J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

DOC NYC ’19: Mai Khoi and the Dissidents


If the New Left anti-war protestors ever really took stock of their legacy, they would have to confront their inadvertent contribution to the abysmal human rights record of modern-day Vietnam, a one-party Communist surveillance state that regularly ranks down at the bottom of press freedom indexes, alongside China and Iran. Recently, the regime has also moved aggressively to curtail the flow of information over the internet. That is the environment the free-thinking recording artist Mai Khoi was forced to operate in. Filmmaker Joe Piscatella follows Khoi during a pivotal period of her career as an artist and an activist in Mai Khoi and the Dissidents, which premiered at this year’s DOC NYC.

Khoi has frequently been dubbed Vietnam’s Lady Gaga, but she is also intelligent and capable of thinking for herself. However, her first big hit was something like the Vietnamese equivalent of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” The government certainly promoted it that way, but she continued to grow as an artist. Even more inconveniently, she also developed a social conscience, especially with respects to free speech and women’s rights.

Inevitably, the Party cooled on the once favored Khoi and it became downright hostile when she launched an independent campaign for parliament. In a weird kink of the nation’s electoral laws, rival political parties are expressly prohibited, but independent candidacies are ostensibly legal. Of course, the Party still kept her off the ballot. As the pressure on Khoi mounts, she forms a new band that reflects her concerns and frustrations: “Mai Khoi and the Dissidents.” You know they do not reflect the Party approved aesthetics, because it includes a jazz saxophonist.

Although Dissidents is not quite as intense as Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow, the stakes are high throughout the film and Khoi faces genuine peril. Despite its atrocious human rights record, Vietnam has enjoyed a fair amount of sympathetic press in recent years. Dissidents should serve as a sharp rebuke and a bitter antidote to such white-washed coverage.


Dissidents is not even seventy-minutes long, but quite a bit happens within that economical running time. Khoi is admirable tough, but interviews with her family, including her Australian husband, help create a very human portrait. Piscatella (who also helmed the excellent and suddenly desperately timely Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower) clearly favors Obama over Trump, but it is the faceless Vietnamese Communist apparatchiks who really get scorched from the light his film casts.

There are things in this film the Party absolutely does not want the world to witness, so you should definitely see it. Very highly recommended, Mai Khoi and the Dissidents screens again this afternoon (11/14), during DOC NYC 2019.

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