Documentary Spotlight: Celebrating Nguyen Thi Tham

After an inspiring weekend celebrating Vietnamese Women’s Day here at RICE, today we honour the life and work of Director Nguyen Thi Tham. A pioneer for female Documentary filmmakers in Vietnam.

Finding Film

Born in 1984 to a family of Labourers, Tham started out in life with no knowledge of Documentary film, yet as she grew she became increasingly interested in the genre and realised more and more that filmmaking was her calling. Her passion for Documentary arts led her to complete two filmmaking courses hosted by Atelier Varan, as well as a Degree in Filmmaking from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Theatre and Cinema in 2007. Filmmaking, to Tham, became a means to examine the psychology of different people and to respect their lives in such a way that she could both encapsulate their values, and grow and develop herself by portraying them. Tham has also shared that she finds peace in introspection and in her craft, which is part of the reason she decided to become an independent filmmaker. “Independent filmmaking is a private space” she told Lâm Tuyền for Lao Dong newspaper in 2014, “I can truly live ‘slowly,’ […] gradually realize life’s values, and go along with a variety of emotions.”

Madam Phung’s Last Journey

Tham had long been keen to portray the lives of travelling actors and musicians, as she had spent her childhood watching troupes perform in market fairs. So, in 2009 at the age of 25, with a low budget and equipment borrowed from Atelier Varan, she started making Madam Phung’s Last Journey (Chuyến đi cuối cùng của chị Phụng) a film exploring the ups and downs of a transgender theatre troupe called Bich Phung. A lover of adventure, Tham spent 13 months touring with the troupe, filming them and living their lives. Her directorial style is quietly observational and she watches on from the sidelines as the troupe travel around the country, triggering fascination, curiosity and even hostility from local people.

Each scene reveals increasingly more about the struggles in Madame Phung’s own life, yet the protagonist seems hopeful that the film will alter preconceptions about the LGBTQ community in Vietnam. “They’ll see homosexuals’ everyday life”, she remarks in one scene, “how hard it is”. Sadly, most of the characters meet their sad fates in ways that extend beyond the framework of the film. Seven months after Tham wrapped up post-production, two of the main characters had died of AIDS.

Madam Phung’s Last Journey was distributed in Vietnam by Blue Productions in 2014. The film received a great deal of praise from film critics and broke the box office record for documentary film in Vietnam. The film got a ‘Special Mention’ at the South-east Asia Chopshots Documentary Film Festival and won the Vietnamese Golden Kite Award for Best Documentary Film in 2014.

Happy Women’s Day from RICE!


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