A New Orleans-based filmmaker is reshaping the narrative surrounding Vietnamese American stories within the city, infusing her personal experiences of what she describes as a “sexy queer identity” and her long-suppressed Vietnamese heritage.

Marion Hoàng Ngọc Hill spent part of her childhood in France and the United Kingdom, relocating to New York City at the age of 13. She studied film in college in Chicago before moving to New Orleans in 2016. Her work in independent cinema included a feature film debut at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where she garnered significant acclaim for “Ma Belle, My Beauty.” 

In New Orleans, Hill produced a short film titled “Chú Đi Biển” (“Uncle, At Sea”) last year, which follows Vietnamese fishermen fighting for their livelihoods after the 2011 BP oil spill incident. Earlier this year, Hill also put out “Từ Nước” (“Of Water”), which gives viewers a look into how Vietnamese people in New Orleans East celebrate Tết, the Lunar New Year. 

Hill is currently writing and developing her second full-length film in New Orleans, where she is teaching a narrative filmmaking class at Tulane University. In an interview with Verite, Hill discussed finding herself in New Orleans, filmmaking and her upcoming feature, which she aims to film next year. The conversation was edited for length and clarity. 

Verite: Why did you choose to move to New Orleans? What has it been like so far?

Hill: The first time I came here was in 2015 during college with my band from Chicago for Jazz Fest, which is very cliche. I just completely had this reaction to the place and the humidity. The oak trees, the palm trees, the pines and the ponds are all in the same place. And I think now, my bà ngoại (maternal grandmother) is from miền Tây (Mekong River Delta). So this makes a lot of sense because it’s in my blood to be in this kind of delta, gulf environment. And I didn’t even know that there were Vietnamese people here. And so I decided to just come here.

When I first got here, I really connected to a lot of young artists very quickly and made a lot of friends. And the collaborative energy that’s very non-competitive helped me grow. I found community, basically the kind of community that I had never had before. And this community was mainly queer women of color, none of whom were Vietnamese. So, I think I had been educated in such predominantly white places that being in a non-predominantly white place really kind of opened my eyes. But then, it wasn’t until four years after that I started to really find my Vietnamese community. Now, it feels like home in a whole different way. I feel like I have cousins now, and I never really because I was always so far away from my real cousin.

Verite: Your two most recent films focus on the Vietnamese American experience in New Orleans, which is very different from your previous works. Can you explain the shift?

Hill: That shift really just reflects me as a person. I didn’t have access to my Vietnamese self, other than through my mother for a long time. And I was really building myself as a queer filmmaker. And to me, the Vietnamese part of me was kind of irrelevant at that time. So I did this big feature that was kind of my life for three years, and I didn’t know what was next. And I realized now that it was just because I didn’t really know who I was — there was a huge part of me missing. Maybe it was my Vietnamese. And that was when I really went soul-searching right here, I didn’t have to go anywhere. And through that, these documentary commissions came along.

Verite: What was your creative process behind “Chú Đi Biển,” and why did you choose this subject?

Hill: It was the first time in documentaries that I really engaged with the work in that way where I was just seeing what finding the story right rather than writing the story and then going and trying to create it. 

How did I get into fishermen? Oh my God, after “Ma Belle, My Beauty” played at Sundance, I was kind of in the middle of my strange adverse reaction to hype and exposure. So, I took my dog, and we went down to Buras, which is down the river in Plaquemines Parish. It’s essentially this slither of sediment that people live in the middle of the whole coastal crisis, all the stuff that’s happening — it’s right there. But I found this guy had an Airbnb cabin, and I went and stayed there. He had these little boats, and I took his boat. And then I saw these Vietnamese people. 

After that, it set me on this kind of obsessive journey to understanding why there are Vietnamese people down there. How they got there. How long they have been there. And it turns out a lot of the initial Vietnamese people who came here started fishing. And that’s how it’s been for the last 50 years. And I didn’t even know that. But then, as soon as I caught on to it, I just kind of became really engaged with that world and wanted to know more. It felt like a really unique part of the Vietnamese-American experience, which was what I was looking for. So ever since then, and through that, I’ve just learned so much more about what’s going on with the coast. And then the oil spill, it’s all related. And essentially, it’s the end of this era for that community. There are really only a few clusters of people left doing this work commercially.

I got a really good understanding of coastal and ecological problems, specifically as pertained to the river diversion because that’s communities along the river. I learned about the fishing industry and shrimp industry. And how rampant capitalism is in the fishing industry. I learned that while fishing, there’s this very romantic idea of freedom; it’s also really hard work. 

Verite: What was it like working with Vietnamese fishermen?

Hill: When they’re out at sea, you can’t talk to the chú (uncles) because they don’t have service. So we were kind of trying to guess when [chú Tiến, a character in her short film “Chú Đi Biển”] was gonna be coming back. So we went down. A big reason we went with chú Tiến is because he’s down to be part of this stuff. But I think many in the Vietnamese community, especially in the fishing community, have been documented before for journalistic reasons. None have ever been paid or compensated and have never got anything out of it. And a lot of people just won’t even talk. 

The first thing we shot was the boats coming in. Then we got to talk to people a little. And they were trying to sell their boats like this is [their last year fishing]. The prompt of the commission [by The Asian American Foundation] was to tell the hero’s story in an Asian community. So that was the thing we had to crack. Where’s the hero’s story in this? Luckily, [the film’s commissioners] trusted me and let me do the oil spill. [Chú Tiến’s] hero story is that he fought really hard to get compensation for subsistence fishing.

Verite: How have people engaged with your work?

Hill: Over time, more and more Vietnamese people are watching the film. That’s the beauty of film — it lasts forever. I’m always getting new responses, new people who are really appreciating it, responding to it all the time. And that feels good. I realized that the community, the Vietnamese fishing community and the Vietnamese community in general in New Orleans have been featured over and over again, but never really from someone within the community, right? Or someone who really understands the culture. And I feel like my role is very important and special. 

We’ve only had two public screenings [for “Chú Đi Biển”], and we haven’t actually involved the fishing community. It’s one thing to feature a community, but then there’s often a lot of talk about engaging a community in a film, and it’s just not super realistic a lot of the time. But, as far as the general Việt Kiều (Vietnamese people living outside of the country) who have seen it, like my cousin who watched it and called me crying — I say this a lot, but the Việt Kiều experience is so sensory. It’s like, what we know about where we come from is sensory. Like we don’t have all the facts, we don’t have access to a lot that we know and how things feel in our culture. We know how things taste, and we know what people are like and what their behaviors are like. And I think people have really responded to seeing those familiar sensory things featured, and that’s been really rewarding. 

Verite: You mentioned earlier that you’re now teaching at Tulane University. What do you hope your students take away from your class?

Hill: Students often think of short films as miniature movies, like a full movie told really fast. I think a lot of students get shown Hollywood movies. And I’m not showing any Hollywood movies in my class. I’ve only shown indie movies, mostly local short films by filmmakers I know. And I can talk about how they did it, and the students can see something that’s achievable and understand the power of a short film. I also wish I had been taught and encouraged to tap into myself. I was way too focused on technicalities and getting things right. I’m trying to teach them a really sharp understanding of visual language and audiovisual language. Because we watch so much stuff now, that’s just loud content. 

What makes a good show? I think it’s the ability to craft a mood and an experience more so than tell the story. I think we get so caught up on what is the story. What is the story? What is the story? Rather than: What is the experience? What do I want? What am I trying to share on an intuitive level? And all of that is the real filmmaking, like the choices you’re making with your visuals, your aesthetics, your pacing, your editing, your music. To me, that’s the difference between someone who knows how to tell a story and someone who really understands the language of filmmaking.

Verite: What do you hope viewers take away from your works?

Hill: I think I’ve come to learn that my job as a filmmaker is to actually distance myself from the takeaway. I’ll put everything that feels right. I’ll put all my instincts and my love into something, and then you’re gonna take whatever you take from it.

Verite: What is your upcoming project about?

Hill: So I’m writing my second feature now. It’s about a Vietnamese family story in New Orleans with two sisters and a brother. And the younger sister is very queer and very much like me. She has this life in New Orleans that’s very artistic and queer, but then has her home version of life that is different. 

I expected this was part of my big crisis after my first film because I sort of expected that the next thing would just come out of me. I had so much personal identity work I had to do and so much self-discovery, but I’m so glad that I have taken the time. 

I’ve been very hard on myself. And I quit my job when my film was coming out. And so I haven’t had full-time work since then. And that’s been scary but liberating.

Right now, it is called “Tell It Like It Is,” which is named after a song by Aaron Neville, a really famous Louisiana artist. A lot of it is going to be in spoken Vietnamese because I want it to feel very Louisiana. I’m hoping I can shoot it next year.

Verite: In a few words, can you describe the vibes of the film?

Hill: Bittersweet, nostalgic, intimate, warm and complicated love.

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Minh (Nate) Ha is a recent magna cum laude graduate from American University with a Bachelor's degree in journalism. Originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Ha has spent the past four years in Washington,...