Michael Lee Simpson
INTERVIEW WITH “SCENT OF THE DELTA” FILMMAKERS
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon in about three years (April 30, 2025), it is astounding that Vietnamese-American stories have not been told by Vietnamese-American women and men much before. One of the sole exceptions is Heaven and Earth, the story of Le Ly Hayslip, which came out almost thirty years ago and was directed by a white man named Oliver Stone.
Breaking this mold, Scent of the Delta will be a film directed by bi-racial director-filmmaker Adele Free Pham, starring Vietnamese-Chinese French-American actress Tiffany Pham and written by Vietnamese-American screenwriter-journalist Thuc Doan Nguyen. Their film will certainly flow from their hearts on a cultural level, but also into the plot, location, and characters.
After all this time, this trio of Vietnamese diaspora women bands together to tell a story about the least represented people in film. The film will be released in theaters in time for the 50th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, which changed the direction of the world, as well as the directions of all of their lives.
And certainly, no one can portray Vietnamese women as accurately as ones with actual lived experience like Nguyen, Pham and Pham. Nguyen describes more of the foibles of onscreen representations of someone like the three of them in an article she wrote exclusively for Vietcetra.
“Spike Lee did not do Vietnamese women characters justice in Da 5 Bloods and neither did Justin Chon in Blue Bayou,” screenwriter Nguyen states. “The Vietnamese women in Da 5 Bloods were just magically waiting to serve the American men. And the ‘prize’ in this movie is a white French woman, while the Vietnamese women were ‘bar girls.’ As for in Blue Bayou, the Vietnamese woman character magically just pursues a new friendship with a Korean-American married man, in her last dying days, with her literal dying word being ‘faster’ on his motorcycle. And she gets a fleur de lis tattoo. Why would she get a tattoo of the symbol of the monarchy of the colonizers of Vietnam? Meanwhile, the characters who live in New Orleans had never tried Vietnamese spring rolls before. That is mind boggling, period. Vietnamese food is everywhere here and has been for decades.”
“As a mixed-race Vietnamese woman, this is my story,” says director Adele Free Pham. “We’re shooting on film, so the look and feel will be more cinematic than most streaming movies today. That alone affects the character and nature of the story. A portion of the film takes place in the ‘analog’ past, so we are respecting and responding to the real nature of memory and time— when video was not the medium for making film.”
Adele brings a diverse wheelhouse of filmmaking to the table— experienced in all aspects of production. Her feature documentary, Nailed It, about the genesis and culture of the Vietnamese Diaspora nail industry, is the highest streamed film of PBS’ America Reframed series, and the recipient of a 2020 Telly Award. In addition to directing Scent of the Delta, Adele is producing the feature documentary State of Oregon, which contextualizes the 2016 murder of Larnell Bruce Jr. by a white supremacist in Gresham, Oregon to the state’s founding as a separatist “white homeland state”, in one of the most politically conflicted times in American history. The short film version is produced by Field of Vision. Like Adele’s prior work, Scent of the Deltawill address issues of racism.
The setting of Scent of the Delta is the city of New Orleans— a place of restoration and renewal. The story takes place between autumn and Tet, which is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year that happens usually in February. The screenplay follows Carrie Tao Wargo, caught between two cultures as an American-born daughter of an interracial couple. Returning to The Crescent City and eventually traveling to her mother’s birthplace in Vietnam, Carrie will come to accept her true self and reclaim her Vietnamese identity.
In part of her director’s statement, subtitled “The Bridges of New Orleans & of Culture,” Adele touches on her primary vision: “With a casualness about a world people haven’t seen before, Scent of the Delta will emerge to shine a light. It draws from predecessors like Smoke Signals and Double Happiness, with more seriousness. There’s simply not much material about Vietnamese-American people.”
“When I read the script for Scent of the Delta, I saw a surreal overlap between Carrie and myself and our respective journeys,” says Tiffany Pham, who will play the lead role of Carrie. “There is so much about Carrie that is relatable for any young woman today, but I especially relate to her heart and her close relationships with her family and friends. She also has drive and ambition, as I and many other children of immigrants tend to have in America. But her Vietnamese-American culture, her unbreakable bond with her mother, as well as a return to her roots in the South after becoming a success in NYC are specific details that are very similar to my own, and we haven’t seen this exact story before. I feel honored to play this woman who shares my cultural background and who is finding the delicate balance between her family’s past and future and where her life falls within that balance.”
As a Vietnamese-Chinese French-American film and TV personality, entrepreneur, author, and visual artist, no one is a better fit for the role than Tiffany Pham. She is recognized as one of the leaders of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging (DEIB) movement. She founded Mogul, the world’s leading diversity recruitment platform. Referred to as a “Triple Threat” by the Wall Street Journal for her talent, she has been honored as one of Forbes “30 Under 30”, Business Insider “30 Most Important Women Under 30,” ELLE Magazine “30 Women Under 30 Who Are Changing the World,” Entrepreneur Magazine “100 Most Powerful Women,” Inc. Magazine “Top 100 Female Founders,” Crain’s Magazine “40 Under 40,” and Tribeca Film Festival “Innovation Award” Fellow. A TV personality on TLC and The History Channel, she’s also the author of bestselling books, including the Wall Street Journal bestselling book You Are a Mogul, and graduated with distinction from Yale University and Harvard Business School.
“All life experience informs your art,” Tiffany continues. “That is definitely true for me. And different thoughts often need to be expressed in different ways for the point to most clearly come across. For example, I recently created a series of oil paintings called Empress that is being exhibited across the US, Europe, and Asia. These portraits of powerful, diverse women worldwide, such as Rihanna, and the impact they have had on me were best communicated through paint, while books that I’ve written were best experienced through reading. My work has helped shape my overall role as a storyteller and helped others within the AAPI [Asian-Asian American and Pacific Islander Women] community feel seen. I am excited to be a part of this movement.”
“Our lead character Carrie knows of life basically only in America and in the West,” explains Nguyen. “She barely knows anything about her mom’s life in Vietnam except that her mother escaped by boat. Carrie grows up in New Orleans East, a Vietnamese enclave developed in the 1980s close to The Mississippi River. It’s the cheap part of town with home farming and fishing opportunities along Bayou Sauvage. It looks remarkably close to the landscape of Vietnam, along the Mekong Delta. My lived experience qualifies me to write Vietnamese-American woman characters and ones who are refugees because I have lived my most of my life as a Vietnamese-American refugee to the United States, with the exception of time working in Europe and having been born in Vietnam. I have experienced firsthand the things that the characters in Scent of the Deltado. I grew up in poverty in the American South and know what it’s like to mistreated because of discrimination of all sorts.”
Asian Diaspora women are killed regularly by “death by a thousand tiny cuts,” and also have been brutally massacred anywhere hatred and racism runs rampant. Violence towards and murders of these women are as prevalent today as they were in Vietnam during the war— even on American soil. They earn eighty-five cents to the dollar of white males. The #AAPIWomenLead and #StopAsianHate movements have been gaining traction, and Scent of the Deltaaims to further facilitate the change in the form of visual rhetoric.
“Microaggressions lead to macroaggressions like Asian spa mass murders of March 2021,” Nguyen states. “Six Asian-American women—sisters, cousins, moms, aunts and grandmas— they all had their own hopes and dreams, and they are now silenced forever. Those of us remaining must make use of our voices to combat violence like this.”
Beyond working as an essayist and journalist for major publications—The Los Angeles Times, PBS, The Daily Beast, Esquire Magazine, PBS, Southern Living, VICE and Refinery29—
Nguyen is a screenwriter who focuses on Women of Color and has done punch-up work for Paramount Studios’ features division. As a journalist, Nguyen has covered topics far and wide. Her articles include her own experiences with racism and sexism, as well as her familiarity with New Orleans (where she lives) and the surrounding areas. For Esquire Magazine, she wrote an article called “Those 5 Words,” referring to the disgraceful saying of “me love you long time” that’s plagued Asian Diaspora women for generations. One of her articles for The Daily Beast is titled “New Orleans is a Great Place for a Taste of Vietnam. She also wrote about racism for PBS in an article entitled “Microagressions, Long Lasting Effects.” Nguyen has worked as a translator for Rory Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated feature documentary Last Days in Vietnam, as well as a translator for an upcoming docu-series from author and humanitarian Le Ly Hayslip and filmmaker Joe Harnett.
“I’m very drawn to documentaries about Vietnamese refugees,” says Adele. “They are like the stories of my father and Thuc’s family in the immediate post-war time period— how we need to know how we got to the here and now. There are important pieces like “A Village Called Versailles“ about the Vietnamese of New Orleans by S. Leo Chiang also. This is all inspiring and pertinent to me, especially important with the 50th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon in 2025.”
“This film stands apart because its entire foundation is giving a voice to the Vietnamese-American community,” states Tiffany. “It is groundbreaking that our team of Vietnamese-American women and men could come together with our respective strengths and produce a film that is so unique to our personal experiences that is also heartwarming and heart-wrenching at the same time. It has been proven time and again that America is ready to celebrate Asian stories— look at the success of the Marvel franchise Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s
Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians. But never before has there been a heartfelt movie that gives a voice specifically to the Vietnamese woman’s experience in America — also made by a team of Vietnamese-American women and men — because who better to tell this story than us ourselves?”
“The main character and her mother are in many ways equal parts me, as well as parts of Adele and Tiffany,” Nguyen states. “I’ve moved back to The South, where I grew up, after being gone from it for so long. Like the mom character, I am a refugee to the United States, and I’ve worked in night clubs. Tiffany spent some of her formative years in Plano, Texas, so being Vietnamese Diaspora women who have lived in The South gives us the lived experience that is necessary to faithfully create and inhabit the characters of our story to the maximum authenticity.”
Nguyen adds, “My coverage of #BlackPowerYellowPeril lends to the central female friendship storyline of two of our female characters: In a time where shows and films present us with the strife between races. Scent of the Delta shows the true love and cooperation between Vietnamese and Black people in New Orleans who still live side-by-side in New Orleans and who helped each other rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.” Adele’s daughter is half-Black and half-Vietnamese. “She is the embodiment of why we are making this film.”
One of the film’s producers is Maria Judice. As a producer, Maria is most recently responsible for Neptune Frost, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Sundance Film Festival, among others.
“I’m obsessed with New Orleans, and I’ve lived right next to the Mississippi River before – in Tennessee,” reflects Nguyen. “I was next to the river in 2010 to 2011 during the huge floods. It was amazing. It’s a magical river in many ways, as Maria has pointed out to me. In terms of Asian cultures, the Vietnamese one dominates New Orleans, and I was born in Vietnam along the Mekong River Delta, so it’s all a natural fit. Maria, Adele and I have all known each other for years, and I met Tiffany through a #StopAsianHate event during the pandemic.”
Adele on drawing inspiration from life experience: “I’ve always looked after children. If it wasn’t my siblings, I was babysitting neighborhood kids for cash money. Twenty-five years later, I became a mother. I pay attention to details about people and could direct a movie with a baby on my hip, although not ideal. Certainly, you don’t have to be a mother to be a brilliant director, but you have to know how to run the show, and keep everyone alive.”
Tiffany sums up the filmmaking team’s joint journey perfectly: “The more diverse voices there are in the media telling our stories, the better it is for everybody. Studies show that diverse perspectives make groups stronger, and I hope that by sharing our story we will help to strengthen the future generations. If one young Vietnamese girl can feel more seen by our film, feel inspired by it, and feel empowered that Vietnamese women wrote, directed, and starred in this magnificent story, then that alone would have made the journey toward premiering Scent of the Delta worth it.”
With more and more Vietnam War movies still being announced to this day and with other new Vietnamese-American-themed works being shared from the perspectives of men and centering men, Scent of the Delta will be that needle in our collective film haystack. It will be a movie for the ages. Mark your calendars for April 30, 2025, for now more reasons than one.