Othello Khanh - Creative Circle Keynote Speaker
Updated: Feb 19
Watching this video about my father helps me remember the spirit and aspirations of my family when we came to Vietnam 25 years ago.
My father had been invited by the Vietnamese government to work on his surface effect ship for the military. I had joined a year later , a 30 years old, fresh off from Mexico with a 52 minutes documentary shot with the Zapatista rebel army in Chiapas behind my belt. Being mixed blood, I pass very much for a Mexican, so I was welcomed to join the Southern California’s Chicano activist community to promote my film.
With the revolutionary state of mind that inspired my last couple of years, I fearlessly went to introduce my work and report to the officials of Hang Phim Giai Phong, Saigon’s state studio. They welcomed my revolutionary filmmaking hard work but let me know Vietnam having already won the revolution and I was advised not continue making films in the mountains and instead, focus my energy to be part of the Doi Moi: the reconstruction of the Nation. And concentrate my efforts to develop the film industry to support an urging demand from large international companies needing production support to film in Vietnam. Aside from film studios and television networks wanting to film in Vietnam and looking for internationally trained production crews, the largest FMCG had set shop along with their respective agencies and they needed to produce local TVC and corporate films.
I guess it was my lucky day because I had the right CV, with 10 years of former experience in the Film , TV and Commercial world in Paris. This could be the opportunity to achieve my childhood dream to build a film studio. So following my father’s dream to build the modern Vietnam, and the studio leaders recommendation, I decided to bring my little piece of dream to our common future and I where we could make a change and film could be: Made in Vietnam.
25 years of constant change, development, evolution boosted by a Vision that Vietnam would have become a modern and industrialized country by 2020. But today, as stand literally at the gate of the target date, another change we maybe had not envisioned could modify the plan: Climate Change. An alteration of the world order that could see Saigon and the Mekong Delta sink under water during the same time it took to reach its former goal. So how did we get there so fast, and what are we going to do to in our turn change our rather tragic undermined? These are the themes of my ongoing work in progress, Vietnam 2020, the documentation of a quarter century of Vietnam’s lightning fast growth. In 1995, most of the city people were driving bicycles. All had a dream, but some of them already had a Honda Dream II. Pioneering as a Freelance TVC director, my unique selling point at the time was to make it possible in Vietnam, in direct competition to the mostly Bangkok based production houses that would bring the jobs back to be produced and edited in Thailand. The discovery of a Betacam video editing suite, which had been offered to the Studio and stood almost untouched in a locked room was my break through. We could immediately start to shoot and edit films with professional quality standards for broadcast delivery. Soon my spots often ended up one after the other on national TV and the demand was so high, I decided it was time to set up my own business under a technology transfer license with a state owned studio.
Growing from a one man show to an organization needed man power, so I convinced other local filmmakers - I would have to compete with in order to get the jobs, to join forces in my new company: Creatv. New DV cameras available on the market offered revolutionary delivery solutions with the first digital editing systems. The one room office soon got cramped and had to be replaced. The art deco Villa on 39 Mac Dinh Chi was the cradle and film school of a generation of young directors, producers, editors, sound engineers from all origins and who are still active in the market. Business was easy as there was no competition offering their one stop shop services in Vietnam. By 2005 we almost had a monopoly in the market. A blessed position that lasted until our young protégés decided to in term to set up their own shop to provide the local market.
Meanwhile, Line production for international film and television productions shooting in Vietnam kept our company a step ahead of the market and I was deeply involved in a long terms project, the documentation of the country’s first large infrastructure project, BP’s Nam Con Son a Gas to Power project that would fuel Vietnam’s development for the years to come and put an end to the endemic power cuts that would slow down our maddening productivity obsession. And so there was light.
It is the time when private production companies were finally able to operate independently from State owned Studios and we were given license to produce feature films for the burgeoning cinema industry. Green light was given for me to direct and produce a Feature film I had been writing for the past decade when I landed in Saigon during a Solar Eclipse. It was brave at the time to launch in a film that I wanted of international caliber but which had to be defended on the twenty something screens available at the time in the whole country. A number that grew a 10 fold until nowadays.
Still propelled by the recent new opportunity to produce TV series for the local market and the new venture capitalists ringing at our door to buy in in exchange for investment in the company, our quest for growth brought up to open a new facility in district 4, with a new-wow-effect-offering : huge film stages. We would shoot our Film, TVCs, TV series as well as the first interactive live TV show, with up to 4 hours of daily program on different channels. We had reach my dream, we had own complete studio facilities.
This is when I got embarked in what was going to be another 2 years project: the construction of the Phu My Bridge, the largest cable stay bridge in Vietnam, linking Saigon South’s New city to Thu Thiem the Center of the future - where my father wanted to build his utopian city in the Sky. The revolutionary remote control hi resolution camera that was shipped from the US, would be 1000 day shoot work horse that would allow me to film the time-lapse built of the marvel. And this bridge was ironically the one my father has dreamt to build in its place. After 15 years of filmmaking in Vietnam, I could tick the Studio tick box but then needed a new direction as potential investors were inquiring about my exit strategy. I just had read about Prime Minister Le tan Dung’s Vision 2020. All started to make sense: First, we had a dream and we could make it happen thanks to the electrification of the whole country. Second, the road to modernity would open bridges to the future and a goal: the fatidic date of our announced transformation. I committed to document those changes for the next 10 years. As I could control the camera from my desktop, I could settle for the next two years and had free time as my partner were busy delivering for the commercial market in our brand new studios. I remember watching the inauguration of newly elected president Obama, opening a new global vision of change.
This is also when Change came back my way and my old friend who had helped me on my Zapatista film now needed help. The now famous criminal lawyer was given a very controversial case. A young pretty French woman was framed live on TV for a fake hostage release, the fearless young lady had accused the Minister of Public security, number 2 of the government to be involved. The French president at the time got involved incurring a diplomatic crisis between the 2 countries. My friend told me the only way to get the girl out of the 93 years prison sentence was to reestablish the truth by making a film. Framed and freed because, and thanks to media.
I took on the challenge and after 3 years of investigation, multiple visits to the jailed young woman, finding French partners and broadcasters, filming in France and Mexico involving the war with the cartels, the film was finally on air in France and handed to the Supreme Court in Mexico for her Last Recourse. According to my friend the lawyer, the film eventually was what switched the panel of judges to believe in her innocence. Florence Cassez was freed on the spot and released back to France. Talking about Change, this film changed her life. And mine as well, I would pursue making “meaning full films”. Followed another 2 or 3 years journey with another powerful feature length documentary production. The Tale of An Phuc House, portrays the life of a group of highly handicapped Agent Orange Victims and their struggle to overcome their heartbreaking existence. A controversial film for both countries at war that was both awarded best documentary film in festivals in Vietnam and the US. Meanwhile I had been distracted from the daily operation of the company by these project, my business partner who had been running the company had suddenly fallen sick and may he rest in peace, died in a matter of a month. And this is when, 6 years ago, I chose to start again to continue our work for the local market as well as for the eventual big international jobs, that keep on coming, often larger and larger, often overlapping and very time consuming. This is when my new partner, Producer Irene Trinh joined the company and has been helping me take it to the next level. We’ve build a new team of young talented filmmakers to be the next generation of producers, with bilingual skills and being able to work both on Vietnamese language jobs as English.
Lately our storytelling skills have also brought clients and agencies alike to provide the concepts and scripts. We’ve seen the hunger for electricity changes from an increase in any kinds of power, to a more conscious shift to renewable energy sources, like wind and solar. Natural disasters have also created policies and government projects aim to combat climate change.
One of the companies that are engaged in shaping these new infrastructure and energy sources is Trungnam Group. I’d like to tell you about a recent project from this year that’s very close to my heart, which Creatv had developed directly with Trungnam Group. The brief was to showcase the company’s motto “Building the Future, Sustainable Investment,” and a number of its infrastructure and construction projects located across Vietnam. The client wanted the story to be told from the eyes of a child, whose father works for the company. When I received the brief, I realized that this was my story and I would direct it myself. It’s a high concept video with an average budget, so we came up with the most creative solutions at every stage.
Here is the video:
In 1995, we had a dream of becoming a modern, industrialized country. Following the government’s Vision 2020, now we are at the gates of modernity. So what’s beyond 2020? What kind of future will we have in 2050?
For the last 25 years, I’ve seen a rise in the number of large international film and television production franchises coming to film in Vietnam. Our country is slowly becoming the hot destination for filmmakers, not only to be featured as itself, but also used as stand-in for other locations. We want to continue being able to offer the locations of this beautiful country to the largest brands in the world.
But according to the worst-case scenario, by 2050, we will be under water due to rising sea levels. People are realizing that uncontrolled growth cannot be sustained, so in 2017, the Prime Minister issued Resolution 120, which will hopefully shift the focus to a more climate-resilient and sustainable development.
So what are we to do, especially within our film and advertising industry?
At The Creatv Company, we’ve been working on a documentary series about the Mekong River, which will help raise awareness about the human causes of climate change and how interconnected we all are. The actions of one country, like building a dam, not only affect the citizens of that country, but could carry consequences for other neighboring countries. While this film is still in the work, we’ve also started several “Go Green” initiatives that will make some production practices more eco-friendly. This November, we started cultivating a vegetable garden in our backyard. Our team had rolled up their sleeves and helped out with planting the seeds and replacing all plastic flowerpots in the garden with ceramic pots. We’re also planning to give out reusable glass water bottles on our shoots, to reduce the use of plastic bottles so common on set. And we’re planning on initiatives to replant mangroves in the Mekong Delta. These are only a few concrete steps we can take to help address larger problems.
But taking these steps might not always be easy. As Vietnam’s economy continues to grow and consumers become more self-aware and discerning, the advertising industry has developed at an incredible speed. The number of agencies and production houses have also increased, making the task of distinguishing oneself from the competition more and more difficult. Most of the time, it all comes down to the price tag. As production budgets become more constrained, could there still be a will to transform our practices, from using less plastic, and Styrofoam on film sets, to finding more long-term, eco-friendly solutions? I believe there could and should be.
On the other hand, the world is becoming more and more digital focused. Hundreds of new ads are coming out every month, in all kinds of different formats. No longer limited to TV, there has been an increased shift to digital platforms, like Youtube, Facebook and mobile devices. This means that as a company we also need to develop our own social media strategy. We are redesigning our website and News feed, making them more accessible and engaging, to help us stay relevant to both current and prospective clients. Our country is constantly changing, a process which I have been documenting with my 25-year ongoing project – Vietnam 2020. Now here we are in 2020, I guess I’ll have to change the title. What will Vietnam 2030, or 2050 look like? And where are we in this vision of the future?
Let’s raise our glass to celebrate the rebirth of The Creative Circle and drink to a revived opportunity for all of us to work together and create a more engaging, creative and environmental friendly world for all. Thank you.