When RICE started Young Saigon series more than a year ago, the idea was to shed light on the rarely known yet lively underground culture of Vietnamese young people.
“It is part of RICE’s efforts to change people’s perception about Vietnam, as more often than not, many foreigners think it as a war-ridden country with dated images of women in ao dai passing by old buildings and motorbikes, as shown in those classic TIME photos,” RICE executive producer Andy said.
However, things started changing, when Dong On, then a fresh graduate of broadcast media in Singapore, took over the series a few months later.
The young filmmaker, who had been struggling to fit in the Vietnamese youth culture even before studying abroad for three years, saw it as a chance to look into his own situation and reach out to his peers.
“I never understood why I could never really fit in with people around me, even though we were at the same age and went to the same school, until I watched those first films of Young Saigon,” said Dong, who is now the head of RICE’s content department.
“I saw myself in those young people who know what they love and do it so passionately, regardless of what others may think about them,” he said.
In Vietnam, there are lots of expectations of young people, from manners to education, but at the same time there is a serious lack of guidance about finding their passion and living with it fully, Dong said.
“Young Vietnamese people, therefore, are both trapped and lost,” he said.
“Compared to my friends, I count myself as lucky with parents who give me full freedom to explore what I like and what I can do,” Dong said. “They never forced me to live up to the society’s expectations – getting a university degree and then a steady job, preferably a doctor or working for a respected company.”
“I was also lucky to study overseas at an early age to learn more about what I love and then earn a living with my passion of filmmaking.”
Once he understood his situation, Dong took it upon himself for inspiring young people to break out of social conventions and expectations. He started making films to prove to them that here in Vietnam, people in their twenties still manage to live happily with their passion, whether it’s photographing, dancing or skating.
His subjects are from different walks of life: a world renowned photographer, the drummer of a local rock band, a disabled skater who has competed in Paralympic games, and a football freestyler who has too competed and performed around the world.
What they have in common is not only a passion and obsession with their craft, but also a strong self-discipline and self-motivation.
But, why self-discipline and self-motivation?
“A true artist needs disciplines and constant practice to improve their skills,” Dong said. “It’s dangerous that both the society and artists themselves tend to mistakenly equate creativity to impulsiveness. They are misled into thinking that artists can work whenever they like.”
Asked if he is planning anything for Young Saigon in the future, now that the series is approaching its season break, Dong said he will continue to make films on the youth’s passion.
However, that passion will be expanded, so it will be about young people’s passion for other objects than their craft such as their families, lovers and friends, he said.