I recently had the pleasure of talking with my fellow high school alum and good friend Courtney Marsh, who is nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Documentary Short Film. Chau, beyond the Lines takes on an important, and in some sense forgotten, topic: Chau, a teenager growing up in a care center for children disabled by the chemical Agent Orange, battles with the reality of his dream to one day become a professional artist.
Q: Courtney, thanks so much for taking time to talk about this beautiful film. What inspired you to take on this specific topic--Agent Orange in Vietnam--and can you tell us a little bit about why it's still so relevant and critical as a subject today?
Well, first off, thanks for taking the time to do this, and for your interest in the film and subject matter.
First off, Agent Orange was an herbicide that U.S. forces sprayed over the dense forests of Vietnam from 1961 to 1971 to defoliate trees and kill food crops that were providing cover and food to the enemy. Agent Orange remained toxic for only a few days and then degraded, but it had a toxic contaminant in it, called dioxin. Dioxin did not degrade and is still causing health problems in Vietnam today, both for those who lived during the war and those born generations after.
Because dioxin clings to soil particles carried by water runoff from sprayed areas downstream into the sediments of lakes or streams, it is consumed by mollusks, fish and livestock, easily entering the human food chain. Once ingested, dioxin can live in a person's fatty tissue for up to twenty years. This is why those exposed to the chemical can give birth to children with serious defects, and even they themselves can become ill.
Until the chemical is cleaned from the soil and those parts of Vietnam are mediated and reforested, people will continue to have serious diseases and children will continue to be born with birth defects.
Q: You grew very close with Chau; can you tell us more about him and your friendship with him?
I met Chau in 2007 when I was volunteering at a care center in Ho Chi Minh City, where he lived. We became quite close because I spent almost every day at the care center over the course of two and a half months. We were also decently close in age: he was 16 at the time (the oldest kid in the camp) and I was 21. Looking back, you would think that because I couldn't speak fluent Vietnamese, it would be hard to have a real friendship, but it's surprising how much communication takes place without words. We became really close when I began filming him, and of course when we were playing soccer. I've been working on the film on and off for a little over eight years now, and while we have lost communication multiple times, our friendship has remained strong. I think we have shared the most difficult part of our lives together (our twenties) and our stories run very parallel, culminating with this Oscar® Nomination.
At the moment, we mainly communicate through Skype and Facebook. I sell his artwork for him internationally, so we are always in constant contact. I plan to go to Vietnam this year to see Chau and spend some time with him. I am also planning a trip to bring him over to the States eventually. So, even though we barely speak each other's language, I feel very close to him, watching him grow and being able to tell his story the way I feel he would want it to be told.
Q: Someone in the film at one point says, "These kids are young. They don't realize they are victims." What was your experience of the way Chau and his peers dealt with the obstacles in their way, and what did you learn from them?
Well, one of the reasons I even wanted to make this film was because I felt that during my time at the camp, these kids were just kids, and it was the outside world who viewed them as different or looked at them as victims. I felt they always saw themselves as normal. They cared about soccer, candy, toys... They never pitied themselves because they didn't have arms to eat, they would just use their feet.
Personally, I know Chau never paid attention to Agent Orange or being a victim in any way. He saw himself as the hero of his own story. I even remember asking him why visitors to the camp would take pictures of him, and he had no idea what I was talking about (and I asked him this literally moments after I had watched it happen). So I am not sure if he literally didn't register it, or if deep down he knew why, and didn't want to focus too much on it. I think the main characteristic of the kids was they just didn't care. As kids, if it doesn't interest us, we move on to something that does.
Q: Chau seems to be something of a peacemaker among his peers and an endlessly optimistic artist who finds comfort and healing through his art. What do you think viewers all over the world can take away from this?
Chau told me recently that he wanted to make art because when he was walking down a museum hallway as a young kid, he saw a wall of hundreds of bright paintings. He had never seen so much color in his life, and a feeling of happiness overwhelmed him. He said he wanted to make other people feel this way. Growing up in the care center, we can see why he lost himself in the colors and in his art.
Now, Chau isn't perfect and while he may have acted as the big brother in the camp, he was also the one really disturbing the peace, defying the orders of the nurses to go after his goal. I think the only thing I can hope people take away is what I took away from him --and this is coming from a former pessimist-- if you focus on what you have rather than what you don't have, maybe you can achieve the seemingly impossible.
Q: In the home where Chau lives, much is made of the fact that if the kids grow up and don't have a better option, they return to the countryside--likely to die or return to a life with little hope and opportunity. Do you think this idea of "disposable people" shows itself not only in Chau's world, but all across the globe? And if so, how?
Absolutely. This is a global issue. The problem, in my opinion, is often the system. First off, you have a system in which, if the parent will abandons the kid, the kid will grow up in an institution. In an institution, the ratio for caretaker to kid is at best one for every twenty. It's really sad. It's hard for the caretakers to care for each kid individually, and usually ends in depriving them of love and nurturing. Can you imagine growing up and never feeling what it's like to be loved? A lot of the kids do not have the luck and success --even the option of returning to a home in the countryside-- that Chau has. They end up not really seeing a path to becoming an efficient member of society, because maybe they are not able-bodied enough to, and some end up not seeing a point to life. Either way, they end up in another institution to live out the rest of their days.
Disability rights are a huge issue around the world and even in America. The U.S. is one of the only progressive countries not to have ratified the Disabilities Treaty. Independent living is the main goal for all people with a disability. Because society is centered around the workplace and efficiency, we as a country, and as a world community, need to make sure that those persons with disabilities get the same rights as we do, so that they may have a chance to succeed in life.
Q: This film, and your previous short films, all seem to deal with subjects that cannot speak, perform or exist in the same way that most people can. Why do you think this theme appeals to you? What other causes are close to your heart?
I'm not really sure actually. I just know that it appeals to me. In Chau's case, I know I wanted to show those photographers coming into the center without ever getting to know the kids, that there is a different side to the coin. A human story that connects us.
Perhaps it all stems from the deep belief that every thing is equal. We all make up our world--from people, to animals, to nature, to products. We all exist. And maybe I find it funny to analyze what we choose to appreciate and what we don't. I am not sure. So to save you from a pretentious ramble, I will stop it there.
As far as other causes: animal rights. I am a huge supporter of equality in any way shape or form, but the one that hits me the deepest is animal rights. Just because of the intense cruelty that happens behind closed doors.
Q: Who are some of your inspirations in the film world and who has had an influence on you in your own life while you've developed as a filmmaker?
My inspirations in the film world are vast. I have to say, it all started from books -- James Joyce, Jane Austen, Louis Lowry. All those authors really got my imagination going as a young kid or expanded it when I was in high school. They pushed boundaries in my mind and offered a for of adventure and escape. Being able to explore a person's mind in great detail is a gift of literature.
I tend to appreciate cinema that lends itself to the qualities I love in books. I am a huge fan of Stanely Kubrick (who isn't?), Krzysztof Kieślowski, Lars Von Trier, and Michael Haneke. I am also a huge fan of figures like John C. Lily and Allan Watts.
In my personal life, my producer Jerry Franck has probably been the largest influence on my filmmaking career. We met over our similar taste in rare and artful cinema. He was possibly the first person I met with who encouraged me to push limits, break certain rules, and stop it nothing to make the film I wanted to make. Having someone in your life like that, who is behind you a 100% makes a huge difference. More so, he is a good critic and never holds back his thoughts and suggestions. We have a great working relationship.
Q: Anything next on the horizon for you? And any advice for aspiring filmmakers and/or activists?
I am currently writing my first feature screenplay. It is not a documentary. I want to take a moment before I get into another subject matter. CHAU, BEYOND THE LINES may be finished, but Agent Orange is still an issue in Vietnam and I want to see it through over the next decade as we continue to clean it up and help those affected. Many people are continuing to slip through the cracks of the system and I want to make sure my energy is poured into remedying that.
And I always say to anyone aspiring to make films or do anything in general: Know who you are. If you know who you are, you may know what you want to say. It's the key to everything and it takes awhile to figure out. And you're always figuring it out. Any project you embark on takes time, so you have to be ready to commit to the long run. Every topic I explore, I am passionate about. If I wasn't, there is no way I could continue to work on it for countless years.
Chau, beyond the lines is available on Netflix in the US.
It is currently in theaters as part of ShortsHD (U.S. and Canada)
And it is broadcasting internationally (not in US) on Feb 28th.
If people want to help encourage government to continue cleaning up Agent Orange in Vietnam, they can visit www.beyondthelinesfilm.com and click the "Take Action" tab to sign our electronic petition.