As we plan to either gather (in small groups) around the dinner table for a traditional family meal this Christmas season or, alternately, experience the profound absence of this cherished ritual, we figured that featuring Carol Nguyen’s acclaimed short film, No Crying at the Dinner Table, would be appropriate. Nguyen’s emotional film about her own family addressing unspoken feelings and revealing vulnerabilities promises some pain, but holds out the potential for catharsis.
“I wanted to explore the word that defined it all—“intergenerational trauma”
In No Crying at the Dinner Table, Carol Nguyen shines the light on her family and the intricacies of their internal dynamics. The genesis of the project arose while doing research for a fiction film about displays of love, and by asking her own family members about their own experience with love, she discovered new sides to her three-generation households and a new way to connect through their unspoken and undisclosed grief and trauma. “I wanted to know why we keep such feelings to ourselves, when sharing and verbalizing may be a critical step for closure” she explains while discussing the inspiration of the project. In her particular case, whether it is because of the cultural, language or generational barrier, appearing weak was to be avoided in her family, along with emotional confrontation, while warmth and tenderness were present in unspoken and subtle ways. This dynamic feels too close for comfort in my case, which makes her statement of a “desire to unearth a chest full of unsaid and unshared, in an attempt to start difficult conversations that would pull us closer together” all the more emotionally engaging.
“I wanted to explore the word that defined it all — ‘intergenerational trauma’. This to me was the assimilation of love, communication and culture” Nguyen tells us while discussing the aim of the film. It surely is a complex subject and tackling it from such a personal perspective brings a level of authenticity that cannot be manufactured. Since she is directing her own family members the level of trust does allow her subjects to feel comfortable while the presence of the camera making it easier and more fruitful to dive into those topics that are not usually addressed around the dinner table. The staging is quite simple, being around the table instantly recreates the atmosphere of familial closeness without distracting us from the emotional Pandora’s box slowly opening up.
The editing also structures the film in a way that makes the emotional journey remarkably satisfying without feeling contrived or manipulative. The process obviously comes from a loving place and this purity shows itself in how genuine and cathartic the emotional climaxes are. Nguyen allows her family to hear their own interviews which proves to be a perfect strategy in getting the ball rolling and shaking up the emotional status quo. From there compassion takes over, and we can see how by revealing those unspoken feelings the family is connecting in a deeper way. While it was impossible for my eyes to remain dry, Nguyen does end the film with a touch of humor, wrapping the film on a positive note.
No Crying at the Dinner Table had a very impressive run on the festival circuit after its premiere at the 2019 edition of TIFF. With multiple selections at festivals around the world including the Palm Springs ShortFest, it was also nominated at the 2020 Canadian Screen Awards and won the Oscar-qualifying award at SXSW 2020 which makes it currently in consideration for the 2021 Academy Awards. Nguyen is currently developing her first documentary feature while also working on an animated short film.