The Tree House is a strange wee movie. It is incredibly ambivalent about itself.
It has the feel of an old school anthropological ethnography, with all the negatives and positives that comes with. It focuses on indigenous Vietnamese folk, Ruc, Cor and H’mong. They live in the forests in the mountains of Vietnam.
During the American invasion, many Vietnamese folk ran to the mountains and forests to hide and stay safe. Some were forcibly relocated by the Americans. Immediately after the war, and for a long time after, the government encouraged people to come back down out of the mountains and rebuild. But this also included the indigenous people for whom living in the forests and caves was their way of life. This represented a major shift and a loss of culture.
The filmmaker interviews them and asks to be shown the caves where they stayed and hear about how life was there. It is only after all the footage is shot, he seems to regret what little consideration he went in with.
When the Americans came, there was a proliferation of film and photographs. It was described as the first televised war, and alongside that the propaganda for it was very high. This one-sided power exchange, of an invaded people being gazed in on, as an object for the use of others, is something the filmmaker sees reiterated in his work with the indigenous people, and haunts the project.
In Ruc culture, that which is alive is what is seen, and that which is dead is unseen. When the Americans came, they showed a woman a video of her deceased son. She was in hysterics, thinking this must mean he was alive, and asked them to return him to her. What consent had they from this man to film him? To show his image after his death? And what right had they to expose his mother to it?
All this percolates through this film of people describing their old homes, what they ate as a kid, how they played, what they missed. It is a film that feels like the camera has created distance between the subject and viewer, not closed it.