Interview by Claire Miglionico.
Photos by David Whyte.
A Q&A with Thi Vo, director of Made in Vietnam.
Tell us about your role at Double Whammy Studios.
I’ve been running Double Whammy Studios as owner and creative director for the last three years. I’ve worked in the agency world for a long time and ventured onto my own, running a boutique film and design studio here in Calgary.
What drew you to filmmaking?
I’ve always been attracted to movement. I started out as a motion designer, so adding film and commercials to my portfolio was a given. I just love the chaos that happens behind-the-scenes and working with wonderful people in Alberta’s film industry to get to a common goal, [which is] beautiful story telling.
When did the idea for Made in Vietnam start bubbling up to the surface?
I was born in Vietnam and, all my life, I’ve never gone back, not even for vacation. One day, one of my best friends Dan Nguyen—who is in my film—and I were out partying. He was telling me how he’s going back to Vietnam to visit his grandpa. I then told him how I’ve never been back and that I should go see the country where I came from. I told him how I’ve never met my biological father.
He said something no one has ever told me, not even my mother. He said many Vietnamese people go back home to search for lost relatives all the time since this is very common for people who escaped Vietnam to have lost family in the process. One of the common methods is to put an ad in the newspaper. Coming from the advertising world [I] thought, “Heck why not? What do I have to lose?” and at the same time I get to go on vacation. That’s how the idea started . . . about six to seven years prior to us actually going to film it.
Made in Vietnam was crowdfunded with the help of the now defunct Invest YYC. What was your experience with them?
Invest YYC was a great platform for Calgary projects. At the time, the city won “best multicultural city in Canada,” so there was a large grant funding that boosted Invest YYC and its curated projects. I was fortunate to be selected, which helped our super tiny micro-budget come to life. We surpassed our funding goal by over 300%. I had no idea how well we would do, but the amount of support from friends, family and the Calgary community was amazing and we couldn’t have done this without them.
What was it like being vulnerable and at the centre of the story?
I have a fair amount of experience being on camera. I used to dance in the hip-hop and breakin’ community and have done many shows, which helped me be a performer. I was fortunate to have acted in some major roles in the Canadian cinema as well as couple of reality TV shows, so being on camera was easy for me. Of course, this was still a new experience as the subject was me. I had a lot of faith in my wonderful tiny team of seven [which allowed me] to focus on the search [even] though that was very stressful on its own. [M]y energy felt so drained every day [that] I needed afternoon naps.
I love that you surrounded yourself with a team of long-time friends for the making of your film. What was that like?
I couldn’t have done it without my team and long-time friends. Everyone on the team not only played important roles, on and off camera, but I had previous strong relationships with everyone, which helped gain trust in producing this film. For on camera, I originally had it planned as just myself, but I wanted to have a dynamic feel on screen for the audience. So, having one of my best friends, Kaleb Tekeste, with me was a no-brainer. Him and I are like an old married couple. We’re best buds, but yet we can be at each other’s throats. Of course, then Dan Nguyen came into the mix to help out, and thank God he did as he was vital to translating Vietnamese for me since my Vietnamese is horrible. My other close friends on there just wanted to come and help, so of course I assigned them jobs that I needed to fulfill on the production side.
What did you learn about yourself as an individual while making Made in Vietnam?
I’ve always been addicted to doing things that scared me. I strongly believe that’s the only way to grow. When you have that little voice inside you that’s always saying, “I want to do that, I want to try this, this scares me, but I’m intrigued,” you need to listen to that voice and execute. Even if it means failure or made the same reasons why you were scared at first, worse. Sky diving was one of my earlier examples in high school. I’m scared of heights, and sky diving made it worse. What I’ve learned most while making this film is knowing how far we can push ourselves. You never know what you’re capable of until you try.
What’s it like knowing that Made in Vietnam made it into this year’s Calgary International Film Festival line up?
We are over the moon and super excited. We’ve been working on post-production on this film for the last 3.5 years. We had little budget to work on it full-time, so it’s been late evenings and weekends. The Calgary International Film Festival was proof of product for us. If we didn’t get in this year, then we knew we still have more editing to do. As a creative, we are all subject to [perfectionism] way too often which can delay our creative process because we want to make it just right and can keep on working on [it] forever. But we are now trying to learn a better way of thinking, which is ‘done is better than perfect.’ It’s all coming together now and we have plans to submit to 102 film festivals worldwide in the coming year.
What was a challenging moment during the making of this documentary?
One of the biggest challenges, from a technical side for any film, was coming up with the budget. Our budget was so tiny that we had to be creative on how it could even work. I lucked out with having an amazing small team, as everyone was on board for one major reason: to help me find my biological father. It’s not easy to get people on board with little budget, nor would I have wanted it that way, as everyone in the Alberta film industry is worth every penny.
Of course, the other major challenge in this film is the search itself. All we had to go with was my father’s name, which is Dan Vo, a photo of him and I when I was only one-and-half years old as a starting point.
What was the biggest reward in making this documentary?
The biggest reward in making this documentary was for the team and I to push ourselves in the search and the experiences that came with it. It was an emotional rollercoaster that affected not just myself, but the team as well, since they were living it with me. The other half of this reward is to be able to share it at the film festivals with people, as we feel it is an important story that everyone can relate to.
When it comes to storytellers wanting to invest their time and energy into making similar projects, what can you suggest them?
I would suggest to stick with an idea. Don’t let obstacles stop you. Think how to get over that obstacle to get to where you want. Think inside and outside the box to achieve your end goal. Ideas are nothing if they aren’t executed.
Made in Vietnam is playing Sunday, Sept. 24 at 6:30 p.m. at the Globe Cinema upstairs and Thursday, Sept. 28 at 5:15 p.m. at Cineplex Eau Claire 4.