Hi, I’m Ben. I am a son of immigrants and refugees. For the last few years, I’ve been making my living abroad directing and producing documentaries throughout the United States, Europe, and most recently, Asia. My film production team, BAND WITH NO NAME Films, was created in honor and homage of my family’s journey and our affinity for storytelling.
This history is deeply embedded in my family’s own personal narrative. In the mid-1970s, my father’s side of our family fled war torn Saigon, Vietnam in search of a better life elsewhere. During their voyage in the middle of the ocean, they were bombarded by a gang of sea pirates. The pirates demanded all of their belongings. The youngest in our family at the time, my aunt, stood up to the men and demanded that they leave us alone. They eventually took her too, and that was the last time my family ever saw her. I’ve always leaned into exploring, thematically, generational trauma and grief in my work since it still very much affects my family in real life (including myself).
I often thought about my grandmother. She puts on a strong face for us and for the sake of our survival, but I know that this part of her life has cut her deeply. I’ve always fantasized what it would be like if my aunt were to suddenly walk into our lives again. What would she say to us? What would we say to her? My grandmother, in particular, never had any sort of closure. I put a ton of pressure on myself to not only tell their story, truthfully, but to also not exploit their experiences by romanticizing their journey. Their real life accounts were often dark and tragic, and I wanted to maintain that spirit throughout the writing process. At the same time, I also wanted to illustrate that they were able to find ways to eventually heal by confiding in each other and building families of their own. This was how THE REST OF US came to be.
The words for this particular story poured onto the page fairly seamlessly. I’ve carried this story with me for so long. The toughest part was actually showing my family the film.
There are two parts to this choice. Ultimately, the most important thematic question of the film is how do we heal from generational trauma? I believe in order for us to answer this question in the most direct way possible, we had to sacrifice the macro story in favor of something more intimate. Also, this is essentially a scene in a larger feature length film. Since time and budgetary constraints played a part in not being able to produce my grander vision for the film, I selected my favorite sequence and turned it into a short film. Hopefully, one day we’ll get to make the big one!
My Vietnamese language skills are at a very elementary level to put it kindly. I felt as though I wouldn’t have been able to articulate my most complex thoughts and ideas if I were to attempt to write it in Vietnamese. Once again, if this were ever to become a bigger production with access to greater resources, I would love nothing more than to do the entire film in Vietnamese. I tried to make up for it by including as much Vietnamese elements as I could such as setting it during Tết or having The Mother refer to The Daughter as “con”.
At the time that I was writing the screenplay, I was watching a ton of Asian cinema: Wong Kar-Wai, Shaw Brothers, and I often thought about the phim bộ (dramas) my grandmother likes to watch. The moody exaggerated lighting, the unique positioning of actors during conversational sequences, and most importantly, I wanted to make intentional aesthetic choices that were rooted in Vietnamese iconography (from the blossoms to the sounds of insects you would hear at night in the Motherland). Like every good film, I wanted everything in the frame to tell a story of their own.
As for the inserts of blue skies and ocean waves, I remember specifically my grandmother telling me a story (and it’s something that I included in the film) of when she first gave herself to God. I didn’t want to put any religious overtones in the film, but her faith was important to her and it was what willed her to keep going during the aftermath of the war. So, as The Mother was delivering her monologue on how she had never prayed before, but she knelt down that day on the boat in the middle of the ocean and prayed, that’s how those inserts came to be. That’s how it actually happened in real life. I found it to be tremendously powerful.
At the end of the film, it’s revealed that the daughter was never there. It’s representative of the internal struggle with the unseen battle, the mental aspects of wrestling with hanging onto past trauma. In terms of the way the daughter was dressed, this image was the ideal image of The Daughter that The Mother wanted to remember in her mind. I noticed whenever my family would talk about my aunt; it would be about the good times. How she liked to sing, her infectious smile. It’s far too painful to think of her in any other context.
The response has been great! I was nervous about how my family would respond to it since I didn’t want to trigger any bad memories, but they really appreciated the attention to detail and were touched by the gesture as a whole. In a lot of ways, my family has always supported my journey in film, but they never truly understood it. It makes them nervous. Will he be okay? How will he make a living? Their lives were forged in the name of survival. So much so, they forget how to live at times. I believe this film helped bring us all closer together in understanding one another and our unique experiences.
All photos are courtesy of Benjamin To and should not be reproduced without permission.