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Being HMONG. A Family Encounter / Project Description

by Roland Platz, Bettina Renner and Barbara Schindler

Diaspora in the Swabian Jura

Since 2011 the exhibition “Myth of the Golden Triangle” has been on show at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin-Dahlem and illuminates the current situation of various mountain peoples in Southeast Asia. In order to draw attention to the fact that members of these ethnic minorities also live in Germany, texts and photos of a Hmong family living in the Swabian Jura were displayed. In order to give this group, living in the diaspora, a voice of its own, and to strengthen the contemporary relevance of the museum in a prominent way, the curator Roland Platz suggested making a film for the Humboldt Lab about the Vang family, with whom he had remained in contact over the years. The documentary filmmaker Bettina Renner who was, at that time, working on the installation “Vision: Humboldt-Forum” for the Humboldt-Box, also joined the project. In joint talks between the curator, film director and the Vang family about the feasibility of representing identity, the curatorial idea was developed further into a concept and the real Humboldt Lab project took off from there.

Home Visit with a Camera

The Hmong are an ethnic minority numbering between two to three million people, living in several countries across Southeast Asia and in southern China, largely in mountainous regions. Their culture and language differ markedly from those of the surrounding lowland populations. Towards the end of the 1970s, many Hmong people fled the encroaching Vietnam War, which had also spread to Laos, emigrating to Canada, America and to Europe – predominantly France and Germany. As one of ten Hmong families, the Vang family is living in Baden-Württemberg and is now in its third generation. On the occasion of the 50th birthday of Yao Vang, the curator and film director visited the southern German province. After a curatorial briefing and establishing the themes to be raised in the film, Bettina Renner discussed all further details with the Vang family. Together they talked about diverse issues centered on the perpetuation and transformation of their identity as Hmong: What role did language, religion, the family, or their own culture play? How was their relationship to Germany, to the neighbors in the village? What did they miss most, and how did the answers given by the different generations diverge within the family? All these questions were integrated directly into the shooting script and continually elaborated upon with the Vangs. Accordingly the first script was intentionally quite flexible and was adjusted where necessary during shooting. This method allowed the crew to react to the dynamic within the family and also to accommodate their impromptu suggestions. For example, Mrs. Vang and her sister-in-law spontaneously decided to make traditional sticky rice cake – usually a new year’s tradition among the Hmong, but this ritual was so important to them that it was integrated into the filmic documentation, despite the fact that filming took place during the summer. For various reasons (for example, lack of permission to film), individual family members decided against being filmed at their workplaces, at school or in further education, preferring to stick to their own private sphere.

One of the aspects of the project in which the family was actively involved was when it came to the choice of language: because it is a significant part of each individual’s identity, every family member decided for themselves in which language they wished to speak. Depending on which generation they belonged to, they spoke in Hmong, or German, in Swabian dialect or in French. Accordingly, the director chose a bilingual Franco-German film team. The entire film has German and English subtitles.

The film team was available for eight days, while the director remained on site for a few days before and after the shoot, in order to answer any additional questions the family might have. After completing shooting, Bettina Renner returned to the Alps several times in order to translate the narratives from Hmong into German together with the eldest son, Tchoua Vang, and the cousins, Rosana and Liliana Vang. She also took the rough cut back to Baden-Württemberg in order to discuss the final version with the family. The consent and participation of the Vang family during the entire process was a core aspect of the project.

Loop and Short Cut: Two Film Formats as a Method of Approach

In order to integrate the product optimally into the exhibition, the director, together with the editor, developed a longer film version as well as several so-called shorts.

The 25-minute film was intended to work on a visual plane as well as acoustically as a loop, providing the exhibition visitors with the opportunity of engaging with the film at any point, and being able to get something out of it, even by watching a brief scene. Spatially somewhat separate, with seating, in an appropriately darkened space, the documentary was shown in the permanent exhibition “Myth of the Golden Triangle” during Probebühne 5.

The shorts have a duration of between one and two minutes. Because no material was to be used here that had already been used in the long film, the shorts were completed only after the finalization of the longer version. Varied approaches were used in terms of content, providing a direct reference to objects from the permanent exhibition (for example on the theme of clothing), or with more abstract references (like weddings, families). The five shorts were not available within the permanent exhibition, but they are available to watch on the Humboldt Lab website.

As in her other documentary work, the director wanted to forgo any kind of commentary or use of music. The idea then arose of working with the songs and music created by the family themselves, as well as background sounds from the local environment. That’s why, in the post-production phase, the sound design was worked on extensively.

The Experiment of an Encounter

The Humboldt Lab project “Being HMONG. A Family Encounter” was an attempt to generate an authentic portrait of the protagonists in cooperation with them, and to talk about what it means to live in the diaspora. The twelve main protagonists who came to the film premiere together with other family members (Yao Vang and Lao Vang, Tchoua, Tcheng and Anja Vang, Xou Vang and See Lee, Rosana del Carmen, Liliana and Khai Vang, Flavia and Miguel Vang) were very happy with the results and proud, as representatives of their culture, to be able to share their story with others in a museum context.

The filmic snapshot “Being HMONG” documents the new positioning of minorities living in the diaspora, and thus fulfills the fundamental requirements of the Humboldt-Forum: to engender a contemporary relevance and, at the same time, permit multiple perspectives. That is the reason why the 25-minute film will be utilized in the new exhibition module “Struggle for Self-Determination,” which will have as its theme the situation of minorities in Northeast India (Nagaland) and the so-called Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia.

Dr. Roland Platz has been curator for South and Southeast Asia in the Ethnologisches Museum since 2009. After studying ethnology and sociology in Freiburg, he spent extensive periods doing fieldwork in Northern Thailand and many years as a freelance lecturer, trainer and journalist. His special field of interest is the minorities of Southeast Asia and the associated questions of identity.

The director Bettina Renner has been making documentaries for broadcast channels like ZDF, ARTE and ARD since 2006, as well as producing video installations. Her films have been screened at international film festivals and won awards. For her latest documentary “bury my heart in dresden” she received the “Achievement Award for Documentary Filmmaking” in Los Angeles in 2013. Bettina Renner has completed various courses in American studies, communications and, economics, in Dresden and the USA.

Barbara Schindler works in the field of cultural PR. After completing degrees in general and comparative literary studies and French, she worked for the Carl Hanser Verlag, the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in Berlin, and Tanzplan Deutschland. Together with Christiane Kühl she supervises the online documentation of the projects for the Humboldt Lab Dahlem.

You can find further reading on this project here.