EDN MEMBER OF THE MONTH – Mai Suong Thi Chu & Vincent Baumont
In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group. Our EDN members of the month for December 2016 are Mai Suong Thi Chu & Vincent Baumont, producer and director, Almaz Media, Hanoi, Vietnam.
EDN has among other things talked to Suong Mai and Vincent about how it is to run an independent production company in Vietnam and one of the company’s current projects – Offside in Saigon.
Almaz Media is one of Vietnam’s top video production companies. Based in Hanoi the company collaborates with an extended network of international freelancers, and their client list includes among others BBC World News, Channel News Asia, Discovery Channel, MTV, Al-Arabia, and SRF.
Suong Mai is an up and coming producer in Vietnam, and the manager of Almaz Media. She recently worked with the line producing team for Warner Bros. feature Kong, Skull Island. She has also worked on Donut Dollies, an American feature documentary about volunteer entertainers during the Vietnam War, and The Travelling Band, a subversive comedy following the Gregory Brothers, as they travel the world to band together with offbeat musicians in remote locales.
Vincent Baumont is a filmmaker and founder of Almaz Media. He has worked on different projects for TV channels such as BBC World news, Associated Press, Channel News Asia, VTV, and SRF. In 2014 he directed Red Over the Rainbow a documentary about the LBGT movement in Vietnam. His film was shown in festivals around the world including the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF).
EDN: What was your motivation behind founding Almaz Media and how long has the company existed?
S&V: Almaz Media has been producing documentaries since 2010, but became an official Vietnamese company in 2013. The main motivation was to make up for the lack of properly independent production houses in Vietnam, run by filmmakers, for filmmakers.
EDN: What is the creative vision behind the company and how do you find/select the projects to work with?
S&V: We are mostly working with experienced freelancers and dynamic artists who came to Vietnam to work or the new generation of talented Vietnamese creators who have a strong will to make something new.
The country is extremely young, rapidly growing, and the crossroads of many different cultures. We try to find stories that are relevant in showing the thrill that the country is currently living. We want to show a place that is young, has emerging artists, people coming from all around the world, tolerant views toward LGBT. We focus on the changes that the people are facing daily.
Vietnam is an amazing place where you hear incredible stories from most people, and they give you a surprising access to their life, their hearts and their places. Our knowledge of the current trends, the different cities, the communities and the network of people we collaborate with allow us to give firsthand access to these stories. A lot of what we do is helping crews coming here to make the most of their experience in the country. When we produce our own documentaries, we like to spend more time on the subject, because we have the luxury to live here. We also archive a lot of the artistic and cultural life to preserve the things that mark the change.
Beyond documentaries, we firmly believe in pushing for more voices coming from here, and always support the young talents here. Let’s be honest, there is no real producer in Vietnam yet, but we believe in the next decade will see the rise of a new generation of Vietnamese producers.
EDN: The company is based Hanoi. What is the current situation for documentaries in Vietnam? Is there any national funding available?
S&V: There is nothing for independent productions in Vietnam. The only asset of making independent documentaries here is that access is somewhat easier and more genuine once you get it, and that you can film very inexpensively if you bring your own gear, which is definitely doable. You have to do it guerrilla style and can’t expect to get a film permit which would also turn out to be very costly.
EDN: Do you mainly work with international companies or also clients in Vietnam?
S&V: We mainly work for international companies, as we are the perfect bridge and mix of local and international professionals. We did parts of a TV series called Everyday Little Things that was for the national TV, but the only way to produce it was to have a private company to sponsor our content in order to pay for the slot. It turned out to be Hanoi Beer Company.
EDN: Are there any outlets for creative feature length docs in Vietnam – on either TV or in the cinemas?
S&V: Unfortunately, no. International broadcasters are filling the void: Netflix, HBO, Discovery Channel are quite big in Vietnam, and no independent voice has raised yet.
EDN: This year your current project Offside in Saigon (directed by Vincent and co-director Morgan Ommer) took part in the Crossing Borders programme, which is an initiative by EDN together with Documentary Campus. Was it the project about and the background for your involvement?
S&V: Our latest documentary Red over the Rainbow was in the official selection of ZIFF, the Zanzibar International Film Festival. It was surprising to us to see that the African audience was interested in seeing the stories of LGBT right activists in Vietnam. And then we realized that more and more bridges were connecting the Asian and African continents.
When Morgan Ommer approached me with a story he had been working on for some years already, it was clear that I would jump in. An absurd story of typical migration for a better life, but in the most unexpected country: Vietnam. What were these 40 African football players doing in the middle of Saigon, training every day in the hope of an international career in Vietnamese football clubs. How was life for an African in a country where the last black people seen there were American GIs? What outcome could they expect in one of the lowest ranking FIFA countries?
It seemed right away like a great idea, and a modern view on a moving world, mixing sports, migration and the classic story of dream of success. We started to film with our own resources and spent a lot of time diving into the story.
EDN: What was your motivation for taking part in Crossing Borders?
S&V: While we had a great story, we felt a bit isolated in Vietnam. As I mentioned before, there are no resources for creative documentaries here. And while we have experience in filming, directing and editing, we didn’t have any international experience in terms of production.
We wanted to challenge ourselves and make sure our project could hold in front of an international audience. We were aware of our shortcomings when it comes to international production, and needed to find production partners in Europe.
EDN: What is the current status for Offside in Saigon and your next steps in the project realisation?
S&V: Offside in Saigon is still in productions step. Because we chose to spend a lot of time within the African community in Vietnam, we have been able to witness a broader picture of the issues and challenges that they face.
We are still looking for funds, but thanks to the tremendous work done during Crossing Borders, we convinced a well-established French production company to officially come on board. This will give us great chances to work the French film board as well as broadcasters.
We are also talking with two different English speaking broadcasters on very different platforms who expressed their interests.
EDN: What lies next for you and Almaz Media?
S&V: We continue developing our fixer services in the hope of showing as many film crews how great it can be to film here. Vietnam still suffers a bad reputation when it comes to production.
We are also starting the development of a history documentary, using the life of a soon to be centennial forgotten hero as a thread through the different eras the country went through. As a blend of memory and analysis, inspired by Chris Marker’s work, we also want to use a new technique blending photo in video. A mix of frozen memory and blurry, almost hidden, movement. Another French production company has already shown interest in it and we are applying to training initiatives to make sure the project gets the attention it deserves.