Writing about Trinh T. Minh-ha, one of the most significant filmmakers, cultural theorists and artists active today, was something I meant to do for a long time, and the occasion finally came a couple of weeks ago when I had the chance to watch her newest movie, Forgetting Vietnam (2015).
For everyone interested in documentary also as a way of questioning the ontological status of cinema and the nature of filmic representation, Trinh T. Minh-ha is a familiar name. Born in Vietnam and raised in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, she migrated to the U.S. in 1970, where she now resides and is active as a filmmaker, writer, composer, and professor of rhetoric and of gender and women’s studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Among her most important films are the seminal Reassemblage (1982), Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) and The Fourth Dimension (2001).
Forgetting Vietnam was screened at this year Cinéma du Réel in Paris and at various sites throughout U.S., here the movie’s description:
Vietnam in ancient times was named đất nứớc vạn xuân – the land of ten thousand springs. One of the myths surrounding the creation of Vietnam involves a fight between two dragons whose intertwined bodies fell into the South China Sea and formed Vietnam’s curving ‘S’ shaped coastline. Legend also has it that Vietnam’s ancestors were born from the union of a Dragon King, Lạc Long Quân and a fairy, Âu Cơ. Âu Cơ was a mythical bird that swallowed a handful of earthly soil and consequently lost the power to return to the 36th Heaven. Her tears formed Vietnam’s myriad rivers and the country’s recurring floods are the land’s way of remembering her. In her geo-political situation, Vietnam thrives on a fragile equilibrium between land and water management. A life-sustaining power, water is evoked in every aspect of the culture.
Shot in Hi-8 video in 1995 and in HD and SD in 2012, the images unfold spatially as a dialogue between the two elements—land and water—that underlie the formation of the term “country” (đất nứớc). Carrying the histories of both visual technology and Vietnam’s political reality, these images are also meant to feature the encounter between the ancient as related to the solid earth, and the new as related to the liquid changes in a time of rapid globalization. In conversation with these two parts is a third space, that of historical and cultural re-memory – or what local inhabitants, immigrants and veterans remember of yesterday’s stories to comment on today’s events. Through the insights of these witnesses to one of America’s most divisive wars, Vietnam’s specter and her contributions to world history remain both present and all too easy to forget. Touching on a trauma of international scale, Forgetting Vietnam is made in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the end of the war and of its survivors.
“The image, a singular experience of blindness”
With Forgetting Vietnam Minh-ha revisits her native land forty years after the war, an event that touched her personally, and depicts the Vietnamese landscape and its evolving culture – exploring the daily life of women and the importance of the binary interplay between water and land in Vietnamese history – but at the same time the movie is a deconstruction of the documentary as a direct mode of representation and subtle exposure of the constraining power of the image.
Minh-ha is trying to break, or at least to weaken, the spell of the image and the univocity through which it’s usually perceived and consumed, as she writes “The question is not so much to produce a new image as to provoke, to facilitate, and to solicit a new seeing” (The Digital Film Event, Routledge, 2005). To sparkle a new seeing Minh-ha is placing hurdles and barriers to complicate the simple fruition of images and the easy formation of meanings. Written words, quotes, poetic lines, superimposition, screen wipes, music and montage are used to create a fluid, disorienting and ever-escaping cinematic experience, a work whose speed and continuous progressing don’t allow us to get too much attached to the images and stories we are fed. There’s no time and space for the viewer to reflect or engage on what she or he sees on screen, although the hinted events are of the largest scale such as the infamous Huế Massacre, the “forgetting” in the title is thus not only the oblivion of the tragedies the country and its people had to endure, but also a way of experiencing the movie as an impermanent event, or, as someone has beautifully pointed out “the diaspora of the film is thus not only cultural, but formal, in the sense that we never find any sort of grounding here. We are always on the move, always distanced from the images of Vietnam, never given time to sit with any given frame.”
“The bigger the grain, the better the politics?”*
An important subtext present throughout the movie is the dialectic between Hi-8 video and SD/HD, a dichotomy that sparkled from a purely coincidental and fortuitous event, Minh-ha started filming in the mid 90s, but had to stop for lack of funding and went on shooting again only in 2012, when the digital techonology had already made a huge leap forward. A difference that on the one hand highlights the the particular quality of the image in HD, a quality of tangibility and immediacy making the places and the people in it very present, “real”, while on the other hand the image in super Hi-8 seems to pose a distance with the viewer, a temporal but also aesthetic gap with the “present”, a sense of history and of things past captured on film,”a difference of memory systems” as written on screen in one scene of the movie. This formal discrepancy is also reflected, amplified and complicated in the polyphony of voices used to tell the big and small stories that compose Vietnam, historical facts are interwoven on the same plane with comments from bus drivers, popular songs and much more with an almost Pynchonean touch.
Forgetting Vietnam is a work conceived by Minh-ha as a maze, a smooth place (in the sense used by Deleuze and Guattari) where the viewer can wander, think and ask herself questions. As stated by the artist in a recent interview “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.”
*quote from the film