When should a documentarian put down her camera and intervene? It's a question of endless debate and scholarship, but director Ha Le Diem wastes no time dancing around it in her first full-length documentary, Children of the Mist (2021). Her investment is clear from the outset: "Miraculously, we became friends," she says of her film's subject, a 12-year-old Hmong girl named Di. "Sisters, even."
It's easy enough to see why Diem is fond of Di, even without the autobiographical note that she spent three years living with the girl and her family in the misty mountains of north Vietnam. Di is clever and insightful, and on the cusp of womanhood: equal parts a goofy child and a surly preteen. But it's a dangerous age to be in this community, where the illegal custom of "kidnapping" a young bride is still very much accepted. Sure enough, after filming Di enjoying the Lunar New Year celebration with her friends, Diem loses track of her subject, only to later find her walking hand in hand with a teenage boy named Vang. "I am a decent man . . . I won't kidnap her," Vang insists to Diem. "Alright," Diem says uncertainly from behind the camera. But when Di doesn't come home later that day, it becomes clear that's exactly what Vang has done.
What follows is heartbreaking and excruciating as Di tries desperately to extract herself from a commitment she hasn't willingly made (and as a child, couldn't consensually make). Over the course of the next several days, Diem assumes opposing roles as both Di's adopted sister and documentary filmmaker, scolding Di for treating the situation like a game while also turning her quiet lens on the families as they debate what should be done. Di's parents are seemingly of little help: "If she gets married," her mother frets at one point, "who will feed the pig when I get drunk?" Later, when Vang's family tries to carry Di away, it is Diem who gives voice to the agony felt by her audience: "Do something!" she screams at Di's parents.
Diem's demonstrated love for Di makes Children of the Mist a powerful document of a childhood lost. Another filmmaker might have used their camera more objectively, to show audiences a remote and foreign community with customs it might not be our place as outsiders to judge. Not Diem. Through her lens, Di becomes our sister, too.
Children of the Mist screens tonight, December 19, at DCTV Firehouse Cinema.