Remembering Stephane Gauger (1970–2018)

Just a week ago, I watched and sang along with Vietnamese-American filmmaker Stephane Gauger as he belted out Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” in a trendy bar in Saigon. Only seven days later, Stephane passed away at the age of 47, much to the shock and sadness of an international community.

I’ve got much to say about this amazing man and the legacy he left behind.

Exceeding Expectations (Even Within His Own Tribe)

Along with Johnny and Charlie Nguyen, Kieu Chinh, Dustin Nguyen, Ham Tran, Veronica Ngo Thanh Van, Victor Vu, Jenni Trang Le, and many others, Stephane Gauger was a major contribute to the “Viet Film Wave” that inspired me to travel down to California and eventually Vietnam.

I can’t exactly recall when I first met Stephane, but I certainly remember the first time I saw him as an actor in The Rebel, portraying a multilingual French underboss. The armchair scholar in me thought he just there to represent the evils of colonialism vis-a-vis the main protagonists of Johnny and Veronica, who personified the hard-line resistance-fueled nationalism that perpetually defines the Vietnamese collective subjectivity.

“A white dude as a baddie in a Viet film?” I thought, racistly. “Finally.”

I queued this to Stephane’s scene. Was this just 12 years ago?

I think I finally met him in person in Fountain Valley, California during a typical gathering at “Chi Ysa’s,” where the executive director of VAALA would routinely bring together artisans, businesspeople, academics, community leaders, and wide-eyed volunteers together to her home for awesome food and a relaxed atmosphere to network.

The first thing I noticed about Stephane was how he towered over everyone, standing at an imposing height of roughly 6'4". With the build of a retired linebacker, he stood out among the rest like a sore thumb.

“Hey!” I realized idiotically, “that’s one of the white guys from The Rebel!

The subject of Stephane’s ethnicity is not something I’ve ever inquired directly with him, nor did I ever feel comfortable doing so, as I’m sure countless have already. Such matters could be deeply personal, after all.

But once I heard him speak in Vietnamese, I knew this guy was“Viet as PHO.”

The few conversations I had with Stephane always left me craving for more. He thought deeply about everything, yet I didn’t want to press him too much because I could tell that he had somewhere to be — behind the camera, in the editing studio, in front of a typewriter, I’d surmise.

Stephane needed to create, and lucky for us, he found a way to do so.

The Next Generation’s Dreamweaver

Stephane began to make a name for himself as an indie filmmaker in Vietnam, especially after making the critical darling The Owl and the Sparrow, a heartfelt tale about a street child in Saigon. (Just a few weeks ago someone told me that he thought this remains one of the best films ever in the Vietnamese community — it’s certainly high on my own list.)

Try watching it without bawling by the end, I dare you.

When I spent a summer in Vietnam in 2010, Stephane and others in the community were wrapping up production on a film about hip-hop artists in Saigon. For young American audiences, much of this film might feel familiar, but for the Vietnamese, Stephane essentially “electrified” the community with this tour-de-force into a virtually unknown yet thriving subculture.

Fun note: it was because of that project that I met eventual Saigon super-couple Bao Nguyen and Suboi, ending up in the latter’s first music video. (I will never stop sharing this —you’ll find me at the 2:35 mark). In other words, things often happened one way or another because of Stephane.

Stephane’s films revealed how much he loved to tell stories about the young generation in Vietnam, one that distances themselves from the histories of war, displacement, politics, and suffering. Stephane himself was born in Vietnam and grew up in the U.S., easily shaped by conflict, migration, and racism from every conceivable angle.

There’s probably a lot for reasons for him to be angry about, but that simply wasn’t Stephane’s way.

Instead, he focused on those who are living in the moment, trying to look ahead but not quite sure of the what the future held in store for them. His films gave a community a fresh alternative voice, a chance to see their perspective and acknowledge the fears and concerns they might have for their homeland in an often lighthearted way.

I just loved his cinematic style — energetic, intentionally unstable and improvised in a Paul Greengrass-esque manner, struggling to contain the excitement he felt towards his native country in its neoliberal moment.

His films always had this insistence on capturing Vietnam’s exciting urban scenes while at the same time acknowledging that it’s quixotically impossible — Vietnam is always a bit beyond anyone’s control.

Yet what grounded all of that: a steadfast, unwavering sentiment of love, compassion, and spirit — terms I’d certainly use to describe Stephane Gauger as an artist and as a man.

Although I didn’t spend a lot of time with you or know you as well I would have liked, I mourn alongside so many out there whose lives you’ve touched deeply with your work and your heart.

You were a giant among us simple folk in search of freedom, dignity, and family, only to realize we’d always be able to find it in your company.

Rest well, Stephane.

— Lee

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