François Pepon: Young director of a film about classical music in Vietnam

The French ASEAN Awards General Prize, sponsored by Transatlantic Bank, lists six finalists, including two expats in Vietnam. Francois Pepon is one of them.

After the death of his Vietnamese grandmother, François Pepon decided to spend 15 months in Vietnam. As a classical music fan and history graduate, he is fascinated by Vietnam’s historical roots in classical music. Then he shot his first documentary in 2020-2021: Once Upon a Bridge in Vietnam.

We interviewed him to learn more about his background, documentary and future aspirations.

Interview with François Pepon: A Documentary Filmmaker in Vietnam

Le Petit Journal: What was your background before you came to Vietnam?

She attended a preparatory class in literature (hypokhâgne / khâgne), then earned a master’s degree in contemporary history at Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne. Then she followed several training courses in marketing and communication. Being a music-loving pianist and passionate about classical music in general, I decided to get closer to this universe and discovered a passion for documentaries through filming with artists.

LPJ: Is your project a mission that can be described as spiritual? “Make some noise so your grandmother hears you’re going back to her land” Can you go back to that personal journey that led you to make this documentary?

I went twice to Vietnam after his death, first as a family with my father and brother, and then as part of a marketing internship at a travel agency in Hanoi. Back in France, I felt a call telling me to go back to Vietnam. At the time I was still doing an internship at a handful of classical music companies (Outhere Music), and looking through artist calendars, I wondered if Vietnam could be a destination. This is where my search for the place of European classical music in Vietnam began. The initial project was to go and investigate this topic, I didn’t think I would make a professional documentary of this magnitude.

LPJ: Can you summarize the steps you took to make this documentary?

She first communicated with the Vietnamese National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Hona Tetsuji, and then began filming rehearsals and concerts at the Hanoi Opera. At the time, I wanted to do a movie just about the orchestra. I rented a camera.

Then by interviewing musicians, I became interested in their culture and began to listen to their stories and get out of the framework of concert halls and European classical music. I wanted to depict nature, in particular, for example, a scene taking place on the island of banana trees below the Long Bien Bridge, then a copper workshop in Nam Dinh province, or a village near Bac Giang where there are many young people studying violin on a farm.

Then I went through a phase of meditation, because everything I photographed I didn’t know how to organize. So I approached a small production company in Hanoi (Midas Productions). At the same time, the Vietnamese television and press continued to give me interviews and highlight my connection to Vietnam through my grandmother. This is where I gradually came to understand that I had to involve myself in the film in order to watch. Midas Productions helped me do professional interviews with all the big names I wanted to interview. The film became more solid.

The fourth step was my meeting with Thuy Van, a traditional musician and composer, whom I accompanied during a Vietnamese and contemporary music festival, with volunteer musicians who are also in the orchestra. There the report took on a spiritual dimension, in the mountains of the North (Yen Bai Province), and I understood that it was the direction of the film, to start from culture with orchestras and European classical music, to end towards nature and Vietnamese culture. The aim of the festival was to fund a bamboo forest!

Bamboo forest in Vietnam

The fifth stage is my return to France and the structuring of the script, the recording, I had no equipment so I contacted a production company, Firgun Recordings, in Fontainebleau, which helped me a lot as well. They interviewed me so I could do the narration. At the same time, I crowdfunded and raised €12,000 to fund post-production and the rest of the project, in particular the design of the official illustration for the movie which is awesome and symbolizes the concept of Once Upon a Bridge in Vietnam. Thanks to this fundraising campaign, I got close to the fabric of Vietnamese associations in France and the Vietnamese diaspora.

The sixth step was to start specials, and listen to the opinions of those around me. Then I worked another year to remake the film as I wanted, with my new personal studio, and all the artistic freedom I wanted to inject. The movie, which was supposed to be 30 minutes long, became a 43 minute movie that connects all my musical adventures with artwork dedicated to my Vietnamese grandmother.

Francois Pepon shooting his movie in Vietnam

Now that I’m at the end of the project, I still have some performances left – notably at the Hanoi Creative Design Festival on November 13, at Columbia University on November 17, at Sciences Po Le Havre at the end of November. …I want to organize as many conferences, shows, and concerts as possible to drive the music frenzy in Vietnam and present a view different from that of travel agencies and the war. This film allowed me to become a resident of Arte this year in Paris, in their new incubator, and to learn a lot of things. I hope to be able to sell the movie one day, or promote it once it’s posted online.

“Once upon a Bridge in Vietnam” and classical music in Vietnam

LPJ: Can you describe the relationship between Vietnamese and French music that you have been able to experience and observe?

I met a lot of different personalities, and they shared their love of French music with me. There is a lot of French music in the film, such as Plaisir d’amour, an old French sad song sung by a blind choir, which was also sung to me by comedians Charles Aznavour. We can say that the Vietnamese anthem composed by Van Cao that we hear at the beginning of the film is also quite similar to the anthem of Marseilles.

Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi, Vietnam

The most interesting story, which I find, is that of very old woodwinds, brass instruments, which are used as production models for craftsmen in Nam Dinh province. When I saw these antiques, some of which date from the first half of the nineteenth century, I had the impression that I was in direct contact with the past. It is an important legacy of the French Christian missionaries who used these tools to accompany the masses.

Other than that, I do not generally think that there is a national character to music, because each composer has his own way of expressing himself, but it is true that Vietnamese musicians greatly value composers such as Ravel and Debussy, in general we find an attraction of French culture in architecture, painting and gastronomy. And Vietnamese music is played in France, Nguyen Thien Dao was a student of Olivier Messian and the French Ton Thiet who studied at the Conservatoire National Superior in Paris is one of the greatest composers of contemporary Vietnamese music.

LPJ: What was the experience that distinguished you the most during your 15 months in Vietnam?

I see this fifteen months as a unique experience, somewhat similar to that of Alice in Wonderland, the Vietnam version! It’s hard to prioritize moments, I think all of my encounters have been amazing, and I’ve been fascinated by everything, absolutely everything. If I had to choose, I think it’s the last chapter of the movie, when I’m out in nature, in the mountains, and accompany a group of musicians who grow bamboo. It’s the kind of philosophy I like to have, simply to make myself useful.

Vietnamese children are passionate about classical music

LPJ: What was the biggest difficulty you had in making your own documentary?

The greatest difficulty was perseverance alone, without a sponsor and without a budget. Fortunately, I had psychological support from all of my music friends in Vietnam and the Vietnamese media, but there were downtimes, because 15 months of filming in a foreign country is inevitably tough. I taught English and French in parallel.

LPJ: Before/after producing this documentary, what was the biggest impact you had on a personal and professional level?

Mrs. Helen Nguyen Thien once told me, “The east wind that carries your roots with a moving sound shows you your present path.” This documentary gave me and continues to give me the path in my life. Thanks to him, I was able to connect with the Arte channel, with the Vietnamese expatriates, with the network of major schools (Columbia, Sciences Po), with the Vietnamese government, but also with great artists, musicians, designers, associations and researchers. I get the impression that it has opened a kind of magical door that allows me to meet beautiful people, in work and in private life, who have made me find a career in documentary film production.

On a Bridge in Vietnam: A Film About Vietnamese Classical Music

Today, I have a self-confidence that allows me to quietly assume my life as a self-taught entrepreneur and weave a strong professional and emotional network into classical music internationally.

France – Vietnam and synergy through music

LPJ: How do you see the development and development of synergies in classical music between Vietnam and France?

I see Asia occupying an increasingly important place in European classical music, and I see more and more Vietnamese students studying in France.

The exchanges will automatically multiply, because when the Vietnamese study music in France, in general, he falls in love with it, often wanting to give this same opportunity to posterity. For me, the synergies will occur in teaching mobility (classrooms, scholarship holders, etc.) and undergraduate research (dissertations).

LPJ: In 5 years, where do you see yourself? What are your future plans?

In five years, I no longer saw myself as a freelancer. I think I’d figure out what I could do on my own, and I’d definitely have a company with people I’m already thinking of. My life is in Paris, but I would have made regular trips to Vietnam, thanks to my special visa exemption as a French of Vietnamese origin. I want to build bridges with other countries, because even if my heart is in Vietnam, I have a lot of curiosity to stop there.

François Pepon: director of a film about classical music in Vietnam

Interested in interviewing François Pepon or his documentary Once Upon a Bridge in Vietnam? Vote now until November 14, 2022 (noon French time) to support it. François Pepon is one of the six finalists for the General Prize of the French ASEAN Awards.

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