December 21, 2020

SCREEN | On Being Vietnamese – 'No Crying at the Dinner Table'

"So let us listen. That's all."
Carol Nguyen | No Crying at the Dinner Table
Travelling Distribution
I have never seen anything so effectively document exactly what it feels like growing up in a Vietnamese-Canadian household than Toronto-born (now Montreal-based) filmmaker Carol Nguyen's award-winning documentary short film, No Crying at the Dinner Table. In the fifteen-minute short, she interviews her parents and sister as they therapeutically describe internalized past traumas around death and their lives as refugees artfully intercut with intimate b-roll footage of them performing personal daily rituals revealing their vulnerabilities.

Filmed as part of Nguyen's studies at Concordia University, her family interviews craft an emotionally complex and meticulously composed portrait of intergenerational trauma, grief, and secrets in a cathartic journey about things left unsaid. It's a pitch-perfect, stunning film about what it's like growing up in different two different worlds as immigrants or the children of immigrants struggling to both adapt to a new way of life while remaining true to your own cultural identity.

It's absolutely heartbreaking to watch Nguyen's parents, Thao and Ngoc, openly describing their passed down emotional distance just as her sister Michelle tries to explain how it affected how she was raised and the confusing lack of closeness within the family despite an obvious amount of love and care. While intensely personal, Nguyen's removed lens lets viewers casually draw into the layered traumas of her familial subjects. She then plays back their interviews for them all to listen to together as a form of communal group therapy.

Carol Nguyen | No Crying at the Dinner Table

Like Nguyen, I myself was born and raised in Canada to Vietnamese refugee parents. Several deaths marked my own childhood in starkly parallel ways. On my eighth birthday, my father and I discovered my grandfather (his father) dead in his apartment. When I was seventeen, my grandmother (my father's mother who helped raise me) was fatally hit by a car just a few minutes from where we lived. Shortly after graduating from university, my uncle (my father's brother who was fourteen years younger and more like a son to him) got into some trouble, disappeared, and later died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. He was only 33-years-old (about my age now).

My parents also witnessed a lot of repressed violence as kids during the Vietnam War before dangerously escaping communism. These experiences and the way we talk (or don't talk) about them have had an enormous influence over my life. How the aforementioned deaths reverberated within my family (and still haunt my father) greatly affected me as inherited unspoken lasting trauma. I was also often told as a child to stop crying so much.

Nguyen's short packs so much universal grief and emotional impact by being laser-focused on her own family's specific yet elliptically-told experiences. No Crying at the Dinner Table is a special film that reveals so much more maturity than her young age would superficially suggest as it means so much by saying so little. It destroyed me—in mostly good (therapeutic) ways.

No Crying at the Dinner Table premiered at TIFF 2019 and is currently available to watch worldwide on the Vimeo Staff Picks channel. It has already won numerous awards and accolades. Nguyen referenced two influences on the film (and a couple of my personal favourite documentaries) in the similarly-themed, equally excellent Stories We Tell and Minding the Gap.


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