The dinner table brings families together. To eat, drink coffee, debate, open up or to share what kind of day they’ve had.
To pull up a chair often means playing by the rules. Depending on the family, you have to sit up straight, keep elbows off the table, or not talk whilst eating. But in Carol’s family, you mustn’t cry. Show your feelings to your loved ones? No. Not at the dinner table. Nowhere. Never. Emotions aren’t something to share.
In “No Crying at the Dinner Table”, Carol Nguyen pits her dad, mum and sister against an unblinking lens across the kitchen table. Feelings long held under rise to the surface and a family immersed in revelation finally allows its emotions to breathe.
The Canadian-Vietnamese filmmaker navigates grief, shame and attachment, until smiles break through tears and love heals hurt.
Directed by Carol Nguyen
Production: Carol Nguyen, Aziz Zoromba
Director of Photography: Walid Jabri
Editing: Carol Nguyen, Andres Solis
Sound: Giulio Trejo-Martinez, Tim Horler, Alex Lane
Music: Arie Van de Ven
Thank you to Jodie Clifford
Carol Nguyen Filmmaker
“In life, you can choose who you mix with, your friends, who you love. But one thing you can’t choose is your family.”
- In a few words, tell us about yourself, Carol.
I am a Canadian-Vietnamese filmmaker. I was born in Toronto but live in Montreal. I created “No Crying at the Dinner Table” during my third year at Concordia University.
- As a context for a first documentary, many filmmakers chose to talk about their own family. Why did you make this personal choice?
I think everyone can relate to a film about family, especially when your own is far from perfect. It makes a refreshing change to the hackneyed image of the handsome, sun-kissed family – the kind set in gardens without a blade of grass out of place, all toothy smiles. We’ve been force-fed this image by TV and cinema since we can first remember.
It’s something we can all relate to because, regardless of your background, getting along with your family is not always easy. In life, you can choose who you mix with, your friends, who you love. But one thing you can’t choose is your family. That’s why many of us have to work at family relationships, which can be time-consuming and energy-sapping.
Personally, I have struggled, and continue to struggle, to communicate with my family. A mix of cultural barriers, generational differences and personalities have always made ‘getting’ each other difficult. It really hit me during my third year at university, so I started looking for creative ways to get over this, and that’s how the film took shape.
“My film gave me an ‘excuse’ to tease out these hidden stories.”
- Before filming got underway, we imagine that you had to explain your project to your family to convince them to take part. Can you tell us about the run-up to the film?
My parents have always supported me when I’ve needed it. They even let me build a film studio in our garage! I was lucky enough to study in an arts secondary school where I specialised in cinema, so I’ve been making films since I was 15 years old.
When I told my parents and my sister about my film project, they dived straight in. Not every family would have been so helpful, but my family knows that my camera has been part of me since I was a kid. They trust me both as a filmmaker and as a daughter/sister, even if none of us had anticipated how moving it would be!
- Did opening up in front of the camera help your family to talk more freely afterwards?
Absolutely. It allowed us to open our hearts much more with each other, but that said, it’s still hard. It will never be something that comes easily, it will be something we will need to work at over time.
The experience has been a positive one for us all because it offered space to tell our stories in our own way, uninterrupted and in detail. We were also able to focus on others’ stories and put our own to one side. It’s difficult to do in real life, without the act of being filmed, but we are just like any other family. We make our way in the world step by step and try to listen to each other.
- It seems that your sister and mum find it easier to open up to you and allow their emotions free reign. What about your dad? Even though he might well up at times, he holds his emotions in.
I think Asian men, and men in general, have been pre-conditioned from childhood to believe that showing emotions and crying are a weakness. It’s even more apparent in older generations.
Men who cry could not be ‘masculine’. This thread runs through many world cultures and puts pressure on men to repress emotion or creates a ‘block’ where men feel at a loss when faced with expressing emotions perceived as ‘negative’.
I grew up in this world, but I don’t live by it. As they say in the Pixar film Inside Out, I think that sadness is equally as important as joy and laughter.
“Everyone had to leave the kitchen, apart from the director of photography and me.”
- You grew up in a family that discouraged questions. Now, asking questions is your job. Does being a filmmaker give you new prerogatives? Does ‘Carol the filmmaker’ have a kind of armour-plating that makes you advance boldly into certain territory that ‘Carol the daughter and sister’ would not feel able or know how to?
Brilliant question! Of course, in real life, I would not have asked such questions. What happens around the kitchen table in daily life is far removed from what we see in the film…
But cinema allows situations to be created. So, my film gave me an excuse to tease out these hidden stories. By saying ‘yes’ to the film project, my parents and sister donned a ‘suit of armour’ as you put it, that allowed them to speak freely and break taboos that crossed lines thought unbreakable in normal life. In front of the camera, they found a sense of safety and confidence that gave them courage to broach subjects that family norms and daily habits would not usually have allowed.
- You aren’t a one-woman film crew. During the shoot, the family home is filled with technical crew… How do you make sure this doesn’t affect the speaker’s ability to open up or hamper the private nature of one-to-one conversation?
We were a team of six people: myself, the director of photography, his assistant, the sound engineer, a lighting technician and a production assistant.
During the interviews, the microphone was fixed to a pole and the two cameras were on tripods. Everyone had to leave the kitchen, apart from the director of photography and me. The other members of the family also had to leave the room, to allow the person in front of the camera the freedom to express themselves.
The filming lasted four days, but I had done some long interviews with my dad, my mum and my sister in advance, without the camera, so nobody felt parachuted into the unknown. They knew exactly what kind of things we were going to talk about.
- We see your sister taking a bath, your mum preparing food, and your dad drinking tea. Can you talk us through why you interweave these everyday snapshots with their words?
I just wanted to show the normality of their daily lives in contrast with the emotionally-charged interviews. It highlights how we can live side-by-side under the same roof as our parents or siblings, without really knowing what they are thinking and feeling.
- Your film has been seen around the world and been part of many festivals. Why do you think it touched so many people, in spite of their differences, across several continents?
Yes, it’s incredible to take stock of how this documentary short has wended its way so well! I never thought a film made when I was still a student would have been seen by so many people.
After the film’s première, I was really surprised by the number of people who got in touch to share to what extent they had seen their own family in mine. This reaction was particularly noticeable amongst second-generation migrants.
Here again, the image of the loved-up family all too often peddled in films, TV series and advertising fell apart to reveal how difficult family relationships can really be. I think that my film brings a novel and candid pair of eyes to the realities of family life on screen.
- What do you think of 99 and the fact that your film will be subtitled in several languages?
It’s unbelievable! I like the fact that my film might cross cultures and that 99 enables us to discover documentary shorts beyond the limits of our mother tongue.