When 6’ 3" Stephane Gauger arrives for an interview with his all-American look, wearing a baseball cap inscribed with "The Jimi Hendrix Experience," it’s hard to imagine him as director of a film designed to be a "love letter to the city of Saigon." Just the word Saigon summons up long-forgotten images of the longest war in U.S. history, but for Gauger, it’s his birthplace, son of a Vietnamese mother and an American father of German descent who moved to Vietnam in 1966.
Still there’s no reflection of that country’s beleagured history in Owl and the Sparrow, his fable-like movie starring Thuy, an indomitable 10-year old orphan who tries to seek her own way in the big city and finds friendship with a lonely flight attendant and a teen-age caretaker of elephants in a zoo that is his haven from the urban hustle and bustle. The film plays the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki starting Friday.
As for the metaphoric title Owl and the Sparrow, Gauger said , "Owl represents Hai, the zoo keeper, a bird that’s more reserved and comfortable in its solitude. He represents the old traditional Vietnam afraid of a changing society. The Sparrow represents Lan, the flight attendant, a bird that is constantly in flight and more feminine. She represents a new upwardly post-war Vietnam."
In a way, the film represents Gauger’s re-discovery of his childhood roots. He was only "about four" when his father, a civilian contractor in Vietnam, and his mother, who had five Vietnamese children by an earlier marriage, left the country before the fall of Saigon in 1975. They "hopscotched" to Guam for a couple of years and headed for the U.S. By the time, they arrived in Houston, Texas, Stephane had a brother, his father had died, and, as a single mother of seven, Mrs. Gauger opened a couple of bars there and drove a taxi to support her children.
"She was like a gypsy with a bohemian free spirit," Gauger said proudly. "She’s able to roll with the punches. Growing up in that environment enables me to write characters with an independent spirit. I learned a lot of compassion growing up poor with a single mother." It’s no accident that some of her spirit infects the character of little Thuy as she tramps about the Saigon streets selling flowers to support herself.
As a youngster, Stephane had two sisters who worked at a Burger King to help pay the rent, and he began selling popcorn at a local theater when he was about 10 or 11, but one of the perks was free admission to the movies. A few years later, he was always trying to sneak up to the projection booth. "I was fascinated by the film going through the projector and light going through the image and being projected on the big screen. That’s quite special."
At first, like many kids, he loved horror and science fiction movies, but later he became influenced by French films, starting with Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants(1987). "That’s when I developed a taste for independent films like Jim Jarmusch’s first works and other productions with a ‘European sensibility.’"
However, at the California State University, Fullerton, there was no film program, so he majored in theater arts where he learned how to build sets and design lighting for musicals. On weekends, he’d make five-minute experimental films with a Super 8 camera and no sound and show them to his fellow students. Traveling frequently to Paris, where he had Vietnamese relatives, he spoke French fluently. Haunting the famed Parisian Cinematheque Francaise, he said that "France shaped the way I wanted to make films."
He shot a 20-minute documentary on the City of Light, inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s diaries. His favorite French writers were Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire, while Luc Besson was admired for his films The Big Blue and Nikita but it was Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine about racial strife in Paris that "just blew me away."
Gauger, now 38, didn’t have much curiosity about Vietnam, but at home in southern California, he spoke Vietnamese with his grandmother and listened to the stories told by his mother’s visitors. Although he personally had not suffered any discrimination, he knew the hard luck stories of Amerasians who were outcasts in Vietnam, growing up on the streets because they were reminders of the war. Eventually, many came to America looking for the fathers they never knew. Ten years ago, they inspired his 30-minute film Seabirds about a young Amerasian who made such a journey.
He started returning to Vietnam when he was 25. While working as a lighting technician on student films at Loyola Marymount University, he was asked to assist on Tony Bui’s thesis production in Vietnam. "It was like going back to the cradle," Gauger recalled. "I had no memory of it. When you first go back, you feel the humidity and feel as if it is someplace you had never been to, but when you hear the language of the people on the street, it had a very family feeling. Saigon was like the Wild West. It was still quite poor with dirt roads and I felt the poverty around me. I saw a lot of handicapped war veterans, walking around on crutches. Some former soldiers were peddling rickshaws. Over the years, I saw more changes and I felt the country would open up and expand."
Although, people asked about his background, his mixed race was not a novelty because the French colonization had stimulated a lot of inter-racial dating. Sometimes people looked at him as more Euroasian than Amerasian.
Gauger didn’t visit the north until three years ago when he found that area "more of a cultural center and the south more of a commercial center. But now they’re starting to blend together. There is a lot of emphasis on economics as property values rise and people try to get ahead. The country is officially called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. I call it a free-market dictatorship. You’re free to buy and sell, prosper and open businesses but there is still censorship. You can’t really criticize the government. I had to go to the Ministry of Culture to get approval of my script. They didn’t ask for any changes. You have to understand the rules in order to be able to work in Vietnam. They will ask for cuts if the script is too violent, overtly political or sexual. They are the three no nos. So when you write you know to avoid those areas."
Today, about 20 Vietnamese directors turn out many escapist works: romantic comedies, action films and broad slapstick. Although the government approved Paris-based Tran Anh Hung’s wonderful The Scent of Green Papaya, (1993) , it banned Cyclo, his darker look at Vietnam in 1995. "By his own admisssion," Gauger noted, "that film didn’t really represent Vietnam properly because it grew out of nightmares he was having. He went back to the softer side with his Vertical Rays of the Sun about three Vietnamese sisters trying to find happiness."
Gauger said that there was nothing he would have wanted to write in his script that he avoided. "It was basically me addressing changes in the city and showing there is kindness in strangers. So it’s almost Dickensian like Oliver Twist and things like that. It’s a fable but executed is in a very documentary way. If there’s a darker side to life in Vietnam today, it’s not in Owl. "I wanted to keep it as simple as possible and to emphasize hope."
Now that he’s traipsing around the country with Owl and learning how difficult it is to be his own distributor of a low budget ($50,000) "art" film with subtitles and without stars, the operative word is still HOPE.
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