The Audience Prize for ASEAN French Trophies, sponsored by Banque Transatlantique, lists 6 finalists, including two expatriates in Vietnam. François Bibonne is one of them.
After the death of his Vietnamese grandmother, François Bibonne decides to spend 15 months in Vietnam. As a classical music fan and a history graduate, he is fascinated by Vietnam’s historical roots in classical music. He then shot his first documentary in 2020-2021: “Once upon a bridge in Vietnam”.
We interviewed him to learn a little more about his background, his documentary film and his future aspirations.
Interview François Bibonne: director of a documentary in Vietnam
Le Petit Journal: What was your background before coming to Vietnam?
I did a literary preparatory class (hypokhâgne / khâgne), then obtained a master’s degree in contemporary history at Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne. I then followed several internships in marketing and communication. As I am a music-loving pianist and passionate about classical music in general, I decided to get closer to this universe, and I discovered a passion for documentaries by filming with the artists.
LPJ: Is your project a quest that could be described as spiritual? “Make some noise so that your grandmother hears you return to her land”, can you come back to this personal journey that led you to produce this documentary?
I went twice to Vietnam after his death, the first time as a family with my parents and my brother, then as part of a marketing internship in a travel agency in Hanoi. Back in France, I felt a call telling me to return to Vietnam. At that time I was still doing an internship in a group of classical music labels (Outhere Music), and looking at the artists’ calendars, I wondered if Vietnam could be a destination. This is where I started researching the place of European classical music in Vietnam. The initial project was to go and investigate this theme, I didn’t think I would make a professional documentary of this scale.
LPJ: Can you summarize the steps you followed to make this documentary?
I first came into contact with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra, and the conductor Honna Tetsuji, then I started filming the rehearsals and concerts at the Hanoi Opera. At that time, I wanted to make a film about the orchestra only. I rented a camera.
Then by interviewing the musicians, I became interested in their culture and I started to listen to their stories and get out of the framework of concert halls and European classical music. I wanted to film nature, in particular, for example, a scene that takes place on the island of banana trees below the Long Bien bridge, then a brass workshop in the province of Nam Dinh, or a village near Bac Giang where many young people study the violin on a farm.
I then had a stage of reflection, because everything I filmed, I didn’t know how to organize it. So I approached a small Hanoian production company (Midas Productions). At the same time, Vietnamese television and the press kept interviewing me and highlighting my link with Vietnam through my grandmother. This is where I gradually understood that I had to include myself in the film, to be seen. Midas Productions helped me conduct professional interviews with all the big names I wanted to interview. The film became more solid.
The fourth step was my meeting with Thuy Phan, a traditional musician and composer, whom I accompanied during a Vietnamese and contemporary music festival, with volunteer musicians who are also in the orchestra. There the report took on a spiritual dimension, in the mountains of the North (Yen Bai province), and I understood that it was the direction of the film, to start from culture with the orchestra and classical music European, to finish towards nature and Vietnamese culture. The aim of the festival was to fund a bamboo forest!
The fifth stage is my return to France and the structuring of the script, the logging, I had no equipment so I called on a production company, Firgun Recordings, in Fontainebleau, which also helped me a lot. They interviewed me so I could do the narration. At the same time, I did crowdfunding and raised 12,000 euros to finance post-production and the rest of the project, in particular the design of the official illustration of the film which is magnificent and symbolizes the concept of Once upon a bridge in Vietnam. Thanks to this fundraiser, I got closer to the fabric of Vietnamese associations in France and the Vietnamese diaspora.
The sixth step was to start private screenings, and listen to feedback from those around me. I then worked for another year reshaping the film as I wanted, with my new personal studio, and all the artistic freedom I wanted to inject. The film, which was supposed to be 30 minutes long, became a 43-minute film that linked all my musical adventures into a work of art dedicated to my Vietnamese grandmother.
Now, I’m at the end of the project, I still have a few screenings – notably at the Hanoi Creative Design Festival in Hanoi on November 13, at Columbia University on November 17, at Sciences Po Le Havre at the end of November… I want to organize as many conferences as possible , screenings, concerts, to trigger a craze for music in Vietnam and offer a point of view that differs from that of travel agencies and the war. This film allowed me to become a resident at Arte this year in Paris, in their new incubator, and to learn a lot of things. I hope to be able to sell the film one day, or to popularize it once it is published online.
“Once upon a bridge in Vietnam” and classical music in Vietnam
LPJ: Can you describe the connection between Vietnamese and French music that you have been able to experience and observe?
I met a lot of different characters, and they all shared their love for French music with me. There is a lot of French music in the film, like Plaisir d’amour, an old melancholic French song sung by a blind choir, who had also sung Charles Aznavour’s Comedians to me. We can say that the Vietnamese anthem composed by Van Cao that we hear at the beginning of the film is also quite similar to the Marseillaise.
The most interesting story, I find, is that of these very old wind instruments, brass instruments, which serve as production models for craftsmen in Nam Dinh province. When I saw these antiques, some of which dated from the first half of the 19th century, I had the impression of being in direct contact with the past. It is an important legacy of French Christian missionaries who used these instruments to accompany masses.
Otherwise, I don’t generally think that there is a national character to music, because each composer has his own way of expressing himself, but it’s true that composers such as Ravel or Debussy are very much appreciated by Vietnamese musicians, in general we find an attraction for French culture in architecture, painting, gastronomy. And Vietnamese music is played in France, Nguyen Thien Dao was a pupil of Olivier Messiaen and the Frenchman Ton That Thiet who studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Paris is one of the greatest composers of Vietnamese contemporary music.
LPJ: What experience marked you the most during your 15 months in Vietnam?
I see these fifteen months as a unique experience, a bit like that of Alice in Wonderland, Vietnam version! It’s hard to prioritize the moments, I think all of my encounters have been amazing, and I’ve been mesmerized by everything, absolutely everything. If I have to choose, I think it’s the last chapter of the film, when I’m in nature, in the mountains, and I accompany a troupe of musicians who plant bamboo. It’s kind of the philosophy I want to have, simply to make myself useful.
LPJ: What was the biggest difficulty you encountered in making your documentary?
The biggest difficulty was to persevere alone, without a sponsor and without a budget. Fortunately, I had the psychological support of all my musician friends in Vietnam and the Vietnamese media, but there were down times, because 15 months of filming in a foreign country is inevitably difficult. I taught English and French in parallel.
LPJ: Before/after making this documentary, what was the biggest impact you had personally and professionally?
A lady (Hélène Nguyen Thien) told me one day: “The east wind carrying your roots with a moving voice showed you your current path”. This documentary gave me and continues to give me the path in my life. Thanks to him, I was able to connect with the Arte channel, with the Vietnamese diaspora, with the network of major schools (Columbia, Sciences Po), with the Vietnamese government, but also with incredible artists, musicians and designers, associations and researchers. I have the impression of having opened a kind of magic door which allows me to meet beautiful people, both in work and in private life, who have made me find a vocation in the production of documentaries.
Today, I have a self-confidence that allows me to assume my life as a self-entrepreneur serenely and to weave a solid professional and emotional network in classical music internationally.
France – Vietnam and synergies through music
LPJ: How do you see the evolution and development of synergies in classical music between Vietnam and France?
I see that Asia is taking an increasingly important place in European classical music, and I see more and more Vietnamese students studying in France.
The exchanges will multiply automatically, because when a Vietnamese studies music in France, in general, he falls in love with it, and very often will want to give this same chance to future generations. For me, the synergies will occur in teaching mobility (masterclasses, scholarship holders, etc.) and university research (theses).
LPJ: In 5 years, where do you see yourself? What are your future plans?
In five years, I no longer see myself as a freelancer. I think I would have figured out what I can do on my own, and I would definitely have a company with people I already have in mind. My life is in Paris, but I would have regular trips to Vietnam, thanks to my special visa exemption as a Frenchman of Vietnamese origin. I want to build bridges with other countries, because even if my heart is in Vietnam, I have too much curiosity to stop there.
Did François Bibonne’s interview or his documentary “Once upon a bridge in Vietnam” interest you? Vote now and until November 14, 2022 (noon French time) to support it. François Bibonne is one of the six finalists for the Public Prize of the ASEAN French Trophies.