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Tuesday
Nov152016

FOUNDER OF HANOI FILM HEAVEN REFLECTS ON REEL LEGACY

It has been fourteen years of passionate struggle for Gerald Herman. Hailing from upstate New York, the expat director/producer’s nomadic sense of adventure led him to Vietnam where, in 2002, he founded and has programmed the Hanoi Cinematheque ever since. The only venue in the bustling Vietnamese metropolis that has steadfastly adhered to screening classic international cinema, it has remained the ‘best kept secret’ amongst the cinephiles of southeast Asia. “Cinema has always played an important role in Vietnamese society,” says Herman, who spoke to SCREEN-SPACE from his Paris base…

Set well back from the ceaseless din of Hanoi’s busiest shopping district, Cinematheque patrons walk a darkened, enclosed alleyway before emerging into an art-deco themed courtyard. To the left, an elegant bar services the dedicated few attending the Tuesday evening screening of director Trong Ninh Luu’s 1991 rural drama, The Gamble; to the right, the box office beckons, the ambience enhanced by framed posters heralding some cinema classics (our eye is instantly drawn to an original US one-sheet for Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, one of Herman’s favourite films).

“I set up Hanoi Cinematheque thinking I could educate and inspire a new generation of young Vietnamese filmmakers,” recalls Herman, who now recognises that the birth of the new millennium may not have been the ideal time to launch a celebration of the past. “Young Vietnamese filmmakers were not interested in watching old movies (with so) much new stuff to discover,” he admits, “so we became mostly an expat hang-out, (with) support from foreign embassies in Hanoi, as we do many programs together.”

Having graduated from the prestigious NYU Film School (under the mentorship of one Martin Scorsese), a three-year stint in the Hollywood trenches followed (he would become the youngest ever director to gain DGA membership) before Herman’s wanderlust took hold. By 1992 he had settled in Vietnam, his passion for film production leading to a 24-year career in the sector. In 2009, he directed the acclaimed short, A Dream in Hanoi (pictured, below left); in 2015, his production Finding Phong was praised for its humanistic study of transgender issues in modern Vietnam.

“Making movies in Vietnam is always a challenge, but also rewarding,” he says. “People are keen to help in every way possible, without the kind of salaries one must pay in more ‘developed’ countries. Technical facilities are lacking, but more and more professional services, equipment and people are becoming available.” In addition to his filmmaking endeavours, he has lent his talents to film preservation, including overseeing the digital restoration of Hai Ninh’s landmark 1973 drama Little Girl in Hanoi, in conjunction with the Vietnamese Film Institute.   

Determined to impart this passion and knowledge for global film on the Vietnamese population, Herman spent five years searching for the ideal site for his Cinematheque dream. The Hai Bà Trưng Street building he settled upon was rich in history; in 1954, it had served as the regional headquarters for the Ministry of Culture, before some bawdier times as a massage parlour. “Since the French colonial days, imported films were shown in city cinemas and widely distributed via traveling ciné companies to introduce French culture and life-styles,” notes Herman, who cites the crucial role that film played in unifying the population. “During the war years, locally-produced documentaries and narrative films were effective political and propaganda vehicles.”

Sadly, time has run out for the Hanoi Cinematheque; its elegant screening room and art deco façade will be demolished by years-end to make way for yet another shopping/parking complex. But Gerald Herman leaves behind a rich cultural legacy; when one glimpses his backroom DVD library, you are struck by what an extraordinarily diverse and complex contribution the Cinematheque has made to Hanoi film society. The walls are lined with over 3500 titles, featuring such names as Sidney Lumet (Prince of The City), Jean-Jacques Beinex (Roselyne and the Lions) and Theodoros Angelopoulos (Ulysses’ Gaze). Across the few days that SCREEN-SPACE was in Hanoi, sessions included Regis Wargnier’s Indochine, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Nguyen Viet Linh’s 1988 local industry classic, Travelling Circus.

Perhaps of even greater resonance will be the bridge that the Hanoi Cinematheque has provided between its members and an array of international artists. Says Herman, “Our very best moments have been hosting local and foreign filmmakers who present their work and then discuss with our audience.” Herman has hosted the likes of Ira Sachs, Philip Noyce, David Bradbury, John Pilger, Les Blank, Dang Nhat Minh, Albert Berger, John Cameron Mitchell, Todd Solondz, Tim Zinnemann, Le Le Hayslip and Jorgen Leth, to name a few.

After years of existing on meagre returns and occasional local business support, Gerald Herman considers the closure of his Cinematheque with melancholy. “Yes, sad indeed,” Herman says, during the course of our chat, “but I am grateful for all the fun and adventures we've had for the past 14 years”.

Read the SCREEN-SPACE World Cinema: Vietnam article here.

Reader Comments (7)

So sad to see you go:( U gonna start up somewhere else?

November 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNick

Thanks for all the good times Gerry x

November 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Richards

I knew Hanoi Cinematheque was his greatest passion, wishing to bring knowledge of cinema to the Vietnamese public and filmmakers through the world's classic movies. For many years, he had lived far away from home, going through many difficulties to dedicate his effort to building Cinematheque.
You have done your best, Gerry. I admire and greatly appreciate you!
Vinh Son

November 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNguyen Vinh Son

I lived and worked in Hanoi for 12 months during 2014 - 2015 and went to screenings at Hanoi Cinematheque at least three times a week, if not more. It was always a joy and a privilege to attend. I much appreciated the dedication of the staff and their obvious passion for films and supporting the local film industry. I am very saddened to hear of its demise. What a great loss for Hanoi. I can't believe that it is being pulled down to make way for a Vincom Centre. So much of the heart, character and soul of Hanoi is being destroyed - going in the same direction as Phnom Penh with mindless development. At least we can all treasure our collective memories of going to Hanoi Cinematheque over the years - a movie buffs icon. My heartfelt thanks to everyone who made this possible.

November 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJane Worrall

We call Hanoi Cinematheque “the best thing in Hanoi.” Another accurate observation (a British woman during his Samurai series): “Gerry shows no crap.” (Some of us call him “Larry,” but that’s another story and a funny one at that!)
Another aspect of the unsurpassable ambiance: His staff, no matter who Larry and his co-manager, Ho Quoc Hung, hired were all a special delight, and that includes Larry and “Anh” Hung, both on the short list of the best people I’ve ever met.
Cinematheque’s opponents bringing about its death are too powerful, reckless, and heartless. A lease somewhere else? Cinematheque could again have to move in two or three years, for even leases there are meaningless.

November 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLewis Hitchcock

The Cinematheque years have been the best years to be a cinephile in Hanoi and in Vietnam; even we might consider it to be a regional gem. There have simply been no other places around to compare to it and the loss of this venue, it's valuable archive of world class cinema and the spirit of its tucked away corner right in the middle of it all are irreplaceable. Truly an end. For decades to come as we look back fondly on the past of this lovely city, we will say, "Remember Cinematheque?"

November 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJamie Maxtone-Graham

Gerry, you hurled the magic spear and it undoubtedly stuck in myriad hearts. Being your guest to meet your audiences and chat about my dad's (Samual Bronston) films was a rare rare honor and joy. It remains an indelible gift as is your profound friendship and spirit. You are a charioteer in the industry and a more loving and appreciative society. My deep gratitude and solidarity in your next ventures. love bill bronston, MD Carmichael California

January 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Bronston, MD

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