Film In Conversation
TRINH T. MINH-HA with Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa & Patricia Alvarez
Trinh T. Minh-ha has made a career of working between disciplines—troubling the foundational precepts of both anthropology and documentary. Her first film Reassemblage (1982), and her written critical analysis of ethnographic methods, effectively shaped a generation of debate over feminism, racism, empiricism, and colonialism in nonfiction filmmaking.
Her newest work, Forgetting Vietnam (2015) is rigorously layered, covered in a dense haze of text animations, image overlays, and screen wipes, that all clearly evoke the presets of digital editing software. None of the pristine pleasures of 16mm—the inhabitable depths of celluloid—are preserved in Trinh’s HD cinematography. But the film still has the capacity to carry viewers away, to sweep them up in the river-flows of Vietnam’s history and present. In these currents, the distinctions between poetry, philosophy, and pop music, grand historical events and everyday actions are blurred. The ripples of historical trauma—from events like the Huế Massacre, which continues to haunt both the memories of those who lived through it and the city itself, as buried bodies continue to surface—are made manifest in quotidian images of workers and worshipers going about their daily routine.
Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa & Patricia Alvarez (Rail): In Surname Viet Given Name Nam(1989), you present us with a story of Vietnam, composed from the voices of women whose experiences are often left out of official history. In Forgetting Vietnam you also complicate official historical narratives using a wide array of voices—pop song lyrics, quotes from activists, comments from bus drivers, historical facts, etc. Both films explore the properties of naming a country, what’s contained in the name, and tell a story from outside an official History. Do you see this work as a continuation of that earlier work?
Trinh Minh-ha: The entire body of my work can be said to exist in a continuum. While each film takes form in a precise context, and images carry histories of their own, independently from the history of the people concerned (as stated in Forgetting Vietnam), these films prevail in relation to a situated creative itinerary. It is very insightful of you to link the two films through the featured voices of the marginal and the unofficial. In my praxes across films, installations, and books, I have always merged the How and the What (as well as the When and Where), and your response to this new film very astutely points to the politics of naming, rethinking what feminists used to call His/Story and veering from dominant historiographies.
For example, the opening and ending sequences of the film may offer images from famous touristic sites, but to focus merely on what is being shown without noticing how they are presented in relation to the instance of their consumption is to miss an important entry into the film. I am not referring here to aesthetics or to form versus content. On the contrary, in breaking with such a binary, I am drawn to the process of production within reception (and vice-versa), and further, to the unknown within the all-too-familiar, or to the very ancient on the cutting edge of the new. How to open onto infinity within the finite has always been at the core of my work motivation. This then means that there’s also room to wander and err in my films, since they offer more than one entry or one exit, and the viewers who miss one could always catch another entry as they stay on with the work.
Rail: Forgetting Vietnam often centers on spaces that fall in between global ideological forces—as the voiceover says, “between crony socialism and the trappings of capitalism, economic liberalisation and stringent political control, civilising campaign and impoverished spiritual life.” Can you describe where you see these spaces in Vietnam? How are they able to exist in the face of these larger economic and political systems and in what ways do you see them as openings that allow for change?
Trinh: “It all begins with Two,” as one of the opening statements of the film says. Ha Long Bay, for example, is not only the “jewel of Vietnam’s tourist industry,” it is the site of encounter of two founding forces: Hạ Long, or “descending dragon,” and Thăng Long, the ancient name of the city of Hanoi, or “rising dragon.” Rather than referring to binary oppositions, Two designates here the ability to hold both. Mountain and river; solid and liquid, stillness and movement, masculine and feminine; dwelling and traveling; leaving and returning; North and South; low and high technology. These are some of the many twos activated in the film, which regulate our life in its mundane reality.
Feminists have long challenged the ruling patriarchal order and its mono-subjective culture of domination, production, and exploitation. They have advocated, instead, an order of coexistence, multiplicity, and mutual respect for both natural and cultural riches. Democracy lies in this ability to hold both, to break with the system of binary opposition, to take in the Other and question the phallic imperial One. The spaces you keenly point to in your response are those of the Inappropriate, the third term, the interval and the between two—where among others, the feminist, queer, and postcolonial struggles could be affectively, ethically, and politically situated. Such spaces are not only to be found in Vietnam, but also, as you have already noticed at the outset, in the process of production—the way the film is created (or normatively dis-created).
Three examples from the film comes to mind as we return more specifically to your question: the popular spaces, in Vietnam, of public transportation; of mobile vending, mobile assemblage; and of what can be called insurgent poetry, disaffected art. These could be the spaces of fissures in the system, where the micro-politics of the small, mobile, and portable, of the ephemeral and the not-quite-not-yet visible is inscribed in the ordinary of everyday life. Difference is here actualized in such a way as to render impotent the grand politics of socialist and capitalist constructs. Even the legacies of transgressive art and its “political act”—central to the leftist West—are inadequate as framings.
When one is on the alert for the voices of ordinary folks, bus and taxi drivers and their conversations with passengers are the most telling sources of information on the political temperature of a country. Another location to have a feel of the motherland (rather than the “fatherland” as it is called among socialist men) is at the local markets where, as stated in the film, women cook, sell food and regroup to scatter words. Despite authorities putting bans in place to limit where street vendors can operate, mobile vending, known to be primarily a women’s culture, remains a vibrant part of city life and an essential element of the country’s cultural fabric. But recent state discourses about modernization and civilization in promoting urbanization have not hesitated to aggressively associate these trading street activities with backwardness and shameful underdevelopment, thereby threatening the livelihoods of a predominantly women work force. These “frog markets” are inappropriate to state images of public order. Overnight, street vendors thus become a menace and an obstacle to the government’s effort at “beautifying the city.”
Vietnam’s literary milieu has always played a lively role in questioning state power, and so it is also through the voices of new Vietnamese poetry—antagonistic toward authority’s abuse, disrespectful or simply indifferent toward proper norms—that one tastes the flavor of refuse and wreckage of the society. Many of the poets quoted in the film belong to Vietnam’s postwar generation. Their words, firings of “foul open mouths,” capture the noises, smell, sweat, and feel of the streets. Their poetic vision and distressed dissident voices remain indicative of the cultural crisis and the tumultuous times Vietnam has gone through.
Rail: One of these spaces also seems to be the temple or shrine. Can you discuss religious or spiritual spaces as political spaces, spaces of cultural survival and resistance? In the tradition of filmed ethnographies religious practice is often a crucial “object” of study but also the space where the filmmaker’s distance from their subjects is most aggressively asserted (think of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson’s Trance and Dance in Bali).
Trinh: Yes, I’m glad you mention resistance. Women’s prayer is a visual thread that runs through the film. Again, this is a highly marginalized sector of modern society, despite the existence of numerous pagodas, temples, and memorials still functioning in the country. It’s interesting that you link, albeit critically, such attention to women’s culture to the tradition of filmed ethnographies and their obsession with religious practices, but the credit here is yours. As for me, I would just say that it’s common for the secular, rational mind so entrenched in the power of reason to dismiss faith as mere religious belief or even as mere superstition, especially when practiced by women, or by the religious “other.”
A spiritual approach to life has almost nothing to do with institutionalized religion. When I look at certain women lose themselves in praying, I am first and foremost struck by the way they give themselves fully in the act of offering. One can often hear their earnest speak, their ease in invoking the imaginal world, and their sincere immersion in the virtual reality of ancestral presence. There’s also something to be said in relation to a culture of bending, kneeling, spreading, and bowing, as compared for example to that of striving to stand erect, tallest or on top. When seen in its daily deployment, such genuine act of faith cannot be conveniently viewed as subordination to a traditional system of beliefs or as endorsement of pre-modern forms of hierarchy. To see openings for change in society, one has to change one’s own seeing. Or more inclusively speaking, to effect change, one has to alter the way one takes in the world.
Rail:The film constantly reminds us of the complex relationships between human histories and the environment. Can you talk about how the forces of geography and ecology contribute to the political history of Vietnam that you are observing?
Trinh: It’s a nice follow-up on what I just said, and such a vast question can be taken up in infinite ways.
On the one hand, you have the older generation attributing Vietnam’s geographically, ecologically, and politically intertwined fate to the workings of “karma”—very cursorily speaking, the cosmic principle of cause and effect generated by the people’s intents and actions, and their impact on these people’s future. They speak about the nation being both the theater of incessant wars under the Chinese, French, Japanese, and Americans, and the site of a multifaceted struggle with the forces of nature—floods, droughts, typhoons year in and year out for millennia.
On the other hand, it suffices to look at Vietnam’s landform, its long coastlines and its extensive networks of lakes and rivers to fully grasp the significance of the term “đất nước”—literally, “land water”—that stands for “country” in Vietnamese. But “nước” or “water” used by itself also means “country.” So to refer to the government, people say “nhà nước,” meaning literally, “house water.” Isn’t it incredible when one thinks about the connotation of such an appellation? What would a government be like that would be so trusted as to embody home and its people’s lifeblood?
Crisscrossed by hundreds of watercourses—the country’s arteries and life force, as conveyed in the film—Vietnam is primarily a body of water. To portray it in its regional characteristics, one is necessarily led in the North, to the Red River (Sông Hồng); in the Center, to the Perfume River (Sông Hương); and in the South to the Mekong (Sông Cửu Long, or the Nine Dragons River). Each being a multiplicity and having its own network of tributaries. So, what would it be for Vietnam to “look into Her own nature?” Aside from having an economy largely based on agriculture and fishery, what would it mean for Vietnam to follow “the water way?” and for those who show and tell, to see Her from the sea, in Her watery composition and liquid substance?
Through Vietnam’s unique cultural manifestations, the film gives a range of feedback to these questions, all the while featuring a vital relation of the human to the non-human. Today it could be said, for example, that the terrible long war on land—of enduring national and international political reach—may have ended, but only to yield to another emerging war, on water. In the context of this discussion, the South China Sea dispute with Beijing could thus be apprehended in its full scope as it proves to be profoundly threatening, both for the people’s livelihood and for their core legacy identity. War is not only a human but also an environmental tragedy of unending consequences.
Rail:There is a playfulness with language throughout the film. You bring up the concept of “rememory” in various instances—what difference are you pointing to between rememory and remembering, and between disremembering and forgetting?
Trinh: All film images are images of memory—and of future memory.
A journey into personal and collective re-membering never fails to raise questions about both the site of re-collections and the nature of the journey itself. The moment one gathers to show and tell is also the moment one starts the journey of forgetting, and not the contrary, as commonly believed. With the advent of digital technology and easy access to smart phones, tourists and shutterbugs need not exert their memory; they can rely on their phone cameras to remember for them. They can select, discard or keep at will the images collected. And how much they can store memory depends on how much the recording device can hold. As stated in Forgetting Vietnam, old and new technology is primarily a question of difference of systems of memory.
People go to Vietnam to forget much of what they knew and recalled of Her, for only in disremembering can they continue to be and let Her be. However, it may be more adequate to say that Vietnam today is forgetting them. It is not unusual for many of us to unconsciously use homeland and memory to purge the violent emotions attached to our unbearable suffering, or to events of the war. Some set out resolutely to forget but, as a quote from a poet says in the film: “To really forget, we must fully know what we want to forget. But how to remember the face of a war?” (Phạm Tiến Duật)
In going on living, or in visiting, returning, and photographing, we are already involved in the process of preserving and effacing—or of “Memory for Forgetfulness,” as the poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote. Remembering is not retrieval of the past, but rather, an active digging and receiving in the present. These are acts of rememory that can come in as many forms as manifested by the forces of imagination.
Here, documenting is both an act of memory against forgetfulness and a deliberate gesture of forgetfulness against memory.
Rail: You often use the long take, which has been seen as a characteristic formal technique of ethnographic film. Yet your engagement with this type of shot feels quite different. Can you discuss your use or approach to the long take and duration in your films?
Trinh: I don’t think the long take owes anything to ethnographic film and its illusory claim to objectivity with temporal realism, or its counter-claim to beyond-the-word sensory experience in observational approach. To mention just a few well-known examples of cinematic long takes that I have affinities for and find most challenging or unsettling: Chantal Akerman’s framing of the minutia of a woman’s daily life in Jeanne Dielman; Marguerite Duras’s sense of colonial leprosy and suicidal boredom in India Song; Tarkovsky’s out-there journey into the Zone via paths felt but not seen in Stalker; or more astonishing yet, Alexander Sokurov’s 87-minute, single-shot depiction of an uninterrupted ghostly walk across Russian history in Russian Ark, which remains a matchless tour de force. His is the quintessential long take that put to use the creative potentials of new technology.
What my films may have in common with the ones just mentioned could be located in the way the How and the What merge in the long take. Rather than holding on to temporal realism for truth effect or dramatic build up of tension via expressive, selective cut, I let the long take (in terms of both subject and duration) find its place in the rhythmic tapestry of layered time and temporalities, as well as of multiplicity of senses and meanings. The cut here is neither merely connective nor merely expressive in its function; it is in itself form—rupture as visual, musical, affective form. Each fragment can contain the whole and the play between rhythms internal to the shot and external to it is also indicative of a way of receiving and creating rhythm that is not merely equated with montage and editing. As an art of relations—of intervals and of strong, weak, syncopated beats—rhythm is powerfully social when it’s at its creative best. And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, what ultimately comes with the sense of rhythm is the feeling of freedom.
Rail: What are your thoughts on the newest batch of “ethnographic” films that we’ve seen coming out in the past few years? Have you seen the work coming out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (Leviathan, Sweetgrass, etc.)? What do you think of this resurgence of interest in an ethnographic framework?
Trinh: These are very different films that cannot be generalized together. Instead of commenting on them, I would rather address the question you raise as form itself. Why focus on the ethnographic framework? Even though one of the areas directly criticized through my earlier films is “the anthropological eye” and ear of ethnographic practices, my works have always been at odds with categories. They don’t fit adequately; they don’t belong. So there’s not much reason for me to return to this framework for discussion, when I have also engaged a wider range of questions around cinema through both what the film world calls “documentary” and what it classifies as “fiction,” or “experimental,” and “avant-garde” (to mention some no less skeptical categories).
I am aware, through the recurring questions I got around the alleged changes in ethnographic film practices, how eager certain anthropologists are to affirm that they have moved beyond what was found to be problematic in their naturalized conventions (“we are already doing all that [all the correct moves] so tell us about the changes you perceive in our current practice”). But it’s not only a question of new versus old or of going beyond; it’s also a question of critical positioning. Further, with the decline of Western hegemony and its system of values, anthropology is not the only field at stake despite its direct historical link with colonialism. If one wishes badly to affirm anthropology’s validity, its strength should be located in its very weakness, its instability, and the fact that it remains, at its best, under perpetual crisis. Ethnographers from the South or the non-West, for example, could be very sensitive to this, and the small differences they bring into their practices could make all the difference.
Rail: In a 1998 interview with Marina Grzinic you described an incident, where an audience waiting to see Desmond Tutu were invited to sing “We Are The World” in which each chorus was adapted to a different identity. You worried that: “This is how difference becomes harmlessly decorative and how the media conveniently understands political correctness, using it in the name of multiculturalism to degrade multiculturalism.” Given the current political climate—a presidential election that is largely discussed as hinging on issues of identity—how do you see the state of multiculturalism today?
Trinh: I remember being alarmed by a warning from a Belgian-Syrian friend of mine, who said a couple months before 9/11: “Minh-ha, racism has just begun.” When we talk about changes, are we merely rearranging some dead flowers, or are we planting a whole new breed of flowers—that bloom unseen, even during wintertime and in desertscape? Perhaps if, previously, as in the example you recall, some of us were eager to sing cultural difference into a bland melting pot, today with the rise of the police state and with friend and foe rhetoric alike in the new global security world, we can neither open our mouth nor whisper to ourselves without being shouted down by the bullhorns of corporate mind and surreptitiously charted on a graph by controllers of national databases.
Rail:Today your films—especially Reassemblage—are often taught in introductory experimental film or documentary classes. What are your thoughts on the ways that this work, and your early writing on ethnographic filmmaking are currently taught in the classroom setting?
Trinh: I hear in your question both the negative connotations of a co-opted margin, and the positive connotations of educational venues partaking in cultures of resistance and survival.
The familiar aphorism goes like this: “we are not meant to survive, but we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.” A similar case is the book Woman, Native, Other (1989), which has been rejected by some thirty-five publishers but is now also widely taught in classrooms across disciplines here and abroad. One does not really control how one’s work fares in the non-commercial world, at least it has not been my case. Neither can one hand over theory, history, and culture to the dominant by indulging in “pure marginality.” People used to say despite the tribulations undergone, the true relevance of a work reveals itself over time. Edgard Varèse did not hesitate to declare that the public is routinely fifty years behind.
And yet, the question and answer should not stop there; we should go on and ask: how did the recognition of a film like Reassemblage change the conditions of film production and exhibition for the filmmaker? After having made eight feature-length films, I am still struggling with every single project, large or small, to find funding, sizeable or teeny; and when I submit a work to film festivals, I still don’t know where to put it so that the category selected would not work against it. The situation is far worse now than it was twenty years ago. Not only the funding venues for independent films—not made for TV and not conforming to the market’s demands—have so dwindled during the eight years of Bush’s presidency and ever since, but the film festival venues have also become so conservative that the few sporadic openings tolerated in the past have thoroughly closed down today. These are not only my thoughts, but also those shared by many film programmers, curators, and administrators. As Forgetting Vietnam asks at the end: “Where to?”
Forgetting Vietnam will screen on November 4 and Reassemblage on November 5 at the Rubin Museum of Art (www.rubinmusem.org). Naked Spaces: Living is Round (1985) will screen at the Metrograph on November 5 (www.metrograph.com). Trinh T. Minh-ha will be present for Q&As at all events.