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A small, great story

The surprising outcome of a documentary workshop by DW Akademie’s Asia division

The best stories can be found on the street. That’s a well worn saying but it’s true – at least in the eyes of a documentary filmmaker. Some of DW Akademie’s trainees discovered one of those stories waiting in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Sweet Soup Seller - Close up

Mai Thi Sy - Sweet Soup Seller

She’s the “sweet soup seller” and you can’t miss her. She sets up shop outside the broadcasting center and we always see her during our workshop breaks. She packs everything she needs for her “mobile restaurant” in big baskets balanced on a bamboo pole – typical for Vietnam street vendors. Her specialties are sweet snacks and desserts …

It’s more than obvious that the staff at the state TV broadcaster VTV loves her sweet soya broth, green and brown beans cooked in sugar, mango puree with ice and homemade lime custard. At lunchtime her colorful plastic stools quickly fill up and her numerous pots overflow with ingredients. The customer-service concept behind the portable dessert bar corresponds to the well-established western coffee shops and fast food chains in the country: you can have your goodies on the spot or for take away – in a handy plastic cup with a spoon and small bag.

Mau with camera

Camera man Pham Quoc Mau

We decide that this hardworking, talkative woman is perfect for one of our hands-on exercises. On the second day of our “Short Documentaries” workshop some participants spend an afternoon observing her with the camera. So far, there’s no storyboard or script: participants have to shoot simple actions in short sequences: A mango puree with ice in three cuts.

A few days later we’re looking for film ideas and everyone’s forgotten the street vendor – everyone except Pham Quoc Mau, a bright young reporter and cameraman. He comes from the remote Phu Yen province where VTV state television has a regional studio.

break in editing room

The last cut was made well past midnight on the workshop’s closing day

“We started talking one lunchtime while I was eating sweet soup,” Mau tells us. “She told me her story after I recognized her dialect. My family comes from the same area.”
Mau then pitches us his story idea the way he’d learned in our workshop: a mother of two kids, born in the countryside, moves into town on her own to make money for the family. She works hard as a soup seller to help her sons graduate and even attend university in the big city. Her name – by the way – is Mai Thi Sy …

The training group quickly agrees that this is a very contemporary, very Vietnamese story: it’s about deprivation and hope, loyalty and responsibility, separation and solitude – and about the dignity and pride of a woman in modern-day Vietnam.

And for us as the DW Akademie project team we’re quietly proud as well – to be part of this joint production and quite remarkable workshop.

By Patrick Benning

Producing Short Documentaries”, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, March 19 – 30, 2012