When Vu Pham was a senior at Grant High School, he got a call from the office: His father was there to see him. Pham had not seen this man in more than a decade. The last time the two had locked eyes, his dad had been in prison in Vietnam.
"I remember being told my father was in the cafeteria waiting for me," says Pham, 38. "I was taken there by one of my teachers, and we just sat there in the cafeteria, in this big, empty space, just he and I."
Pham never did develop a relationship with his father, but that experience became one of many "autobiographical tendrils" fueling his current work as a filmmaker. From the bizarre and traumatic experiences of his life, Pham crafts films he calls "fantastic creatures." Three of these short works—fragmented and somewhat hallucinatory bursts about memory, family and peril—will play at the Portland Film Festival this weekend.
Pham was born in Vietnam but fled to Portland with his mother when he was 6. Two years later, his mom was killed by her boyfriend. He was then raised by his uncle, who'd been in the Cambodian-Vietnamese War and was, according to Pham, "a raging, maniacal asshole who beat the shit out of me all the time." At age 16, Pham left home—threw his belongings in a dumpster, slept at the airport and at bus depots, and showered in the Grant locker room until he was taken in by another family.
When Pham's father came to Portland, he brought a wife and four sons. One son, Tuan, would re-enter Pham's life in an unsettling way: as a street wanderer trying to bum cigarettes and money off him.
"At first, he was very gregarious and sentimental," says Pham, a fastidious dresser with a tendency to drop references to Derrida, Foucault and Hegel's master-slave dialectic. "He seemed to be fairly intact mentally. But later, every time I ran into him, he was this babbling psycho who would always be talking to me and to another personality."
Pham says he never felt threatened by Tuan, even when he would show up while Pham was working as a barista at Common Grounds on Southeast Hawthorne or cocktailing down the street at Mulligan's. But he eventually had to stop submitting to Tuan's requests for handouts. "I was like, 'What is there for me to do for this man?'" Pham says. "We didn't grow up together. There is no shared history. I wasn't brought up in a traditional family, so I don't know that I have it within my makeup to give this gratuitous value to a biological connection."
What Pham realized he did have in him was a story. Since he'd seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in junior high, Pham remembers being enthralled by cinema. But it wasn't until watching Chris Marker's seminal essay film Sans Soleil that he began to think about fusing narrative and documentary styles. He'd been living in L.A., gigging as a production assistant and an actor, when he decided to move back to Portland and pen a screenplay for a short film called Sway of the Knife—"a series of these encounters with this half-brother in various contexts but structured in an inverted chronology," he says.
In 2012, with funding from the Regional Arts & Culture Council and a Bend film company, and fresh off a successful $6,000 Kickstarter campaign, Pham decided to turn Sway of the Knife from a short into a feature. That never came together. He says he'd eventually like to make it happen, but for now, he's focusing on short films: He's in post-production on a 10-minute short about the unraveling of a relationship between an emotionally detached actress and her Lars von Trier-esque film-director husband, and in mid-September he'll shoot a film on Sauvie Island about a cult leader.
Filmmaking might not pay Pham's bills—he does craft service for an ad agency, tends bar for catering companies and picks up the occasional production or acting job—but it's a release.
"Making films allows me to take what I'm extremely obsessed with and get it out of my head," he says. "I have a sense of irony, though. I know how to laugh at myself. Look at what I'm trying to do: Being a self-sufficient filmmaker is a pretty ridiculous undertaking.â
SEE IT: Vu Pham's films are at Living Room Theaters at 10:15 pm Thursday, Aug. 28. One film, Baby Ipecac, is at the Clinton Street Theater at 6 pm Saturday, Aug. 30. $10. See portlandfilmfestival.com for more information.