Owl and the Sparrow is a tiny tale, as low-to-the-ground as the little girl who searches for a family she can call her own. Pham Thi Han, who plays ten-year-old Thuy, describes her character as “down on her luck.” So she runs away from her uncle’s bamboo factory, where her work is never good enough, to the big city. A flower girl on the streets of Saigon, she discovers two other castaway hearts, in a man who takes refuge as a zookeeper (Le The Lu) and a flight attendant (Cat Ly) who’s looking for love.
Like a modern-day Pip in Vietnam, Thuy is both tender and spirited. She is brought to life by Stephane Gauger, who wrote, directed, and shot Owl and the Sparrow, his debut feature, to give us an eye-level picture of Ho Chi Minh City today. His guerrilla-style camera and small-scale mode of production keep the film flowing with the traffic of the city, but always in step with little Thuy and all that drives her dreams.
I interviewed Stephane Gauger prior to the 2007 Los Angeles Film Festival, where Owl and the Sparrow will be screened in the Narrative Competition.
Diane Sippl: Tell me, what took you to Vietnam for this film, which I notice you also co-produced?
Stephane Gauger: I was born in Vietnam and came to the U.S. when I was five years old. My mother was Vietnamese and my father was American. He was a contractor during the war with a company that built roads and bridges, and then he married my mom — a classic “Miss Saigon” story. When he passed away in the early 1970s, I was still a toddler. So I was raised by my mom and my grandma, mostly in California and a couple of years in Houston. Fortunately, in an immigrant house, you always have the grandparents, so I learned Vietnamese growing up with my grandma.
Diane: What attracts you to work there?
Stephane: It’s a good time to be making films in Vietnam because the industry is opening up. The censors are a little bit more lax regarding content when granting permits. I was able to get my first feature through, even though it had some social issues. I feel I’m in a good position because I’m a filmmaker based in the U.S. who is Vietnamese American, so I’m able to tell Vietnamese stories with a hybrid perspective. My films will have a Western touch, but they’ll be authentically Vietnamese.
Diane: Would you call this “fusion”?
Stephane: Well I grew up in California with American films, but I’m a huge fan of European cinema, and I’m able to tap into the depths of Vietnamese society, so there is a type of fusion there that I’d like to bring into my work.
Diane: Which European filmmakers inspire you?
Stephane: Stylistically, I like Tom Tykwer’s work — Winter Sleepers, The Princess and the Warrior — simply because his films are moody and quiet. And I like the Dardenne brothers quite a bit because of their social realism and their portrayal of working-class characters. I don’t like films that make you wonder what a person’s doing for a living, because in reality everybody’s got to work. Everybody needs an occupation.
Diane: Your film opens with the activity of work — with close-ups on hands preparing the bamboo, assembling the strips, tying them off — and Thuy’s uncle infuriated with her for cutting the bamboo the wrong length.
Stephane: That scene at the bamboo factory has a Dardenne touch because the camera is constantly moving to show all the details of making bamboo blinds, which is how these women make their living. That’s the fascinating thing about mixing documentary with fiction. The women in that scene are real workers, and while they’re acting, the real actors are learning the work and grounding themselves in the workers’ reality. Our little Thuy practiced for half a day to learn the motions.
Diane: Is child labor common in Vietnam today? Do you consider it a historical holdover of a traditional mentality, or a social necessity, or a prevalent fact of the economy, or a rarity?
Stephane: In this case, it relates directly to family. Children work at their parents’ restaurants, tailors’ shops, bamboo factories, simply out of family obligation. Schooling is entirely up to each family, and child labor does exist.
Diane: Is universal education for children lacking in Vietnam?
Stephane: It’s not a huge problem, but Vietnam is still a society of “haves” and “have-nots.” Schools cost money. You have to pay for books, uniforms.
Diane: Are the schools there private or state-run? Do they charge tuition?
Stephane: No, but there are still fees that need to be paid, and some families are just too poor to afford them.
Diane: I thought that school would be offered and affordable to every child, but that some parents would prefer to make money through their children’s labor in their family businesses.
Stephane: For the poorest of the poor, it’s a matter of survival.
Diane: So why are the authorities chasing after Thuy in your film? Is it that she’s not allowed to be a vagrant, or to work in the second economy, or to be out of school? What exactly are the violations that could cause her trouble?
Stephane: The scooping up of children is the direct result of the fact that everybody needs to have tabs kept on them. If you’re undocumented in the city like little Thuy is, you’ll be sent to a children’s home. Everybody needs papers. Thuy has no identification; she’s a runaway. Children are allowed to sell in Vietnam, but they need to be controlled. The authorities need to know that they have parents looking after them.
Diane: You shot some scenes in an orphanage. What are these institutions like in Vietnam?
Stephane: There are about five in Saigon. The kids are very well taken care of there. Volunteers, some European, come in every week to play games with them. If I show any despair in my film, then it’s purely for dramatic reasons. Thuy would rather be in a nice family. But orphanages in Vietnam are not horrible by any means. They’re actually very well run.
Diane: What’s so moving about your little protagonist is that she trusts in herself and her talent to live, in her street smarts but also her taste in people. Of course it happens that nice people come to her and help her out as opposed to exploiting her and abusing her, which even her peers might be likely to do if they’re having a hard time. But you wrote that character as a confident and compelling child, and Pham Thi Han carries off the role amazingly well.
Stephane: She was able to inhabit the character so well because she’s a smart ten-year-old girl, and when we were just sketching out her role, she was able to grasp it right away. Not only that, but she was able to stay consistent with the character, because we shot out of sequence and she was able to track the development. She’s quite phenomenal for being such a young age.
Her character comes from my interaction with many flower girls on the streets of Saigon. I’ve spent a lot of time there. I’m always nice to these girls, and I’m always fascinated by their stories. Some of these girls have been selling flowers for five years. They start when they were eight, and before I know it, they’re thirteen. They’re smart, and they could have a bright future if opportunities were allowed to them. On the surface they’re never sad. They’re very bubbly. They do what they need to do.
Diane: And where do they sleep?
Stephane: None of them are really orphans. Some of them have family in the countryside or far away towns, because Saigon, with eight million people, is the biggest city in Vietnam. Staying with an uncle or a cousin in the city and selling flowers for a few months may generate some income for a family that maybe makes a dollar a day harvesting rice.
Diane: In cultures built on the extended family, a variety of people might be considered responsible for the younger children, so it didn’t seem odd to me that Thuy would get help from the other young vendors or latch onto the flight attendant or zoo keeper.
Stephane: When I was doing my rough cut and showing selected scenes, some people were worried that the zookeeper was a little too friendly toward Thuy. But that’s a very American perspective. Asians don’t have the problem with child molestation that we have in Western society.
Diane: And the child pornography and sex trafficking that’s all over our media?
Stephane: If that’s perpetrated, unfortunately it’s by Westerners, but it’s quite non-existent in the Vietnamese culture. It’s punishable by serious prison time, so it’s just not done. Well, I think some other countries like Thailand or Cambodia have a bad reputation for allowing this type of abuse, but in Vietnam, they nip it in the bud. They don’t want it in their country.
Diane: We’ve talked about your moving camera, and that it’s hand-held much of the time, small and unobtrusive as it is, but what about distance? I felt noticeably right up-close to the characters. Were you deliberately using lots of close-ups to create an intimate drama?
Stephane: Well if I have good actors, I’m drawn to them, and I’m partial to using close-ups because I’m in love with my actors’ faces and their expressions. I focus on close-ups the way that Cassavetes did.
Diane: Is your camera working in the same way that he followed his actors, or are there some differences?
Stephane: I wanted to have that kind of “Dogme ’95” feel in this film, to get into the heads of the characters with close-ups. We didn’t use marks for the actors or tripods or shot lists, because we didn’t do master coverage with wide shots. And we used live sound without dubbing. I wanted to keep it loose and free.
Diane: Did you use light in any particular way?
Stephane: As far as the design of color and light goes, Saigon is such a picturesque, ugly-beautiful world that I didn’t have to color anything; I just shot it and captured it. The city is there, in all its color, and interesting images pop up in the frame, like rickshaws and motorbikes and women in colorful hats. We used very minimal lighting. I wanted the story to be natural, and the lighting had to reflect that, so we used a lot of available light and tried not to let the film look artificial.
Diane: You said you shot at 30 locations in 15 days. Were there particular parts of the city that you chose for any reason?
Stephane: I wanted that neon-drenched look at night, so we chose locations with existing florescence and lots of background people. For other scenes I just wanted a chaotic feeling, so I shot in the streets with a constant level of traffic to create the sense of a bustling city. But ultimately, I told the location scout that I didn’t want anything too pretty. Typically in Vietnamese films they want big homes with white walls and shiny new motorcycles, but I wanted to stay away from that soap-opera world and keep it a little bit raw.
Diane: Well, I take it those homes must be more the exception than the rule.
Stephane: Yes, but soap operas on Vietnamese television always take place in really big homes, and I think that’s universal. American soaps are always in mansions as well.
Diane: Are soap operas big in Vietnam?
Stephane: They’re the most common fare on TV, besides game shows. The society is changing fast there. These game shows didn’t exist five years ago. But now, since the economy of the country has grown rapidly, we have more product on TV, and some of it is Western-influenced, such as game shows. There’s a show starting this fall called, Vietnamese Idol, based on American Idol. That’s just pop culture spreading through the world.
Diane: And what do Vietnamese people go to see on the big screen?
Stephane: Broad comedy and broad melodramas.
Diane: In Owl and the Sparrow you introduce something very different — a montage of static shots of children looking directly into the camera. For me, these shots offer a little more perspective, and they break your editing scheme a bit.
Stephane: In a sense, my film is an homage to the Vietnamese people, and particularly to Vietnamese children. I use portraiture to reflect Thuy’s character. For me, she represents the Vietnamese child. The children in my portraits are actually from various parts of Vietnam, in the countryside and the cities — Hanoi; Hoian, near the center of the country; and also the north, close to the Chinese border. So they’re from the society as a whole.
Diane: How do you see Owl and the Sparrow in relation to other films made by Vietnamese Americans?
Stephane: I’m working right now with Timothy Bui, who co-produced Three Seasons, directed by Tony Bui. Timothy’s first feature as a director was Green Dragon, about Vietnamese refugees in Camp Pendleton, California. I co-wrote the story with him for his next feature, Powder Blue. It’s interesting that people who have read that scri pt, which is about four wounded souls on the streets of Los Angeles, find similarities with Owl and the Sparrow, because ultimately the themes of love and connection in the big city surface. So Owl and the Sparrow isn’t specifically Vietnamese except for its landscape and its characters; its themes are universal. Powder Blue is being shot this summer, and I’m directing the second-unit portion of that.
My own second feature will be shot in Saigon, hopefully next year. But there is also Ham Tran, who was executive producer for Owl and the Sparrow along with Tim Bui. Ham Tran is the director of Journey from the Fall. So those are my two champions, and they’re both filmmakers in their own right.
There’s actually been talk of the emergence of a “Vietnamese film movement,” a new crop of Vietnamese films and filmmakers presenting their work at festivals. We’re trying to raise the bar for Vietnamese films, to give them international appeal, and to promote the younger filmmakers, because it used to be taboo for young Vietnamese artists to study film. That’s not so much the case any more.
Diane: Because film wasn’t considered art? Or because it wasn’t academic?
Stephane: It’s just the old cliché of Asian parents wanting their kids to study law and medicine, and not to go into the arts. But now it’s changed, with digital cameras introduced in Vietnam over the last few years. You see a lot more Vietnamese young people who are majoring in film.
Diane: Where is that? In Vietnam, or in the U.S.?
Stephane: Both countries. There’s a new crop of young filmmakers out of the Ho Chi Minh Film School, but there are also Vietnamese film students at UCLA and USC. I’ll continue to work with crew in Vietnam because they’re quite proficient technically, and maybe a Vietnamese cinematographer. She graduated from UCLA’s film school. And definitely Pham Thi Han, who played Thuy.
Diane: And will your next film be another “fairy tale of everyday life,” or will it be grittier?
Stephane: I was really careful with my first one not to make it too dark. In my next scri pt I’ll take more liberties. But I’m not in the business of making films that lead you to want to slit your wrist at the end. There’ll always be an element of hope in my work.