Vietnamese Filmmaker in Hiding After Releasing Documentary on Human Rights Abuses
One of the very first documentary films on prisoners of conscience and human rights abuses from Vietnam will be screened at HUMAN. We’ve been in contact with the filmmaker, who, after being shadowed and tortured, is currently in hiding from Vietnamese authorities.
By Linn Helene Løken
When Mother’s Away portrays the family of an outspoken Vietnamese dissident and blogger, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, nicknamed Mother Mushroom. In the film, we meet her mother and two children after she’s been convicted and imprisoned for charges of “anti-state propaganda”.
Through her blog and on Facebook, Nguyen had protested a toxic spill by Taiwanese company Formosa in central Vietnam, criticized the government and exposed deaths in police custody. She was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
Wanted to Help
Arbitrary arrests and assaults on activists, journalists and artists are nothing new in Vietnam, ruled by the Communist party in a one-party system. The Vietnamese filmmaker behind the short documentary on Mother Mushroom, Clay Pham, has experienced such injustices first-hand. After several menacing encounters with Vietnamese police officials, Pham now lives in hiding.
HUMAN has had a chance to communicate with Pham, who, for obvious reasons, cannot reveal his whereabouts, but lets us know he is safe and okay. His motivation for making the film was simple.
“I wanted to help Quynh [Mother Mushroom] get justice and come back to her kids. That was the main goal for making the film,” Pham said. “I wanted to capture her family’s fight for justice. I also found the role of the mother of Mother Mushroom to be interesting as she’s a typical Vietnamese woman.”
The Price for Justice
When Mother’s Away has been screened in 16 countries, including 46 cities in the world. It’s been translated to six languages. It’s been screened for journalists, activists, independent filmmakers and in the area of the Catholic Church around Vietnam.
“After this film, my life changed a lot,” Pham explained. “In the past months, I’ve been living alone in hiding, afraid that someone is still shadowing me.”
It started shortly after he finished his documentary.
“There was always a masked guy following me everywhere. They also disturbed me and my family. And once, I was going to travel outside of Vietnam when airport police officers told me I couldn’t go. They took away my passport and gave me a travel ban.”
In June of last year, Pham was kidnapped and brutally beaten by police, almost to death.
“They took me to a private torture room for five hours,” Pham said. “They took off my shoes and used them to hit my head hundreds of times. They used batons to crush my feet. About 20 big strong men surrounded and beat me with batons, sticks and their fists and feet. They punched me in my face, and used iron sticks to hit the sole of my feet.”
Pham eventually lost his consciousness and later woke up in an emergency room. He managed to get back home and recovered with help from friends.
“After that, I realized what a bad situation I was in and escaped Ho Chi Minh City. Being in hiding now, I can’t do much and I can’t go back to my family,” Pham said.
Perceived as Rebellious
Ina Hann from the Norwegian branch of the human rights organization Vietnam VOICE works closely with Pham.
“Pham did not expect this type of reaction from Vietnamese authorities,” Hann added.
She explained that Pham thought the observational style of the film would protect him. By portraying the lives of Mother Mushroom’s relatives and thus not directly issuing an opinion on the activist and her actions, Pham thought he wouldn’t be targeted.
“But in Vietnam you don’t have to do much before being perceived as rebellious and dangerous,” Hann said.
Mother Mushroom’s Surprise Release
In October 2018, in a surprise move from the Vietnamese government, Mother Mushroom was quietly released from prison. She was then sent into exile in the U.S. with her mother and two children.
“I’m really happy that Quynh [Mother Mushroom] was released and her health was recovered after jail. I’m glad to hear about her family reunion as well,” Clay Pham expressed. “In my opinion, my film helped raise awareness about her name and helped her become known, but the main conditions that helped her release was advocacy from other organizations, NGOs worldwide and a lot of activists in Vietnam.”
He was supported by Nguyen Khac Giang, a senior political researcher at Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research (VEPR) in Hanoi, who also added diplomacy as an important reason for the release.
“The release was a carefully calculated action, combining diplomacy, the agreement of the U.S. to receive her, and international pressure,” said Nguyen Khac Giang.
The Future of Human Rights in Vietnam
The release of Mother Mushroom was largely viewed as a positive measure for human rights in Vietnam. However, it may not be the sign of a significant shift.
“Civil society has been tightened since 2016, after the anti-pollution protest against Formosa. Since the release of Mother Mushroom, I don’t see any difference in the way the government approaches,” Nguyen Khac Giang said.
A spokesperson from The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Per Bardalen Wiggen, commented on their work with Vietnam: «Human Rights are an integrated and central part of the bilateral cooperation between Norway and Vietnam. We also have a bilateral human rights dialogue with Vietnam where a broad spectrum of human rights issues are being discussed. We are in close dialogue with other countries when it comes to contact with Vietnamese authorities on specific cases. Through our embassy in Hanoi and Norad, Norway also supports projects and activities whose goals are to strengthen human rights in the country.
“As bad as it looks, civil society environment in Vietnam still has some room for both domestic and international actors to work,” Nguyen Khac Giang said. “There are of course problems in politically sensitive areas, but pushing too hard on that front alone might be harmful for other aspects of the budding civil society. Any measures should take that into account.”Many international NGOs operate in Vietnam, working in a wide range of areas from poverty reduction to environmental protection. The number of independent Vietnamese NGOs alone is around 3000.
“I would believe a combination of pressure and reward (ie trade access), with close cooperation among international organizations and countries would help [the human rights situation in Vietnam],” said Nguyen Khac Giang.
Clay Pham was uncertain about what the future holds for activists in Vietnam, but was sure about his own wishes for the future.
“I just want go to back to my work raising awareness of other cases of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam,” Pham said.
Watch When Mother’s Away and join the debate on Thursday 28 Feb 17:30 @ VEGA Scene Kino Tre