When we were first approached about following Van's story we were skeptical. A young heroin trafficker was to be sentenced to death some time in the next month and his lawyer thought a documentary could be a vital component in the push to save his life. While there was no doubt in both our minds that as a basic issue of human rights, this young man's life should be spared, we were immediately wary of the assumption that a documentary would be effective spin in a political campaign. We didn't want to airbrush the story's blemishes away, and we also knew there was no guarantees that anything we made would go to air at a strategic campaign moment.
Like most great documentary ideas, there wasn't a pot of gold to get the project started. So it was with trepidation that we began to plot the feasibility of creating an unfunded masterpiece in the 6months we were advised it would take for Van Nguyen's sentence to be overturned or for his fate to be sealed. With no time to apply for funding, we, like Van's lawyers approached the film 'pro bono'. When the date of Van's sentencing was announced, we jumped on the phone to try and convince some-one, any-one to support us getting to Singapore. At the eleventh hour, with a mixture of philanthropic and in-kind support, we booked a ticket to Singapore for the first leg of production. It seemed we were now committed to seeing this through.
Like all good stories the more we dug the more engrossed we became. It was meeting Van's friends that spurred the commitment to uncovering Van's story. At each new meeting their loyalty was overwhelming and it was through their descriptions of Van that a profile of an entertaining and generous personality behind a façade of 'cool' grew. Even without meeting him, Van's charisma was magnetic.
It was also through Van's friends and family that we formed the question around which the film grew. What would you do, how would you cope if your brother, your son or your friend, faced the death penalty? The more we filmed the more we realized that this was the unseen effect of capital punishment. This wave of suffering illustrated more than anything the injustice of state sanctioned killing.
From the outset 'Just Punishment' was a collaboration. It could not have been made in any other way. This collaboration included the collaboration with Van himself. It is strange making a film about some one who is alive, who in a way you feel you know but who you have never met. This was the case for the majority of our extensive production period. In Singapore, visiting rights for death row prisoners' work on a quota system, and visits are restricted to family and close personal friends.
Van had endorsed the making of the film from the beginning. At that stage no one knew the outcome of the case and there was no way Van could imagine how he would eventually face his death. We followed Van's journey through reports from his visitors and his ceaseless writing. In the days before his execution and upon his request, we were at last able to meet the person whom we had been talking about for two years.
We were nervous about our meeting. While we didn't doubt the general character profile we had constructed of Van through the film, we found it difficult to believe the reported peace he felt days before being hanged. Our doubts were soon overturned. When asked about his fear, Van replied with a cheeky calm, "I can't say that I won't be shitting myself on the day but right now I am at peace". The other thing that repeatedly returns to us from this first and last meeting with Van is his admission that he had no idea when he left Australia that he could be killed for what he was about to do. Of course this is stupid, but we can't help but think how invincible we felt at twenty-one, and of all the extremely stupid things we've done.
Just Punishment is not an easy film to watch and it was not an easy film to make. But we hope that in some small way it echoes the campaign purpose in which it was originally conceived and that at some point it challenges audiences to rethink their position in relation not only to Van's execution but to the question of capital punishment in any case.