Ivan Tankushev walked outside Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum in a cloud, but something out of the corner of his eye made him smile. A group of young people were performing at the side of the building. He later found out they were the An Phuc House band.
“They told me they had lived together for six years and had a father taking care of them who is head of the organisation,” recalls the Bulgarian-born, Canadian animator. “I was fascinated. Three of them had higher degrees in education. I said ‘can I talk to your father and ask him if I can make a film about you guys?’”
Having worked in Asia for 16 years before heading back to Montreal, one month’s winter in Canada came as a reverse culture shock. So the former chief animator of Family Guy and Arthur decided to return to the Far East, this time to Saigon, to do some volunteer work. He wanted to take care of disabled kids and victims of Agent Orange.
“What I saw was unbelievable in some orphanages,” says Ivan. “It broke my heart. I couldn’t do anything for the children in temples, churches and hospitals. Mentally they are not okay and they are physically deformed. All we could do was feed them and tell them we loved them, and help the nurses to take care of them. And then I met the kids from An Phuc House. I knew at least I could do something for them.”
Little did Father Quang, the pastor in charge of An Phuc, realise the legacy of the documentary that he had allowed Ivan to make. The Tale of An Phuc House scooped the Best Documentary Film award at the New York City International Film Festival in June.
For seven months Ivan engrossed himself in the lives of the kids of An Phuc House. Some are Agent Orange sufferers and others are disabled. He travelled all over Vietnam with them and even stayed in their house, which now doesn’t exist — the kids have since moved four times.
They provide for themselves by making and selling souvenirs, and performing in Buddhist temples every other week. They also make regular appearances at the War Remnants Museum and travel the country with their Father, surviving on donations.
“It is so tough for the kids, especially as they don’t have a home like before,” says Ivan. “That is why I want to help raise money to help them build a real house. They move from place to place constantly. It is not good.
“We have three couples among the group,” he continues. “One got married and had a new baby, and we are awaiting another baby. It is a crazy story. During filming the girl was pregnant and now the daughter is born of two Agent Orange victims. We were afraid the baby would have issues, but so far so good.
“She is four months old. With the toxin in the body anything can happen up until she is 14. Her parents are Trinh Thi Duyen and Le Van Binh. I have their love story and wedding in the film. They are amazing.”
From Animation to Documentaries
Graduating in the 1980s with a Master’s Degree in Animation from the Academy of Film and Drama in Bulgaria, a lifetime of work in animation and TV commercials has seen Ivan become part of ‘a mafia of 40’ — an A-list group of animators around the world seen to be at the top of their trade. However, he has always felt a calling to do documentaries.
Once he started work on the An Phuc House movie, he was committed full-time for around 18 months. He had a helping hand from his Vietnamese wife Trang Lam — who herself injected VND40 million of her own money into the project — and ‘his baby’ fell into place when he met French-Vietnamese producer, Othello Khanh, the CEO of CreaTV.
“My wife actually did all the translation for the Agent Orange movie,” says Ivan. “42 hours of footage and interviews. Without her and my assistant Tran Thuy Tien I wouldn’t have been able to do it. After I had shot 10 hours, I was looking around Saigon [for people to] help me out. Someone gave me Othello’s name and I was hoping someone could help me finish. He saw the footage and said, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’”
Othello helped get all the necessary paperwork in place and started the editing process while Ivan was out shooting the rest of the movie. The pair are also indebted to a number of foreign nationals living in Ho Chi Minh City who not only raised money but invested their time and energy into the project.
“We had no budget, with people working for free,” recalls Ivan. “We paid for a former BBC employee to come here on expenses only. It was a struggle, but I believe if you put your mind to it and do something good, people will come and help.”
Ivan was at the ceremony when his movie won the New York award ahead of a number of equally powerful documentaries. He was especially surprised as The Tale of An Phuc House had been shifted down to small theatres. It barely got a mention in Canadian or American media.
“Originally the film was going to be shown in the bigger theatres, but they shoveled it into the small theatres of 30 people,” says Ivan. “This was the only film that this had happened to out of all the nominees. I thought, ‘Okay, nobody wants to show the film. Nobody wants to talk about it.’ When they gave me the prize I could not believe it. The competition was so strong.”
For more information on the documentary or to see a trailer, click on thetaleofanphuchouse.com. The producers are presently looking for an international distributor. If you are interested in donating to An Phuc House, you can send money via Tuoi Tre Newspaper to the following bank account: Vietcombank, Ho Chi Minh City, Swift Code: BFTVVNVX007, Account number: 007.137.0195.845. Before you transfer your money clearly indicate your name (or the name of your organisation), address and note for cash donation
Tran Huu Quang, ‘The Father’, founded An Phuc in 2006 with the intention of creating jobs and finding a roof for physically disabled boys and girls. Most are third generation Vietnamese, claiming or awaiting to be recognised as Agent Orange victims. Father Quang not only dedicates his everyday life to the young adults, but helps them to become self-respected, financially independent — better human beings. His dream is to build a permanent residence for members of An Phuc and extend his operations throughout Vietnam.