Queer Vietnamese Filmmaker Quyen Nguyen-Le on Their Career, Identities and Hollywood
Interview with Savannah Rattanavong
With Pride Month under way and Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month having just ended, we spoke with filmmaker Quyen Nguyen-Le, whose works explore themes of identity and politics. Nguyen-Le directed the short film "Nước" and documentary "Queer Vietnameseness," as well as a film in the James Franco produced anthology, "The Labyrinth."
Emerging Lao-American filmmakers can take notes from Nguyen-Le’s experience documenting the stories of their Southeastern Asian background, often a difficult story to tell, as they continue to explore the intricacies of identity and heritage.
Can you share your family background and history?
My parents are both from Vietnam. They left after the war in the 80s and came to the United States, specifically to California and Los Angeles, which is where I was born and raised and still live. I got into filmmaking in high school actually.
I noticed that there were no people who kind of looked like me and I always saw people talk about southeast Asia and Vietnam, but the people who were making these films were not. It was very political from the get-go and since I was a teen at the time, I couldn’t vote or participate in government or anything. For me, it was a very strong way to combine all these interests that I had, but in an artistic way.
Then I applied to film school my senior year. I got into the University of Southern California (USC), which has a pretty prestigious film program, and it just reaffirmed for me that that was the direction I needed to go in. I did all these things right before college and I joined this program called Inner City Filmmakers that teaches people of color how to make film. By the time I got to USC, I already sort of had a background in film.
What are the differences between filmmaking for people of color as opposed to the “mainstream” industry?
When I was younger... I saw filmmaking as a sort of testimonial that if we told our stories too, some of the injustices would stop happening and it was just kind of a lack of representation. I think it’s a little more complicated than that for me now because it’s not only about representation.
Some of the differences is just that in Hollywood, specifically the film industry, there are diverse stories in the sense that people of color are in it, but the people who create it are not and they don’t have those experiences. I feel like the Hollywood representation of people of color are very generic because they don’t come from realistic experiences and they’re not as complicated. That’s the importance of having diverse filmmakers is that there are stories that represent many different intersections in which people realize are lived. What does it mean to be, for example, queer and a person of color?
I think that’s always the advantage of telling the stories about your community and for your community. It’s a different kind of dialogue and you don’t have to go through the basics of explaining to people, “Well, this is what it’s like.” Some things are just understood and you move on from there.
You said you asked yourself “What does it mean to be this? What does it mean to be that?” but have you found those answers?
I don’t know yet. I think that with my last film Nuoc, a short film, I really am still in the process of learning what that film meant to me and what that means to other people who are like me, so queer, second-generation Vietnamese-Americans.
I don’t think that anyone can really know all the answers of who they are. I think it’s a process because you also change over time. For me, filmmaking is not about knowing who I am and then making a thing that represents exactly who I perceive myself to be or who I think I am. It’s hard because on one hand, you need a vision and you need to know what you’re trying to say in order to say it, but I also think that in the process of making films, I learned a lot more about myself.
When I made the documentary “Queer Vietnameseness,” I didn’t know any other queer Vietnamese-Americans. I barely knew any Vietnamese-Americans in general who were not my family. It was a very intentional process for me to be like, “Ok so, I have this project”—it was actually my senior thesis—and I wanted to explore something that was very important to me. I delved really deeply into it. I reached out to people, I tried to meet people. They’re practically because I needed people in my documentary but also to get more involved in Vietnamese-American things, meet more queer folk.
I started reading a lot. I dug up books and journal articles and started reading fiction by Vietnamese Americans to sort of emerge myself into this identity that I feel like was just on the periphery of who I was. I’m Vietnamese-American, but I don’t know much about anything aside from what my parents tell me, which is already limited. Because of all the trauma that they’ve experienced, they don’t want to talk about what they went through so I learned a lot of things from other cultural productions in my senior year in making that documentary.
Was it difficult bring all your thoughts and identities into one culmination of a film?
Yeah, the best advice I ever got, somebody just told me, “You have to believe that you will have a long career in which you are able to make a lot of things. You can’t think that this is the only thing that you will ever make and that it has to represent everything that you are.”
I think that was really important advice because I think often as a marginalized group, when you make a film, you feel like it has to cover all the bases. It has to cover everything of who you are and everything of your community and what you’re trying to say, but I think it’s important to remember that you don’t have to. You can represent one small part of yourself and nothing has to be the culmination of all your identities and everything you’ve learned ever. You will have the opportunity to keep creating things and exploring things around those identities.
That was important for me because I did imagine “Queer Vietnameseness” as being the culmination of all these things and it kind of ended up not being that because there’s no way. “Nuoc” is five minutes long and “Queer Vietnameseness” was 50, but they’re technically “about the same thing,” but they’re different in the way that they tell these things. I think it’s impossible actually to encompass all that you are in one piece of art.
What sort of challenges do you run into while telling the stories that you want, as opposed to stories that don’t go against the grain?
I know people here and there, but I’m not by any means in the depths of Hollywood. I can’t claim I know that much about it, but in terms of my experience working behind the scenes, what people who don’t work in the industry don’t understand is that there’s no malice in the things that become racism. That’s what makes it scary because you think it’s like these intensely white supremacists, people who want to whitewash, etc., but honestly, it’s because people have all this unchecked racism that they don’t even realize that’s there.
The issue that I run into is not that people are outright racist, but it’s that they’ll claim things like, “This doesn’t make sense,” and this comes from it not being in the popular vernacular. They don’t understand the logic of certain stories because they’ve never encountered it before so I think that’s the biggest issue—making sense out of something. It’s like reading another language. If you don’t know what these words mean, then you don’t understand the sentence.
For a queer example, a lot of stories that include LGBT stories and Asian-American immigrants tend to go this sort of route of the parents don’t accept their gay Asian children, the parents bring up this intersectional struggle of “I’m an immigrant, I worked hard so for this family. How could you be gay?” Then something happens and then they are accepting.
And that sort of works within the structure of how Americans understand gayness. Like you come out, your parents accept you or they don’t, and that’s it. That doesn’t really allow for all these other kinds of ways in which Asian parents can communicate their love or acceptance for their queer child. That doesn’t have to come in the form of them outwardly saying, “I accept you, I love you.” It’s like the same as your mom asking you, “’Have you eaten?” I think those markers and why people say those things in stories aren’t [shown]. It’s hard to know what they mean unless we see it and the issue with film is that it costs so much money. If people haven’t seen the product yet, then they don’t know what you’re talking about until you do it. Then how can you do it, if you don’t have the money to do it?
That’s an issue that a lot of filmmakers run into, but I will say there are a lot of folks out there that are making really good stuff. We just don’t know about them and we don’t have a structure that supports the artists who make them.
Do you have any particular favorite filmmakers or artists that you’re looking out for or are doing advocacy work like you are in a way?
I think the person who always comes to mind to me is Jess X. Snow. She’s a poet, filmmaker, muralist and activist from New York. I think what makes her work so important is that she not only creates a work that is advocacy or a work that propels a social good message, but she also is very good at supporting artists in a way that I feel like I’m still learning and trying to get better at. That comes from a lot of unlearning from Hollywood being cutthroat and you have to only look out for yourself. It’s very easy for me to get selfish and focus on myself and my work, but then she reminds me to think about how we can all bring each other up and I think that we underestimate that. Sometimes it’s just harder, especially when we’re working within a racist, sexist system where it makes us feel like there’s only one who can have this identity and then everyone else is your competition.
I also mention Andrew Ahn a lot. He directed the movie “Spa Night.” He’s Korean-American. I feel like he’s always making time to talk to other filmmakers and sharing knowledge about things that I feel like no one shares like, “How’d you get money to make your film?” People don’t want to talk about stuff like that, but it’s important.
I read that you can’t separate politics from your work, but I thought it was interesting because sometimes your inherent identity is a political point in and of itself. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that it’s true just the act of being a certain identity and creating art in itself is political but I think that we do need to challenge ourselves to step it up. It’s ok if we can’t because some people can’t say all the things depending on who they are or where they work. But I do think it’s important to be clear about the political message that you’re trying to make. I think that’s almost the fault and I almost see it as a parallel to white feminism. It’s this idea that just because you’re a woman and you’re doing something, it’s radical and in a way, it is, but it’s not enough. It’s like, “Yes, you’re this identity and you’re doing this, but are you also doing something to actively help other people who are like you?”
I think it’s hard to be political because in many ways, people don’t like “political” films. People are opposed to art mixing with politics sometimes. There’s this examined assumption that storytelling is not political, that if a story is true, then it’s good. And that if it doesn’t have any political stance, then it’s hard for me to think of stories outside of the context of politics. In school, I switched my major from filmmaking to Comparative Lit and a philosophy called Philosophy/Politics/Law. A lot of that was a reaction to folks telling me that all of my screenplays shoved politics down people’s throat and in a way, it was very hard for me to imagine how I could write anything that was devoid of politics.
In your article about respecting your roots, how did you bridge those two identities of being a child of a refugee but also your own self? How do you give your parents the recognition they deserve without taking advantage of their struggle?
That article was so hard to write because I was trying to examine why I hated my mom’s nail salon so much in a way that explained it and wasn’t just bratty. A lot of it had to do with me graduating college and not finding a job. It really asked me to reexamine what it meant for me to still be dependent on my parents for survival and so the article is about this idea that I felt like a lot of folks like me. We leave the communities we come from with the idea in general of making the world a better place. I was mad at myself and a lot of people like for me for sort of idealizing the struggle like, “Oh, my mom worked so hard so I could have this.” It’s almost selfish. I don’t know where it clicked for me, but it suddenly made sense to me.
There are things that I can do in my life to help make my parents lives easier. That’s just sort of what I was thinking about because I also think a lot about this kind of immigrant narrative that is the “acceptable” one. “My parents came here for a better life for their children.” As if the only immigrants that are worthy of being immigrants are the ones that are so sacrificial that they only care about their children and that they’re here for economic gain. That kind of erases the history of all these other migrants that come to the U.S. because of war. A lot of people don’t choose to come here for a better life. They choose to come because there’s no other way. And for my parents, they were too young to have thought about children. They didn’t come because of their unborn child. They came because of themselves. I think it’s important to recognize that that’s fine, and they don’t have to be sacrificial and break their backs to be deserving of being loved.
Has your relationship with your parents or your mom transformed because of your work and the personal themes you put in them?
Yeah, my mom and I are about to embark on an experimental documentary about her nail shop based on that article. A lot of it also for me is, “How does my mom feel about the way I represent her nail shop?” Because she feels very different about it than I do. It’s something that she built, her achievement, whereas I feel a very different relationship because of who I am. It’ll be interesting, we’ll see how it turns out.
In a career that’s not exactly linear or laid out, how do you plan your life around that? Do you ever dream of having that “big break?”
I think it works concurrently because there’s nothing wrong with people who are not already in my community. You have to navigate both at the same time and I’m still trying to figure that out. I still want a job, I still want film companies to give me money so I can make stuff. I think something I learned is that there’s not a binary between “not famous” and “famous.”
I think it’s this process and different levels of a big break. Every time you think you have your big break, there’s another big break. I think that was very true for me when I was in college. In my junior year at USC, I directed this film that was produced by James Franco and that felt like a very big break at the time because I was 20. But it wasn’t. It was just a thing that happened that brought more things to me later.
Do you have an overarching goal that you want to achieve in terms of your career in filmmaking?
I think it’s always changing, but what underlies it is that one, I would like to keep creating work and I think that’s always a process of trying to figure out how that’s sustainable outside of a traditional Hollywood system. I think that I would like my work to say something important and specific so it’s not like, “Representation is good,” but what kind of representation and what context?
And two, to be useful to people in some sense. I know not everyone believes art should be useful, but for me, it’s useful to people in some way whether it be to inspire them, to make them their own or as a teaching tool, to explain things that maybe they didn’t have words for. Hopefully the film articulates it. Or just actually useful in the sense that they can fundraise money to make their film, which has happened, so I’m glad. That’s kind of what I see in my future is that I hope I can keep creating work that means something to people and that it’s useful.
What would you say has been a highlight or most memorable experience in your career?
I don’t know if it’s a specific moment, but being able to make “Nuoc” changed my life because right before that, I was unemployed and living with my parents. I was like, “Oh no, this film thing is not working out. It’s time to give it up and be practical.”
I’m very thankful to Visual Communications, the folks who gave me the grant to make the film, for believing in me because when I pitched my story, it literally didn’t make any sense. No one knew what the heck I was talking about, but they still trusted me to do it anyway. I had a belief that what I said was important to me, but I think for the first time ever, it became clear to me that other people resonated with the things I made. That’s such a touching feeling. It just made me believe that there was a place for me and what I thought and created had a place in the world and that it wasn’t just for me. It continues, to this day to stun me that a five-minute film that I made had meant so much for me but also meant so much to other people.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.