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Race/Class/Gender in the Eye and Life of Director Khoa Đỗ: A Perspective in Film

 

KhoaDo

 

Conducted, reviewed, edited, and translated into Vietnamese by Trangđài Glassey-Trầnguyễn
Filmed and transcribed by Olivier Glassey-Trầnguyễn
© Trangđài Glasssey-Trầnguyễn. All rights reserved.

 

AUTHOR’S NOTES: I conducted this oral history interview the day after “Footy Legends” was screened at the opening night of the 2009 ViFF (Vietnamese International Film Festival) in Irvine. I would like to juxtapose this interview – and the perspectives expressed by the narrator – with academic thoughts on gendered racialization and the racialized other(s). Here, Director Khoa Đỗ offers a very different approach in conversations and negotiations germane to racial relations: he lets race be, and speaks about the everyday life as a way to come together. At least, this is what I gathered from the conversation with Khoa. Readers might have a different take on his response, and that will only show the richness of the topic.

This conversation is part of my ongoing efforts and contemplated orientation to connect academia and the community. While knowledge production might appear to take place at the college campuses and classrooms, the impetus for it all takes place in the lives of people – the lives in our communities. Though this conversation might be atypical of what Đỗ is used to when he is interviewed as a film director, he has certainly created new spaces for the topic at hand. And I can only say that he has so much more to offer than the excerpted transcript you are about to read. A few good laughs are herein for sure.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I thank Ysa Lê-Đình, ViFF Co-director, for scheduling this interview during the festival. I thank Khoa Đỗ for being a good sport and for his visceral reflections. I thank Olivier Glassey-Trầnguyễn for his support, dedication, and collaboration in this interview and entry. This entry would not be possible had it not been for his unreserved commitment to film and transcribe it. I thank him for this, and much more.

PLOT: Set in Sydney’s western suburbs, Footy Legends tells the story of Luc Vu (Anh Do), a young Vietnamese Australian man with an obsession about rugby league football. Out of work and with welfare authorities threatening to take away his little sister (Lisa Saggers), because their parents are dead and Luc is deemed incapable of being a responsible guardian, Luc re-unites his old Yagoona High School "footy" team—whose members are now facing social problems such as long-term unemployment, drug addictions, the after-effects of teenage parenting—and wins a competition that offers a Holden Ute and a modelling job for Lowes Menswear as its prize. It is mostly comedy which is underpinned with serious social issues affecting western Sydney. The film features Vietnamese-language dialogue between Vu, Anne, and their aged grandfather.

 

Part I: Reconstructing the Past through Mealtime Stories

Trangdai Glassey-Tranguyen (TG): This is the oral history interview with Director Khoa Đỗ from Australia. Today is the 3rd of April, the year 2009. It is around 4pm. We are present in the Green Room of Bowers Museum. The interview is part of the Vietnamese Diasporas Projects, and to be disseminated in print and online Vietnamese-diasporic media. Hi Khoa. Thank you for bringing us the Aussie accent.

Khoa Đỗ (KD): Thank you. It’s my pleasure. I am just glad that people here can understand me.

TG: No worries. We love the Aussie flavor. So the screening last night was beautiful. “Footy Legend” was perfect for the opening night. It was simply awesome. But before we talk about the film, I would like to ask you to share a bit about your personal experiences, especially the part of your life in Vietnam, because I saw a lot of that coming through in the film.

KD: I left Vietnam as a very young boy, when I was about one and a half or so. I didn’t get much of a life in Vietnam.

TG: It’s amazing how your Vietnamese is so native (both laugh).

KD: I guess I speak in Vietnamese to my Mum and my family, so we do speak Vietnamese a bit at home. But certainly I don’t have memories of Vietnam, but I do have memories of growing up in Australia as a very young boy.

TG: With your Vietnamese family. And the community.

KD: Yes, with my Vietnamese family. The community and the environment there. We have certain glimpses of childhood experiences.

TG: If you don’t mind, where and when were you born?

KD: I was born in Saigon in January 1979.

TG: You should call me Chị [i.e. older sister] then (both laugh). How did your family escape by boat to come to Australia?

KD: My family did escape by boat in 1980. We had a boat that was about nine meters long. There were about forty people on the boat. We traveled for about five days before we got picked up and taken to Malaysia, to Pulau Bidong refugee camp.

TG: You certainly cannot remember anything about this journey since you were so little at that time, but you are able to recount it in such details because your parents told you the stories?

KD: Absolutely. It’s one of those stories that so often talked about when the family meets for dinner. And towards the end of dinner – always – these stories would keep coming out. “Remember that time we were on the boat, and the engine broke down. And we lost a propeller, and Uncle Sáu had to jump down and change the propeller. Lucky I brought the extra propeller, see! Mum told me not to bring the propeller, but I brought the propeller, otherwise we would still be drifting now.” (Khoa reenacts the spirited conversation; Trangdai laughs heartily.) All these stories came out, you know. “Remember that time when the pirates attacked us, we thought they were going to throw Khoa overboard, but luckily they didn’t.” And all sorts of stories, and I guess it is from these stories that you construct your history.

TG: Because everything is so fragmented. Life is. The act of living, by itself, is already fragmented, leaving alone having to move around, dislocated, and relocating, and all.

KD: It is! It is! And as a result of these stories, I have images of the boat. To be honest with you, I don’t know whether they are real images, or whether they are constructions of the stories that I’ve heard.

TG: It was amazing last night when you were talking about how you grew up with all those stories. Did you realize that it is a privilege? Because there are so many families where the parents or the elderly do not talk about the war experiences, or the boat experiences. It is because they thought that the stories were already in the past and it is too painful to bring up anyhow. They also feel that it’s a burden to pass them on. They didn’t want to burden their children with those painful experiences, but at the same time we the younger generations need to connect with them.

KD: I think so. I think it’s important that these stories are told, it’s important that these stories are passed on. Because I think it’s so important to keep our history and we record it for the next generation and the next generation. I’ll pass these stories to my children. These stories make us who we are. They are a construct of a whole history. I’m privileged, and I guess fortunate, that my parents did share these stories, that my family does share those stories. Probably for the first decade, it was tough. But there comes a point when you are at peace with the entire journey, and sharing these stories is a form of healing and a form of moving on to a brighter future.

TG: Right. Absolutely so. On that note, I’m going to ask particularly about your childhood. You did mention that certain parts of the film were biographical. The scene where you showed the kids playing was really poignant, and it depicts how life really was for certain families. I want to ask you to elaborate on that depiction, and how your lived experiences entered the film.

 

Part II: Toward Racial Co-existence

KD: I guess a lot of events or things that happen in the film did come from my life experience. I grew up in a very rough area in Sydney. There were friends from all sorts of different backgrounds – like Lebanese background, aboriginal background, Samoan, Tongan backgrounds. Just different cultures. But growing up together, the one way which we connected together was by playing football together in the parks, on the streets. It was a way for us to bond and to find a way to coexist within this society. So I brought that out in the film, and sending a message about people from different cultures, different backgrounds. How do we harmoniously coexist? And in the film, what comes through really strongly is the notion of by working together, by focusing on our strengths, we can not only harmoniously coexist, but we can succeed together. And our success is our community’s success.

TG: That statement can go into any policy-making process nowadays, because almost every single nation on earth today is looking into that process. When we have different groups of people coming together, how do we harmoniously coexist? So would you consider becoming a diplomat?

KD: (laughs, but then pretends to sound serious) I could run for parliament next month, and this is my campaign (Trangdai laughs). That’s funny because I have been approached in the past, and I considered going into a Parliament, but filmmaking and politics… just opposite…

TG: Don’t mix them. You have so much freedom in one area.

KD: Exactly! In one area, it’s about expressing your opinion.

TG: It’s direct!

KD: It’s direct! And it’s going for what’s bold, for what’s challenging, what’s powerful, for what you want to say.

TG: The gut feelings. The visceral level.

KD: And the other one, it’s about what your voters want you to say. It’s two opposite things.

TG: I’m glad you chose film. There are quite a few things that I would like to invite you to reflect on about the film. I do want to come back to your personal experiences later on too. Three things in the film were very striking for me. One was, as I shared with you in the car on the way here, although your film has an ethnic Vietnamese lead character, it is very mainstream in a good way. How did you bring that together? We walk in the duality of our home environment, our home culture, Vietnamese or whichever that could be, and then we have to exist in the Australian society, or here, the American society. How did you bring the two rivers together?

The other part is class. You did mention the rough experiences, the rough neighborhood, and especially as immigrants, as refugees, we all start off with difficult beginnings. That did come through. I was just wondering how class worked for you in your experiences as well as in making this film where you portrayed class in a way that is very engaging and not divisive. There are people from different walks of life and socio-economical status, yet here is something beautiful and doable.

And the third thing is gender. It is amazing how sports is very male-dominant, and here you have something very sentimental, I wouldn’t call it feminine, but emotionally charged and beautifully done. And yet, at the same time, even though it is very male-dominant, the character of the young lady really came through and shined. And towards the end, you see the mother coming through, although you only see the boy’s recollections of her for very brief moments, but it was so powerful. I was wondering how you negotiated gender in this film, if you were doing that at all.

KD: (Khoa laughs) So the first question was about the duality of being Vietnamese and being Australian or being Vietnamese and being American. I think often, when we see films with a Vietnamese person in the film, Black person, or an ethnic person, then ethnicity comes to the center of the film. And it becomes a movie about race.

TG: Right. But not in your film.

KD: No. The film has people of different backgrounds, but it’s not a film focusing on race. For me, sometimes, to focus on race may not necessarily heal, may not necessarily tackle the issue successfully. Because to highlight the issues, to highlight the problems, may serve to reinforce the wrong discussion. Instead of focusing on race as an issue, we thought, “Let’s focus on what they have in common.” Rather than focusing on differences, which is race, we focus on similarities, on what they have in common, on what they have together. What they have in common is their love of sports, of football, of playing together and being together. I think throughout the whole film, we focus on what they have in common, and their childhood, memories, and what they share – in so doing, I think we tackle and address all of those issues of race and classes, but in a much more subconscious way, in a way that doesn’t hammer you in the head. The message is that we must care for each other, no matter what the background is. In my everyday life, that was the reality. Growing up with friends of different backgrounds, we don’t necessarily sit together and talk about, “So, what’s it like to be Lebanese? Or what’s it like to be an aboriginal Australian?” We never talked about that. So I thought, “Let’s avoid those conversations in the film and go for the similarities…”

TG: Where we do come together!

KD: Where we do come together. Yes, that’s how we negotiated race in the film.

TG: Then this negotiation did come directly from your experience into the film.

KD: Yeah, I think it was my personal experience, growing up in an environment with friends from all sorts of different cultures.

TG: It is such a huge asset to be able to have that.

KD: Yeah, it is, it is. And in some ways, that’s how I see our life forward: to focus on our strength together, rather than to focus on our differences. And I think that whether it has to do with race, culture, religion, or whatever, in trying to point out the differences, we then potentially create divide. But by focusing on our strengths, on our similarities, we can do anything together. So that was the first part of your question (Khoa laughs).

TG: Thank you. The second question was about class. There were certain material conditions that we need to talk about when it comes to the human experience, the everyday life of people from all different backgrounds. You portray these conditions in such a way that is not undermining. There are hilarious moments in the film when the camera zooms in on the realistic picture of the working class. And yet at the same time, it comes across in such an engaging manner. And you use humor in such a way that really tackles that. Please talk about class and humor.

KD: In any major country or major area, there are people from all sorts of classes living together in a certain environment, certain space. The film in many ways is a film about overcoming challenges, no matter what they are. And one obstacle which these young men have is they come from a different class to everyone else, a lower class, a poorer class. And again this film is saying that, “Forget about that!” If you focus about that, it becomes your weakness. But embrace it and be proud of it. Focus on your strength, on what you have, and it’s only this way that you can move forward, and you can go for your dreams.

TG: So it’s about the human resilience, the human potential, in each of us.

KD: Yes, it’s a film about realizing your potential, despite your class and the potential class differences. When you are on a field together, all those differences are gone.

TG: You work towards one common goal.

KD: Yes, you work towards one common goal. And you are equal, it’s a level playing field. I don’t take life too seriously, and a very important thing that we can all do is to learn to laugh at ourselves and not take our lives too seriously. Within this movie as well, there’s a whole theme about, “Why do we do this? Why do we do this?” Because in the end, it’s about finding the fun, the beauty, the enjoyment, of their lives, and going for that.

TG: To be happy is an important business.

KD: Yes, absolutely.

TG: The third question was about gender. As I mentioned, sports is a male-dominated area and the film revolves around that. But at the same time there were many tender moments, even with the boys alone, as when they were looking for the turtle for the little girl. How did that happen?

KD: This film’s cast is mainly men, but what drives them and influences them is in many ways the women in their lives, or the lack thereof. As for the parents of Luke…

TG: It’s Lực, right? You anglicized his name.

KD: Absolutely (both laugh).

TG: He’s called Lực at home and Luke at school.

KD: Yeah, yeah! Which is kind of cool, because he gets to change his name. He’s looking out for his sister. Although his sister is much younger than him, she is the more mature of the two of them.

TG: Emotionally.

KD: Yeah, emotionally. And eventually, this is a film about Luke growing up.

TG: So tell me about the mother. How did you come up with that character? Loss is a very salient theme for the Vietnamese diasporic experiences.

KD: It is. In many ways, this film is about a brother and a sister whose mother has passed away. They try to find a way to live together, they try to find a place for themselves in their world. And in some ways, their mother represents everything that they lost, whether it be their original homeland, or whether it be their real mother.

TG: So the mother’s image is both symbolic and material.

KD: It is, yeah. It is a film about coming to terms with what you lost, to try to find a place for yourself in the world you live in.

TG: To find home, wherever that home is.

KD: Yeah, to find home. At the end of the film they become proud of where they live now and their home. And as a team, they create a business together, and eventually they find their real home.

(END OF EXCERPT)

 

Footy Legends (a movie trailer on YouTube)

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Trangdai Glassey-Tranguyen is Founder and Director of the Vietnamese American Project, Center for Oral & Public History, California State University, Fullerton, and Founder of the Vietnamese Diaspora Project under the auspice of an exceptional-ranking Fulbright full grant in Sweden. She is the first scholar to have conducted extensive cross-lingual oral history interviews with Vietnamese Americans in Orange County, California and other parts of the U.S. since the 1990s. At a time when oral history was still foreign to the public, Trangdai was visionary in using her student loans to finance the VAP. She also had the vision to pioneer the introduction and discussions of oral history methodology in the Little Saigon community through radio and TV interviews, forums, publications, and events that connect academia and the larger public in both Vietnamese and English for the last twenty years. She is the sole scholar to have conducted hundreds of oral history interviews and multi-sited research on the Vietnamese diasporas in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and Asia since the 1990s. A celebrated leader, award-winning researcher, noted bilingual poet, committed Vietnamese language teacher, respected syndicated writer, and elated mother, Trangdai holds an M.A. in History from CSU Fullerton and an M.A. in Anthropology from Stanford University, and is working toward her Ph.D.

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