“CINEMATHEQUE?” we asked one of the sidewalk loungers.
He looked at us, confused. We repeated the question again, as lost as he was. He smiled sheepishly and shook his head. He called out to one of his friends to help us.
It was always a passing game in Vietnam if you don’t speak their language. English was neither their first, second, nor third language. But thankfully, the lounger’s friend knew the place we were looking for.
We were along Hai Ba Trung Street which (according to Waze) is where Cinematheque is located. But every time the mechanical voice told us that we’ve arrived at our destination, it was nowhere in sight.
That’s the thing about Cinematheque. It’s not immediately conspicuous.
It’s Hanoi’s very own hidden cinema spot.
First, you need to locate the signboard of the Artist Hotel. It leads you into an alley measuring about 100 metres lined with parked motorcycles, before you make a right into a courtyard café.
Shortly after, you will be greeted with cursive words announcing the Hanoi Cinematheque.
Here at the courtyard café — a space suddenly so quiet you’ll be disoriented momentarily — you can quench your thirst affordably.
Away from the incessant honking of vehicles that characterises Hanoi, it was hard to believe we were still inside the heart of the town.
The Hanoi Cinematheque in Hoan Kiem District is an independent art-house cinema established in 2004 with the sole intention to conserve Vietnam’s celluloid cultural heritage.
It is an expatriate cultural institution, owned by film historian, writer and director, Gerald Herman, and a non-profit joint venture between the Viet Nam General Book Company (SAVINA) and Singapore Discovery Communication PTE Ltd.
The 89-seat theatre screens a myriad of esoteric films, ranging from Vietnamese feature films and documentaries with English subtitles to pre-1980s classics in world cinema and contemporary award-winning films.
Their selection during our visit included Still Alice, Inherent Vice, Birdman, Whiplash, Ida, Project Nim, Grizzly Man, The Story of The Weeping Camel, Winged Migration and many more — those looking for Hollywood blockbusters best look elsewhere.
The exterior of the Cinematheque is the envy of every cinephile. Its two walls are decorated with many classic film posters, with a very traditional looking box office window forming the centrepiece.
While we were there, we treated ourselves to the themed double bill of the night, Cat Dancers and Blackfish.
Both documentaries discuss the consequences of using animals for circus acts – pain that not only inflicts animals, but also the humans involved.
As a members-only cinema, you are required to pay 200,000 VND per year to be member. However, tourists can pay 80,000 VND per ticket. The films shown every night is usually themed and start at 7:30pm and 9:30pm respectively.
At Hanoi Cinematheque, we were greeted by the friendly box office staff, Nghia who boasts a vast knowledge of films. It was a delight having a conversation with him; we were strangers connecting through our passion for cinema.
We talked about a couple of things — at first he was existential.
“When you leave this earth, you leave nothing behind. But films stay,” exclaimed Nghia, “so make films. If it’s good, then great. If it’s bad, don’t worry, people will forget as time passes.”
We then moved on to talking about censorship.
Nghia likened Vietnam’s censorship (as well as quality of films) to Malaysia, which came as no surprise as Vietnam is a communist country. He mentioned that perhaps it is tight censorship that made their films unbearable to watch, but we came to an agreement that censorship is just an excuse.
“Look at the Iranian film, A Separation. Iranian films undergo strict censorship but their films still emerge top quality. At the end of the day, it is about storytelling and the expressions used by the actors to convey it.”
He took us on a tour around the inside of his office, showing off film posters and telling us of the many interesting guest speakers that made appearances at the Cinematheque.
Some of them include Man On The Ledge director, Asger Leth; director of Maria Full of Grace, Joshua Marston; and the producers of Franco-German fantasy drama film Holy Motors.
Nghia informed us that his boss Gerald Herman (who he refers to as Gerry) is a New Yorker that lived in Hanoi for over 10 years.
Gerry has been to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and many of the Southeast Asian countries. The 68 year-old is currently living in Paris and does various jobs to keep the Cinematheque alive.
According to an article on Talk Vietnam, Gerry’s efforts are dedicated to introducing Vietnamese films to a worldwide audience. Simultaneously, he brings world cinema to Vietnamese audiences and budding filmmakers.
The article stated that Vietnamese filmmakers, students, actors and actresses should watch classic films to have a deeper understanding of the art. We’ll end with some highly useful words from Gerry.
There are hundreds of great movies, and all of the movies are lessons in how to tell a story, and how to direct actors.
Now, don’t we wish that Malaysia has its very own independent arthouse cinema? Neighbouring countries like Indonesia has Kineforum in Jakarta while Singapore has The Projector. It probably would take quite some time for us to catch up to our neighbours, but we’re not too far off with Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia‘s recent initiative to screen domestic and international films (usually from the ASEAN region) at Content Malaysia Pitching Centre. Follow their Facebook page for updates on their film screening events!