The Sheer Tenuousness of It
Tom Weidlinger tells a story about a Vietnamese actress. He doesn’t try to make his chitchat particularly allegorical, but because Weidlinger builds trenchant true stories for a living, it just comes out that way. The actress, Chieu Xuan, came to study for a while in Berkeley, and when the time came for her to go home, it was another teary scene, like the one near the end of Weidlinger’s recent documentary, in which Xuan appears. Life imitated life.
There is something Shakespearean, which is to say, stylishly lifelike, about the emotional farewell in A Dream in Hanoi. Weidlinger’s film culminates in the proud accomplishment of a grand goal in spite of serious and comedic conflicts of understanding, and conveys the reassuring message that something as complex as a tear-soaked cheek doesn’t require translation or cultural mitigation.
A Dream in Hanoi looks at the joint effort between the Central Dramatic Company of Vietnam and Portland, Oregon’s Artistic Repertory Theater to mount a bilingual touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Vietnam, where it has never been performed. Weidlinger’s attentive camera followed the production essentially from inception to completion, and beyond. He supplemented his gathered observations with interviews of the major participants, assembled it all in roughly chronological order, culled according to his own narrative instincts, and supplied concise annotation, which is read with relaxed poise by F. Murray Abraham.
The Vietnamese press likes to describe the film as the first American documentary about its country that is not about war. Weidlinger likes to say that it is not really about theater either. “Thematically,” he says, “I’m committed to doing stuff about effective cross-cultural relationships.” The State Department’s use of A Dream in Hanoi as a training tool for diplomats in its Foreign Service Institute may not seem like the most enticing endorsement, but Weidlinger appreciates the distinction, and considers it a measure of success. “What I’ve wanted to do was make films around social justice issues,” he says, “about communication between groups of people that were different than each other.”
If the documentarian species selects for a combination of contradictory traits, Weidlinger is a purebred. He is able either to disappear between his laptop and a café‘s back wall, or to seem like he’s holding court there. He is large and somewhat bearlike, and he can appear imposing or inert, his gaze peering or reflective. He would seem to prefer listening to talking. It makes sense that he gets access to people’s lives assertively but unobtrusively. “There are certain filmmakers who put themselves in their films. I know that there’s a whole genre that supports that. But it’s just not my cup of tea,” he says.
Weidlinger began his career as an associate producer in 1978, working on Cosmos and other public television programs. He became a producer and director shortly thereafter, and, thanks in part to the narrative training he received at the American Film Institute, “got in this weird position of doing historical recreations.” In 1987, he founded his own company, Moira Productions, and premiered PBS’ The American Experience series with The Great San Francisco Earthquake, a piece for which he traveled north from his Los Angeles home to do research. He then decided to move to the Bay Area.
As Weidlinger’s films became more ambitious, he worked hard to combat what he perceived as the shortage of context in the evening news. His topics through the ‘90s included urban American violence and racism, and the upturned lives of Czechs and Slovaks after the fall of Communism. The enormity of such ideas is best articulated by those who really live with them, so, when telling stories about how people overcome trauma and divisive conflict, Weidlinger believes one essential criterion is that the people “have a personal stake.”
A Dream in Hanoi depicts a clash of wills and work ethics, and a group of artists so dedicated to communicating with their shared audience that they often fail to communicate with each other. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” Weidlinger says. “What attracted me was the sheer tenuousness of it. It could have gone up in smoke in the first week.”
From the outset, the friction does seem downright combustible. Doãn Hoang Giang, the eminent Vietnamese stage director half in charge of the play, does not hide his rather uncommon view of Shakespeare as an author of “inessential dialogues.” In turn, the American co-producer, Lorelle Browning, who is also an English professor, does not hide her dismay. One of Giang’s nervy ideas, to give the fairy Puck a silent chorus of servants, causes a stir among the American creative team, but it also provides a lovely and haunting theatrical spectacle. A very successful American riposte is the introduction, into a culture with a “tradition of shyness,” of full kissing on stage.
“When the Vietnamese do a play,” Weidlinger explains, “they show up on the first day knowing all the lines. That was a real discrepancy. The American actors like to get in there and work up a sweat. In the initial rehearsals, the Vietnamese worked in high-heeled shoes; they wouldn’t want to give it their all.” In the film it becomes clear, and promising, that in spite of these difficulties, no one will stoop to reopening old political wounds. Everyone is more concerned with making a good play. Weidlinger intuited that artistic differences were his raw materials: “The future of the film doesn’t depend on which side won.”
Weidlinger’s crew—himself and his son, Wesley McLean, who recorded sound—was received very politely, as is customary in Vietnam, and very politely overstayed its welcome. “We hung in there for ten weeks,” the director says. “It was kind of mind-boggling to them. They didn’t know what we were doing, but they sensed there was a commitment.” This allowed Weidlinger the needed rapport for a second round of interviews, in which he could ask the Midsummer cast and crew what they really thought and felt. With help from variously complicating logistics, the production became so hectic that many of his subjects began looking forward to their interviews, where, he recalls, “They could just sit down and vent.”
Weidlinger says domestic and foreign audiences have liked the film, perhaps because they recognize things from their own lives. He has already hosted several successful screenings in Vietnam, with several of his subjects in rapt attendance.
Do Doañ Chau, the play’s co-producer and designer, for instance, “watched it with his head in his hands-crying, laughing. At the end, there was this long silence. ‘It’s a wonderful film, but I feel so embarrassed,’ he said.” Weidlinger told Mr. Chau that his American counterpart and former formidable adversary, Ms. Browning, had felt embarrassed too. “He said, ‘Oh, really?’” According to Weidlinger, Mr. Chau has since perked up. Now he tells people, “I’m grateful for this film. It has shown the Americans to us, and shown us to ourselves. I’ve seen the film seven times. I would take nothing out! I would put nothing in!” That’s the sort of balance one might expect from Shakespeare.
Note: A Dream in Hanoi is now in limited release.