“Walking is too slow. Driving a car is too fast and restrictive. Only the rhythm of motorbikes and bicycles delivers a feeling of dreaminess and freedom,” – the first lines pull the audience into English director Esther Johnson's documentary film Dust and Metal.

Johnson, Live Cinema UK, Việt Nam Film Institute, and the TPD Centre for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents (TPD) collaborated to produce the film.

The film was supported by the British Council as part of the UK/Việt Nam Session 2023, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Director Esther Johnson works at the intersection of artist's moving image and documentary. Photo courtesy of Thanh Việt Production

Dust and Metal depicts Johnson's journey to explore the developing history and freedom in Việt Nam through the lens of the country’s ubiquitous mode of transport: the motorbike.

“Driving on a motorbike is a voyage that is always alive and moving. To me, the significance of the two-wheeled vehicle in Vietnamese history is a story that few people are aware of, therefore I decided to discover it,” Johnson shared.

Dust and Metal is a creative documentary genre that presents to the audience a unique archive work illuminating the history of the country. Johnson employed hundreds of different clips, using old footage from other films in inventive ways as well as her own footage.

The most recent footage was filmed in 2020, the oldest was drawn from films in the 1950s. Notably, Dust and Metal employed familiar footage from renowned films representing Việt Nam cinema including Em bé Hà Nội (The Little Girl of Hà Nội) by director Hải Ninh, and Bao Giờ Cho Đến Tháng Mười (When October Comes) by director Đặng Nhật Minh.

Việt Nam Film Institute and the Department of Cinema offered practical support for her to access and utilise Vietnamese film footage archives, some of which have never been digitised before.

The script features excerpts from interviews Johnson conducted with renowned Vietnamese director Trần Văn Thủy and visual artist Đặng Ái Việt.

“For the first time, a documentary film produced by a foreign studio had the support of Vietnamese government agencies – the Việt Nam Film Institute and the Department of Cinema,” Nguyễn Hoàng Phương, manager of TPD, said to Vietnamplus online newspaper.

"Although Dust and Metal is not a large-scale film, it is still a turning point for the Vietnamese cinema sector to foster global collaborations and showcase the vibrant Vietnamese film industry to the world, even in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic."

Recently, the film was introduced to Vietnamese audiences through small-scale screenings in Hà Nội, HCM City, Đà Nẵng and Hải Phòng.

Xinh Xô, who composed the film’s soundtrack, performed music live during the film's screening in Hà Nội. Photo courtesy of Thanh Việt Production.

Xinh Xô, a Vietnamese-American electroacoustic composer and improviser who composed the film’s soundtrack, performed music live during the film's screenings in Hà Nội and HCM City.

The cine-concert format delivers a one-of-a-kind audio-visual experience, capturing the audience with auditory spectrums spanning from ethereal calm to a cacophony of brutal noises. Audience members can feel the subtle pulse of Vietnamese traditional essence throughout this aural adventure.

Dust and Metal also participated in international film festivals including the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival 2022, Đà Nẵng Asian Film Festival in May, and HCM City International Film Festival in October.

“Esther Johnson’s film brings together a trove of archive and contemporary footage, set to a live score by Xinh Xô, for a thrilling, unorthodox portrait of Việt Nam,” DocFest noted in the film’s introduction for the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival 2022.

Besides, TPD organised a one-minute film re-mix workshop series based on the draft of Dust and Metal in Hà Nội and HCM City. The workshop aims to connect the community of amateur, semi-professional and professional filmmakers in Việt Nam.

Experimenters participating in the workshop had the opportunity to practice creative documentary filmmaking, design sound films and compose electronic music. – VNS