Viet Nguyen graduated from UNCW’s film studies program in 2018 and already is taking home major awards for his work. Nguyen received an Emmy last month for his editing on the documentary-style television show “Osiyo: Voices of the Cherokee People.” Each 30-minute episode highlights the people, places, history, language and culture of the Cherokee Nation, the largest federally acknowledged tribe in the United States, with more than 380,000 citizens.
Nguyen’s background begins far from the world of film; the Emmy-winner grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After joining the Army in 2008, he was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After serving in the military for seven years, Nguyen moved to Wilmington and found his place at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
“One of the benefits of military service is the GI Bill, which paid for my tuition, books, and supplies,” Nguyen explains. “I also received a housing stipend, which after paying my rent, I got to keep what was leftover. I was literally getting paid to go to college. It was a no-brainer.”
Nguyen has since graduated (literally and figuratively) to larger projects and taken on more extensive roles as well. Nguyen began working for Firethief Productions, a Native-owned independent production company, shortly after returning home to Tusla and catching up with an old friend, one who happened to be the co-founder of a production company in need of a multi-talented editor.
“He invited me to give him a hand on a shoot using a camera I’ve never touched before,” Nguyen explains. “I thought I bombed the shoot but looking back I think he threw me into the fire to see how I’d do. But I just kept showing up to the office anyway looking for something to do and here I am almost two years later!”
Finding his place with Firethief Productions led to his award-winning work on “Osiyo: Voices of the Cherokee People.” The show is a passion project for the company, as well as host and co-creator Jennifer Loren, a Cherokee Nation citizen and Emmy-award winning journalist and filmmaker. Nguyen has worked on the docu-series for two seasons now, including season six, which recently aired October 1 on Osiyo TV.
Nguyen describes the power of the show and what it does for the Cherokee people.
“What I’ve learned from working on ‘Osiyo’ is that storytelling and visualization go hand-in-hand with each other,” he explains. “Storytelling is one of the most important traditions in Cherokee culture. It’s a way to preserve and pass on their history. They also tell stories through art. Native Americans have been accompanying their stories with visualizations through drawings in caves and ceremonial dance for thousands of years. I think ‘Osiyo’ is a modern extension of this tradition.”
Like most artists, Nguyen has enjoyed various outlets of creativity his entire life. From photography, drawing comics and painting, to playing music, writing skits and making ‘dumb videos’ with his friends. Nevertheless, Nguyen began looking at life through a lens early on in life.
“My father was always into cameras and would give me his hand-me-downs and with absolutely zero guidance on how to use them,” Nguyen remembers. “So, I had to learn everything on my own. Google and YouTube didn’t exist yet. I just pushed a lot of buttons and experimented.”
Nguyen’s years of service would ultimately influence his creative film sense, too. His military experience cultivated a strong work ethic and taught him the importance of being detail-oriented, which he now implements in his work.
“In the military, being prepared, organized, efficient and flexible is crucial to accomplishing the mission,” he details. “There’s a handbook or manual for literally every single thing you do in the military. It’s because you will make mistakes. The same applies to filmmaking.
“The military was just another outlet for me to create something. I know that sounds hard to believe,” Nguyen continues. “I was in Army Special Operations my entire military career, so we had to be creative and think outside of the conventional Army’s box, in everything we did, so to speak.”
Nguyen began at UNCW with only a loose idea of what he wanted to pursue in his post-military occupation. Upon arrival at the school, the cards fell into place.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I got to UNCW,” he says. “I knew that I didn’t want to write or direct, but I wanted to tell stories and I was pretty decent with holding a camera. After taking Dr. Mariana Johnson’s History of Documentary class, I learned all the different ways you can present a story by just observing and documenting.”
The decision to enter the film studies program was a challenge Nguyen took head-on. While challenging academically, starting college at 35 wasn’t ideal at first. Nevertheless, he describes UNCW’s inclusive and supportive program as exactly what he needed to explore and experiment with his craft.
“I’ll be honest, us film studies majors are a bunch of nerds and weirdos,” he quips.
Editing can be an underrated aspect of film and television, though it is one of the most valuable and most difficult. Nguyen sees the complexity of editing as a means of documentary-style storytelling:
“It’s a story without a script,” he explains. “You don’t know what will happen until it happens. I really love the rawness of the footage and the feeling like you’re really there.”
After discovering his niche in film editing, Nguyen also found himself working on various, small-scale productions in and around Wilmington.
“Some of them were reality-based TV shows around Wilmington, it was reminiscent of my military experience,” Nguyen reminisces. “We were always running-and-gunning (pun intended). I fit right in. The pace and unknown was exciting and I dove headfirst into it. I’d like to say the path stumbled on me because I was just taking any gig I could get.”
Nguyen’s job requires a specific eye: attention to detail and plot, which dives deep into the intricacy of each shot. Nguyen claims he was unaware he had these skills until really exploring the craft, where it came naturally to him.
“It wasn’t until I had formal visual arts training education from the military and college, that I realized I had an ‘eye,’” Nguyen notes. “A lot of my experience is in graphic design and still-photography, so I felt that applying those same design fundamentals to moving images was a natural progression.”
Nguyen also notes recognizes a sobering reality, especially in film in North Carolina as of late: No one is guaranteed a job or success. While college is “where you go to learn how to learn, they don’t teach students passion or determination.”
“In TV and film your work ethic and attitude will go a lot further than your resume or list of credits,” he adds. “Believe me, I’m an award-winning editor and cinematographer without a reel.”