FILMMAKER PROFILE: QUYÊN NGUYEN-LE

Director Quyên Nguyen-Le (Photo: Visual Communications Photographic Archive)

Director Quyên Nguyen-Le (Photo: Visual Communications Photographic Archive)

INTERVIEW With Joey Scher

Preferred pronouns: they/them, she/her
Favorite ice cream: Mint Chip

JOEY SCHER: For me, as an aspiring filmmaker, I am constantly wondering how hard it really is to claim your space and own your work in such a Eurocentric, heternormative, male dominated field… Do you feel the same way? Because you’ve been making your moves in the film world and I was wondering how you’ve been maneuvering around these things?
QUYÊN NGUYEN-LE: I’m still figuring it out, to be honest. I just graduated college and have no idea how anyone actually navigates being an artist in real life! People are always like “Aw! It’s so brave that you’re doing what you love and didn’t succumb to the pressures of having a stable job!” But like, real talk, I tried to sell my soul so hard and get that stable 9 to 5 with a 401k and I just couldn’t. So now I guess I’m stuck being a filmmaker. Jokes aside, though, I constantly have to ask myself: Do I *really* want to put all this energy into working in a sexist, homophobic, racist industry... and have no money? Do I hate myself that much?
     There’s a lot of time and energy I spend as a queer womxn of color on trying to gain access to the filmmaking space, then learning how to navigate it, and then figuring out how to be valued within it. I still don’t know how to do these things, but it’s easy to get totally distracted by it! But at the end of the day, I try to waste less time on proving to people why I should exist and instead use my energy to cultivate spaces where I can actually develop my skills and what stories I want to tell. So at the same time that I want to be included and have access to resources and institutional support, I always have one foot outside of filmmaking. And I think that’s how any of us can really survive: we need to gravitate toward people who love and support us. They’re out there, we just need to find them.

How did you go about finding your film crew for NUʼÓʼC?
I’m extremely proud that my entire crew was either queer or people of color or both! So I really eyeroll when people have non-diverse film sets and blame it on not knowing any talented people who are also queer or people of color.
     NUʼÓʼC is another expression of a project I did during my senior year of college, which was a documentary about queer Viet American womxn. The documentary helped me connect with other Viet people, queer Viet people, many of whom helped make this film. The star of NUʼÓʼC is actually one of the documentary subjects. I really thought her camera presence was amazing, so I asked her to be a part of this film… and then we asked her mom to be in the film, too.
     NUʼÓʼC is a film that I've always wanted to make in the sense that it is about a super specific experience and made as a conversation between other people like me, in this case, other queer Viet Americans. Three years ago, I didn't even know any other queer Viet Americans... and now, a bunch of us worked on this film together. It's super cool!

Does NUʼÓʼC paint a picture of something close to home?
The idea for NUʼÓʼC was not really clearly formed when I submitted to Visual Communications' Armed With a Camera Fellowship. At the time, the only thing I knew was that I wanted to make a dreamscape queer Viet thing based on some unexplored feelings I had at the intersection of those identities.
     I thought a lot about the way mainstream media represents Asian American parents as homophobic. The narrative is always like, “I came to this country and sacrificed so much -- how dare you be gay!” While this is true for some people, I wanted to challenge the racist notion that Asian parents are somehow more homophobic than white parents. And to depict how families can communicate, love, and care in a different and more complicated way than the mainstream representation of accepting parents, especially when there is a language barrier.

What does the title mean?
That was the first thing I knew about the film, more than the actual plot itself. There are lot of other Viet artists whom have used this word because of its double meaning. “Nước” means literally water but also means country and homeland. So in the film, there is a lot of water imagery used to convey ideas around homelands, belonging, and what it means to each of the two main characters. It’s set in the California drought and explores how the characters, who are outsiders in different ways, can survive drought (not having nước as in water, but also not having Nước as in homeland). The film is an exploration of how the Vietnamese American narrative is not solely one of war and loss, but also a complex one, where we continue to nourish and grow together.

Mother and daughter (My Le Nghiem and Rosi Vo Nghiem) come to an understanding in Quyên Nguyen-Le's NUʼÔʼC. (Photo: Courtesy the filmmaker)

Mother and daughter (My Le Nghiem and Rosi Vo Nghiem) come to an understanding in Quyên Nguyen-Le's NUʼÔʼC. (Photo: Courtesy the filmmaker)

Food plays such a significant role in film. I love the scene where the main character and their mom bond over eating cháo. Can you describe what cháo is?
I was having a hard time picking what dish I wanted them to eat together in the kitchen scene. I didn’t want to pick phở because everyone knows what phở is. We filmed in the actual house of the actor who plays the mother and she just happened to have cháo that day, so we built the story around it. Cháo is like congee, easy-to-make comfort food, and I think the ordinariness of it is significant in that our seemingly mundane daily experiences are all rich with context.

How does your family feel about your queerness?
So… the premiere of this film was like my coming out to my own mom. Since the film is translated into Vietnamese, I know she understood it. I mean, it wasn’t like I trapped her in a theater with 300 people and forced her to accept me, but… I kind of did. As much as I want to say I am comfortable with myself and how I relate to my parents, it was a way to strategically buffer myself from rejection. I knew everyone was going to clap, even if they hated my film, and it’s like “Hey mom! Look! Other people accept my queerness, so don’t worry about it.”
     I mean, she knew I was making the film. All my queer friends came over and we built a fake giant uterus in my parents’ garage for the film. To be honest, I don’t know how they feel about my queerness or the film, even now. I haven’t really ever felt the need to sit my parents down and explicitly tell them. And this kind of relationship is what’s represented in the film, I think.

Ya, like when the mom addresses the partner as “friend” instead of girlfriend or something.
Yes! It was hard translating that subtle aspect of it because in Vietnamese, using “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” is really serious, like fiancée status. Even when talking about a hetero couple in Vietnamese, you still would use the word “friend,” unless it’s serious. So it’s a little ambivalent whether the mother character is recognizing the relationship in the language she uses, but I think that’s a real and complex daily experience for a lot of queer Viet people.
     Navigating the translations for this film was really interesting for me as someone who’s not fluent, too. We were really intentional in making sure that we were using the complex system of Vietnamese honorific pronouns in a way that would make sense in Vietnamese, convey the same tone, but also be gender neutral in referring to our main character, who’s genderqueer.

An anti-war protestor (Cynthia Callejas) tries to conquer with love in a scene from Quyên Nguyen-Le's NUʼÔʼC. (Photo: Courtesy the filmmaker)

An anti-war protestor (Cynthia Callejas) tries to conquer with love in a scene from Quyên Nguyen-Le's NUʼÔʼC. (Photo: Courtesy the filmmaker)

Do you look up to any queer/people of color who are filmmakers?
I have this dream of becoming a triple threat like writer/director/DP Cary Joji Fukunaga. And I sent Dee Rees a fan letter once; I saw PARIAH at a really pivotal time in my life (I came out and quit film school) and her film really reassured me that there was indeed space for queer womxn of color and our stories in this industry. I really respect directors like Lexi Alexander and Karyn Kusama, too, who have been really vocal about gender discrimination in Hollywood. I think people really underestimate how much that kind of systematic oppression can influence people's creative work.
     But beyond just their films, I really admire and respect artists who show up for other artists. I know it's already an Andrew Ahn lovefest here at Visual Communications, but he's seriously so talented and cool! He donated to my little fundraiser for NUʼÓʼC a while ago and I didn’t know who he was at first, but now I’m like, “OMG the Andrew Ahn supported my film!” I fangrrl all the time 'cause not only did he make a gorgeous film (SPA NIGHT), he also takes time from his life of fame to be like, "Hey, congrats on your film!" I’m trying to be like that, channel my inner Andrew Ahn.

I saw on your website that you also majored in Political Philosophy. Do politics play a big role in most of your films?
Politics are definitely reflected my work… frankly because I don’t know how it’s even possible to separate myself from my politics. It informs and contextualizes how I understand and navigate the world! And I chose to be a filmmaker specifically because it is a form of activism.
     In college when I was taking screenwriting classes, there were comments about not "forcing" politics into my films, and instead creating some mythical universal "good story” that was devoid of said politics. But even that idea itself is entrenched in social power hierarchies — like, who gets to decide what is "universal" or "good" y'know?
     Right now, my filmmaking politics is that I am focusing on making films for my communities rather than appealing to an outside audience.

What did you take away from AWC?
AWC really nurtured me back into believing in myself post-college and gave me the space and support to create a film that I really always wanted to make.
     The best advice that I got from my fellows during the AWC workshops was to not feel pressured put EVERYTHING into one film. Especially as artists working on the margins, I think we often feel like we have to pack everything into one film because we assume we can only make one film our entire lives, which isn’t true! I think queer artists of color need to imagine that we can have long prosperous careers with many films!

Director Quyên Nguyen-Le with Visual Communications' summer 2016 interns (from left): Joey Scher, Kathy Pham, Connie Oh, and Farrah Su. (Photo: Visual Communications Photographic Archive)

Director Quyên Nguyen-Le with Visual Communications' summer 2016 interns (from left): Joey Scher, Kathy Pham, Connie Oh, and Farrah Su. (Photo: Visual Communications Photographic Archive)

What’s next?
I'm figuring out intentionally what kind of artist I want to be and how to sustainably achieve that. Like, I’m trying to maintain a practice of proactively sending fan mail to people I admire instead of keeping it to myself — especially other queer filmmakers of color — because they never get enough praise and affirmation for their brilliance! It’s really easy to become super angry and bitter in this racist, cis, sexist, hetero-centric industry… and while being angry is completely valid and necessary, it’s exhausting for me and I'd rather spend my energy cultivating sincerity and tenderness.

For additional information about NUʼÔʼC and director Quyên Nguyen-Le, please visit the director's website page.

The Armed With a Camera Fellowship for Emerging Media Artists has recently opened its call for Fellows for its 14th cycle starting in November 2016. For submission guidelines and more info, click here.