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How did you come to be involved with this project?

I first went to Son Doong Cave in March 2017. I’ve been fortunate to travel extensively and have had many singular experiences in a variety of countries around the world. But Son Doong is by far and away, the most extraordinary place I have visited. All the cliches of it being like something out of AVATAR or a real life manifestation of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH are absolutely true.

It is a very special place but also somewhere which isn’t really part of the global consciousness. There have been newspaper and magazine articles about it over the years and National Geographic made an hour length documentary in 2011. But still most people have never heard of it.

So I knew from very early on that I wanted to create some sort of cinematic experience built around Son Doong. At the same time, I also knew that I did not want it to just be a pretty nature documentary. My interest is more in narrative and telling human stories.

So the film went through a couple of iterations. Initially, I conceived it as this triptych which described the experience of the cave through three differing perspectives: one of the original explorers, a 2nd generation Vietnamese- American visiting the cave for the first time, and one of the local porters whose life had been transformed by the cave’s discovery.

But as I dug deeper into things, I realized there was a bigger and more compelling story to be told. One which involved how the cave’s discovery had brought great opportunity for the people of Phong Nha, but also left them with numerous challenges. Not just about what to do with Son Doong. But also what shape they wanted their community to take moving forward.

This was playing out against a backdrop where the Save Son Doong movement was fighting to protect the cave at all costs despite push back from an opaque governmental system. And in the midst of all of this, Covid happened which decimated the local tourism industry.

So there were a lot of moving parts. It then became a question of how to structure all of this into a coherent narrative. One that explored the complexities of all the issues at play and did so in a compelling way whilst also not diluting or shying away from some of the more difficult conversations I encountered along route.

What was it like filming in the cave and also more widely in Vietnam?

I ended up going back to Son Doong 8 times over a period of 5 years. I also made multiple separate trips to Hang En which is the 3rd largest cave in the world and also features in the film. Hang En is where you spend your first night on the trek to Son Doong.

Shooting in the cave was as you can imagine, challenging. I didn’t have any type of crew with me so I was shooting alone with a local assistant who helped with carrying gear.

This was the first time I had shot anything on this type of scale so it was a steep learning curve. For me the beauty of Son Doong, lies in its contrasts. It is in the shadows, it is in the alcoves and on the ledges, where the darkness hunts the light. It is in the play between the sunbeams which spill into the cave through one of the two dolines and the rolling caverns which eventually engulf these rays.

As much as possible, I wanted to give the audience an authentic experience of what it is like being in Son Doong. Often when photographers are in Son Doong they use powerful artificial lights to flood the cave. This was something I wanted to avoid and although it was difficult to achieve, what you see on screen is similar to what the eye sees when someone visits in person.

It’s interesting you ask about filming more broadly in Vietnam because that also came with its unique challenges.

It’s easy to forget that Vietnam is similar to China in many ways in that it is a one party Communist state which maintains strict controls over the media as well as any international journalists reporting from within the country.

Whilst not having any type of crew in the cave, made things harder. Outside of the cave, this actually became a positive since it allowed me to be both nimble and get what I needed without attracting too much attention.

At the same time, I had to be very careful with the questions I asked particularly about politically sensitive topics such as land rights issues. People were either very reticent to talk about things which might get them into trouble, or spoke too freely without understanding the power of my camera.

So when it came to the edit, I had to be strategic about who said what about particular topics in order to guarantee peoples’ safety.

This is why there are multiple contributors to the film – Phong Nha natives, English speaking expats who have moved there as well as more outspoken Vietnamese activists based in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh as well as a foreign based Southeast Asian expert who was able to communicate certain necessary truths others could not.

You mentioned that you shot the film alone. As well as being the primary cinematographer, you also directed, produced and edited the film. That’s a lot of hats to wear on a project of this scale and scope. Can you talk about how you juggled these different responsibilities?

I think that’s one of the reasons the film took 5 years to make. It was also my first time producing / directing / editing anything. About 20 years ago I made a short film which played at a couple of festivals. But that’s the sum total of my previous filmmaking experience.

So as you can imagine, I made a lot of mistakes along the way. Mistakes that would have gotten me fired multiple times if I hadn’t been the Producer! Fortunately, I was able to recover from all of these but still it took a lot of time and sacrifice to get the film to where I wanted it to be and where I felt satisfied with it.

I should mention Ryan Deboodt who is also credited as a Cinematographer on the film. Ryan has shot a lot inside Son Doong and is one of the few people who has been permitted to film using a drone inside the cave. Ryan only contributed about 2 minutes of footage to the project. But those 2 minutes are so important in conveying to the audience the size and splendor of Son Doong, I felt that he needed to have a top tier credit rather than being buried in the credit roll.

You mentioned before about there being a lot of moving parts to this film. Could you talk a bit about how and why you structured the narrative in the way you did?

I knew that despite my primary focus being the underlying tension between economic development and the importance of safeguarding our natural heritage, I also needed to give audiences an experience of what it was like to be in Son Doong as well as answer certain key questions.

This is a place that so few people have heard of and even fewer have visited. So I knew that if the film didn’t address some of the questions people would inevitably have about its size, its ecology as well as how it was discovered, audiences would feel short changed.

Also, in order for people to understand the stakes involved when it came to the issue of the cable car, I needed people to truly appreciate Son Doong’s magnificence.

This is why the 1st Act of the film is focused on the cave itself, peppered with hints of what is to come.

From there, the 2nd Act shifts to the issues which are at the heart of the film before coming back to the cave at the start of the 3rd Act.

So the film is built around a traditional three act structure with the experience of the cave bookended on either side.

Constructing this narrative flow was by far and away the most challenging aspect of the whole process. Even more so than shooting inside the cave. The film covers a lot of ground over its 100 mins running time and my desire to keep things both coherent and compelling took a lot of thought.

For this reason, Covid proved to be a blessing in disguise. I was locked out of Vietnam for all of 2020. So while I waited to get back in to complete filming, I got started with the edit.

This additional time really allowed me to shape the narrative into something which I was satisfied with. It also meant that when I managed to engineer a way to get back into the country in early 2021 despite the borders still being closed, I knew exactly what I was missing in order to complete the project. This allowed me to be very targeted during this final chapter of shooting.

Do you consider A CRACK IN THE MOUNTAIN to be an environmental film?

It’s certainly about the environment and more specifically about how we treat our natural heritage. It’s also about what happens when attempts to build a sustainable future bump up against powerful economic forces.

What the film is not is an environmental polemic.

I think there is an important role for documentaries and other creative works whose sole focus is to impress upon people the urgency of safeguarding our planet’s future.

But I also think the risk to taking this approach is that the audience who goes to see the film is already part of your tribe and you end up in an echo chamber.

I did not want that for this film. I also didn’t want to ignore the fact that there was a legitimate debate to be had over whether or not Son Doong specifically and more broadly, the natural beauty around Phong Nha should be sacrificed in order to bring greater economic prosperity to its people.

Party this is because I am first and foremost a filmmaker and including this made for a more interesting story.

But these were also the conversations that people were having on the ground. And to ignore these in order to serve a broader environmental agenda would have felt like a betrayal.

Can you talk about your approach to the sound design on this film?

Son Doong is such an other worldly place, the film’s visuals can only do so much when trying to give the audience a sense of what it feels like to be in there.

So a lot of the heavy lifting is being done subtly, by the sound.

What is interesting is when you are inside Son Doong, you actually don’t hear very much. Because it is so big, there is very little echo or reverb and even the sounds of the jungle are just a faint whisper when you are in camp.

This always took me by surprise between trips. Because the cave had such a profound emotional impact on me, my imagination inadvertently stepped in to fill the sonorific void the cave’s size and length created.

Ethereal soundscapes would form in my mind which then became my reality in the months between visits to Son Doong. And when I did return, I was always surprised by how different the cave actually sounded when compared to my constructed memory.

This experience proved the inspiration for the film’s sound design. Instead of naturalism, myself and sound designer Saso Puckovski chose to take a more expressionistic approach. We were careful not to be too heavy handed with this but hopefully this allows the audience to connect more emotionally with Son Doong.

Why did you decide not to work with a single composer to score the music for the film?

Quite a few people have asked me this and the answer is that I did not want the film to have a single musical identity.

In my experience watching films, generally speaking a film score is “of a piece” in that there is a certain similitude to the various compositions.

This was not the approach I wanted to take with this film. Instead, I wanted to fit the music precisely to the mood and pacing of each individual scene.

Often this meant skipping between different musical genres or instrumental use in a way that I felt a single film composer would have struggled with. Or at least any film composer I could afford.

It made much more sense to me to source pre-composed pieces from a variety of musical artists each of which did exactly what I needed it to do.

Bear in mind that this is my first experience of the filmmaking process and I’m sure there are composers out there who would bristle at the idea of me thinking that they are not artistically dexterous enough to achieve what I was looking for with the score of this film. And they may well be right. Perhaps I will work with a film composer on my next project.

Do you feel that in making a documentary about Son Doong and bringing more attention to it, you are putting the cave at greater risk?

It’s obviously a question I’ve thought about deeply over many years and I do not feel that’s the case.

I actually feel the opposite. That this film can make a significant contribution towards Son Doong’s preservation, assuming of course it reaches a wider audience.

Why? Because the Vietnamese government as well as the local PPC in Quang Binh province (who will ultimately decide what Son Doong’s fate is), are highly dependent on the tourism economy.

And because Vietnamese tourists do not generally favor adventure travel, foreign tourists make up a large percentage of the visitors to Phong Nha.

My experience has been that most adventure focused travelers are environmentally aware and understand the importance of preserving our natural heritage.

So the more people who hear about Son Doong and the fact it is under threat, the louder the international outcry will be if the local PPC do decide to move on the cave.

This is what happened in 2014 when Save Son Doong’s petition protesting the cable car development got 50,000 signatures in less than a week.

What is the current situation as it is now in April 2023 regarding plans to open up Son Doong for wider public access?

Things haven’t changed since how the film ends. I’m assuming you’ve seen the film so you’ll know there is resolution but at the same time a level of uncertainty as to how things might go in the future.

This is very much a story which is still playing out. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years leading up to 2030.