Diana Cam Van Nguyen • Director of Love, Dad
“Animation is a convenient tool for depicting fragile emotions”
- We talked to the up-and-coming Czech-Vietnamese animator and director, whose latest short film keeps reaping awards on the festival circuit
Prague-based Czech-Vietnamese director Diana Cam Van Nguyen premiered her latest short film, Love, Dad, made as a Czech-Slovak co-production, at Locarno, and the movie has been reaping awards on the festival circuit ever since, including at the BIAF and the BFI London Film Festival, among others. It is now screening at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival. Van Nguyen is a rising talent in the Czech animation world, specialising in the format of animated docs. Her previous work, Apart, was a finalist for the 2019 BAFTA Student Film Awards. Love, Dad is inspired by her own childhood, when her father wrote her letters from prison. The director reflects on their relationship as an adult, making use of the motifs of male pride, stereotypes and alienation. Van Nguyen employs a colourful array of techniques, including 2D animation, cut-outs, digital animation and rotoscoping, in combination with live-action footage.
Cineuropa: Love, Dad, like your previous works, is largely autobiographical. Why did you decide to mine your life for stories?
Diana Cam Van Nguyen: I don’t choose this subject of my own person in any way intentionally. The stories are based on an experience that I know, and therefore I am more confident that I can handle such a story. Authenticity is very important for me when making a film, so naturally, the stories and people around me influence me.
What draws you to animated documentaries?
Animated documentary is a genre I just found myself in, and which I still enjoy. I want to break through the stereotypical idea that animated film is for children. For such difficult topics as the loss of a parent, animation that deals with abstraction and imagination is a convenient tool for depicting fragile emotions. Abstract animation or realistic, rotoscopic animation allow me to work sensitively with the subject matter.
Simultaneously, animation allows me to create a more explicit description of the painful situations that might be depicted more cruelly in a live-action film. Animation can deal with difficult topics from real life. Animated documentaries have the ability not only to help the protagonists, but also to narrate their stories and situations for others. I hope that the audience can identify with the story and emotions here.
You utilise different animation techniques in your films. In Love, Dad, you have used cut-out animation, collage, digital animation and rotoscoping. Why do you change up the techniques?
I consider myself a director and animator who does not have a signature artistic style. I adapt the art to every film, according to its theme. I chose a paper collage for Love, Dad because the central topic is letters. I wanted to work with real letters that my dad sent me from prison and thus preserve the authenticity. The combination of paper collage with cut-out figures developed gradually. Over time, I lost myself in the collected materials – postcards, books and papers – and I thought it would be better if someone helped me. And after a while, I found an artist, Darjan Hardi, who had convinced me of the right direction to head in, and we tackled the visual side of the film together in the later stages.
I had the opportunity to try out live-action film during Apart, and I found out that I enjoy shooting with people on a set. The filming of Love, Dad was bigger, more professional and more challenging, but I still remember it as the most beautiful period of the last year. The main advantage and disadvantage of this technique is that not a lot of films use it. However, we had to find out on our own, and that was preceded by a lot of trials. I must admit that I wasn’t sure whether the combination would work until the very last moment. The willingness of the film crew to try out different things and find the perfect solution played a large part in achieving the end result.
The protagonists are your father and yourself. Why did you decide not to play yourselves, but instead provide a voice-over?
In an ideal world, my dad and I would have been playing the main characters. However, that was not possible, since besides the letters, I did not have any other material from my childhood. So we had to reconstruct those scenes. I deliberately picked an actress for my character. During development, I was told to play the role myself, but the whole film is so personal to me that if I saw myself in there, I would not be able to watch the movie. Authenticity in terms of the emotions is important for me. What I say and pass on to the audience is sincere, and I hope that can be felt from the film. That's why I decided to provide the voice-over myself, in order to be as candid as possible.
Your style is defined by experimenting and the hybridisation of animation techniques. Why do you prefer this approach?
During my time making animated short films, I've seen a lot of techniques. It's hard to come up with something new and original. I like to try new techniques, and thus the limits are shifting for me. It is essential for me to tailor the visuals to the theme. In this case, I arrived at the hybridisation of techniques in the same way. I started with the real letters that my dad sent from prison, and at the same time, I liked the combination of live action and animation.
Love, Dad, Apart and The Little One constitute a triptych about loneliness. Is Love, Dad the last instalment?
I believe Love, Dad was my last short animated film. I am now a bit thematically exhausted, and would like to try something new and not so personal.
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