Nuoc 2030 Screening and Talk

By Christina Rose Walcott

On October 24th, Professor Steve Levin and the Higgins School of Humanities invited Nguyễn Võ Nghiêm Minh known as Minh Nguyen-Vo to Clark University for the screening and talk-back of his film, Nước 2030 which was released in 2014.

Professor Levin opened the screening with an introduction about Minh Nguyen-Vo. “Minh was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1956, and he grew up in a small town. He recalls that during the war, he would escape into the only one-room movie theater in town. He immigrated to France as a young man studying in Poitiers (B.S. in Aeronautical Engineering, Université de Poitiers) and then continued in the US and became a physicist (Ph.D., UCLA). He was fascinated with the interaction between sound and light that became his main research subject for many years. His passion to follow his ideas from many different perspectives brought him back to cinema and UCLA where he completed the certificate program in screenwriting and directing in 1998. Witnessing his father dying and his son growing up inspired his first feature screenplay, Buffalo Boy. His directorial debut was Vietnam’s entry to the 2006 Academy Awards and was an official selection in many international films festivals, and won 15 awards around the world including the Youth Jury Award at the Locarno International Film Festival. His second film Nước 2030 was the opening night film for the 2014 Panorama of the Berlin International Film Festival. Besides being invited to over 50 film festivals, it won the Sloan Filmmaker Award by the Tribeca Film Institute, New York, and was awarded Best Feature Film at the San Pedro International Film Festival. He is currently based in Los Angeles.”

The film is set in the near future when water levels in the vast and beautiful coastal regions of Southern Vietnam have risen due to global climate change. South Vietnam is one of the regions most affected by climate change, which causes as much as half the farmland to be swallowed by water. To subsist, people must live on houseboats and rely solely on fishing with a depleting supply. Huge multinational conglomerates compete to build floating farms equipped with desalination and solar power plants floating along the coastline to produce the needed vegetables that have become highly priced commodities. The film follows a young woman as she tries to find out the truth about the murder of her husband, whom she suspects has been killed by the people of a floating farm. On the journey, she discovers the secret of that floating farm – it employs genetic engineering technology to cultivate vegetables that can be grown using salt water and thus can be produced much cheaper. However, this untested technology can have dangerous health consequences that the farm wants to hide. The chief scientist of the floating farm in question – the main suspect in her husband’s death – is her ex-lover. Ultimately, she discovers different versions of the “truth” about her husband’s death and has to make a dramatic decision without knowing the absolute truth.

The discussion began with Nguyen-Vo discussing the question of what brought him to write the film: Why are so few writers addressing climate change in fiction? Nguyen-Vo ruminated, “The climate emergency has brought the unimaginable into our daily lives.” He views 2018 as an inflection point in the self-conscious anthropocene because of how many extreme climate events there were that year, but also The Overstory novel, which pushed the discussion of climate change in the  mainstream. Steve Levin reflected that those ideas are from the writer Amitav Ghosh, who wrote an important book entitled The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. In his 2016 landmark text, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh had questioned why so few writers–himself included–were addressing the world’s most pressing issue in their fiction. But now, as extreme weather swirls around the globe, melting glaciers, burning forests, flooding districts, and mass extinctions, the climate emergency has brought the unimaginable into our daily lives, and into our literature and visual culture. In an interview with The Guardian, Ghosh describes the year 2018 as an inflection point in the self-conscious Anthropocene: `partly because there were so many extreme climate events that year – the California wildfires, flooding in India, a succession of brutal hurricanes – but partly also’, he says, `because of the publication of Richard Powers’s The Overstory’. His point is not only about the novel itself, but its treatment as a mainstream novel, including being shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Professor Levin observed that the film is ten years old and that it may have been ahead of its time. He said, “I believe the process of making Nuoc 2030 began relatively early in this history of the self-conscious Anthropocene—prior to the cascade of catastrophes of 2018. I wonder if you might talk about your sense of the reception of the film in the near decade since it was released–if you detect a set of evolving understandings from viewers over these last ten years—and if your frameworks for reading, understanding, and appreciating your own work have shifted at all in this time period. Have your own views shifted about the film?”

Nguyen-Vo responded, “I did not set out to make a film like this.” He was offered to make the film by a book publisher; the film is based on the short story Nuoc Nhu Nuoc Mat by Nguyen Ngoc Tu. He continued, “With the background of a physicist, I’ve always been interested in climate change. Rising sea level is most prominent for countries near the equator. After reading the book, I was thinking maybe we should try to do something a little different and set it in the year 2030 because at the time, there were a lot of predictions.” Nguyen-Vo elaborated to discuss how the global average temperature debate was a dominant conversation at the time.

Nguyen-Vo also reflected on how the film was received by the public. “When it came out, it was pretty well received. Invited to Berlin.” He speculates that because the film began to be advertised as a science-fiction film, it disappointed some audiences because they wanted “something more grandiose, more dramatic.”

Building off of this sentiment, Betsy Huang, Associate Provost, Dean of the College, and faculty member of the English Department commented,  “Climate change is happening faster than we all believe. Of course, Hollywood loves a compressed, cataclysmic story to tell when it comes to disaster films and climate change. The pace of this film is actually closer to reality. Climate change is slow, it happens perhaps imperceptibly… It’s a slow form of violence. Say more about the pace of this film… the pacing is really interesting and really beautiful about the film.”

Nguyen-Vo responded, “I think the fact that it happened very slowly, but it’s also a very random process… It’s not always continuous and always present… it can be hard for the public sometimes to keep attention on it. One thing to make it hard to convince people of such an important thing but intermittent.”

Moving towards the artistic direction of the film, Zeke, a film student at Clark, remarked that in the film there are, “silhouettes of people against the background of waves, of clouds, etc. like the environment. Is that intentional for people to show the darkness against the environment…. To show the people within the very harsh environment that they find themselves in. How did you relate the camera work to the story?”

Nguyen-Vo elaborated, “The story was set in the Southern tip of Vietnam where the rising sea level is very visible in the last 5 years. The idea of the film is about a group of people by the year 2030, they decide to stay behind. Claim the ownership of their land. There are still people living around the area.”

Sandro, a first year student, planning on majoring in English, asked about the usage of moonlight during the film. “During Giang and Sao’s blossoming relationship, moonlight appears to be a frequent use of cinematography… Does this mean anything to you personally, and how did you use this to underscore the relationship?”

Nguyen-Vo first addressed the literal inspiration behind using moonlight: “The moon is what causes high tide.” He elaborated on the use of music, “Everybody advised me not to use it, but somehow to mean it means so much, and it was also a love story, so I thought it was appropriate to use it. As for the image, we tried to shoot this film on water… We built the floating farm right on the real water in the middle of the ocean, so to have a generator up there is out of the question. We wanted this film to have a very low carbon footprint, so we didn’t want one of those high powered light sources. Our cinematographer used LED, and we shot it using a car battery and tried to create the moonlight. Then, we just used a filter to turn the color a little bit blue.”

Gyani, a film student at Clark, asked a broader question about Nguyen-Vo’s identity as a filmmaker. They commented on Nguyen-Vo’s immigration to France and then the United States, asking, “Do you consider yourself a diasporic filmmaker, and how do you envision that affecting your work?”

Nguyen-Vo responded positively, “I have been very privileged to pursue higher education, first in science and later in filmmaking. Once you grow up, some things still stick with you. I still feel an affinity to Vietnam, and during those trips, I notice the changes. The local people may not notice those changes, day in and day out.”

He continued, “Southeast Asian countries are very affected already [by climate change]. Infiltration of saltwater into the farmlands is something that people in South Vietnam have experienced in the past twenty years.”

Spencer Tricker, a professor in the English department said, “My question somewhat builds on the others. Based on your background as a scientist, do you feel a certain kind of value to bringing that background to the filmmaking project? Alternatively, or in addition, do you see any narratives now and feel annoyed or put off as a scientist, or as someone who has scientific literacy beyond the average person, and find that these stories about climate change may be counterproductive in the way that we look at it?”

“I’m trained as a physicist, but I’m not a geophysicist, which is much more interrelated. In my work, I get to learn about geophysics just due to the subject of my research. So that’s how I started to get to know the work of global warming. It was not quite as accessible to the public at the time due to technical literature.” Nguyen-Vo said that the root of the chain for looking at global warming should be looking at the beginning of the industrial revolution and the correlation to rising temperatures. He expanded that it is difficult to see these differences year to year because there is “a massive amount of water, so we don’t feel or see the change in temperature every year, so because of that, a lot of people have argued about.”

For Nguyen-Vo, “People who are denying it (climate change) is the most disturbing thing for me. We have to come up with a way to combat that–to make it a lot more convincing to the everyday average people. It’s still, unfortunately, a political debate.”

Haley, a media student at Clark, asked, “in terms of our current climate emergency and the depictions of it in the movie, do you think that your film is more valuable or influential now or when it was released? And was it intended to be a cautionary tale or warning?”

“When I made it, I did not have the vision of thinking that far ahead…. It’s something that disturbed me personally, and I wanted to tell the story about it. I didn’t want to be heavy handed, but I thought that maybe something a little more entertaining, a little more accessible to the public would maybe open up conversation.”

He added, “It’s basically a love story set on a land that was submerged.”

Another student asked, “Your piece seems very pessimistic with the death of a lot of main characters. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about climate change?”

“When I wrote the script, I did not think about that question actually. Pessimistic is, for a subject like this, maybe easier for me to write. For example, something optimistic… it’s supposed to be a film that tries to bring up a cautiousness about a potentially catastrophic…  I didn’t know how to do it optimistically. Personally, I’m not a pessimistic person, even though my wife keeps telling me,” he joked.

Professor Levin asked the final question of the evening. “How do you see your work going forward? Do you see yourself continuing to wear the two hats of filmmaker and scientist?”

“I would love to. For me, sometimes, I have so many ideas but it’s hard to finance the making of this kind of film. For this, I was lucky, it was a book publisher in Vietnam, and I completely changed the story and they were very flexible.” “Maybe other people will come up with ways to make it more accessible, so commercially it’s viable, and I hope to see a lot more cinematic work that helps us think about global warming, to educate us, to move us.”

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