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Cù Lao Chàm: Island of Life

Directed by:

James Borton


27 minutes

On a pristine archipelago off Vietnam’s central coast islanders have adopted conservation and sustainability practices to provide an ecologically balanced future.



On-Demand (Worldwide). October 30 - November 5

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On a pristine archipelago off Vietnam’s central coast islanders have adopted conservation and sustainability practices to provide an ecologically balanced future.

James Borton and Brave New Pictures are pleased to release their short documentary film, “Cu Lao Cham: Island of Life”. At a time when the high seas are experiencing challenges from climate change, industrialization, plastics pollution, and overfishing, our film identifies a pristine archipelago off Vietnam’s central coast, where the islanders are connected with their sea and have adopted conservation and sustainability practices to provide an ecologically balanced future.

The film’s narrative draws upon the words of Dr. Chu Manh Trinh’, a tireless marine biologist, whose pioneering work is responsible for mapping out and securing the islanders’ commitment to protect the natural resources of the Cham archipelago and its peoples’ cultural heritage and values. Locals call him “thay” or “teacher Trinh”.

The film also tells the story of local islanders from fishermen to a naturalist or “forest man” who treks into the mountains daily to forage for medicinal wild herbs and plants.

Since 2010, Vietnam has been engaged in an ambitious initiative to create national marine protected areas. The Cham way of life extends to their preservation of the coral reefs and aquatic ecosystems, including whales. Their beliefs about the mythic properties of these giants run as deep as the ocean. The local fishermen regard the whales as their protectors, a spiritual role that they honor in temples and in a local museum.

The film illustrates that it does indeed take a “village” to make a difference and Cu Lao Cham’s islanders offer a successful model for the world to follow.

Director Statement

The epic film “Avatar: The Way of Water”, the sequel to the 2009 Best-Picture Academy Award nominee that won Canadian filmmaker James Cameron the Best Director statuette that year, is competing in four categories at the Oscars on March 12. Set on a tropical island, where a local indigenous tribe teaches the leading character and his family how connected they are to the ocean, Cameron’s cinematic creation mirrors his life and love. Like the planet’s oceans, his fictional undersea world is in deep trouble and the film shows why. 


As an international journalist, I saw the danger and how islanders who depend on the sea can show us how to protect their fragile marine resources. From the Philippines, where the sea-dwelling Badjao people or “Sea Nomads”, taught me how to dive for natural pearls in the Sulu Sea, to Cu Lao Cham, an archipelago 20 nautical miles off Vietnam’s central coast, where local fishers venture into the East Sea (how Vietnamese refer to the South China Sea), I have had a front row seat to learn from the real, not digitally conjured, reef people.


I vividly remember the first time I arrived by boat in Cu Lao Cham in 2016. The sky was a bright blue, the harbor calm. On the tidy dock were stacked bags of trash and signs that read “No plastic allowed”. Just as in Cameron’s film, beneath the waters was a collection of corals – vibrant pink, luminescent blue, sparkling golden-yellow, and gorgeous green. I would understand later from residents that these jewels of the sea were an important part of the local lore and legend. 

About James Borton

A recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship at Yale University, James is a freelance global journalist. He writes for Asia Times, Asia Global Online, Geopolitical Monitor, South China Morning Post, The Washington Times, and World Politics Review. He has edited The South China Sea: Challenges and Promises and Islands and Rocks in the South China Sea: Post Hague Ruling. His latest book, Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground is available. 

James Borton is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Foreign Policy Institute and the author of Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground.


About Brave New Pictures

Owned and operated by husband & wife team Dave & Kathy Monk, since 1991 they have collaborated on many stories about environmental conservation and cultural preservation, from the documentation of vanishing languages and indigenous practices, traditions and beliefs, to natural habitat shrinkage, anti-poaching efforts and ecological sustainability programs. They have worked on all seven continents and in nearly 80 countries to help promote a balance between humans and all other creatures in the web of life.

Cù Lao Chàm: Island of Life


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filmmaker-Luke Stirtz.png

filmmaker-Luke Stirtz.png


James Borton


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