The ancient tradition of water puppetry has gained worldwide attention in recent years for its lively and unique reflection of agrarian life in the wet-rice villages of northern Vietnam. As water puppetry has grown in popularity among tourists, modern practitioners have altered key components of their performances in terms of both content and format in order to appeal to Western tourists.
This insightful and original ethnographic documentary explores the complex interplay between the rise and development of the international tourism industry and the production of culture in the performance of Vietnamese water puppetry. The film, in the words of Prof. Lauren Meeker, of SUNY New Paltz, “addresses important issues in cultural heritage, tourism, reflexivity, and collaborative filmmaking. It sets up a contrast between the extractive process of ’collecting’ heritage on film in which the finished product is not shared with the film subjects, and a collaborative filmmaking process in which the subjects are given the chance to comment upon academic films that have been made about them and then to represent their own culture by making their own short films.”
The objective of the Water Puppetry filmmaking team was to return a series of government-made films about the ancient tradition of water puppetry to the village of Bao Ha in the Red River Delta in order to make this invaluable cultural heritage available to the very community recorded in the films. A community screening of these original films was organized and villagers were encouraged to express their opinions about them. Five villagers were subsequently selected and trained to make films of their own about water puppetry.
The filmmaking team then organized a second community screening, but this time, the featured films were made by community members themselves. In a powerfully symbolic way, this second set of films represents the process of digital repatriation traveling full circle. The hope was that this collaboration would serve as a model for ethnographic filmmaking, as more and more historically marginalized peoples gain the skills, technology, and need for a fuller understanding of their own past as well as a means to articulate their present and future.
Water Puppetry in Vietnam is a rich, complex, and thought-provoking work that will captivate students and generate discussion in a wide variety of courses in cultural anthropology and ethnography, Asian studies, and development and tourism studies. It was produced and directed by Sam Pack, Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kenyon College.
"This first English-language film to document Vietnamese water puppetry is a complex and rewarding work… that skillfully weaves together old government film footage of the puppeteers; scenes of the community members viewing the old films; new interviews with puppeteers, village officials, and academics; and contemporary footage of the daily lives and craft of the puppeteers. A complex portrait of the puppeteers and their craft emerges from the film´s deft juxtaposition of various different representational styles, including the puppeteers´ own short films made with the assistance of the film crew. The structure of the film effectively humanizes the puppeteers and gives a strong sense of how water puppetry is an integral part of their community-centered lives." — Lauren Meeker, Assistant Prof. of Anthropology, SUNY New Paltz
"The rich and varied culture of Asia has proven a perfect vehicle to introduce students at all levels to this vast and complex continent. This finely textured and lovely film effectively draws the viewer into the cadence of rural Vietnam, its culture, and its people. The film is particularly effective in examining the long established tradition of water puppetry and its utilization by the people of the tiny village of Bao Ha to entice foreign tourists to visit there. While viewing the film and the art of puppet theater, one also gains a deep sense of rural Vietnamese society and the struggles faced by ordinary Vietnamese villagers." — Van J. Symons, Emeritus Prof. of History, Augustana College, and Past Executive Director, ASIANetwork
"I was charmed by this film. It is too rare nowadays to see Vietnamese water puppetry in the settings within which it was invented and for which it was intended, the rice-paddied water world of villages in the rural Vietnamese countryside. The film does us the service of bringing front and center not only the performance, but the energy and engagement of the performers. The film is a wonderful ethnographic moment that engages the meanings and actions of other human beings, both bound and liberated by traditions and creativity. This film will be exceptionally useful in the classroom for considerations of the sustainability of folk cultural productions in the modern world." — Prof. Jack D. Harris, Dept. of Anthropology and Sociology, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
"This film is a great way to introduce students to Vietnam: its people, its culture, and one of its enduring arts. The film shows everyday life of Vietnamese villagers and how they integrate water puppetry into that life. My students appreciated the way the filmmaking team worked with the Vietnamese to document puppet-making, giving them cameras, and teaching them how to use the cameras. Thus in a way, it was the Vietnamese villagers´ choices of what to film that got documented. Because the film captured my students´ admiration it was extremely valuable as a teaching tool and I will certainly use it again the next time I teach my introductory course on the Peoples and Cultures of Southeast Asia." — Teodora O. Amoloza, Prof. of Sociology, Illinois Wesleyan University
Association for Asian Studies Annual Conference Screening honoree
Days of Ethnographic Cinema International Film Festival of Visual Anthropology honoree (Moscow)
Vietnam International Anthropological Film Festival (Ho Chi Minh City) honoree
ETHNOCINECA 2013 (Vienna) honoree
ASIANetwork Conference (Portland, OR) honoree
New York Conference on Asian Studies (NYCAS) honoree
Culture Unplugged Humanity Explored Film Festival honoree