• First Film Competition


Franziska von Stenglin

Franziska von Stenglin
Pinned against a bright blue sky, loudspeakers blare out European news and adverts extolling the benefits of consumer goods from the modern world. On the ground, the Sedang tribe lives peacefully and frugally in the middle of Vietnam on the edge of the jungle. Franziska von Stenglin uses an approach of scrupulous observation reminiscent of the ethnographical documentary tradition. She attentively records the age-old routines, the everyday way of life, the moments of domestic and collective pleasure and the scouting trips. The Dust of Modern Life dramatises this simple lifestyle, contrasting it with the consumer arguments that regularly dominate the audio field, evoking the off-screen threat of a different system. Unexpectedly, a woman’s high-pitched voice disrupts the apparent documentary order to sing of resisting the invader during the Vietnam War, while on screen, archival footage shows the making of traps intended for the enemy, connecting the issue of transferring skills with the question of resistance. The Dust of Modern Life adeptly illustrates how traditions are being undermined – traditions that are inextricably linked to protecting the ecosystems that destructive economic development is gradually killing. Liem, the main character, still makes these traps to hunt wild animals, teaching his son to make them too so that the tradition of the annual retreat in the jungle survives. As Liem and his friends venture further into the luxuriant vegetation, the film undergoes a metamorphosis. Focusing her attention on the wild variations of the jungle whose beauty is exalted by the grain of the film-roll, von Stenglin sets her mysterious magic against the picturesque backdrop, reminiscent of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work. Sensuous vegetation and intoxicating sound go hand-inhand with the harsh physical toil of subsistence, fusing in a nocturnal grand finale where the jungle and the men beat with one heart, cleansed at last from the dust of modern life.
(Claire Lasolle)

Interview with Franziska von Stenglin

Why did you choose the title, PA VA HÊNG (Dust Of Modern Life)?

PA VA HÊNG means “Retreat” in Sedang. And Dust Of Modern Life is a description the anthropologist Nguyen Ngoc used when he told me about the retreat ritual of the Sedang. He said: “they retreat to the forest to clean themselves from the dust of modern life”. Anthropologists often have this poetic language to describe things, which I love.

Dust of modern life was shot in the small village of Dak Sao, located in Kon Tum province (Vietnam), inhabited by the Sedang tribe. How did you discover this place and why did you decide to make a film there?
I travelled to Vietnam for the first time in 2013 with my class when I was studying art at the Staedelschule in Frankfurt. On that occasion we met the anthropologist, who told us about the Sedang and their retreat ritual. He is now 96 years old, he joined the Sedang as a young man during the Vietnam War, on one of these retreats. Back then, he told me the entire village would go to the forest. They were naked and they took nothing with them, living only on what the jungle gave them. He was very unsure that this ritualised retreat still takes place today, because of the modernisation and deforestation. I had been thinking about this story ever since. So I returned to Vietnam in the spring of 2016 to research whether this ritual does still exist. After driving from one remote village to another for a week asking around with my guide, I finally arrived in Dak Sau where the village elderly Dum told me the retreat was still practised every year by some of the men. My original plan was to do a photography-based project. But then I thought that since it was a journey, a time-based medium would be more suitable for this project. So I decided to come back and make a film.

We essentially follow the figure of Liem, a young man belonging to the Sedang tribe, who, following an ancient ritual of his people, once a year leaves his village to retreat into the forest with other companions. How was the shooting in such locations and what were the main difficulties encountered? How did the location affect and stimulate the direction of photography?
I was mostly worried about not being able to film what I wanted to film, because as a foreigner, filming in Vietnam you always have a government official with you during a shoot who supervises and takes care that you do not portray Vietnam in a way they consider bad. But it turned out not to be a problem because she stayed in a hotel in Kon Tum and was not present for most of the filming. She was really helpful with getting the film stock and equipment through security unharmed. The shoot lasted 12 days and we only had 32 rolls of film. So we had to be very precise with what we filmed. Overall, we mostly worked with available light and some minimal gaffing with torches. I had a great team including my DoP Lucie Baudinaud who did a fantastic job. Nothing went wrong technically. The main difficulty was perhaps the fact that our original protagonist decided 4 days before shooting that he was no longer going to do it. I think he was afraid because we were accompanied by government officials. So the scene where Liem puts on the music and his friend dance was Liem’s casting scene on our first day of shooting. After shooting it we decided: that’s our new protagonist. And he said yes. Luckily.

Passing down is one of the central themes of the film, which is inhabited by a feeling of nostalgia, reinforced by the use of 16mm. Can you tell us more about the choice of this format?
Shooting in 16mm was first and foremost an aesthetic choice. I shoot all my photography with analogue film as well. I love the depth of colour, the intensity, the imperfections, the handmade aesthetic that transpires. Analogue grain is much gentler to watch for the human eye than a digital pixel. Also through shooting on 16mm my audience viewing experience is aesthetically different from what they see daily on their smartphone and computer screens, so it’s a kind of a time out for their eyes. But filming with analogue material was the best choice I could have made for two other reasons as well. It forced us to shoot in a much more concentrated way, we had to really think about what we wanted to film. I prefer that way of working to sitting on a computer with my editors with hundreds of hours of material making the film there. I prefer to be in the situation, feeling what is right. Aside from all that, shooting in analogue also meant that the censorship lady could not review the material before we got it out of the country.

Towards the beginning of the film we see a short but incisive passage composed of archive material. How did you select it and according to what needs did you decide to include it?
It is modelled after a video for this folksong that my translator Hang found on YouTube for me. The Central Highlands were a central strategic point for the victory of the north Vietnamese army and the Vietcong during the war. The Ho Chi Minh trail runs through there. This history is central to the identity of the people living there and to Liem. I wanted to include a little more of that context into the film and asked Hang to research some war related music. She found this song with the YouTube video, which is about the role of women from the Central Highlands in the war. It is magical music with a very brutal content. The material is all filmed by the Vietcong, who had film processing sites hidden in jungle. It shows the Vietnam war from the other perspective to what we are used to seeing as western audience.

Besides this folksong, could you tell us more about the role of music in the film?
Music was everywhere during our shooting. I felt that people in Vietnam are more musical than in Germany which might not be a surprise ! Liem’s friends had smartphones mostly for the purpose of listening to music. There were pop songs during the party, other war and folk songs that they were singing, there was Dum (the village elderly) playing on his makeshift instrument. The war and folk songs carry the history and pass it down the next generation. Everyone was constantly singing and humming, including my crew and the protagonists. Rihanna’s “We found Love” was playing on the loudspeaker in the film, but we had to take it out because I could not afford the music rights. Music is a universal connecting element.

The film shifts between ethnographic observation and a sensory journey, which at times drifts into almost transcendental digressions. Why did you adopt this treatment? And how did you work on the sound of the film, which contributes largely to this effect?
I did not want to make this film in the hopes of preserving a dying culture or to highlight the disastrous effects deforestation have on the central highlands. I made this film because the ritualised retreat that the Sedang have been practising for generations stands as a metaphor for our very personal yet universal need to retreat, as human beings living under the growing pressures of capitalism and globalisation. To me the film is a metaphor for this universal feeling but there are many other layers (environmental, social, political), that of course play a role. This feeling is not tied to a specific place or specific people, it is a feeling that everyone knows. So I wanted to create an immersive experience, so that watching the film in the cinema becomes like a retreat in itself. The ambient sound we recorded is divided into organic and mechanic sounds. In the beginning, the signifiers of contemporary human life in the village are: music, tuned motorbikes, trucks, machines, dogs barking, chickens, television, kids playing, the sound of the speakers. As Liem advances on his path to the retreat, these sounds are left behind and what the audience hears shifts into a natural soundscape. The sound is a signifier for Liem’s inner retreat to a place where insects and birds make music together. The sound design is one of the most important parts of the film. I intensely worked together with my sound designer, Christian Wittmoser, to really convey Liem’s experience to the audience.

Interview by Marco Cipollini

  • First Film Competition

Technical sheet

Germany / 2021 / 81’

Original Version : Sedang, Vietnamese.
Subtitles : German, English, French.
Script : Franziska von Stenglin.
Photography : Lucie Baudinaud.
Editing : Marylou Vergez, Zuniel, Kim.
Music : Thomas Höhl.
Sound : Christian Wittmoser.
Casting : A Liem, A Dun, A Sang, A Giáo, Y Suốt, A Quang, A Kiên, A Dum.
Production : Franziska von Stenglin, Lucas Tothe (Punchline Cinéma).
Filmography : I’m A Stranger Here Myself, 2015