Le 17e Parallel: La Guerre Du Peuple directed by Joris Ivens (a veteran Dutch documentary filmmaker) was introduced in the framework of Vietnamese studies at Fulbright this Spring semester. Director Nguyen Thi Xuan Phuong, a witness, a crew member of the documentary, has come for an open discussion with Fulbright students and the close-knitted community. 

The 17th parallel military zone, called for by the Geneva Accords of 1954, is a plenteous topic, reflecting the nation’s history in a crucial period during the war. The background of the film is a nagging reality: after the Geneva Accords (1954), Hien Luong bridge and Ben Hai river (Vinh Thanh commune, Vinh Linh district, Quang Tri) became a provisional military demarcation line at the 17th parallel, dividing the North and the South. Under the Accords, the 17th parallel demilitarized zone was created with international supervision, only to serve a temporary demarcating purpose until the general election in 1956.

Joris Ivens’ cinematography leans towards more of an illustrative approach, portraying a unique angle behind the 17th Parallel with vivid, tormenting, and haunting images. The film screening followed by a talk with Director Nguyen Thi Xuan Phuong was an occlusive experience, allowing students to enter a multi-dimensional Vietnamese studies realm, where they can submerge their knowledge learned from academic lectures into contextual stories and truly expound to apprehend the nation’s historical/cultural roots.

Behind the battlefield

Director Xuan Phuong, even at the age of 90, still can recall distinctly the stifling feeling of the first night in the underground labyrinth of Vinh Linh (Quang Tri). Entrusted by President Ho Chi Minh, she was to escort the film crew, as a doctor and an interpreter. Accompanying Director Joris Ivens and his partner, Mrs. Marceline Loridan Ivens (who was in charge of all sound recordings of the documentaries), were 7 cameramen from 4 Vietnamese studios. They came to the 17th parallel demilitarized zone at Vinh Linh, Quang Tri at the most treacherous moment of the battlefield, a May day in 1967.

Fulbright students talking with Director Nguyen Thi Xuan Phuong

The journey from Ha Noi to Vinh Linh riding on military jeeps was the first drill to prep for the harrowing warzone: the real distance was only 600 kilometers, but it took them 28 days to finally arrive because the bombing was de trop. They got injured and faced death many times, the jeeps were completely ravaged. Their underground “home” was just finished right before they arrived. Mrs. Phuong remembers “groping on to nothing trying to find her way down the tunnel one step at a time, hands pricked with resin from the freshly cut tree roots” in the dark, stuffy blackness of the tunnel.

But, Joris Ivens did not open Le 17e Parallel: La Guerre Du Peuple with such baffling experience.

The first image was the North’s flying red flag with a gold star, bomb-ripped, almost seemed like it was covering the South, symbolized a hope for reuniting the two parts of the nation. The crew called this Hien Luong flag. Just this opening scene alone took an unimaginable amount of courage and fierceness: the cameramen had to climb up the flagpole amidst heavy bombarding to get that one shot. Closing the documentary was a commoner’s classroom in a tiny hideaway tunnel, children were reciting English words to use in case of confronting soldiers as bombs were being dropped up above their heads. The film revealed slices of the people’s lives behind the battlefield, recounted their daily activities of working under the frantic firebombs, unveiling the children’s “game” of fighting and capturing drills, and even some traumatic scenes of deaths.

The unarranged camera angles exposed an ordinary and chilling reality. Joris Ivens intentionally refrained from displaying excruciating images, only showing some battle scenes strategically to highlight the civil lives during warfare.

Included in the film were vibrant dialogues and lively sounds recorded by Marceline Loridan. They were the indispensable elements to complement the raw images captured by Vietnamese cinematographers. Combining audio and visuals together, the documentary illustrated an original description of the lives at Vinh Linh. Many lines from those dialogues made a cruel impression on the filmmakers, such as “even if we have to sacrifice ourselves, we have to protect our crops”.

“Joris Ivens did not name the documentary the Vietnam war or the American war, but he called it the people’s war. We made the film to prove that the people’s war is an invincible war,” Mrs. Phuong emphasized.

In the two months of filming, the crew witnessed life and death, humanity, and love at the hostile warzone of Vinh Linh. Mrs. Nguyen Thi Xuan Phuong wholeheartedly keeps the memories of the young love story between a cameraman and a frontline volunteer. Their meeting was untimely, so despite their affection for each other, the girl decided to wait until the nation is unified. Tragedy struck when the man unintentionally caught on his camera his beloved girl lying under the remnants after a bombing attack. Their promise awaits unfulfilled.

On the other hand, one can also find hope in the cruel reality. Doctor Xuan Phuong experienced levitating happiness when she heard the cry of a father and a newborn child that she has helped deliver in the deep, dark tunnel. The trench was pitch-black that no one could see a thing, but it also made the sounds become all the more precious. The screams of the mother, the directions of the doctor, the cry of the father and the baby, all harmonized together to draw a vivid image of the hardship, which can move anyone to tears. The diring circumstances, lacking and fragile in many ways made birthing so sacred, like a spiritual medicine to heal pain and help people overcome fears.

Recalling that fateful night when a woman in labor was in critical condition, Dr. Phuong still reminisces chilling feels. Everyone including Mr. and Mrs. Ivens stayed up all night worrying about the mother and her child. When the news broke that the baby was born safely, Joris told Phuong that they should be grateful to have a job that allowed them to witness the fine line between life and death. It was their blessing to see life in the underground labyrinth even when death was always nearby.

Cinematography and the revolutionary inspiration

Filmmaking is not just a profession. It also fuels filmmakers with revolutionary spirits.

After two months of battling adversity in Vinh Linh with the film crew, Dr. Nguyen Thi Xuan Phuong returned to her normal life at her modern, fully equipped clinic in Ha Noi. Coming back to her old job of providing healthcare for diplomatic guests, she felt unfulfilled. She missed the days living under bombs and bullets in Vinh Linh, sleeping in the dark and stuffy hideaway tunnel. Because that was where she found a sense of attachment, humanity, love, and the willingness to sacrifice for one another, amongst the crew and the people in Vinh Linh. She recalled Mr. Ivens’ advice before they parted.

Dr. Vu Minh Hoang (Fulbright’s Faculty) chatting with Director Nguyen Thi Xuan Phuong

“I remember he said that a doctor or an interpreter were both necessary, but to find a female war filmmaker in Vietnam was not easy. So he wanted me to boldly make a revolutionary leap for myself, to do complete the mission that the country desperately needed.”Hence, at the age of 37, when she was settled down with a happy family, had three kids and well into a good track of her career, she decided to leave her comfort zone to take the first steps of becoming a war filmmaker, a director, and the first female war correspondent in Vietnam. She reported on many fronts, from the Southern battlefield to the Southwestern and Cambodian border.

“Having gone into a place where 90% of the time we were surrounded by death, after living through the harsh days in Vinh Linh, witnessing the people’s strong will and loving spirit, I was struck. We only live once, we must try to do what is necessary and what is right. Vinh Linh has changed my perspective on life, the humane self, the way we view one another, and above all, encouraged me to voluntarily become a war reporter, contributing my all until the nation reunited at peace.” – Director Nguyen Thi Xuan Phuong shared.

Mrs. Phuong’s first filmmaking teacher, Mr. Joris Ivens, was a veteran documentary filmmaker with a special destine who chose to tell the stories of revolutionary struggles across the globe. His life partner, Mrs. Marceline Loridan was a Jewish survivor of the Nazis Auschwitz concentration camp. She was fortunate enough to be liberated by the Red Army just five days before their scheduled incineration. Together, Mr. and Mrs. Ivens chose a career in filmmaking, not only as a job but also as their inspiring grand mission and passion.

Director Nguyen Thi Xuan Phuong and Fulbright’s students and faculty after the screening event

Director Xuan Phuong recounted a story of when she visited France to attend Mr. Joris Ivens’ funeral. Marceline greeted her and told her about an American film distributor who came to Paris to see the screening of Le 17e Parallel: La Guerre Du Peuple. The documentary was only screened at a small yet prestigious cinema in Paris then. After the screening, the American film distributor said: “Mr. Ivens, I cannot recommend releasing this documentary on television in the United States because if us Americans watch this film, we would understand that America has lost greatly in this war.”

Along with the storage in a French museum, Le 17e Parallel: La Guerre Du Peuple was later given back to Vietnam by the Dutch Government. This is one in a series of four documentaries that Joris Ivens had directed, gifted back to the Vietnamese Film Institute by the Joris Ivens Europe Institute. Besides the documentaries, Joris Ivens also left 2000 pages of written documents, 140 photos and posters that he cherished throughout his career as proof of his special love for Vietnam.

Xuân Linh

Initiated in 2019 by director Nguyen Hoang Diep, “Se sẽ chứ” is a series of events held in April every year to honor the poetic life and literary heritage of Luu Quang Vu and Xuan Quynh, two of the most influential authors on the modern Vietnamese poetry scene. This year, for the first time, “Se sẽ chứ” is hosted by independent organizers across the country.

At Fulbright University Vietnam, “Se sẽ chứ” is arranged and performed by students who have just finished their first year. The event is integrated within the framework of the Vietnam Studies program at Fulbright, where students learn about cultural and artistic heritage through hands-on experiences, participating in the reproduction and dissemination of beautiful spiritual values through the lens of youth.

With their sensitive contemporary feeling, Fulbright students improvised and experimented with Luu Quang Vu – Xuan Quynh’s poetry. During the 2-hour show, the students invited the audience on a journey that connects poetry lovers from all generations. After the chaos of work and everyday life, they were able to relax and admire the beauty of the Vietnamese language through pure and modest poems of the two “Mây Trắng (White Cloud)” poets – a nickname belovedly given to Lưu Quang Vũ and Xuân Quỳnh.

Unique creativity on the canvas of classic poetry

When it was announced earlier this year that individuals and organizations can register to host “Se sẽ chứ”, a group of sudents at Fulbright University Vietnam contacted director Nguyen Hoang Diep and started arranging the show. In just under 20 days, everything was urgently prepared so that it could take place on April 17, the birthday of the late poet Luu Quang Vu. It was also thanks to such urgency that gave the performances a powerful “compression force” to radiate and explode on stage.

With emotional and creative approaches, students have introduced new perspectives into poems that have already been too familiar to the public. On the background of improvised music by Tran Thao Nguyen and the singing of Dang Anh Kiet – two freshmen at Fulbright, the poem “Nếu ngày mai em không làm thơ nữa (If I don’t write poetry tomorrow)” was brought to life in a new light. The powerful vocals, the enchanting folk-inspired singing style, and the ending high note immersed the entire room in the female author’s sentiments.

Perhaps, adaptations of poetry into movies or novels are not unfamilar to poetry lovers. But for the first time at Fulbright, the poem “Sóng (Waves)” was transformed by contemporary dance art. Sensational choreography accompanied by melancholy music and melodious poetry reading became a memorable highlight of the show.

Having attended “Se sẽ chứ” at poetry sites across the country, literary critic Pham Xuan Nguyen was especially impressed with the affection that Fulbright students have for Luu Quang Vu – Xuan Quynh’s artistic heritage. “Fulbright is the only place where Se sẽ chứ is actively organized by undergraduate students, which is even more impressive considering that students in the Southern region do not have a lot of opportunities to learn about Luu Quang Vu – Xuan Quynh poetry. With contemporary forms of expression, they have brought a breath of fresh air to Luu Quang Vu’s poetry and moved the viewers deeply. Their unique creativity helps bring poetry closer and make it more appealing to the youth,” he remarked.

“I came here and really felt the beautiful spiritual heritages being preserved and transmitted in a very refreshing, modern way“, a member of the audience who is an 11th grader said.

This is also a great motivation that encouraged Fulbright students to carry out “Se sẽ chứ” even though their schedule was already hectic with final exams coming. Quach Minh Phat, one of the organizers, revealed: “Although I was fortunate enough to have known and ‘fallen in love’ with the exquisite poems of the Vu – Quynh couple, the ones that I read are just a few in their enormous collection. In order to prepare for this event, we organizers had to read the poems and really take time to feel the authors’ emotions before developing the script and performances.”

“With the improvisational nature of the show, even the organizers were blown away by the performers’ amazing talent. They are truly artistic creators who cherished and passed on the values ​​of Luu Quang Vu and Xuan Quynh’s poetry. Thanks to them, the poems will live on in the public’s spiritual life,” Minh Phat added.

Cross-generational connection

Among the guests of “Se sẽ chứ” 2021 at Fulbright, there were people who have grown up in the same generation as Luu Quang Vu – Xuan Quynh, and there were people who only know the two poets through the remaining works. For each generation, the poems brought up different memories and feelings.

For Ms. Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam, the verses of Luu Quang Vu – Xuan Quynh are still imprinted in her memory like a keepsake of a vibrant youth. Recalling the old days, when white paper to write poems was a luxury and poetry was a gift that people treasured for each other, she recited “Hoa cúc (Chrysanthemum)” by Xuan Quynh, a poem with humble words just like the title. As for actress-producer Hong Anh, Luu Quang Vu’s play ” Nhân danh công lý (In the name of justice)” reminds her of when a promising movie actress first made her appearance on the theatrical stage.

More than thirty years after Luu Quang Vu and Xuan Quynh passed away, their works are still loved and received by readers of all ages.

According to student Minh Tien, another organizer of the event, Luu Quang Vu – Xuan Quynh’s poetry is considered “the voice of the times” with ageless vitality because when it is read out loud, readers of any generation can have their own interpretation and sympathy with the author.

Implicit in Luu Quang Vu’s poetry, the philosophy of life shows not only values ​​of Vietnam, but it can easily be global values. It is the courage to commit, the unyielding morale to expose the bad and fight for the good, the love for the motherland, and above all, the optimism and joy of living beyond all tragedies. However, his poetic works are rarely translated into foreign languages, perhaps because fully conveying those values ​​requires a long and laborious process.

Actress Hồng Ánh reading a love letter from Xuân Quỳnh to Lưu Quang Vũ

Critic Phạm Xuân Nguyên speaking about Lưu Quang Vũ and Xuân Quỳnh with cherished emotions

At “Se sẽ chứ”, three poems “Không (There is none)”, “Mặt trời trong nước lạnh (The cold sun)”, and “Bầy ong trong đêm sâu (Swarm of bees in the dead of night)” were translated into English by Fulbright students. As poems laden with the author’s solemn feelings, they required not only language fluency, but also intellectual and emotional maturity of the translator.

I chose ‘There is none’ and ‘The cold sun’ because of the connection between the author’s soul and sadness, through which we can see Luu Quang Vu’s worldview and feel the pain and trauma of the people during that turbulent historical period,” Dang Anh Kiet explained. “I realized there was really no way to fully interpret the poet’s voice. Therefore, I did not necessarily call what I wrote ‘translations’, but a rewritten version in a different language, keeping the original intention of the author while making adjustments to the form to make the artistic voice even more diverse.”

In its limited duration, “Se sẽ chứ” 2021 at Fulbright could only touch on a very small part of the spiritual legacy of the two poets. As the event came to an end, critic Pham Xuan Nguyen recited the poem “Nói với mình và các bạn (To myself and my friends)” by Luu Quang Vu as a message to students and young people who are in pivotal years of their lives. The poem is a vigorous reminder about the sense of citizenship and the responsibility of young people for the problems faced by their society and country.

“As the flood goes away, we will be left with nutritious soil

With love and earnest desires

Even if you fly away without a reply

Even if you are alone in the cold and dark

Even if the road is long and far

Don’t ever back down, my poetry.”

The poet said, ‘It’s easy to flatter life, and it’s easy to swear at life. Just building life is difficult.’ Such attitude needs to be conveyed to the youth. Luu Quang Vu’s drastic criticism towards friends who are lazy to act and lazy to think is essential to the young generation today. Especially for students in an environment like Fulbright University Vietnam, an environment with a liberal spirit, those poems should be a moral guide that shapes their way of thinking both in work and in life,” critic Pham Xuan Nguyen expressed.

Anh Thư

Students of Creative Writing course at Fulbright University Vietnam took their instructor – Dr. Dao Le Na – by surprise when they proposed not doing the Final Project in the traditional way: creating any written works such as a poem, a play, a script… and presenting them to be graded . Instead, they proposed the idea of organizing a show in which they would bring together various performances inspired by The Tale of Kieu, a 19th century literature masterpiece by the great poet Nguyen Du. Dr. Le Na was more than pleased to accept their proposal.

Experienced Vietnamese folk music artists performing at the showcase.

Young artist Chau Nhi played guitar for some ballad performances.

As the name suggests, Creative Writing course thrives in the “creative” factor; it encourages students to pursue any independent attempt to write, ranging from poems,  novellas, biographies to even songs. However, Fulbright students wished to do more than just finishing an individual task for the final project. They wanted to do something intriguing, inspiring yet still insightful enough to convey the time-honored values of the great masterpiece to the younger audience.

A cải lương performance

Rather than simply reiterating line by line of The Tale of Kieu, Fulbright students used the masterpiece as an inspiration to send their heartfelt emotions, dynamic perspective, and thoughtful remarks about the characters in the Kieu’s universe, as well as about the distinctive difference of such a special period in Vietnamese history. They put together various forms of performances: chant poems, spoken word poetry, cải lương (loosely translated as reformed theater, or modern South Vietnamese folk opera), ca trù (tally card songs), hát xẩm (a type of Vietnamese folk music), rap, and ballads. Everything, including the script of the show and the poems adapted into songs performed, was written by the students themselves.

The quintet rapped their hearts out.

Using diverse forms of art to “interpret” the masterpiece, “ Chắp một trống canh” was their way of “feeling” The Tale of Kieu, “reciting” the poem in such a unique and creative way. What adds to the excitement of the show is that Dr. Dao Le Na allowed her students to invite folks from other universities, who share the love for Nguyen Du’s literary masterpiece, to take part in the performances. Fulbright students believed that Kieu is still living in the hearts of poetry lovers and her story is being retold by the youths today, although the legendary poet Nguyen Du has passed more than 200 years ago.

Sitting in the front-row seat, Dr. Na could not hide her excitement and happiness when she enjoyed the performances put on by her students. It was beyond her expectations that the final project turned into something meaningful and inspiring for the young folks of Fulbright and other universities in the city to relive their passion for the internationally acclaimed literary masterpiece. Not long ago, Fulbright University Vietnam also held a conference on “Nguyen Du and Contemporaries” to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the great poet’s passing, attracting the attention of the educational community.

Through their performances, Fulbright students strived to convey their own interpretation of Nguyen Du’s characters as depicted in The Tale of Kieu, most notably Hoan Thu, when she found out the affair between her husband and Kieu. As student Dao Hai Nhat Tan read aloud the sentences of a poem expressing the feelings of Hoan Thu, , the audience felt the burning jealousy, the pains and the misery of the woman. The expressions conveyed under the form of spoken word poetry were, to some extent, successful in showing the sympathy for Hoan Thu, who was usually described as a villain for her jealousy attacks on Kieu later on. It was something different from the way this character was often illustrated before.

Students also staged a short play in which Kieu was brought to life and had a conversation with today’s young people. Not only did it show the students’ desire to have a dialogue with Nguyen Du to know more about the insights of his 19th century literary masterpiece, but it also helped closing the gaps in space and time, which were usually quoted as the obstacles for today’s young readers to understand the Tale of Kieu’s deep layers of meaning.

Scholar Nhat Chieu and Dr. Nguyen Nam

Leveraging Dr. Dao Le Na’s connections, Fulbright students invited Chau Nhi, a third-year student from Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities to the show. Sharing the same passion, Chau Nhi enthusiastically helped Fulbright students set the poems they wrote to music and played guitar in some ballad performances, which told the narratives full of feelings and desires for the main characters in The Tale of Kieu such as Thuy Kieu, Kim Trong, and Thuy Van.

Thanks to Chau Nhi’s songs, I find myself sympathizing with the lyric and writers’ thoughts about Kieu. Although I can’t understand everything about a great poet like Nguyen Du, I can understand the thoughts of someone my age, and I feel Chau Nhi’s music is a very good example for the saying: ‘Art is a melody that the artist sends his thoughts and feelings into it so that it can be conveyed to the audience’ ,” student Huong Giang, who performed a song composed by Chau Nhi, reflected.

The rap performance inspired by The Tale of Kieu was full of excitement. The five rappers represent the voices of five male characters whose presence made an impact in the life of Kieu: Thuc Sinh, Kim Trong, Tu Hai, Ma Giam Sinh, and So Khanh. For this performance, Fulbright’s Minh Tien invited Tri Thien, Le Duy, Xuan Minh and Gia Huy from Van Lang University, the Open University, and the University of Social Sciences and Humanities to form a rap quintet that brought the house down.

The students were inspired by “Cell Block Tango” – a song from the 1975 musical Chicago – when they wrote this rap song. As put by Minh Tien, it was an example of how the students understood the lesson taught by Dr. Dao Le Na about intertextuality – the interconnection between similar or related works of literature that reflect and influence an audience’s interpretation of the text. Gia Huy, who wrote the lyrics for the rap song, said he had read The Tale of Kieu thoroughly to understand how the epic poet Nguyen Du played with words in portraying these men and expressing their thoughts and feelings about her.

The highlight of the show was the performances by a group of experienced Vietnamese folk music artists: Thuc An, Manh Hung and Ngoc Quang. The moment when Thuc An, an 80-year-old singer who spent her whole life performing traditional music, sang aloud the high notes of ca trù songs, the audience turned silent. Many students in the audience said it was the first time they really enjoyed the recitations of The Tale of Kieu with the melodies of Vietnamese folk music.

On the one hand, the resonance of contemporary and traditional music made the show memorable. Students also invited literature scholar Nhat Chieu and Dr. Nguyen Nam from Fulbright University Vietnam to share their takes on The Tale of Kieu and their ongoing projects to bring the literary work closer to the younger generation of readers.

With “Chắp một trống canh”, Fulbright students pushed their boundaries by putting their written works into a space of creativity while honoring and rejuvenating this work of art. They wished nothing but making their final projects beautiful, poetic, and full of life. Above all else, they wished to share the pure love for Vietnamese poetry and music with the larger audience.

Thuy Hang