97 million people · 45 million motorbikes
a cinematic journey across Vietnam by motorbike

LIVE CINEMA presents

2022 · 82 mins · Vietnam and UK
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directed, written, edited by
Esther Johnson

produced by
Lisa Brook (LIVE cinema UK)
Esther Johnson

narrated by
Nguyễn Lan Hương

music by
Xo Xinh

sound design by
Nguyễn Nhung

oral histories with
Trần Văn Thủy
Đặng Ái Viet

production partners
Centre for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents (TPD)
Vietnam Film Institute

funded by
British Council

Ho Chi Minh famously said, “Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence“.

DUST & METAL (CÁT BỤI & KIM LOẠI) is a creative documentary feature film by British director Esther Johnson, produced by Johnson and Live Cinema UK and funded by the British Council. The project was created by a unique partnership between Hanoi-based Vietnam Film Institute, and TPD: The Centre for Assistance and Development of Movie Talents.

The film presents stories of ‘freedom’ in Vietnam past and present told through the lens of the country’s ubiquitous mode of transport: the motorbike. With a population of 97 million, and 45 million registered motorbikes (amongst the highest in South East Asia) that’s almost one bike for every two people. The countries urban roads, and ‘hẻm’ alleys that are too narrow for cars, are awash with the transportation of goods of all types and sizes on the back of motorbikes, including washing machines, entire families, and chickens. The sounds of engines and horns create a symphony of Vietnamese life.

Through the repositioning of difficult to access archive film, contemporary footage, and a live score composed and performed by Vietnamese artist Xo Xinh, DUST & METAL makes rare archive film available to new audiences, and illuminates unfamiliar histories of Vietnam. The script integrates extracts from oral history interviews Johnson made with eminent Vietnamese filmmaker Trần Văn Thủy; and with visual artist Đặng Ái Viet.

A symbol of Vietnam and its history, motorbikes encompass notions of work, class, travel, technology, and escape. Owning one has enabled movement and enterprise for millions of people. During the war in Vietnam, bicycles were invaluable for transporting supplies through the narrow ‘hẻm’. Bicycles have been replaced with motorbikes to navigate the growing waves of traffic. In response to national and international debates on climate change, urban planners in HaNoi aim to ban petrol/diesel motorbikes by 2030 in an attempt to ease traffic and curb pollution. In response companies in Vietnam are producing electric motorbikes as an alternative form of transport.

Media narratives of Vietnam tend to show the country either through a tourist lens (the Golden Bridge, Ha Long Bay) or through Hollywood versions of the war in Vietnam. These views contrast with news stories on human trafficking and the case of 39 Vietnamese nationals who died entering the UK in the back of a truck in October 2019. The contrasts are symptomatic of the country’s complex opposing identities as a tourist destination, communist nation, and growing GDP in a time of flux. Stepping away from dominant depictions, DUST & METAL offers an unorthodox perspective of Vietnam that merges sound and vision for an immersive appreciation of a unique cultural heritage.

Hanoi Premiere
Camera: Phạm Đình Thiện and Nguyễn Đức Minh
Editor: Phạm Đình Thiện