Vu Pham knows what it takes to make it in the film industry.
“You have to be crazy to want this,” he said over Skype. “And hey man, I own my s—; I am crazy.”
Independent filmmaking is a profession that requires enormous emotional and financial sacrifice, what with the exorbitant price of equipment, the difficulty of managing a cast and crew and the constant struggle of finding investors and distributors. As Pham put it, “the chances of success are minimal.” But he is no stranger to these sorts of obstacles. A refugee from Vietnam, he settled here in Portland with his mother as a young child in the early ’80s.
“Because I didn’t live in a more traditional upbringing, my interests weren’t all that well supported,” Pham said. “Like I didn’t come from an environment where mom and dad would say ‘oh you’re interested in that well let’s take you to the theater, or lets take you to the museum, or lets get you a piano teacher.’”
Yet even as a child he was drawn to storytelling and to the power of the image. He talked about a formative experience gazing through a View-Master toy, and an obsession with writing little stories as an elementary schooler. In adulthood these childhood interests evolved into long, sleepless nights spent drafting scripts at Shari’s Cafe and Pies, and eventually the completion of his first film, “Shining God,” in his early 30s. Though many independent filmmakers would flee for more glamorous destinations like Los Angeles or New York, Pham remains based here in Portland, despite what he calls a “love-hate relationship” with the city.
“We are, for better or for worse, a bit insular in our liberal leanings, and I will say that, you know, even though it is a very liberal city it is somewhat homogenous, and you have a lot of people who think really similar to each other,” he said. “Sometimes you get lost in that sameness, and that can create some problems…but despite its flaws and its warts and all that I still love it dearly, and I’m grateful that I can make films for as little as I can there.”
Aspects of his own personal life come through in his work –– such as his aforementioned feelings towards Portland, or the experience of being a Vietnamese immigrant –– but Pham, who frequently stars in his films, stressed the importance of avoiding stories that provide direct parallels to one’s life.
“I’m not really a person who likes to deal with the autobiographical elements of my own life. I kind of find that sort of transparency, that one-to-one analogue, to be a little boring. I mean we’re artists man, we can make something more fantastic than that.”
This ethos is evident in his films, which tend to be surreal and oblique in tone.
“I love films that stir things deep inside of me,” he said, “films that cause a lot of emotional reaction, that cause a lot of reflection … films that make me feel volatile and lost and suspicious and hungry for more of my own life. A good film is a film that creates a whole lot of questions.”
The world of independent filmmaking is a ruthless one, and success is never guaranteed, but for Pham, the most rewarding thing is simply to know that his work has made an impact, even if it’s a small one.
“To know that someone left the theater, or their home, and they thought about it, they asked a few questions, it stirred a conversation, and it asked some questions that were relevant to their life, without making them want to escape from it in some kind of fantastical way. Just that will make me feel I have accomplished something that is meaningful and valuable to me. And you know sometimes that’s as good as it gets, but to me, that’s pretty god-damn good.”
Watzek Screens is presenting a screening of four of Pham’s short films followed by a Q&A with the director Thursday, Feb. 21 at 7:00 p.m. in Miller 105.
For more information, visit the Watzek website here: https://www.lclark.edu/calendars/events/#!view/event/date/20190221/event_id/302536
Edited on February 21, 2019 at 2:00 PM.