2010 Student-Faculty Fellows: Kenyon College
Digital Repatriation in Vietnam
Mentor: Sam Pack
Students: Michael Eblin, Eliza Leavitt, Jean Mougin, Carrie Walther, Said Zahga
Although the five weeks that the Kenyon team of student researchers spent in Vietnam was extremely difficult and challenging, the project was ultimately an unequivocal success. The main goal of our project was to return a series of films about the ancient tradition of water puppetry commissioned by the Vietnamese government through the Vietnam Institute of Culture and Art Studies (VICAS) to the community where they were originally filmed. After acquiring formal sponsorship from VICAS to conduct our project and official permission from government authorities, an international team of fourteen individuals consisting of our group of six researchers, five Vietnamese translators, and three representatives from VICAS made the eight-hour minibus trip from Hanoi to Bao Ha Village. Once there, we organized a community screening of the VICAS films. Afterwards three student ethnographers led focus group interviews with community members. Five individuals from the village were selected to make their own films about water puppetry with Flip Video camcorders. The two student filmmakers led a workshop on shooting followed by another on editing. At the end of three weeks in the village, we organized another screening, but this one featured the films shot and edited by the five villagers themselves. Our charge now is to analyze how the village-produced videos differ from those shot earlier in the village by the Vietnamese government.
The primary focus of my research related to this group project was to determine the effect of “globalization,” manifested by the lively presence of the tourism industry, on water puppet theater in Hanoi. Once in the village of Bao Ha, I quickly found that the engagement between international tourism and the ancient art of water puppetry was much more extensive and complex than initially thought. By extending my inquiring to include the nearby village of Nhan Muc and the nearby municipality of Hai Phong, the third largest city in Vietnam, it was clear that revenue derived from “culture tours” and other tourism programs is a driving force in the development of infrastructure in many rural areas of northern Vietnam. Water puppetry plays a huge role in attracting both international and domestic tourists to this area and fosters efforts by central and local government to build and maintain roads, public sanitation, and other important projects.
Our project addressed how and why water puppetry has been moved from a village custom to a city performance for tourists and what effect this is having on the culture of Vietnam. Our research focused on issues such as the intersection between modernity and religious tradition, Vietnam and the global market, nationalism and Communism, development and tourism, and cultural tourism and cultural exchange. Student researchers were also able to discover how a visual ethnography differs from a documentary. My own particular study focuses on how gender plays a role in water puppetry and what that role is. I discovered that social reform and changes in cultural beliefs has led to the inclusion of women in puppet troupes. Nonetheless, gender does not seem to be an issue of concern for the water puppetry community.
Our time in Bao Ha village was an amazing experience that exposed me to the inner workings of regional and local Vietnamese government, a diverse diet that included Vietnamese chicken and cow tongue, and a day working in the rice paddies because Professor Pack thought this would be a good way to express our good will to the local peasants. My charge once our project got fully underway was to help shoot over forty hours of film footage. I did most of the steady cam shooting while Said Zahga shot footage for most of the interviews that were conducted. The highlight of my filming was an interview with an artist. Without lights, my first consideration for filming was finding a good natural light source. Vietnamese light in the afternoon is smooth, brilliant, and yellow – it made me look like a pro out there. This was a moment where form meets content, and that is an accomplishment for a cinematographer.
Our research examined the evolution of water puppetry in Bao Ha village, and how the government of Vietnam has used this ancient cultural practice to fashion a new face of Vietnam to cater to today’s tourists as evidenced by the fact that the largest water puppetry troupes now perform in large cities, although the art form was born in rural rice paddies hundreds of years ago. My research focused on the religious aspects of water puppetry, and on how national identity is expressed in Vietnam through water puppetry. I conducted forty-one interviews and came to discoverer that Bao Ha villagers believe there are three religions in their village: rural religion, ancestor worship, and worship of the founder of puppetry – all of which are in ways related to water puppetry. The focus of worship on the founder of puppetry centers upon Nguyen Cong Hue who founded the carving tradition in Bao Ha which is so central to water puppetry. There is a statue of him in the village temple and villagers visit and pray at this site. Water puppetry sustains the national identity of Vietnam through its emphasis on history, veneration for the country, and stress that Vietnam is the only country with a tradition of water puppetry.
Along with my colleague, Jean Mougin, I was responsible for the filmmaking component of our project. We observed how water puppetry was earlier filmed by the Vietnamese government, and determined that we would try as best we could to show how fast paced and full of action the plays actually are. We decided to place the main camera for filming the show on top of a floating piece of hydrodynamic foam, which allowed us to get extremely close to the puppets and follow their movements. Without thinking much about the highly polluted water, I jumped into it to help make the camera movement mimic the movements of the puppets. The result is a very fast-paced performance that captures the liveliness of the plays. We also used three cameras on the set to provide the necessary cutaways. When interviewing, we tried to lessen the stress on the person being interviewed by placing the camera a minimum of ten feet away, while using a telephoto lens. We also focused on having effective backdrops representative of village life. Perhaps most enjoyable was teaching five Bao Ha villagers to make their own films and then helping them edit what they had recorded.