Di is a 12-year-old girl belonging to the Hmong ethnic minority who resides in the remote mountains of North Vietnam, a gorgeous landscape shrouded in a thick hazy mist. Speaking to Vietnamese filmmaker Diem Ha Le behind the camera, 'Children of the Mist' opens with a dialogue interview style between Di and Diem on bride kidnapping and her future. The film follows Di as she navigates school and childish crushes while the annual Lunar New Year festival, infamous for being the occasion of bride kidnapping, looms. A yearly commonplace occurrence amongst the Hmong people, bride kidnapping occurs when a young girl is abducted by a man who is interested in her and then forced to marry him. Once wed, she is resigned to stay at home and bear his children, a permanent closure to her short-lived education journey and freedom of youth. Di and her friends, aware of this to the extent young children can grasp complex issues, play light-hearted running games among each other involving "catching" the bride.
This jarring and horrifying practice to the viewer is simply tradition to the documentary's subjects. While 'Children of the Mist' is unmistakably Di's story, Diem manages to capture a stark three-dimensional portrait of those in the community around her, expanding an intimate view into a community so wrought with tradition. Di's mother nonchalantly explains to Diem that New Year is simply the season of bride kidnapping, unavoidable and unmissable. Both Di's mother and sister (17 and pregnant with her second child) were kidnapped during New Year and irrevocably sentenced to a life at home where every day is more mindless than the one before.
It is with great trepidation that the film approaches the inevitable - the night of the New Year Festival. Di is invited by a boy, Vang, whom she had been flirting with for a while now to go back to his house. He assures her plainly that he is not kidnapping her and she accepts. Diem behind the camera attempts to caution Di multiple times but is powerless as the two walk off holding hands engulfed in the mist. What follows was possibly one of the most stressful film viewing experiences of my life as Diem returns back to Di's house and captures the shock, denial and indifference of her family members upon the realisation that their daughter is gone. As negotiations regarding dowry and tensions rise between families, Di is caught and torn apart (almost even physically) by a community so obsessed with following tradition. Diem's fly-on-the-wall filmmaking and personal interaction with the subjects provide for a haunting and immersive viewing experience. She incredibly covers both sides of the argument, from documenting the dowry price argument between Di's parents on how much their daughter is worth, to Vang's own desperation and bewilderment at his own actions where he is insistent on marrying Di to secure his future after having to drop out of school. As the film takes an extremely dark plunge, Di struggles with the sheer regret and realisation that she does not want to be a housewife and bear children at the tender age of 12 and the mammoth task that follows of convincing both of her captors – Vang's family and her own - to let her break out of the marriage pact.
Perhaps the most astonishing feat of the documentary is Diem Ha Le's commitment to authenticity and the relationship with the subjects themselves. She acts as both an extended subject of the documentary herself, getting involved during lighter moments – a silly mud fight while farming causes her camera to get knocked over - as well as harrowing moments such as helplessly asking Di's mother behind the camera to go to Vang's house to get Di back. It is clear she has established a remarkable relationship with the community, who allow her to interview them confidently without any qualms and film them in their most vulnerable moments. Diem's involvement in the film makes for the most immersive viewing experience at times, where her voice behind the camera interacting with the documentary subjects and her emotions – disgust, despair, panic, and happiness typically reflecting that of the audience.
It has been more than three months since I watched 'Children of the Mist', however the immensely disturbing and frightening image of the following scene is still clearly imprinted in my mind. In a particularly harrowing moment during marriage negotiations, Vang's family drags a screaming and thrashing Di back to their house as her own family watches on and tells her not to worry. In complete helplessness, Di screams to Diem behind the camera to do something to help her. It is at this moment where 'Children of the Mist' truly becomes a standout documentary film, as Diem helplessly begs Di's family to do something to assist their daughter. It is frightening to think what could have happened without Diem's brave interjection at that particular moment. Her remarkable ability to keep her personal distress, involvement with the community, and commitment to filmmaking in balance is completely admirable. As a one-woman team armed with only one camera and microphone venturing into a secluded remote community, Diem's sheer bravery is incredible, and I found myself concerned for her safety at moments. Additionally acting as her own cinematographer, she also manages to capture beautiful portraits of the remote gorgeous scenery where the Hmong people live.
Diem's involvement in the film makes for the most immersive viewing experience at times, where her voice behind the camera interacting with the documentary subjects and her emotions – disgust, despair, panic, and happiness typically reflecting that of the audience.
As more people in the community get involved in the marriage issue, with Di running desperately to her school campus to find sanctuary, 'Children of the Mist' showcases how members of the Hmong community wrestle with tradition that steals a woman's freedom and feminity. Her school elders reason that Di is too young to get married at the moment, but deem it reasonable that her forced marriage relationship with Vang continues once she comes of age. As the elders draw a messy temporary conclusion where Di and a reluctant Vang share a drink to 'break' the marriage pact for now, Diem keeps her camera trained on it all.
'Children of the Mist' ends with a slight time jump forward to a now-subdued and quieter Di, whose childish laughter and innocence have been wretched from her following the events of the film. The film drives home the harrowingly unglamorous reality of young women in traditional communities governed by the patriarchy with an iron grip. I found it extremely difficult and completely horrifying to watch at times, and struggled to comprehend the convictions of the subjects who hold such different ethical values to mine. The film presents difficult questions regarding the complex nature of documentary filmmaking, and it is interesting to discuss whether Diem involved herself too much or was instead too passive. All in all, Diem Ha Le has created a brilliant debut feature film with her empathetic and courageous touch, and her future work is definitely something to keep an eye out for.