Set in the north of her homeland, Vietnam, Ha Le Diem’s “Children of the Mist” – which won the IDFA Award for Best Directing in the International Competition on Thursday – follows 12-year-old Di from the Hmong ethnic minority, living in the mountains and isolated from the rest of the population. Although she would like to study, the widespread custom of “bride kidnapping” on the Lunar New Year celebration could alter her future forever. The film, produced by Swann Dubus for Varan Vietnam and Trần Phương Thảo, is sold internationally by CAT&Docs.

“When I was a child, I was friends with these three girls. One of them got married off very young, which upset me a lot,” says the helmer, born in 1991. Coming from the Tay community herself, Diễm was introduced to Hmong traditions at the university, deciding to follow her protagonist despite not knowing the language.

“I saw her play with her friends in the mountains and it reminded me of my own childhood. I wanted to make a film about it, about this beautiful time that all of a sudden can just disappear,” she says, mentioning that the whole process ultimately helped her “grow up.”

“Di asked me: ‘Will your film bring me back to my childhood?’ It’s not something a child her age would normally say. I think she could already feel it slipping away.”

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Courtesy of Varan Vietnam

Being accepted into the girl’s family also meant succumbing to heavy drinking, rampant in the community (“Or in Vietnam in general. We drink a lot,” she says). But her film took a much darker turn once she decided to show the inner workings of bride kidnapping, a tradition that leads to underage marriages but also enables trafficking of women for sexual exploitation.

“They live very close to the Chinese border, which makes it much easier. Di knew girls who were raped on their way to school and sold to China,” says Ha Le Diem, admitting she was often scared for her protagonist.

“I kept thinking: ‘This could have been me.’ I was angry with her sometimes, thinking she wasn’t making the right choices for her future, drinking or flirting. But most of all, I felt I could lose my ‘little sister’ at any moment.”

“Stolen” by a young boy, Di decided to refuse the marriage, even though her mother and older sister accepted their fates by marrying their respective “kidnappers.” But the pressure to bow to tradition meant her ordeal wasn’t over.

“Her parents told me that if it happens again, I am allowed to physically pull her back. As a ‘sister,’ as usually only sisters or younger brothers can do that. But when they attempted a second kidnapping, the grandmother tried to stop me, telling me to ‘let it be.’ I realized that regardless of how I feel, I’m the outsider here,” she says.

Despite the scorn from the government, bride kidnapping continues to happen.

“They are trying to stop it but at the same time, they don’t want to pressure people too much. My translator comes from the same village as Di and he was used to it too. Now, he finally saw it from the women’s perspective. He said: ‘It’s very violent.’ People are more aware, but it will take more time for things to actually change,” she adds.

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Courtesy of Ha Le Diem

“When Di’s mother was kidnapped, she already had another lover. After she got married, he killed himself. It was a bad story. I would see her insult her husband, they fought a lot, but sometimes they actually seemed happy. These relationships can be very complicated.”

After completing her film, Ha Le Diem struggled to keep in touch with her protagonist, whose life has changed significantly.

“Di has a baby now, a daughter. She went to a boarding school and got a scholarship allowing her to go to the university, but then fell in love and became pregnant,” says the director.

“I tried to contact her, but she wouldn’t respond. Then, because of the pandemic, the situation got so bad I couldn’t even show her the film. I hope I will be able to visit her and maybe our relationship will improve, but I am not sure about that. I hope she is happy with her family. And if she isn’t, I hope I can help.”