(Wavelength #1) The Family Auto-shop Where Award-Winning Films are Set (On Fire)

Wavelength #1: Evolution of Carol Nguyen, filmmaker, pyromaniac
Photo-interviewer: Jacqueline Lee

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Who: Carol Nguyen, 20-year-old filmmaker, small but fierce three-time TIFF Jump cuts award winner and 2018 Sundance Ignite fellow.

Style: Experimental, documentary

Her roots: The Junction and MC Auto, her parent’s auto shop where they helped build her sets.

Her Wavelength: The fact her third-generation children may never truly connect with her Vietnamese parents.

Criminal Quirk: Arson, she’s set various items on fire for her films, like the table in her first New Wave feature, Facade (2016).

What’s the New Wave means to her: “The New Wave is the stories of culture. The face of film is changing and it’s easier for us than ever before to share our story.“


Carol’s dad grew up helping out at his family’s motorcycle business in Vietnam, so when he came to Canada he started MC Auto. Little did he know, two decades later his precious little girl who made crayon drawings of MC Auto in up in their office corkboard would also be hell bent on setting a table on fire there. He probably didn’t realize he’d be helping her.

MC Auto stands for Michelle Carol, after my sister and me.

As a little girl, Carol had her week packed to the brim. When she wasn’t doing school work, she was always busy with extra classes in math, English and Vietnamese. But in the summer, when all the other kids went to summer camp, Carol would beg her mom to take her to MC Auto. There, she would sweep the floors or make tags for keys. She’d watch her parents tinker with cars, chat clients up over the phone and just be a part of the Nguyen legacy. Fast forward to high school when Carol started doing film projects, MC Auto became her resource and her family, an inspiration. As Carol grew as a filmmaker, her films grew into full on family construction projects at the shop. All the Nguyens became a part of her work, behind the camera and in front of it.

Beginning Sparks – Fire and Family

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For one of Carol’s high school films, she marched into MC Auto to blow torch peanuts on camera. After that, she smashed them into bits with the metal tools around the shop. Her parents must’ve wondered if film would continue to bring out this side of her (spoiler alert yes), but as long as Carol is working hard at school and getting good grades, they would be supportive.

Aside from setting things on fire, Carol was inspired by her roots and the stories her dad would tell her. Uprooted (2013) is Carol’s first TIFF Jumpcuts award winner and it came from a recurring conversation she had with dad. The paper stop motion is accompanied by her dad’s voiceover of his first-hand account on how he escaped from Vietnam. He described his journey in Vietnamese, with all the details from the tiny boat he thought he would die in to his first pay check of 2.75 an hour.

I grew up hearing these stories so creating this film just felt like another conversation.

Turning up the Heat - Food for Thought

Growing up in a different country from her parent’sCarol refused to eat Vietnamese dishes at school for an entire year. She had her mother construct cheese sandwiches for lunch every day instead of the usual fragrant traditional dishes.

My mom probably just thought I was just going through a phase.

How do you Pronounce Pho (2015) tells the story of her and her sister tasting western grilled cheese and Campbell soup for the first time, her discomfort with her family’s homemade dishes and experiencing white-washed ethnic foods. 

This wouldn’t be the last time Carol uses food to bridge her culture with the west.

A Fiery Heart – Home and Belonging

Carol's enthusiasm for infernos can also be seen in her later work Façade (2016). A huge flame couldn’t be achieved with regular fire, so her dad used engine brake spray so the fire would burn very high and for a short time.

For Façade, I wanted to set a table on fire in the shop and it had to be HUGE. My parents were asking me WHY?!, but I just wanted to.

Façade (2016) was inspired by Carol leaving Toronto for Montreal for Concordia University, and being afraid whether she can truly be herself in her new home. She tells this through the story of four roommates hiding their eccentric hobbies from one another in their colourful rooms. She raised over seven thousand dollars for it on Kickstarter and her family and community was her biggest resource. Because studios in Toronto are so expensive and there was no space at home, her parents ended up giving her a car slot in MC Auto to do her magic as they kept working on the cars during business hours.

Behind the scenes of Facade, her camera-shy car mechanic father and uncle constructed the walls for the colourful rooms. Together, they rolled up their sleeves to paint the walls green, yellow, blue and red. Customers driving in would ask if they were building an office.

Passing on the Torch Whats next?

Carols 2018 New Wave film comes from a lesson she learned in sociology class. It takes three generations to fully assimilate into another culture. This means her children may never understand what it means to be Vietnamese. With dream-like vignettes, Every Grain of Rice features her mother, the sounds of Vietnamese ingredients being prepared into dishes and Carol’s soothing voice describing her history falling away from her like rice grains through her fingers.

Something that gets passed down each generation is a recipe. When your grandmother makes you something, you’re not only eating that meal but everything that came before her too.

Although her mother is self-conscious being filmed, Carol loves to use non-actors for the candid expressions she knows they’ll make. She is the star of Tundra (2018), Carol’s latest film.

When Carol talks about the future of her work, she knows that she’s expected to make a certain type of film because of the ones she’s been making. However, she is looking to explore fiction and narratives as well as stories of culture to tell the stories she wants to tell, whether it’s expected or liked. Carol is in her third year at Concordia, and after she graduates she plans to make a documentary. We promised to keep our lips sealed as to what it’s about, but keep your eyes sharp for Carol’s new waves.

Check her out: https://carolnguyenfilms.com

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