Director Lisa Violetta Gaß on one of the first films on Berlin’s insular Vietnamese community, A Promised Rose Garden. The Exberliner Film Award winner will screen alongside special mention, “The Silence Between Two Songs”, on Monday, May 12, 8pm at Lichtblick Kino, as always with English subs and a director Q&A.
This is Berlin as you’ve hardly ever seen it before: a tale of survival, exile, love and crime set in the Vietnamese community – one of the city’s largest foreign populations. The film opens with a shot of an ocean of paradisical multicoloured flowers, but it’s a workshop and they are all plastic. It is soon enough obvious that the “promised rose garden” of the title refers only to the hopes and dreams of the thousands of exiles who came here. This courageous, surprising film is shot entirely in Vietnamese with non-professional actors. It’s 30-year-old Lisa Violetta Gaß’ first medium-length feature film, following several remarked shorts, and the winner of the Exberliner Film Award at last month’s Achtung Berlin film festival.
How did you come up with the idea of a film entirely set in Berlin’s Vietnamese community?
For seven years I’ve been working with Max Hüttermann, my cinematographer and cameraman since my graduation film. Now it was his graduation film and he wanted to immerse himself into another world and have the chance to look for another kind of cinematography. Our editor called me and said, “Oh my god, here in Berlin, in the Dong Xuan Center in Lichtenberg, it’s like little Vietnam!” I just went there, and I was startled: who were all those Vietnamese? What were they doing here, why did they come all the way to Berlin? So I started to research. I was fascinated. I wanted to dive into this world, see the everyday reality beyond the headlines. I wanted to tell the story from inside the community…
Hence your decision to work with non-professional actors. One of the main protagonists, the young Thien, he’s even a cigarette seller in real life, right?
Yes… Duc came here two years ago and sold cigarettes on the street for a while. He’s in a very difficult situation right now. I can’t really talk about it. He will be the protagonist of my next film – a documentary.
The cigarette mafia, that’s the first cliché when you think of the Vietnamese here… those guys doing black market business right on the streets.
Yeah in the mid 1990s – in 1997 – it got very bad. Gangs were very aggressive and they killed each other. There’s not this big mafia thing anymore, it’s more like small groups who sell cigarettes and work together with Poles and Germans.
How did you find Duc?
Facebook! I literally screened Vietnamese people by just looking at their profiles and asking them to come for a casting. Most would not answer. The thing with Duc is that my assistant director – she’s south Vietnamese – she was on the phone, and she said: “I think there’s someone who wants to come, but I don’t understand a word.” And I was like, “Why?” “Because he’s central Vietnamese.” And I said “Yes, yes, yes!” Because we wanted a central Vietnamese guy for this. But of course, north, south and central Vietnamese people speak a completely differently dialect which is really hard to understand.
How did you communicate? Did he speak some English?
No, he didn’t speak any English. And the German words he knew were Zigaretten, Euro and all the numbers. But when he walked through the door, I was like, oh my god, he’s perfect. He had this thing between really sensitive but also tough. My assistant director said “I can’t understand him, please don’t take him!” But I said, “We’ll take him, he’s great!” So she had to learn this language, in a way.
Wasn’t it a problem that you couldn’t communicate?
I was really afraid at the beginning, because I couldn’t imagine how this would work with the casting: can you understand if a person is a good actor if you don’t understand what he says? And you do, it’s amazing! When I first saw this Vietnamese improvisation scene – I always do improvisation when I cast – I realised, “Wow, sometimes you don’t need your ears. You just need to watch.”
What about Frau Nga? She looks amazing.
I saw her dancing at a party organised by an association that helps Vietnamese here… Tam is actually a former dancer, and now works in a restaurant. And again, I knew it had to be her right away. She’s from northern Vietnam and came during the GDR, exactly what we were looking for! It took half a year to convince her to come to the casting. We also met Nan, her husband in the film, at the party. He works on building sites, and he had to work through the whole shooting process. We would always pick him up at some building site in town and bring him to the shoot.
How did you work with these non-professional actors?
We had 10 weeks of rehearsals and we didn’t rehearse any scenes. It was all improvisation, like, getting close to the character, get into the emotion, it really was a quite interesting process. All in my flat!
I guess the upside of working with them is that they could guarantee authenticity. Would they correct you?
Yes. For example, for the sex scene between the older couple, the way we had the bedroom set was not credible. They made us change the whole décor around. Or we gave Duc a backpack for his cigarettes, and this was not realistic, because if you see the police you really have to throw your bag away quickly. You can’t do it fast enough if you have it on your back so it should be something like a shoulder bag, but we didn’t have one, so we just took the backpack and he carried it on one shoulder.
So did you show the film to many Vietnamese here?
When I started the project, I decided that my aim should be that at the premiere, half of the audience should be Vietnamese. Of course I forgot about it, but two years later I was sitting there in the first row of FSK Kino. It was the premiere, and I was totally anxious, holding hands with my editor and cinematographer. I turned around: half the cinema was full of Vietnamese! I started crying…
So, how did they like it – did they find the film credible?
Yes! It was amazing. After the film, we spoke a lot with each other and they told me, thank you very much because they thought it really was like their lives… and they felt represented, in a way.
Was loneliness, or Heimweh as expressed by the character of Nga, something you encountered a lot?
A lot. Because there are so many Vietnamese people who don’t want to be here. They came here to earn money and to go back. But they ended up never going back and they really have this longing for home. And then they have the feeling that they’re not really seen in Germany, and it’s right! Because they don’t integrate, we don’t integrate them either. Southern Vietnamese people don’t have this problem because they are integrated and they speak German, but northern people, they really don’t feel at home. This I wanted to show as well.
That’s apparent in your film, but little known. There’s not one homogeneous Vietnamese community here, but different ones – living in different parts of Berlin and coming from different parts of Vietnam.
Well, there’s a northern Vietnamese community, people who came during the GDR. They came here to work with five-year contracts and then they had to go back. Then when the Wall came down those who were here were offered to either leave and get 300 deutschmarks, or stay. Most of them decided to stay. These people never learned German, they live in a parallel world. On the other hand, the southern people, who fled Vietnam over the ocean for political reasons, were welcomed by West Germany with open arms and flats, welfare and language courses – and these people were very grateful. They learned German, and integrated. Now it’s the central Vietnamese people who are coming.
So Thien and Bien, the two young lovers in your film, they belong to the new wave?
It’s a new wave, mostly economic refugees. Most of them are either illegal or tolerated. And work illegally.
And outside the set of your film, they don’t really mingle with each other…?
Not really. Normally there is a conflict between northern and southern Vietnamese people. And both communities hate the central Vietnamese, because they say these illegal workers give a bad image to the whole community. But a very touching moment was when the four main actors came together with me and my assistant director, so we had north, south and central Vietnamese people in the room. This was very touching because I know that these communities are separated from each other in Germany. Putting together all the faces of Vietnam and joining them with us, the Germans – yeah, I guess in that way it was really kind of successful!
EXBLICKS: Award Winners | Lichtblick Kino, Kastanienallee 77, Prenzlauer Berg