Di is a 12-year-old girl from the Hmong ethnic minority in the mountains of North Vietnam. Although she is fortunate enough to be a part of the first generation of kids in her community to go to school, she has to battle the societal expectation to marry young. On Lunar New Year's Eve, Di’s parents came home to find the house silent and empty — Di had been kidnapped to be someone's bride.
This is the story told by Vietnamese director Ha Le Diem in her documentary “Children of the Mist.” The 90-min film won the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) Award for Best Directing in the International Competition last week, gaining recognition by the largest documentary festival in the world.
Following the life of Di, “Children of the Mist” depicts the controversial tradition of “bride kidnapping” practiced in rural Vietnamese villages — on the Lunar New Year celebration, men in these villages would kidnap girls they are interested in to be their bride, some as young as 12 years old. The long-standing local custom has altered the fate of young girls like Di forever, cruelly forcing them into womanhood and motherhood, perpetuating the cycle of abuse and generational trauma.
Diem brilliantly puts her camera in the center of Di’s conflicting life. Torn between the deep-rooted tradition of adolescent marriage in her village and the modern outside world presented to her through social media, Di is exploring her sense of self and independence in a world where girls like her aren’t given many options. Diem’s documentary evokes sympathy for all parties involved and begs the question of consent, violence, feminism, and responsibility.
Diem is also worried for her protagonist Di, because of the sex trafficking and exploitation enabled by child marriage and bride kidnapping.
“They live very close to the Chinese border, which makes it much easier. Di knew girls who were raped on their way to school and sold to China,” Diem said to the American entertainment magazine Variety.
Born in 1991, Diem comes from the Tay community herself and was so fascinated by the Hmong traditions that she decided to follow Di’s story despite not speaking her language.
“I saw her play with her friends in the mountains and it reminded me of my own childhood. I wanted to make a film about it, about this beautiful time that all of a sudden can just disappear,” Diem said, noting that the filmmaking process inspired her to “grow up” as well.