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(Photo by Joe Nguyen) Stephane Gauger poses during the 30th Starz Film Festival Nov. 10 inside the Starz FilmCenter in Denver. Gauger won the festival's Emerging Filmmaker Award.

Photo by Joe Nguyen/AsiaXpress.com

Stephane Gauger poses during the 30th Starz Film Festival Nov. 10 inside the Starz FilmCenter in Denver. Gauger won the festival's Emerging Filmmaker Award.


Gauger wins award at Starz film fest

Vietnamese-American director takes jurored prize for 'Owl and the Sparrow'


DENVER – Experience has certainly paid off for writer and director Stephane Gauger as he won the Emerging Filmmaker Award at this year's Starz Denver Film Festival for his first full-length feature, “Owl and the Sparrow.”


The award jurors described the 37-year-old half-Vietnamese American's film as a “poignant and engrossing narrative (that) addresses universal love and alienation by masterfully weaving together the stories of three disaffected people in modern Saigon.”


“A lot of films that play at festivals tend to be cynical,” Gauger said. “Mine is extremely unpretentious. It's not trying to be clever. It's trying to tell a story as simple as possible. I think people respond to that.”


It seems as if he's been preparing for the movie after spending the past decade being, as he calls it, the “lighting maestro” on films such as Timothy Bui's “Three Seasons” and Ham Tran's “Journey From the Fall.”


“Shooting my film in three weeks wasn't hard because I already knew kind of how to put a film together,” he said. “ ... I knew my way around to putting scenes together. You learn from other directors.”


Gauger is part of a small circle of Vietnamese-American directors who are making waves in the film industry with a mix of genres ranging from Charlie Nguyen's action flick, “The Rebel,” to Victor Vu's horror, “Spirits.”


“We're pretty tight,” he said.


So tight, in fact, that Bui and Tran are listed as executive producers on “Owl and the Sparrow.” And while on the set of Tran's “Journey” in Thailand, Gauger met singer and actress Cat Ly who he later cast as the lonely flight attendent, Lan.


“She's a dynamite actress so it was kind of like, I think Cat could do flight attendent,” he said.


Courtesy Cinema Management Group

From left, Le The Lu, Pham Thi Han and Cat Ly in "Owl and the Sparrow."

But he needed a strong actress to play the lead character of Thuy, a young girl who runs away from her uncle's rural home and ventures into the big city. But he said he struggled to find one who would be able to draw the viewer into a movie. That is, until 10-year-old Han Thi Pham was cast two days before shooting began.


“I didn't really have to direct her that much – basically kind of laid out the character for her and she understood it,” he said.


The role would not have worked with a Vietnamese-American girl because they can't fathom someone their age being a street vendor, he said.


“The thing with Vietnamese kids, it's like if you have them play a flower girl ... they know what flower girls do and how they sell,” he said. “So it's not a big stretch for them if you put a costume on them and you give them some props.”


To capture the authenticity Gauger shot the film in Saigon, the city he was born in. But in order to shoot there, he had to be careful with what he wanted to do because the Vietnamese government has been known to ban directors from working there again because their final product was negative, he said.


“With Vietnam, they just want to a postive image of society,” he said. “I think that you could show reality, but they want a positive message ... You could show prostitution, but it would have to be like 'Pretty Woman,' where in the end she goes off with the millionaire.”


Gauger said he portrayed a more personal look into the characters' world by using a hand-held camera throughout the film.


“I wanted to use a fresh new way of cinéma vérité, so I wanted to throw the audience into (Saigon),” he said. “The city is so busy and so frenetic that I wanted to keep the cameras loose, to kind of give you that sense of immediacy.”


With his prior knowledge of the city, Gauger said the zoo was the only area he needed to research.


“The whole selling of things on the street, I had already knew,” he said. “ ... But with the zoo, it was spending some time there, feeding the animals.”


He said he originally intended to have a tiger in the script, but changed it to an elephant after finding that a tiger would be far too difficult to shoot. The orangetan, however, was a different matter.


“We had (the orangetan) written in three scenes and then we had to write him out after one scene,” he said. “He was as tall as the girl, but stronger. And he would just mess with her all the time. It was hard for her to act.”


At the two screenings he's done in Vietnam, he said the audience was most impressed with the acting.


“The story for them is like a slice of life, so it's not so special,” he said. “But they really enjoy good Vietnamese acting for once. They don't get that much.”


Now, after nine months of being on the festival circuit and winning a number of awards, Gauger plans on finding time to write his next project: another narrative that will take place in Saigon. Only this time, it'll have an ensemble of characters and it will address different themes.


“(Film is) one of those things where you kind of perservere and you keep at it and hopefully your work gets recognized and you get the payoff,” he said, “which is a career and being able to continue working on films and projects.”


For more information on "Owl and the Sparrow," visit http://www.owlandthesparrow.com.


Joe Nguyen is the editor in chief of AsiaXpress.com. Joe can be reached at joe@asiaxpress.com.

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