh dai cho ta” (Rough translation: “Do you know? Love will give us wing to fly”). It means that he admired her love for human. That was were her strength lied. In this movie, she never held a gun, she never fired a single shot. But her personality, her love for her family and comrades won over the soldier on the other side. I make art so I only care about people. I don’t care about any other mission.
How did the casting process in the US take place? Were you satisfied with the cast?
I have no fund for casting. Our first assistant director lived in the United States, her husband was a camera operator. We discussed over the Internet. When it was bedtime for her, I was awake and vice versa. She went to look for an actor and sent me photos. I selected several people and asked her to film them for testing. Thanks to that, when I arrived, the cast was already ready. There were 200 candidates for 7 roles in the film.
Which scene from the movie moved you the most?
To be honest, when I started writing, I had to be touched by every scene in order to write it down. I make films with emotions, not trends. There was one scene that until now when I close my eyes I was still very touched, that was when Dang Thuy Tram was shot. But then she smiled a little. She saw herself riding a bike, returning to her parents. At that time, I told actor Minh Huong to act very subtly. A big smile would have ruined everything. She was very smart, with only one take she smiled exactly how it should be. Her last wish was to be home. When the film was shown around the world, there was only one Japanese audience said he admired my talent. He had not seen any movie scene where the dying smile. Japanese people are very sophisticated.
This movie must be filmed in the US first right in the season when leaves turning yellow. Returning to Vietnam, the first scene filmed was Tram riding a bike to the end of the road. A simple scene to get started. When I sat by the frame, I had goose bumps and was sure the film would be a success.
What is the meaning of the hairpin in the film?
During the Subsidy period, three-leaf stainless steel hairpins were popular with the girls. That is why it was the only thing left for Tram’s mother. When traveling on the train, seeing other soldiers of the same age as her daughter, she felt pitied for herself because they were fortunate to be able to return, yet all that was left of her child was the three-leaf hairpin that she gave Tram before she went into the war. Finally, the scene of the mother hold the souvenir tight in her hand accurately described motherhood. That’s cine!
It has been 10 years since “Don’t Burn” was released. Are you planning on any other project?
I had 5 scripts written down, but no financial means. Fortunately there is a person who’s willing to support us even without profit. I am determined to make a film next year.
Thank you for sharing!
Translated by Hanoi Grapevine
“Don’t burn” was produced in 2009, directed and written by Dang Nhat Minh. The film was based on the diary of the female martyr Dang Thuy Tram, which she wrote from 1968 until 2 days before sacrificing in 1970.