The delicate art of drawing is not a simple task for Chau.
Within the confines of a small wheelchair, his limbs barely allow him to pick up a marker from the jumble of coloring supplies in front of him, let alone create an entire picture. As a victim of past warfare in Vietnam, he experienced firsthand the devastating effects of the herbicide Agent Orange, which was originally deployed by the United States government during the Vietnam War.
Tucked away in the back of a small maternity hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, he found little support for his dream of becoming an artist.
In 2007, UCLA alumna Courtney Marsh was also navigating the streets of Ho Chi Minh City trying to fuel her own love: filmmaking. A chance meeting and nine years later, Marsh has documented Chau’s lifelong fight for artistic achievement and garnered an Academy Award nomination for the resulting documentary “Chau, Beyond the Lines.”
Back home in southern Florida, Marsh said she felt that the culture was very limited aside from average island life. Consequently, in 2007, she and Hai-Lam Phan, her close friend and UCLA alumnus, decided to fly to Vietnam to film street children for a documentary with no plan and only a desire for adventure.
“I wanted to really figure it out, and really make use of my summer so it just seemed like the one logical thing to do,” Marsh said. “It was just being young and kind of really wanting to go after something new.”
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, Marsh settled into into her small hotel room near the bustling stalls of the Ben Thanh Market. A television producer soon approached Marsh and introduced her to the maternity hospital where Chau lived with around fifty other children dealing with the debilitating effects of Agent Orange.
Marsh began volunteering at the hospital. Along with everyday chores, Marsh said she would play daily soccer games with the children, showing her competitive spirit as she tried to protect her shins from an onslaught of furious kicks.The children made the soccer balls fly across the room, and Marsh often left the soccer room with several bruises.
The hospital’s nurses quickly started to trust her to work with the children on her own and to allow her to film for her documentary.
At the end of each day, Marsh said she would walk home through the crowded side streets of Ho Chi Minh City to unwind, before reviewing hours of footage from that day’s filming.
Chau stood out to her because of his emotive personality in such an emotionally suppressed society. As a result, she started to focus the documentary on him and four other children, creating the basis for what would grow into her Academy Award-nominated film.
“I had never made a movie before, I didn’t know if I was going to be successful, I was scared,” Marsh said. “It just seemed like such a universal story. We all dream of being something, and we don’t know if we are going to be successful or not.”
For the next eight years, Marsh continued to document the successes and failures of Chau’s work toward becoming an artist both inside and outside of Vietnam. Marsh said she used Chau’s Facebook page to keep up with his location, which she then used to organize local film crews for further filming.
Marsh tackled the enormous amount of footage from Vietnam back home in her apartment in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles. However most of the footage was in Vietnamese, leading her to hire a translator, Duy Nguyen.
Nguyen said she and Marsh sat together at a small, black desk in the corner of Marsh’s apartment and scrolled through hours of footage while Nguyen translated each clip. The computer screen quickly became a monotonous stream of video, only broken off by small salad breaks or a quick walk around the block. Together the pair went through every possible way of editing the footage.
“There were certain times when we edited something and got stuck at how one point of his story went to the next,” Nguyen said. “Your mind is constantly thinking about how to find that one solution.”
In 2014, the first cut of the film was finished and titled “The War Within the Walls.”
Producer Jerry Franck, who also helped with editing, began work to screen the documentary at film festivals around the world.
“When you finish a movie, for the first film festival, you never know which one it’s going to be,” Franck said. “Once you’ve broken in a bit, it takes stress off you because it’s like someone actually likes the movie.”
The film appeared at four festivals including The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Montana. After watching the film go through the film festival process, Marsh returned to her apartment to recut the film, adding some more recent information about Chau’s life and renaming it “Chau, Beyond the Lines.”
“I had kind of a fresh perspective while I was watching the films; you really lose perspective when you’ve shot it, edited it and directed it” Marsh said. “I was like god, I really wish I could change this.”
The new cut made rounds at even more film festivals before Marsh and Franck began work to qualify it for the Oscars. To meet the qualification requirements for the Oscars the pair worked for two straight months, screening the film in a Los Angeles theater for seven days and taking out an ad in LA Weekly.
At 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 14, Marsh and Franck sat staring silently at Marsh’s small laptop screen, waiting for the best documentary short subject nominations to be announced. Upon hearing the name “Chau,” Marsh’s scream rang throughout the apartment as she leapt up from her couch in celebration. Marsh’s eight years of work on the documentary had received the ultimate recognition, an Oscar nomination.
Despite the recognition, Marsh’s work with Chau has always been the most important part of making the documentary. After eight years of staying in touch with Chau and working with him to launch his art career, Marsh and Chau have grown to become close friends.
“I think the greatest thing that came out of the nomination was that finally, after all this time, I know Chau’s going to be okay,” Marsh said. “I won’t have to worry about him his whole life; he’ll be just fine.”