Our interview with Khoa Lê, director of the film Ba Noi, about coming to Canada and the family left behind.
Many Canadians come to Canada from somewhere else, often leaving members of their family behind. This can complicate the development of their relationship to Canada, but it can also enrich it. OpenCanada talked to Khoa Lê, the director of the film Ba Noi, about exploring the meaning of his relationship with his Vietnamese grandmother and why such a personal film captures so well the physical and emotional journey that many Canadians undergo to understand the parts of their identity that tie them to their homeland.
Ba Noi is a deeply personal portrait of your grandmother. What led you to decide to profile her so centrally?
I have always talked about things close to me, and I have always been interested in the story of my family. Along the way, I realized that this project was really more of a personal quest. Even though my grandmother is the main character, the focus of the film is on me. This film is a portrait and a self-portrait all at once – my family becomes a creative vehicle to address other questions of identity. I decided to concentrate on my grandmother because she embodies a past that was forgotten, lost, or simply unknown to me. Through her eyes I understand where I’m from, who I am, and where I’m going. And also because she is the most beautiful grandma!
The film becomes a deeply reflective piece as you try to determine how your Vietnamese heritage factors into your identity. What was the most powerful personal insight you gained from the filming process?
During the filming process, I realized that I bear a great deal of resemblance to my grandmother. I saw myself in her reactions, her habits, and her ways. Even though I was raised thousands of kilometers away from her, we are more alike than I could have ever imagined. This experience made me realize how profoundly Vietnamese I am.
Are there other international documentaries that took a similar journey to yours that inspired you?
During the research process, I was interested by films, both documentaries and fictional, that explored original and singular cinematographic language such as The Shape of the Moon by Leonard Retel Helmrich.
Also, I’ve always been influenced by those working in Asian cinema, both in the approaches and the topics. I admire filmmakers Apichatpong Werasetakul and Naomi Kawase. Their work has had a big impact on my cinematic approach.
Canada’s immigrant community is growing vastly and our major cities are some of the most multicultural in the world. Your grandmother urged you to marry someone Vietnamese to preserve the family’s values, and issues of inheritance, tradition, and respect for ancestors were also addressed in the film. How can immigrants to Canada find a balance between preserving their cultural heritage and nurturing a Canadian identity?
I consider myself a Montrealer and a French Canadian, and one who is profoundly Vietnamese. I’m like a plant that has the shape and color of North America, but is deeply rooted in Vietnam. My identity is a multi-faceted one. In my everyday life, I try to define myself as a human being by understanding where I’m from while remaining aware of the environment I’m living in. Indeed, my present relies deeply on my past, so I cannot be fully Canadian without being Vietnamese. My goal is not to define whether I am Canadian or Vietnamese, yellow or white, round or square. Above all, I try to be.
I think that whether we have immigrated or not, we have to understand our past, our history. Otherwise, we exist without being. And it can also be very reassuring to understand where we have come from. In my opinion, in order to find a balance between preserving our cultural heritage and nurturing a Canadian identity we must constantly seek our past while embracing our present.
Are there other countries that you think Canada could learn from in terms of helping individuals find this balance?
Since arriving here 22 years ago, my Canada – the Canada of acceptance and openness – has changed and evolved into a nation that is less embracing to the culture and traditions of others. Our new immigration policies make Canada less welcoming than it used to be. Canada should learn from its proud heritage of acceptance and openness.
Freedom House and other international press watchdogs have criticized the Vietnamese government for their tight restrictions on journalistic access. Did you encounter any difficulties producing your film in Vietnam?
I did not contact the Vietnamese authorities about the shooting of my film. Even though my film did not have any political motivations, I did not want to deal with the government’s rigid bureaucratic process. We chose to be very discreet and did not attract much interest while shooting the film.
What message do you want Canadian audiences to take from your film in terms of the history and culture of Vietnam?
I hope that this film shows the importance of remembering our heritage and connecting to our roots in order to understand who we truly are, regardless of whether or are immigrants or not. I strongly believe that learning to understand and respect our past helps us build a more authentic identity. Developing a better sense of one’s cultural heritage does not necessarily mean agreeing with all of the values that includes, but it does mean acknowledging them.
Check out Ba Noi at Hot Docs: April 26 at 5:30pm at Toronto Bell Lightbox and April 27 at 1:00Ppm Scotiabank.