Growing up in South Florida, Courtney Marsh had been used to balmy weather, but that was about all that was familiar when she when she stepped foot in Hoa Chih Minh eight years ago, armed with a camera and youthful enthusiasm, but not a clue as to where the journey would take her.
“This is the first film I ever made and it’s the last one I’ve completed,” says Marsh of the resulting documentary, “Chau, beyond the lines.” “Sometimes I think had I known it would take so long, I wouldn’t have set out to do it, but this has been one of the best experiences in my life.”
It’s an experience that has only continued after Marsh finished the film earlier this year, collecting jury prizes for best documentary short at the Austin, USA and Fort Lauderdale festivals en route to a berth on the Oscar shortlist, but all along Marsh has been more concerned with communicating the experience of Chau, a young man she met at the Lang Hoa Binh Agent Orange Camp in Vietnam. Chau was no ordinary 15-year-old when she first laid eyes on him, forced to walk on his knees after being born with debilitating birth defects that resulted from the lingering effects of the herbicide that was widely used during the Vietnam War, but she quickly found him to be extraordinary in other ways, specifically his persistence in his desire to become an artist.
Yet to properly capture Chau, a restless spirit both as a tenant at a care center where he lives with others like him and as simply a teenager, Marsh realized her initial trip would hardly do justice to her subject who was constantly looking ahead at life, rather than ruminating about the past. So the filmmaker, who would go on to make two narrative shorts (“Zari” and “The Tulip Chair”) and sharpen her craft in the camera department in the interim, would check in with Chau occasionally over what was nearly a decade as he refined his own artistic skills and worked tirelessly to transcend his circumstances.
All that time is condensed into just 34 minutes in “Chau, beyond the lines,” but you can feel the weight of it throughout, with the screen seeming to grow as Chau’s world widens incrementally over the years. Marsh’s portrait doesn’t just tell of Chau’s strides to develop his painting skills to go along with his passion, but taps into his soul through a canny use of voiceover in which you can hear him freely express his emotions as you watch him fight the limitations of his body. Recently, the filmmaker explained how that approach came about, as well as how she first met Chau and wound up dedicating her twenties to getting his story out into the world.
How did this come about?
I’d never done a film before, but when I was a first-year undergrad at UCLA film school, I was focusing on documentaries. One of my really good friends was Vietnamese, so I got really involved in his culture and just being young and stupid and ambitious, I thought we should make a documentary. He actually suggested the street kids of Vietnam, and I was like, “Yeah, we’ll do this cinema verite feature film [that would take place] over 24 hours.” I didn’t even know [the form of a] documentary short film existed, but we raised the money and we went over to Vietnam.
I had just turned 21, and because of the way the government works, we had to get approval to shoot, really just to have a camera in the streets. [While] making sure we had the approval, a television producer in Vietnam found out about us and came to our hotel and [said], “I understand you want to make a movie on street kids, but why don’t you come with me to this camp — Lang Hoa Binh — and you can see if you still want to do that. So we went there and a maternity hospital right there in Ho Chi Minh. I don’t speak full Vietnamese, so I didn’t know we were going to a care center for kids affected by Agent Orange. I didn’t even know what Agent Orange was. When I got there, I was shocked because these were disabilities I didn’t see in my life [before].
These [places] were almost reformatories in a way and I didn’t really understand, so I ended up in this camp and I was like, “Okay, let’s drop our cameras and abandon our topic just for a moment, and let’s volunteer in this camp for two weeks. Those two weeks I got really close to the kids and they turned into two-and-a-half months. Chau was 15 at the time and we’d play soccer every afternoon, and I’d always think I’ll take it easy on him. I’m very competitive when it comes to athletics and these kids were serious. You do not go easy on these kids and I realized I wanted to tell that story because they never saw themselves as different.
Visually, the film is actually arresting from the start when you see Chau and the other kids playing soccer because of how close the camera is to the ground. Was this difficult to film or find the angles for?
Basically, we were trying to stay true and honest to the perspective of these kids. A lot of them walk on their knees or are of a much smaller height, so we tried to avoid any kind of able-bodied tall person staring down on the kids because we felt that maybe this was the perspective of the people coming into the camp, [such as] the nurses that [Chau] battles. What I noticed was that these kids are poster children for a cause they really didn’t know about and with soccer, we wanted to capture the intensity and the seriousness that they approach these games with. These were lunch break activities that were all they had, so I just tried to be as honest as I possibly could about their point of view and seeing the world through those eyes.
What was it about Chau specifically that caught your attention?
When we were in a camp, I was trying to write, for lack of a better word, a script that would follow the five kids at their different age levels — and keep in mind, I never made a movie before — but what I realized was that when we’d review the footage, it was always Chau because he was the most passionate. He was the oldest kid at the camp, he had the biggest issues with the nurses and he had a really huge dream. Most of the other kids didn’t know what they wanted to do [with their lives]. He was dead set on becoming an artist. [And I was attracted] because I was a frustrated artist myself. I really wanted to make a good movie, I didn’t really know what I was doing and I had my own doubts in my head, terrified to return to the U.S. without a story after people had helped fund me. So there was a connection, but I think Chau’s story is actually very universal because most of us see ourselves as the hero of our own story, or at least try to go after something that people maybe tell us we often can’t [do], and how do we respond to that [adversity]. His arc was also so intense I couldn’t really cut in anybody else. No one else matched his enthusiasm.
You really stay focused on him to the extent that you don’t actually get carried away with what seems to be a unique family situation. At one point, Chau remarks how his parents are taking money that has been earmarked for him and you can tell by his tone, it’s not a priority for him, but was it tempting to go down that path as a filmmaker?
It was always Chau versus the obstacles and I’m not really not one to judge, so if I did want to dive into this whole thing about his parents taking the money, I’d obviously want to show his parents. But I didn’t ever want to dwell on it because he didn’t dwell on it too much. Again, I tried to just stay true to his perspective and what was important to him. How he mentioned it to me [was], “My parents are taking money from me” and he didn’t really have much more to say, so I figured for my job was to tell his story. That’s why we never really go to really extreme detail about what Agent Orange is. He doesn’t really know, and really doesn’t care that much [since] it doesn’t serve him. He just keeps moving ahead.
You really allow him to become his own narrator off-screen, though it sounds like you obviously didn’t ask him to do that specifically. How did the voiceover come about?
Again, Chau looks at himself as the hero of his own story, so that’s how it came about. We would interview [Chau for instance] in the middle a soccer game — and God bless my sound team for being able to [create] such nice sound design and sound edit of his dialogue — but we could never really get him alone. There wasn’t anything special about the interview that would serve the story, but it could become this narration. Actually, everything in the film is really factual until we see him alone — I really wanted the first time for [the audience] to see him, he’d be alone since he never was because when you interview someone it’s very intimate and that’s when he could truly be himself. That’s when he starts to reveal his thoughts, beliefs and doubts and his frustration with the nurses. So [the narration] came about accidentally, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’m not a huge fan of talking heads and I wanted this dreamy, narrative flow, so once I really liked the way it happened, we just kept on with it for the remainder of the shoot.
At what point either during or after the initial shoot did you decide to keep coming back to Vietnam?
I really did not know the story was going to go over the course of eight years. What was so difficult was when I returned from Vietnam, my friend who was over there with me and was going to translate, decided to go do his own thing, so the [project] really got stuck in the mud for two years. You don’t just need a translator, but someone that can operate an editing system and translate on the image. I lost complete contact with Chau because Chau went home [to] the countryside. Now it was a complete blessing in disguise because as I was finishing up the film about two years ago, that’s when Chau told me that he had gotten a job at this art studio. Of course, that changed everything.
I basically put in a title card that said, “He doesn’t have a job and he lives at home. He’s struggling to become an artist.” I didn’t want it in the movie like that, but that was the situation at the time. Then he got the call and this guy Antoine took him in and I was like, “We have to go back.” That to me was the happy ending – someone gave him the chance and it’s only up from here. It was right when we were finishing the film that he just moved into his own apartment as a working artist. That he even paints these murals would have been a happy enough ending for me. We were under a deadline that we had worked so hard towards, but in my gut, I felt Chau was going to have a part two. I knew that last time I went to Vietnam, we got our ending.
The filming of this covers what are typically some of the most formative years in a filmmaker’s life. Were there skills or ideas you had that changed over the time you were filming this?
Absolutely. I’m 29 now and from 21 to 29 were the most cinematic educational years of my life. I didn’t really know a lot about cinema. After I started making this film, I’d be at the Cinefamily every night or the New Beverly watching films, narrative, documentary and everything else. The most important thing was that I worked my way up through the camera department. I started as a [production assistant] in commercial and feature films, then I was a camera [assistant] and film loader and digital imaging technician. My mentor at the time, [cinematographer] Salvatore Totino, who works with Ron Howard, really took me under his wing and taught me everything I needed to know about the camera.
When I went to Vietnam, I realized I really didn’t even know how to set my exposure properly and when I went back for the last shoot, I had my translator and she would do additional camera, but I knew exactly what lenses I needed, what my settings were. my ISO, my compositions — I just knew everything off of the top of my head. Even on a broader scale, I had matured so much more than when I was 21. I may have made something much more political or more feisty [when I was younger], but I think was able to take a step back from that to see the human story. Over the course of it, Chau and I over really just grew up. When I went to go finish the film, I realized the technical filmmaker I had become. Not everything’s perfect, but I was very proud of the way the film ended and how I was able to capture it on my own with the knowledge I had gained over the course of those those years.
Near the end, Chau says his dream is to get to California. Are plans afoot to get him here?
Yes, there is. I’ve been hesitant because I have to really think about where I want to take him. Obviously, I would have love to show him New York and he’d love to come to California. I’m just very protective. When he says he wants to come, I’m not going to stop him and I’m sure that eventually we could raise enough money for a plane ticket over here. I don’t think that’s in the too distant future.
What’s the plan for this film being released?
It’ll definitely be coming out into the world. We’ll have some exciting news to share on February 1st. Of course, we’re still playing in certain festivals and what’s been really amazing about this film is it’s become a bridge for people to become aware of Agent Orange, the existing dioxins in Vietnam and the Americans and Vietnamese still affected by it. I try not to be political about it. I wasn’t alive in the Vietnam War and I’m not going to point fingers, but trying to go off what Chau taught me — to recognize what you have rather than what you don’t have and then maybe you can achieve things beyond your means — we’ve been asking audience members at our screenings to sign letters to encourage Congress to clean the remaining dioxin-contaminated sites in Vietnam as well as continue aid to the families in Vietnam who care for their kids with disabilities, [often] in very rural areas. We’re hoping the film through such an inspirational story can spark some awareness, especially with the younger generations, because I didn’t know what Agent Orange was and I think it’s important that we know our history in order to really realize what our future’s like.
[The reaction to the film] has been completely unexpected. We’ve been getting amazing feedback and support. Of course, I was terrified, especially [because there are] people who have known about it for eight years who have certain expectations. But we created the most honest film we could and [while it’s been] nervewracking many times, it’s been amazing who [the film has] attracted. In New York, we just had a screening where representatives of the United Nations were there and it’s really something special to me as a filmmaker when people in high-profile positions come in and it really makes me feel that the film can help make a change. Since I’ve been with this for eight years, and [think] that we could be Agent Orange-free in Vietnam before I’m 40 years old, it’s probably something I’m going to stick with and see through to the end. It’s funny because I had set out not even knowing what this was all about. Where it’s taken my life has been really amazing and the best thing that’s ever happened to me.