European Film Awards 2022. Short Talk with Diana Cam van Nguyen

Diana Cam van Nguyen is a Czech-Vietnamese director based in Prague, Czech Republic. Her short films have been screened at the Locarno Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam and IDFA among others. Her short “Apart” (2018) was a finalist at the 2019 BAFTA Student Film Awards. Her latest short film, “Love, Dad” (2021) won the BFI Short Film Award, the Clermont-Ferrand Connexion Award and received a TIFF Special Mention. It has been awarded for Best Animation and Best Documentary at the Academy Qualifying festivals AFI Fest and Seattle International Film Festival.  A graduate of FAMU, she focuses, in her works, on personal topics through the means of animated documentary and is currently developing a hybrid feature film.

At this year’s European Film Awards, Tara Karajica talks to Diana Cam van Nguyen about the short form, animation and her short film, “Love, Dad,” that was nominated for Best Short Film at the European Film Awards. In “Love, Dad, ” after fifteen years, Diana finds the letters her father used to send her. Will what she is going to read now mend her relationship with her dad? Will she forgive him for leaving their family? This story brings back childhood memories: carefree holidays and fun at the funfair to the rhythm of disco music, but also sadness and suffering. The author uses a collage of old letters, archival films and photographs as well as children’s drawings and cut-outs to recreate the past. Apart from the story of a Czech-Vietnamese family, this documentary animation touches upon the problem of socio-cultural differences.

What made you want to become a filmmaker/animator?

Diana Cam van Nguyen: I was eighteen when I got into FAMU and I didn’t actually have any expectations that I would become a big filmmaker, so I’m just happy I managed to make some shorts during my studies.

Love, Dad is a very personal film. How did it come about?:

D.C.v.N.: I had to make a graduation film at film school and, at that time, I didn’t feel like I making another short. But then, I found these letters that my dad wrote to me from prison from 2004 and 2005 and I had actually forgotten about them. I had forgotten that I had kept them. When I read them again, I realized how loving they were and how much emotion there was in them, so I was also a bit surprised and that was the first idea for this film – these letters. But I didn’t plan for it to be so personal. Because my first script and during development, the whole film was just about these letters and more about the relationship between the father and the daughter when he was in prison and how they were missing each other. And, it was more for children. During the development process, I went to animation workshops and just threw it all out and started again with my reaction or my answer to my father. I didn’t want to make such a personal film. It just happened because it was the advice I received from other people.

Actually, it is not only about a daughter missing her father who’s in prison, but rather something else entirely. Which is much, much messier and much more intimate. Am I right?

D.C.v.N.: Yes, and that’s the thing I didn’t plan at all because I went to this animation workshop and during the development process – we were already in production and we had already shot something in a prison – I showed them my work-in-progress material and, after some questions and conversations about the topic, they told me they think that I didn’t have a problem with my father because he was in prison, but because of something else. And that’s the thing that change my mind, so during production, I changed it completely. And, this changing process took me a year. So even if we got the money for production, I was still in development at the time.

In my opinion, it has rawness of realization and a sort of solace of accepting the reality that is happening in the film. In that sense, was it a cathartic process for you? Did you heal while you were making the film?

D.C.v.N.: I actually did, but I didn’t plan it. It also really happened during the process when I was researching the topic. I also read lots of books about the relationship between fathers and children. I also went to therapy to be sure that I’m making the right decision to be making this film, that I’m not just a spoiled child who is complaining about her parents. I think that it’s really easy to complain about your parents. Everybody can do it. And, there were a lot of things that I wasn’t sure if I was doing right because I had invested a lot of my time and energy into these feelings of mine or towards my father, which I would not have normally done without the film. So, that happened to be healing for me. That was during the development process and when we were in production, I didn’t feel anything when we were shooting or when I was recording the voiceover. I just found that it’s completely somebody else’s story. I’m very distanced from it now; when I’m watching the film now in a cinema or somewhere, I just don’t have any emotions.

Can you talk about the title of the film?

D.C.v.N.: I actually had this title from the beginning, but I worked with it as a work-in-progress title, thinking that, I would eventually have something better, which I think maybe happened because when we got accepted to the Locarno Film Festival, and when we were submitting with the work-in-progress first cut version of the film, the title of the film was “What We Wrote” and people didn’t remember the name of the film at all. Then, we changed it back to “Love, Dad.” And, for me, with “Love, Dad,” you have the signature of the father there like the ending words of the letter, but you also have two words like “love,” and the whole thing is about love, and “dad,” where the whole film is about that too. So, it’s like three meanings in two words, in one phrase.

You use archival materials, but not archival videos. And then, you use collage and letters and you use film materials and animation so that you can evoke the atmosphere of your interior monologue. Can you talk about these choices and how you made the film with all these techniques?

D.C.v.N.: Yes, the only original or archival material you see in the film is the letters that I just scanned and the rest of the film is reconstruction with actors and non-actors. I decided to do it like this because I didn’t have any archival materials. I just had some photos. But with the movements, it was impossible to make the photos moving. So, for us, the photos were just the inspiration for what the characters should wear. In that case, we were really precise. For the rest, I also felt that I didn’t want to be the one who is in the film playing myself. So, I decided to have an actor and that’s just because I think that it’s so personal now, that it would be too much for me to watch myself all the time. And, I don’t think that it’s important for the spectator to know that who they saw as the main protagonist is the director. I don’t think it’s that important. I think that the feeling of honest and authentic emotions is enough for me and if they feel that, that’s just what I want. The mix of techniques was my choice. Somehow, because of the letters, I felt that everything can be like paper, so I worked with the whole visuals to produce the feel of paper. That’s why I came up with the idea of collage and the photos.

Has your father seen the film?

D.C.v.N.: Yes, he saw it. He saw it as the first spectator before any festival or any premiere.

And, what did he think of the film? What was his reaction?

D.C.v.N.: He just commented on the film itself, like the practical stuff. He really liked the film. And, he just asked me how I managed to get actors and how much money it cost. He didn’t want to ask about the more personal topics at all, so I just let it be because I felt, at that moment, that he was accepting this. It was enough or okay for me and I didn’t want to push him to express more emotions.

What is your opinion of the short form today?

D.C.v.N.: I think that for specific narratives and topics, it’s a really great format. I also feel that lots of short films are much more courageous and braver than feature films in terms of form because they are somehow much more experimental. They combine genres together. So, I personally really like short films also because when I’m at a festival and I am in a screening, I can enjoy lots of films together. For me, it’s like having a really good time; in a short time, you can have a really good time with short films as a spectator.

What are your next projects?

D.C.v.N.: I am now in the early stages of development of my first feature film, which will be a combination of live action and animation. And as far as the animation technique is concerned, it is going to be similar to the one that is in Love, Dad.

Photo credits: Courtesy of Diana Cam van Nguyen.

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