BFI London Film Festival 2023
& Thao Lam
Oct 7, 2023
As a child in Vietnam, Thao’s mother often rescued ants from bowls of sugar water. Years later they would return the favour. Boat People is an animated documentary that uses a striking metaphor to trace one family’s flight across the turbulent waters of history.
Screened as part of BFI London Film Festival 2023 Shorts programme Right Here, Right Now.
Hello, Kjell and Thao, Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with TNC ahead of the 2023 London Film Festival. What does it mean to you both to see Boat People having its UK premiere at the festival?
Thao: This is an exciting opportunity to share our animated short, especially with an audience as diverse as the London Film Festival’s. To be included among filmmakers with such strong voices and talent is humbling.
Kjell: It is quite thrilling to be included in the festival—possibly more so for me because I am able to attend the festival (sorry Thao!). It is wonderful to meet other filmmakers and present the film in this environment.
Boat People is also nominated for the Best Short Film Award. What has it meant to you both to get this type of recognition for your film?
Thao: This film took four years to make. I am very honoured that the film is getting recognized because it means honouring not only my family’s story but also the hardworking and talented team behind it.
Kjell: Like Thao said, we’ve been working on this film a long time. We’ve had to have faith in the project for a long time, so it is very rewarding now to see others respond to the film in a positive way.
You have already had an incredible festival run, winning the Grand Jury Prize for Animated Short at this year's Calgary International Film Festival. Did you imagine your film would touch audiences in the way that it has?
Thao: It always makes me feel uncomfortable when someone tells me that our film made them cry—I always feel I need to apologize. It is a tough subject with big emotions, so I understand it is difficult to watch. Refugees is a topic we should all be discussing and not shying away from.
Ahead of a festival screening, do nerves set in? Have you been able to just enjoy the whole experience?
Thao: I get really nervous with crowds, so I am constantly on pins and needles during festivals. However, I had a great time at the Ottawa International Animation Festival because I went with my daughter. Her joy in seeing our film and attending the workshops and screenings was contagious. I think I’m better at being a fan of the arts than being in the arts. The best thing about festivals is the calibre of talent that gathers under one roof. It’s humbling and inspiring.
How did you meet, and when did you decide or realize you wanted to make a short film together?
Thao: Kjell worked on the trailer for my first children’s book, Skunk on a String. It was a great experience, so when I wanted to make an animated short, he was the first person I thought of.
Kjell: I had just finished the festival run for my previous film, DAM! The Story of Kit the Beaver, and I was trying to figure out what to do next when Thao approached me with the idea for Boat People. Not only was I hooked by the story of the ants, but I was excited to work with Thao on something more ambitious than we had been able to do with the trailer for her book. Making an animated film can also be somewhat isolating at times, so I also liked the idea of making a film with someone who would be as invested in it as I was.
"That is what is so powerful about storytelling: it can be adapted to any medium, whether it’s a children’s book, film or even music."
Did you have any apprehensions about making your debut short animation that also came from such a personal place?
Thao: I write and illustrate children’s books, so I am often using my family and personal experiences as inspiration. Making a film is just a different medium of storytelling. I often use storytelling to help me process my thoughts and feeling. Making this film was a very therapeutic experience.
Can you tell me a little about the origins of Boat People and what inspired you both to want to make this film?
Thao: I knew nothing about my family’s history and the Vietnam War because it was not a topic that was discussed in my family. The only thing I knew was the story my mother told me about the ants and the sugar water. I always liked the story because this was how my mother processed and made peace with her experiences: she chose to believe in kindness and karma.
Kjell: I’ve always enjoyed films that are more than they appear to be on the surface, and I found the similarities and differences between the migrations of humans and ants to be very compelling. I also enjoy technical challenges, and figuring out how to adapt Thao’s handcrafted illustration into animation was a big one.
Thao had you always intended to narrate the film, and what was this experience like for you?
Thao: I always saw myself as a stand-in until we found the perfect person. The running joke was that I wanted George Clooney to do it. All along, everybody thought that I should narrate, and obviously it’s my personal story.
Kjell: Thao forgot to mention that she wanted George Clooney to do the narration so that she would be able to meet George Clooney.
When in pre-production on an animated project like Boat People, at what stage do you begin to think about the role sound is going to play in your film?
Thao: Making the film was a huge learning curve for me. For children’s books, I don’t have to think about sound or music, so I am very lucky that Kjell had experience making animated shorts and an interest in that department. Kjell took the lead when it came to sound and music. The NFB was also very supportive and resourceful; they gave us the room to explore different styles until we found the best fit for the film.
How important was the creative collaboration between you both when working at Boat People?
Thao: It took a while for us to find the right tone to the film. It was even more challenging with the restrictions of an animated short. Kjell and I rewrote the script about 50 times over the span of a year, so creative brainstorming was always intense but rewarding when we were able to chip away until we landed on the final script. Working with a co-director and co-writer allowed us to bounce ideas off of each other. It is very valuable to have someone you are comfortable sharing your ideas with, whose feedback you trust.
Kjell: I don’t think either of us would have survived this project if we did not enjoy collaborating with each other or trust each others’ judgment. Being able to trust Thao to handle the visual design of the film gave me more freedom to focus on crafting the animatic and refining the animation process.
Thao you have an award-winning distinctive style as an artist. Going into this project, did you always plan for it to be a hybrid form of traditional 2D animation, stop-motion, and 3D rendering?
Thao: The goal was always to recreate my collage style since the story was about my family and me. We tried many different ways of recreating, like laser cutting individual pieces to do stop-motion, but in the end it was too time consuming and therefore costly. Kjell and our technical team get all the credit for solving this creative challenge. I am so impressed with how they were able to replicate my work digitally.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in bringing Boat People to the big screen?
Thao: There were many, especially for me since I am not a trained animator or filmmaker. Everything was new to me and I feel like I am just scratching the surface. We had an amazing team behind us. The NFB was the perfect partner. They were supportive, resourceful and so patient with me as I learned on the spot.
Kjell: The biggest challenge for me was that I had a very strong idea about how the film should look—which was like one of Thao’s picture books brought to life. I had committed to that idea without totally understanding how we would get there, so I was under a lot of pressure to figure it out within the constraints of the project. Luckily, the NFB allowed us the freedom to experiment and take some wrong turns, and in the end I think we found our way.
Have you always had a passion for art, animation, and storytelling?
Thao: I always loved the arts. Before I even knew how to read text or understood English, I would flip through children’s books and come up with my own stories. That is what is so powerful about storytelling: it can be adapted to any medium, whether it’s a children’s book, film or even music. Each medium will give the audience a different experience because each has its own possibilities and restrictions.
Kjell: I’ve been obsessed with animation from a very young age. I had a box full of animated shorts taped on VHS that I would watch over and over again. One of them was the claymation Frog and Toad series, which included a behind-the-scenes featurette that absolutely blew my mind, in particular the idea that it took hundreds of hours to create. Now, that seems quite reasonable.
What would you say has been the most valuable lesson you’ve taken from this project?
Thao: I learned a lot, but getting the opportunity to learn about my family’s history and the history of Vietnam was invaluable. Even what I learned about ants during our research was fascinating.
Kjell: For me, I think a big lesson has been how rewarding it can be to let yourself be vulnerable. Seeing how Thao was willing to dig into her history and ask herself difficult questions and how much better it made the film has really made me question my resistance to doing this, not just in my own work, but in life in general.
Thao: Would you ever consider turning any of your books into animated shorts?
Thao: Funny you should ask; Kjell and I are at the very beginning of adapting THAO: A Picture Book. It is a story about growing up with the name Thao. Even though it’s only four simple, familiar letters long, nobody can ever pronounce the main character Thao’s name. She’s been called Theo, Tail, even Towel! But the teasing names―Tofu, Tiny, China Girl―are worse. Maybe it’s time to be someone else? Thao decides to try on a different name, something easy, like Jennifer.
And finally, what would you like your audiences to take away from Boat People?
Thao: When I published The Paper Boat, which tells this story in a different format, I got lots of feedback, mostly from refugees, many of them Vietnamese Canadians or Vietnamese Americans, telling me how closely it resembled their own stories. The book often gets tagged as a conversation starter on the subject. So I hope the film will speak to anyone who’s had similar experiences, but it’s also for everybody else. You hear of countries refusing to take in refugees, turning them away. Even during the Vietnam War, some boats were towed out to sea and refused permission to dock. So I want audiences to understand that people don’t choose to be refugees. They have no other options. So I hope this film can educate and tell a human story at the same time.