Soy Sauce & Jackfruit
In May 2022, we screened two short films, Soy Sauce (2020) by Sarnt Utamochote and Jackfruit (2021) by Thùy Trang Nguyễn. In Soy Sauce (2020), the marriage between two men becomes mired in power struggles and condescension, and a quirky means of political resistance becomes necessary. In Jackfruit (2021), gender-fluid Mít is caught between two worlds – the Vietnamese diaspora and queer Berlin. Jackfruit is the second in Thùy Trang Nguyễn's trilogy about the Vietnamese diaspora in Germany, after Roan (2018), a film named after their grandmother.
Although both films are fictional, each is deeply personal and draws heavily from Sarnt and Trang's experiences as queer and diasporic filmmakers in Germany. In this excerpt of our conversation, we ask Sarnt and Sarnt what they learnt (or didn't learn) in film school and how they came to find their own voices as artists.
Elsewhere Cinema Club's PHOEBE
Trang, please could you give us an introduction to your films, both Roan (2018) and Jackfruit (2021), and also the process of writing and making them?
Sure. They both were movies that I made in film school. Roan was the fifth semester project and Jackfruit was my graduation project. When I started Roan, it was for a class on documentary filmmaking.
For me, I was clear that I want to do something about my grandmother. And it turned out to be movie with my grandmother. The process of working with her was interesting [laughs]. She was an Asian grandmother!
She was like, “You want to direct me? No! Hell, no!”
Also, in the conversations with my grandmother, I learned more about listening, about oral history, and about taking her story and making it also my story. It was our story instead of performing the classic German film school style of documentary where there is an idea of authenticity and it subjects the protagonists as objects. They become things we observe and that takes the truth out of people and basically takes away their voices. Since my grandmother and I were very, very close, it was the last thing I wanted to do. So Roan turned out the way that it is with me being in front of the camera and having conversations with her. I was against what my film school tried to make me make out of the movie.
After Roan had some screenings in Berlin, I got feedback which was really empowering and supportive. I thought, “okay, this is when it starts”. I have to really think about the content that I'm learning, what I can take, and what I have to reject or reinvent. And so this is how I immediately started on Jackfruit as a continuation of Roan which is very autobiographical as well.
Thank you. That was great. Sarnt, did you also feel this way? That filmmaking had to be a certain kind of way?
Actually, there is an interesting parallel because Trang had gone to film school and I didn’t. I made Soy Sauce as a film school application to this one film school that I will not name. You are asked to make a short film within two or three months; it has to follow certain thematics, be within five minutes, and you have to send them a script. So I made this [Soy Sauce] for them from a script that I wanted to do for long time. It came from a real story which also took place in Italy.
It [the film] was very rough. I gathered people within two months, shot it, and then sent it off. And, it was rejected from all the film schools. But somehow, it went around small film festivals.
In the end, it was a push for me to realize that film school means have access to resources but it ultimately doesn’t define your filmmaking or your life too much. After that, I departed from the need to go to film school.
Now, after having worked in film festivals, I see so much of what Trang mentioned. Even though Soy Sauce is not a documentary, it got involved in the documentary world. And there, people don’t really have conversations about the ethics of documentary filmmaking. Some official documentary film festivals are starting to have these conversations — and some queer film festivals love to have them — but, for the big ones, all they care about is a conventional journalistic truth-seeking. It almost creates a kind of poverty porn landscape that is really problematic and always gets me really angry.
Ultimately, I think the sense of anger comes through in Soy Sauce and also in Jackfruit. But one thing that I really like that we transform this anger into something so poetic and actually beautiful. This is actually much more healing than a sense of anger that is punching back.