MÁ SÀI GÒN (Mother Saigon) : Director’s note

Posted on

I am a Canadian multidisciplinary artist of Vietnamese origin. My multiple, hybrid identity – Québécois, francophone, Vietnamese, queer – is the foundation of my existential self-reflection. These questions of identity guide my approach as a filmmaker, and my drive to make films is the product of my desire to share the realities of marginalized people.


With MÁ SÀI GÒN (MOTHER SAIGON), I am pursuing that approach by questioning social norms through the lives of people who do not conform to the most common, widely accepted models. My aim is to make these LGBTQ+ voices heard. Much is said about this community, but we do not listen to it enough. By bringing the lives they have created to the screen, a portrait of the dominant culture and the burdens it imposes on individuals emerges. Here, Vietnam is the backdrop, but the film seeks to inspire reflection beyond the Vietnamese context.


More generally, the project addresses the reality of any person who is marginalized because of their identity, gender, choices or life circumstances. SÀI GÒN is aimed at Canadians because it raises relatable questions: “To what extent do I conform to my society’s dominant culture? Did I have to affirm some kind of difference? Did I have to sacrifice certain parts of my identity to meet the expectations of my family or society? Am I able to see myself in my society’s culture? Is my reality accommodated in the laws and policies that shape my life?” In my opinion, these questions are more relevant than ever. They are part of a decades-long societal dialogue on social struggles and minority rights.


It is worth noting that all of my artistic projects, whether cinematic or multidisciplinary, have a connection with Vietnam. I believe that this “elsewhere” that is also “my homeland” allows me to present a unique perspective on the world and to ask hard questions. For me, Vietnam is a place for thinking and creativity but not an end in itself. In my previous feature-length documentary, BÀ NÔI (GRANDMA), I used material from my real life to reflect on what contributes to the construction of the self – imagination, society, mythology, the family and its stories – to explore universal preoccupations around the relationship between belonging and identity, the social position of elders and memory. With MÁ SÀI GÒN, I am not seeking to make a film about myself. I believe I have encountered beautiful humans. They are colourful, endearing, touching and original. They have similar experiences and doubts, which allows the themes to emerge, but their lives are also unique and diverse. I enter their world by showing their lives as simply as possible, using a cinéma-vérité approach that focuses on the minutiae of relationships. I am also seeking to show the invisible, spiritual and sacred that are sometimes embedded in the most mundane activities. The narrative of SÀI GÒN is based on the feelings, sensory experiences and sensuality that can be revealed through cinema.


MÁ SÀI GÒN is a creative documentary that uses cinematic language to reveal its subjects’ inner worlds. A directorial style traditionally associated with fiction enables shifts into a dream world. In this space, image, sound, movement and textures generate emotions and impressions that lead the viewer to get to know the characters. We are interested in their dreams and ambitions, so even when the narrative is grounded in their everyday lives, the story does not rest on their actions, anecdotes or testimonials. It relies on sensory elements to weave visceral connections between the contexts and issues shown. Each image in MÁ SÀI GÒN ( stems from an artistic vision. It is not a factual work. Its impressionistic character makes it possible to create subjective portraits of its protagonists.



While the project offers reflections on marginality, tradition and the dominant culture, love is the central theme of MÁ SÀI GÒN. This makes it possible to broach, from the very specific perspectives of each character, issues that we all share. Whether it is thinking ahead to plan a wedding, pondering parenthood, contemplating sharing life with another person or pursuing ambitions that can only be realized by sacrificing a relationship or part of ourselves, these issues affect a vital part of our existence. The testimonials in the film are enlightening, tinged with both freedom and melancholy. They carry quests for identity and question the source of human beings’ attachment to their societies. From this attachment arose a reflection on filiation and on the figure of the mother. In maternal love, as in the love that binds us to our societies, the support offered can give rise to a desire to please. Mother Saigon is both loving and oppressive. In this film, I wanted to give her children the opportunity to shine through their uniqueness, their diversity, and the quest for love that drives them.



  • Khoa Lê
  • Writer and Director