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MY NAME IS ...
Short documentary/ video works
I am returning to Long Xuyen again, seven years after my chance encounter with the stateless families living on the Mekong here, which led to my first documentary film "Down The Stream."
Between 2015, the last time I met them, and this year, I paid the place a few visits but failed to find the faces and voices that over the years only grew dearer in my heart. But this time, they were all there.
Vu, my boat-taxi man, is in his forties, beaming with gregariousness as ever. Only his laboring hands have browned and wizened as marks of time (I thought of the wind that blows over this river, the heat, and the water, all of which soaked and weathered and aged my dear friend's hands).
Bien, the stuttering boy, is now seventeen. A handsome lad. He no longer stutters. He makes cheeky jokes. He asked me if I knew any girl to matchmake him with. "Modern girls seem to be too into money", he laments.
Chi, his younger sister, is fourteen. She speaks little and smiles a lot. She squeezes herself on their houseboat day in day out. She squats on her paddleboat, knees to chin, and paddles slowly on the water to buy supplies and run errands for her pa and ma. Her slender figure passes fragmentedly through vertical leaves of water hyacinth.
We sat down with the whole family. We drank. We sang karaoke. We cooked. Bien's father, Nghe, brought us to where Nghe and his two sons, Bien and Tam, came to work every morning at two. Their jobs are to be a part of a dozen of men in charge of transporting some tons of catfish every night from underwater netted farms onto trucks at intermediary points, from which millions of fish got driven to seafood factories. Nghe does the heaviest task. Aided with a rudimentary breathing tube, he dove through a square opening on the boat into the brown murky water where the fish is thrashing in madness. It would take a good fifteen to twenty minutes before he re-emerged. What does it feel like to swim through this insane thickness of living fish in the dark water?
Nghe gets paid 600,000 VND a day for this work. No other benefits, of course. His oldest son, Tam, used to be a diver like his father, but the coldness of water caused infection in his lung. Now he helps with trivial tasks on the boat and is salaried at 350,000 VND for a similar 12 hour shift. Bien, at seventeen, is useful for his quickness and tireless muscles gets 450,000 VND per night for helping with porting.
The last afternoon we spent with them, Nghe received a call. He was asked about his parents, and his family papers. Maybe finally, after more than ten years living on this river, they had a chance at legality. Maybe.
The short documentary is now in post-production. It has received partial support from BEBESEA (bebesea.org).
Images by: Trung Del
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