One of the best films at TIFF is No Crying at the Dinner Table, a Canadian short by the supremely talented Carol Nguyen who tells us how she approached putting her own family on camera to unveil family secrets and trauma in this moving film.
No Crying at the Dinner Table, from Canadian filmmaker Carol Nguyen, is not just one of the best Canadian shorts at TIFF19, but one of the very best films I’ve seen at the festival. In the film, Nguyen separately interviews her sister and her parents — both Vietnamese immigrants — about family secrets and traumas: her mother discusses the lack of physical intimacy she shared with her mother; her sister shares how, growing up, she felt closer to her grandparents than parents; and her father tells a traumatic story from his past in Vietnam.
Throughout, Nguyen intersperses images of each of the family members alone — bathing, praying, cooking — emphasizing the way that people can share physical space while being emotionally separate. When she gathers the family to listen to the recordings, it’s cathartic, and we sense — and Nguyen confirmed in our interview — that it will change the family dynamics dramatically for the better.
At just 21, and still a film student at Concordia University in Montreal, Carol Nguyen is already poised to do great things in the future. Before her film has its world premiere at TIFF, I talked to Nguyen about how she approached making the film, the challenges and opportunities of using your family as your subjects, and her inspirations.
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Seventh Row: What was the genesis for No Crying at the Dinner Table? Where did the idea come from?
Carol Nguyen: This film was supposed to be a documentary about something else, actually. In the midst of research for that film, I decided to ask my parents and sister about personal experiences in their lives. What I got from those conversations were stories I had never heard from them before.
This affected my deeply as I had a hidden story myself. As these stories presented themselves, I knew I wanted to do something about it. I knew these were important stories to be shared in our family, but I also saw the theme of hidden secrets and traumas as something very profound and human.
Watch our creative nonfiction masterclass with Carol Nguyen and Penny Lane
Seventh Row: How did you get your family members to agree to participate? It’s so deeply personal that I imagine it could have taken some convincing. What did you do to put them at ease?
Carol Nguyen: My family are kind of special when it comes to being on camera, in the sense that they have been involved in my films since I started in high school. Because of that, there had already been a long-term trust built between the camera and to me, as a director.
As for the subject matter, I tried to keep most things transparent throughout the process. I did pre-interviews with them before about the topics they talk about on camera, so they were aware of what I wanted them to discuss the day of the shoot. And before that, I made sure that I got their consent to tell their story.
This immense trust put some pressure on me personally. I knew that if I was asking them to disclose something about themselves, I had to pull in my part and do the same. Behind the scenes, in preparation, I had told them each something that I had also never disclosed to them. It was difficult, and maybe not as difficult as doing so on camera, but it helped build more trust. By making this documentary, I knew that it was not just a film, but it was something that would help us grow as a family in real life.
Seventh Row: It’s interesting that you’ve chosen to keep yourself out of No Crying at the Dinner Table. What made you make that decision?
Carol Nguyen: I’m definitely not as physically present on screen as my family are, but I consider myself being a part of the film as I am present by voice. I decided to keep myself out on screen because I was not in the same conceptual position as my family were. I knew everyone’s secrets beforehand and knew how I wanted to frame them. Because they were yet to hear each other’s interviews, that made their reactions genuine. Putting myself on screen, in the position that I was in, in my opinion, would have diluted the integrity of the film.
Seventh Row:. In addition to the interviews at the dinner table, there are also sequences with each of the characters going about their daily lives — your sister in the bath, your mom in her bedroom. How did you decide what you wanted to shoot for these? And what was the process for doing this? To what degree were these “staged”?
Carol Nguyen: I tried to find mundane actions for each character that would complement their personality and the story they tell on screen. For me, it was important that, in their first sequence, they are physically separate from each other, to convey an isolation of their thoughts and a distance from each other emotionally.
In my childhood, during moments of grief, I often saw these physical separations in the house; one washing away their tears in the shower, distracting their thoughts through labour, or wishing their fears away… It was important for me to interpret those memories in a simple way that did not distract from their interviews.
These sequences were completely staged, but because cooking is natural to my mother, because praying is natural to my father… It did not take much “acting”. Most of the directing for these sequences just related to blocking or their placement in the frame.
Seventh Row: Presumably you had much more footage and more interviews than what we see in the film. How did you approach narrowing that down to the concise story we’ve got in the film?
Carol Nguyen: It was hard! Me and my co-editor, Andrés Solis, tried to take it one step at a time. The first pass of cuts was actually pretty easy. First, we cut out all the irrelevant stuff that did not pertain to their story. It’s natural for one to go off topic when having a conversation with someone you know. At one point in the interview, my mom started talking about her high school boyfriend and my sister started talking about Kanye West, haha.
After the first pass, we tried to really pinpoint the core of their stories. There was a lot of minor details we had to leave out because, although it would have helped visualize something or would have been poetic, we found that it was only decorative. It took a lot of feedback from others, as well as trial and error before we established what we have now.
Seventh Row: Did you have any points of departure or inspiration — cinematically or otherwise — for the film?
Carol Nguyen: I was really inspired by the work of Hirokazu Koreeda for the film. His clash of documentary and fiction in After Life made me feel and intellectualize concepts in his film in a way that I had never done before. I was also inspired by the simplicity of his image, particularly in Still Walking. His cinematography shows that images don’t have to be flashy to stand out. His cinematography gives room for the characters to just be.
Seventh Row: How did you approach developing the aesthetic for No Crying at the Dinner Table?
Carol Nguyen: Like Koreeda, I wanted my cinematography to highlight my characters out of anything. I wanted them to be able to move freely, but I also wanted to emphasize their isolation, which is why almost all the shots are stable, as if they were stuck within the frame.
Seventh Row: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Carol Nguyen: Since the film, our family have made small, but major steps in our relationship. We say I love you openly on the phone now and are more physically intimate. I think change doesn’t happen instantly. Right now, I feel like we’re just putting in a little of a conscious effort.
No Crying at the Dinner Table screens as part of Short Cuts Programme 8 on 9/10 at 9 p.m. (Scotiabank) and 9/15 at 9:15 p.m. (Scotiabank).