may/june 2004

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Trinh Minh-ha and the Art of Poetic Documentary

by Felicia Feaster

Despite all the ink spilled in the last fifteen years trumpeting the glories of indie cinema, making films outside a profit-oriented film industry remains profoundly difficult. On the margins of the publicized indie hits screened every year at Sundance and Toronto, experimental, documentary and art film directors struggle to find distributors and markets for their esoteric work.

One such iconoclast is the academic, composer, theoretician and filmmaker Trinh Minh-ha. Working on the periphery of the post-1970s independent renaissance for two decades, she has had her films shown in festivals and screenings around the world, including at the New York and Sundance film festivals, in the Whitney Biennial and at Documenta 11. Trinh‚s commitment to formal experimentation and her desire to resist narrative conventions have made her a highly respected figure in experimental film circles. She may be just as often a bitterly resisted advocate of an unconventional style outside the comfort zones of many audiences in both the film and art worlds.

Still from The Fourth Dimension, 2001, digital video, 87 minutes (courtesy the artist).

Trinh began her film career with the 1982 experimental documentary Reassemblage, which shows quotidian life in various West African villages. And a remarkable continuity of vision defines Trinh‚s most recent work, 2001‚s The Fourth Dimension, which is a complex look at contemporary Japan‚s enigmatic culture. Whether treating a postindustrial powerhouse like Japan or an agrarian African village, the six films on which Trinh has built her provocative career return again and again to a radical, humanist treatment of an Other who the artist transforms into an intimate.

Many of her films suggest an eternal restlessness; the roaming camera and Trinh‚s relentless curiosity give her films the ambiance of philosophical travelogues. In Trinh‚s exploratory cinema, however, travel is twofold. Like the physical act of journeying, the films take viewers out of the predictable, familiar world of home. But they also reference travel‚s more spiritual dimension as an engagement with another reality that alters how one sees life‚s parameters.

Blending elements of art, experimental films and documentaries without pledging allegiance to one camp, Trinh‚s poetic, challenging and unique films cross genre lines. By eschewing categories, Trinh avoids the limits they can impose on films and on the minds of viewers. Instead, Trinh focuses on what she calls „bordersšųthe indistinct, unfixed, undefined places beyond a dualistic, ethnographic „us and themš way of thinking where true transformation can occur. That preoccupation with borders undoubtedly partly reflects Trinh‚s complicated lineage, which took her from the Third World of Vietnam to citizenry in the United States and the First World.

Born in 1952 in Hanoi, Trinh grew up in Saigon and traveled to America at age seventeen to study music composition and comparative literature. Some of her most formative artistic experiences, however, occurred between 1977 and 1980, when she taught music at the National Conservancy of Music in Dakar, Senegal. Her time thereųcoupled with her introduction to filmmakers when she returned to the Statesųinspired her to take up filmmaking. Her first film, Reassemblage, established Trinh as a powerfully empathetic conceptual documentarian who finds the human dimension beyond the binary divisions of self and other, filmmaker and subject, First and Third World.

Still from Reassemblage,
1982, 40 minutes
(courtesy the artist).


In addition to making films, Trinh has written numerous books of theory, including Cinema Interval (1999), Drawn from African Dwellings (1996) and When the Moon Waxes Red (1991), and is professor of Rhetoric, Women‚s Studies and Film Studies at the University of California Berkeley. Her longtime status as a director makes her one of the few film academics who also practices filmmaking as an art and discipline, a „border crossingš that often has provoked scorn from colleagues on both sides, who prefer to see the divisions between those disciplines maintained. Regarding the relation between the two sides, Trinh observes that theory informs her films but doesn‚t dictate them. „I don‚t begin with a theory and then illustrate that theory,š she said on the phone from Berkeley. „But I constantly link them. They always challenge one another.š

Among the most striking elements of Trinh‚s films are their intellectual rigor and political commitment filtered through an abiding humanity and sensitivity. The films express feminist thought not as an abstract theoretical construct, but as a living, breathing commitment to representing women‚s lives on film. Since the publication of pioneer scholar Laura Mulvey‚s influential essay „Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,š feminist film theoreticians have fixated on Mulvey‚s discussion of the oppressiveness of the Male Gaze in Hollywood film, which Mulvey argues reduces women to passive, consumable objects.1 By contrast, Trinh‚s films take an active role in visually countering that dominance with a feminine eye, subtly positing history as the story of quiet, unacknowledged female heroism and experience. That glorification of history‚s voiceless women can encompass a range of women from Vietnamese mothers enduring every degradation to feed their children in Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) to Japanese student martyr Kamba Michiko, described in The Fourth Dimension, who was killed during a protest of the signing of the US-Japan Security Treaty. For Trinh, Michiko‚s death represents the beginning of Japan‚s image as a global, corporate power.

Trinh‚s searching choices of subject matter complement the many techniques she uses to question cinema‚s autonomous language. Unlike many experimental works, though, Trinh‚s films undoubtedly draw from her musical training and her avocation as a poet, and thus also have the distinction of never entirely rejecting cinema‚s seductive potential. Great art, Trinh‚s films propose, can be both subversive and challenging, while indulging the cinema audience‚s desire for beauty.

From her earliest forays into film, Trinh has questioned the documentary form that she also partly embraces. Central to the director‚s project is her self-consciousness in making her presence known in her films through an almost diaristic voice-over narration and framing, as well as with editing techniques that encourage her viewers toward greater awareness of their vantage as spectators. Trinh‚s goal is to individualize her works in opposition to the God‚s eye, colonialist perspective of documentaries that propose universal truths and scientific neutrality, but are, she says „simply reiterating a number of conventions that render filmmaking very stale.š Her films, beginning with Reassemblage, examine how the Western ethnographic vision has sought to objectify and colonize anew with its documentary cameras.

Still from Reassemblage, 1982, 40 minutes (courtesy the artist).

Reassemblage laid the groundwork for Trinh‚s philosophical approach to filmmaking by articulating her interest in an alternative way of seeing. Her visions of sunsets, mothers and children and sun-baked, decaying animals, portray life as a long, continuous cycle of nourishment, renewal, seasons and, inevitably, death. Women crushing grain beneath wooden mallets, dead and decaying farm animals on the periphery of the village and mothers toting and breast feeding their babies make up the film‚s „action.š Avant-garde jump cuts alternating with quiet, long shots give the film a distinct rhythm. The film, which critic J. Hoberman has called „postmodern ethnography,š powerfully confronts a way of living outside the rushed, disconnected rhythms of Western life.2

Trinh‚s feminist sensibility is unmistakable as she critiques the voyeuristic, often prurient fixations of filmmakers and viewers who obsessively cast Africa as a sexually exotic, incomprehensible Other, imposing Western prejudices in every cut and close-up. Almost subliminally, Reassemblage does something even more interesting than critiquing how the camera‚s controlling eye visually colonizes women. By juxtaposing images of women working, harvesting food and feeding their babies, she implies a powerful argument for women as this society‚s life‚s blood, the source of life and its sustenance. How, Trinh asks in both voice-over narration and visual persuasion, could this sliver of the world be construed as „underdevelopedš when even the tiny cell of a single village contains the means to sustain and support its members?

By encouraging viewers to look at the world through different eyes, Trinh performs a more expansive gesture than simply arguing in usual ethnographic or documentary fashion for a particular belief or way of seeing. Her refusal to focus literally on incident suggests a powerfully poetic continuum of experienceųfrom African villagers to Japanese schoolgirls to Vietnamese war victimsųuntethered to specific wars, heroes or historical moments. Trinh sees this approach illustrated in the difference between how she thinks about her work, and the literalism and specificity of much documentary.

„When you have such events as the war that is going on now, or 9/11, the solution is not to run and make films on 9/11 or to document the war in Iraq or in Afghanistan,š she says. „Recently I was at a television industry conference where they were complaining about the fact that they get hundreds of films on the Taliban and so many films around 9/11. And yet as they complain also, none of these films look at why 9/11 happened.

So I think sometimes you need a direct strategy. But most of the time an indirect strategy is just asųif not moreųimportant because you are not simply subordinated to the script of the day, but you have to see the larger implications of the time in which we live. And there are many ways to work with it. Hence a film that may at the outset look spiritual rather than political, is not necessarily apolitical. Because that spirituality is something that we need right in the midst of political division.š

Still from Surname Viet Given Name Nam, 1989,
108 minutes (courtesy the artist).

Trinh directly applied that insistence on a continuous, holistic vision of a culture, gender and nation in her critically heralded Surname Viet Given Name Nam. Even as the film incorporated documentary elements, it subverted that storytelling form by using artful, lyrical devices such as songs, poetry, photojournalism and staged interviews. The result is a bricolage of cultural experienceųa nation „readš through the intertwined fates of art, literature, direct experience, war and colonialism, through the director‚s interpretive vision provided in foregrounded technique and through Trinh‚s gentle narration as a perpetual counterpoint to documentarian objectivity.

Aware of the levels of subjectivity, evasion, even deception in ostensibly „factualš filmmaking, Trinh always acknowledges the flawed record of „realityš that film gives us. Surname typifies this formally scrupulous and emotionally resonant attack by delving, in slow-motion, into cross-historical images of beautifully passive, peaceful, emotionless Vietnamese women dancers and schoolgirls, to find a painful mask of conformity in the Vietnamese virtues of complacent, self-sacrificing femininity that has made women the victims in war and peacetime alike.

In this film about how the women of Vietnam often have suffered the most grievously in the ugly history of colonialist occupation of that country, Trinh pictures a host of Vietnamese women describing the injustice and degradations they have experienced, including repeatedly turning to prostitution to support their children. In what at first appears to be conventional documentary, the filmmaker interviews a series of women on-screen: one prepares a meal for her family, another is a doctor, and so on. The conversations feel exceptionally stilted and rehearsedųbecause, in fact, these women have rehearsed. They are all women in San Jose, California reciting interview transcripts provided by Vietnamese women recounting their experience of war and arduous adherence to the codes of Vietnamese femininity. The technique suggests the commonality in these women‚s livesųand how they all voice a mantra of terminal pain at being silent in matters of state even as they are asked to uphold society with their quiet adherence to social law.

Trinh completed The Fourth Dimensionųprobably her most formally expressive and visually exquisite filmųduring a four-month teaching position at Ochanomizu University‚s Center for Gender Studies. Its use of digital video (Trinh‚s first venture into the medium), with its luminous, glossy surfaces, enhances the traveler‚s surreal impression of witnessing life through new lenses. Under that digital gaze, Japan glows with a vivid intensityųits lotus flowers, downtown neon, graphically made-up faces of young girls in traditional dress and orange-cloaked monks create a world of lascivious color and hyper-articulated clarity.

Still from The Fourth Dimension, 2001, digital video, 87 minutes (courtesy the artist).

Trinh‚s Japan is one of paradox, a place defined by equal parts tradition and modernity, groupthink and individual experience. This culture reveres the natural world, but only if nature is subjected to the choreographed control of rock gardens or is perpetually available to be reframed by the movement of a panel door or sliding window as a series of garden views. The sense of control extends to the parades that Trinh shows again and again, in which the rules of social exchange always temper revelry, and individuals work in careful, conscripted harmony.

The Fourth Dimension offers a striking break from the vision of Japan seen in Sofia Coppola‚s heralded, art-film influenced indie Lost in Translation. Coppola presents Japan from a distinctly American perspective as the ultimate Otherųa „freakishš Japan, as Trinh calls it, illustrated for Westerners by its pornography and extreme youth culture. Coppola‚s Japan is a strange, alienating world viewed from behind a taxi‚s window or a high-rise hotel room, disparaged by its American characters. Trinh, on the other hand, attempts at every turn to penetrate this culture and reveal its complexities.

While Coppola‚s film underlines a carnivalesque, alienating vision of Japan as an unbridgeable void, by the end of The Fourth Dimension, one has a profound understanding of a Japan defined by conflict between tradition and modernization, between Third World and First World literalized, for Trinh, in the definitive 1960 signing of the US-Japan Security Treaty.
The film opens in a thick green fog as a car speeds down a highway illuminated only by sudden pulses of red and white lights. In a traditional narrative film, this opening might suggest a thriller and the protagonist‚s penetration of an alien world. But Trinh immediately establishes her film‚s more conceptual approach with a floating black matte that moves around the film frame, isolating little squares of visual information as it travels. That effect of using a matte or a colored filter to isolate and break-up the film space, the artist has said, is a commentary on the architecture of Japanese buildings, which often feature moving walls and windows and views that suddenly open up to the outside. But those windows also could be seen as metaphors for the revealing cinematic frame of travel where a world opens up to the traveler from airplanes, trains and cars. But this view is always partial, dictated by the perspective of the traveler, who remains perpetually an observer.

Unfolding in a meditative rhythm apart from the elliptical laws of narrative, some of The Fourth Dimension‚s most fascinating imagery shows Japanese parades in which groups of revelers, often dressed in traditional costume, „performš the central drama of Japanese life: individual movement subjected to the needs of the group. Men work en masse to manipulate giant floats or perform choreographed dances. In hypnotic, galvanic moments, groups of women beat traditional drums in unison. But even as they beat drums with a ferocious intensity, the faces of the musicians remain impassive and placid. Lyrically and covertly, Trinh conveys a deep experience of a culture. An impression emerges of a society that has held onto tradition, even as it incorporated the totems of corporate globalism in a Coca-Cola logo imprinted onto the paper lanterns in a traditional, ritualistic parade.

Like all of Trinh‚s films, The Fourth Dimension has attracted both hostility and praise for its complicated picture of Japan. At the very least, the film achieves Trinh‚s greatest aspiration for her films and for art in generalųthat it effect some change in people‚s ideas.

„In difficult times artists usually feel that their role is less important than, let‚s say, a doctor or a firefighter whose work is very immediate,š she says. „And artists feel helpless because they feel the way that I felt when I traveled in the countryside of West Africa and saw people suffering. You feel that, if only you had some kind of knowledge as a doctor so you could heal people, it would be so useful. We have that feeling and we tend to condemn ourselves that way. But each one of us, I think, has something to offer from the front where we are the strongest. So we have to assume that, wherever we are strongest, that‚s where our fight will be.š


1. Laura Mulvey, „Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,š (1975) reprinted in Art after Modernism: rethinking representation, Brian Wallis, ed. (New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984): 361ų373.

2. J. Hoberman, Vulgar Modernism: Writing on Movies and Other Media (Temple University Press, 1991): 168.

Art Papers LIVE! presents a screening of The Fourth Dimension, introduced by Trinh Minh-ha, on Wednesday May 12 at 7:00 p.m. in Atlanta's Fulton County Library Auditorium. On Thursday May 13 at 7:00 p.m., Art Papers LIVE! and Emory University's Department of Film Studies present a lecture by Trinh Minh-ha in the J.W. Jones Room at Emory University's Woodruff Library, sponsored by the Hightower Fund. Both events are free, open to the public and ADA accessible. An American sign language interpreter will be provided at Thursday's event.

Atlanta‚s FELICIA FEASTER writes for Creative Loafing. She is co-author with Bret Wood of Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film. The exhibition „So Atlanta,š which she co-curated with Helena Reckitt, is at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center until June 1.


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