It was 20 years ago, in February 1996, that I went to southern Vietnam on a grant from the Canadian International Development Agency. I taught video production to a group of young agrologists at a research institute in the Mekong Delta. They had been using television to provide farmers with information but wanted a refresher on story writing and video techniques. In this piece broadcast on CBC Radio’s Morningside, then hosted by Peter Gzowski, I talk about the video course and some of my students.
A red banner
Someone has hung a red banner at the front of the classroom to welcome me. But that’s not the only surprise that awaits me this morning. I was told that I would have 10 students, but I count 24 people sitting quietly along the rows of narrow tables.
I’m introduced to Huong, a studious looking young man with dark eyes and thick glasses. He’s head of the university’s English-language department and he’ll be my interpreter. I begin by asking the students what they want from the course. There’s an awkward pause but finally a young man named Nguyen stands and begins to talk softly. He’s from a farm extension centre in one of the provinces and he wants to learn how to operate a camera.
Politely, one after another, they describe themselves. I ask Huong in a whisper why they all stand when they speak. He whispers back that it’s a sign of respect. Teachers are considered experts, and they’re treated with deference.
Shooting and editing
I intend to divide them into two groups, having each shoot and edit a video story by the end of the week. But I begin by asking to see some of their work. Ms. Lai, a journalist from the local television station, has a video about farmers raising fish in ponds.
It’s a pretty good piece but the camera keeps returning from the fish pond to a man sitting indoors reading a script, something he does rather poorly. In fact, Ms. Lai, the reporter, doesn’t appear on camera anywhere in the piece. I’m also perplexed by use of instrumental background music which overrides any natural sound that the camera might have picked up.
In the discussion that follows, I ask why anyone would cover natural sound with music. Why, for example, if we see farmers talking don’t we actually hear them talking too? The students have a difficult time with the question and Huong has to rephrase it several times. The conclusion seems to be that Ms. Lai did it that way because it’s always done that way.
Relying on the experts
Then I ask about the man reading the script. I’m told that he is a scientist. I ask if Ms. Lai might not have interviewed him, using bits of what he had to say rather than relying on him so heavily. A young student named Din says that farmers will accept advice from experts but they’re not likely to accept it from reporters. I ask Ms. Lai if she considered appearing on camera in her own story. She stands and says no, she did not consider it because she’s ugly and it wouldn’t look good. Ms. Lai is not ugly in the least and I ask Huong to tell her so.
Ms. Lai’s colleague at the television station, Mr. Nhan, says that perhaps television journalists in North America go on camera out of vanity. Finally, Huong offers another editorial opinion. He says that North American reporters go on camera because they are individualists. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, are collectivists.
I spend much of the first afternoon lecturing but I promise that tomorrow they’ll get their hands on the cameras. After the students leave, Huong tells me that I ask too many questions of them. They expect me to speak with conviction, not to ask them questions. I recall that hearing that despite its recent history Vietnam is an ancient Confucian society where each person’s position is well defined.
After dinner, in the university’s guest house where I’m staying, I sit and watch the news on a government channel. The anchor is a young woman named Nhat Le. She’s on camera at the beginning of the newscast but then she disappears and we don’t see her again until the end. We hear her voice, though, reading narration over the video. Frequently the stories show men in drab suits, who I assume to be Vietnam’s leaders. Usually they’re speaking sombrely to other people who are studiously making notes.
Another favourite seems to be showing school children performing ritualistic dances and chants. And I notice that the video and the narration are almost always accompanied by instrumental music. Suddenly I realize that my students have picked up their techniques from what they see on state television.
No eye contact
On day two I turn them loose on the cameras and they love it. Soon they’re roaming the classroom with cameras on their shoulders, and I can barely turn around without having someone use me as a subject. I have them do on-camera interviews with each other. I’m perplexed by their reticence to look directly at one another and I emphasize to them the importance of eye contact. This raises some questions and Huong takes a long time to translate. I ask him what it’s all about. He tells me that in Vietnam it’s considered impolite to stare someone in the eye. He says the students have decided that they’ll look at the other person’s nose, or perhaps his or her chin.
Old but handsome
By the third and fourth days the students are losing their initial shyness and reserve. Some of them even begin to tease me. One, seeing me on camera, says that I am handsome. Ah, but he’s very old, says another. Yes, he’s very old but he’s still handsome, says a third.
By Saturday morning we’re crowded into a video booth at the television station, editing the stories. The students are in high spirits, proud of what they’ve accomplished.
They take what they need
One of the videos is about the local university’s research institute and the other about the experimental farm adjacent to it. I’ve insisted that both pieces include interview clips and they do. I’ve asked them to have a reporter appear on camera. They do that in one of the stories, choosing a young student named Ms. Mai to be the reporter. But they have her sitting behind a giant red flower which practically obscures her. And yes, as she talks, they have music playing in the background. I’ve heard that for all of their graciousness the Vietnamese are terribly single-minded. For centuries they’ve survived by taking what they need from foreigners and discarding the rest.