A Crack in the Mountain: A VR experience with Alastair Evans and Huong Nguyen Thien Le
It’s an intimate gathering at the W Hotel in London, with a delicate selection of guests enjoying wine in champagne glasses and a light yellow glow illuminating the red and black seats of the venue. The virtual reality event, hosted by Alastair Evans (director/cinematographer) and Huong Nguyen Thien Le (star) in accompaniment to the release of A Crack in the Mountain, exudes a pleasant atmosphere. It’s peaceful, like the Hang Son Doong cave in question, but full of quiet chatter that mimics the white noise of nature that surrounds at all times. The event begins with small talk with Evans, and the main protagonist of the documentary, Huong Nguyen. They welcome guests, get to know them, and explain a little about their journey with both the film and the cave.
A Crack in the Mountain explores Hang Son Doong, a mountain cave in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in the Quang Binh Province of Vietnam. It’s known as the largest cave in the world, often called “the eighth wonder”, and has remained a peaceful entity that has lived for millions of years with not a single disturbance. The wondrous Hang Son Doong includes a cave lake and two large dolines, one called The Garden of Edam – a title inspired by The Garden of Eden. But this peace may not last long as plans to build a cable car have emerged, threatening the delicate balance of Hang Son Doong’s eco-system. Huong Nguyen is an activist and the co-founder of #SaveSonDoong, a group advocating for the preservation of the cave against commercialisation and industrial developments. She has given several TED Talks regarding the topic and is the main interviewee of Evans’s film.
Guests are led to the screening room where the VR experience takes place. Huong Nguyen first explains the procedures for the event (putting on the headgear, navigating through the virtual reality, cues to take note of, any buttons that may be useful, and operating the apparatus), and then she takes time to introduce herself and explain the situation in regards to the cave, her work involving #SaveSonDoong, the film, and Evans’s help in amplifying their voices. She explains how the VR experience is especially essential for people who are not able to go to Vietnam and see the cave in person, so that they can learn more – not just about its beauty, but also its ecological and scientific value. After her speech, she takes some questions from the small crowd in regards to their campaign, with Evans joining in every once in a while with commentary about the feature’s role in all of this.
One of the bigger questions that comes up concerns what Huong Nguyen can and cannot say in the film. Evans takes the reins, explaining that his number-one priority is her safety: “She spoke a lot in the interview – there was a lot of stuff she said which we couldn’t include. There was a point in which I thought I had to make sure she made it clear that this was an environmental campaign. So, that’s probably about the only bit that’s somewhat contrived. Because I said to her, ‘You’ve got to say this on-camera and I’ve got to get it filmed.’ That was a key thing for me: to try and get her a ‘get out of jail free’ card.”
Another big discussion is how #SaveSonDoong continually survives through the years with only seven members. Huong Nguyen speaks a lot about how difficult it is to keep everyone together and how useful the film has been in supporting their fight: “When we first started, there were a lot of people who wanted to join the group. Like any environmental campaign, a lot of people are excited and passionate about it, but it’s hard to keep something going that long. The number of people who follow us on social media is about 200,000 in Vietnam who are supporting us. I can’t expect all my teammates to continue doing this. They all have jobs; they all have their personal lives. So, I’m very grateful that Alastair helped us continue to carry on the spirit of the campaign by turning it into a documentary, and showing people around the world what we do here in Vietnam.”
After the brief Q&A, the VR experience begins. The piece was created by Swedish photographer Martin Edström of National Geographic, who gifted it to the #SaveSonDoong group for the purpose of educating. It’s beautifully shot with extraordinary lighting. It’s not so blindingly bright that it overpowers the viewing, but it’s not so dim that it hides away the details – there is just the right amount of shadow and light to mimic the authentic experience of walking through the cave. It’s a short but very fulfilling experience. The VR takes viewers into the two dolines, providing commentary on the geographic structure of the cave, and explanations of why certain things happen, such as the forest in the cave, stalagmites, and the cross sections decorating the walls of the second doline. Upon watching it, it’s easy to understand why there’s such a fight to preserve Hang Son Doong. Viewers will buy into the cause and hope for its success.
A Crack in the Mountain is released in select cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on 26th May 2023.
Watch the trailer for A Crack in the Mountain here: