Essay Film Filmmakers

Trinh T. Minh-ha

reassemblageReassemblage, 1982. Neither an ennobled (or exoticized) slice-of-life cultural documentary nor an expository thesis framed within the logic structure of an essay film, Reassemblage is, instead, what Trinh T. Minh-ha describes in her book Cinema Interval as an “interrogation” – an idiosyncratic (if not compositionally radical) approach to the ethnographic study of contemporary Senegal that seeks to erase the filmmaker’s intrinsic interpretation of the recorded rituals through unsynchronized repetition of audio and visual imagery, using variations in shot placement (a methodology articulated in the comment “different views from different angles – the ABC of photography”) and in the incorporation (or exclusion) of the non-diegetic soundtrack that, in its intrinsically abstract rhythms, nevertheless, convey the empirical essence of the quotidian. The film’s introductory sequence – a black screen accompanied by the sound of tribal drums, followed by images of the Senagalese people without sound, fragmented into singular shots of limbs and torsos – illustrates this strategy of modulating, decontextualizing, and re-purposing seemingly familiar ethnographic imagery towards new ways of seeing.

At the core of Trinh’s interrogation is the demystification of otherness or, more broadly, the application of binary logic in society’s (and in partcular, western society’s) examination of non-native cultures. The first words spoken by the narrator (Trinh) in the film, “scarcely twenty years were enough to make two billion people define themselves as underdeveloped”, encapsulates this idea of externally imposed, arbitrary classification of populations into first and third world stratifications (as defined by standards of global economies set by industrialized nations), sameness and otherness, progress and underdevelopment …and consequently, inclusion and exclusion. Prefaced with the recurring comment, “First create need, then help”, the narrator recounts an encounter with a peace corps volunteer who attempts to teach the village women how to grow vegetables in their garden for profit. Implicit in their interaction is the specter of colonialism – the disingenuous claim of divine mandate to educate the “savages” as a rationalization for economic exploitation. It is this (delusive) image of the assimilated, enlightened westerner that is also repeated in the subsequent anecdote of an ethnographer who returns to a tribal village for two weeks in the belief that the extended duration of his visit renders him closer to understanding the culture, even as consumer artifacts from his own culture – in particular, a Sony Walkman – continue to intrude on his self-proclaimed goal of cultural immersion and indigenous assimilation. In both anecdotes, the ubiquitous electronic gadget serves as an iconic representation of the impossibility of true understanding and assimilation of one’s non-native culture, an intranscendable limitation that Trinh defines as the hybridity of culture.

But beyond Trinh’s examination of prevailing social attitudes that render true ethnographic documentation an impossibility, Reassemblage also seeks to subvert the perpetuated myths and common perceptions about African people. Stereotypical images of famine and disease are subverted through shots of healthy children at play and women milling grains that are cross-cut against shots of emaciated animal carcasses splayed on a deserted landscape to underscore the disconnection. Popularized ethnographic images of naked tribal women are confronted within the perpetual debate of what constitutes art and pornography, education and titillation. Even the traditionally common sense image of African people as having black skin is subverted through the image of albinism, further challenging the audience to redefine its superficial notions about race and ethnicity. Ironically, by creating a perpetual state of dislocation and fracture, Trinh creates a more honest and unmanipulated portrait of collective identity – a probing reassembly and decontextualization of familiar and iconic ethnographic images towards a deeper awareness of the underlying, indefinable essential alchemy that binds disparate people into the sociology of indigenous culture.

nakedspacesNaked Spaces: Living Is Round, 1985. In Naked Spaces: Living Is Round, Trinh T. Minh-ha expounds on the themes of postcolonial identification and the geopolitical (and social) apparatus of disempowerment in Reassemblage to create dense, thoughtful, and articulate ethnographic essay film on indigenous identity, the impossibility of translation, and architecture as cultural representation. The prefacing image provides a terse, yet incisive encapsulation of Trinh’s recurring preoccupations. Opening to a fragmentary, red filter shot of a Senegalese village celebration against the unsynchronized sound of tribal rhythms, the film then abruptly cuts to an extended black screen as the drums continue to beat in the background, before returning to the same idiosyncratic footage of unnaturally reddened villagers in the midst of their animated performance. In a way, Trinh’s odd presentation of images serves as a metaphor for the abstract, often exotic representation of African culture in Western society – the reframing of images through the figurative filter of a usurped, privileged gaze – dissociated from its cultural rooting, repackaged, and systematically reinforced as quaint entertainment or exploited by the international community as justification for continued sovereign meddling (and consequently, domination) in the absence of a colonial-era “enlightened” mandate. Indeed, Trinh’s symbolic crossing out of the word directed from the film’s title sequence reflects her deliberate strategy to withhold preformed context to the presented images, not as a means of mystifying (nor exoticizing) African life, but as an act of resistance towards a filmmaker’s unconscious process of interpretation as explanation in composing these ethnographic images – a defiance against reinforcing prescribed assumptions and perpetuating stereotypes that is announced in the film’s tongue-in-cheek, pre-emptive opening statement, “Not descriptive, not informative, not interesting.”

Implied in the opening tribal dance in Joola, Senegal is a sense of mutual causation – a body responding to the percussive rhythms through movement, that, in turn, drives the beating of the drums in a sympathetic resonance that the narrator (one of three accented female voices in the film) describes as the interactive process of mediated involvement. The theme of mediated ritual processes is subsequently revisited in the portrayal of native divinities, not as all-powerful gods who control the forces of nature and create mankind in their own image, but rather, as enlightened guides who initiate humanity into the “nature of death”. Presented against images of house building and domestic rituals, Trinh introduces the idea of architecture as a fundamental life cycle – an initiation into the indigenous living culture. This essentiality between the organic and the inorganic is further reinforced in the subsequent chapter in Serer, Senegal where African folklore describes the creation of men and women as the elemental chemistry of air, water, earth, and light (a humbled sense of place that is also connected to the images of Bisa, Burkina Faso, where earth is symbolically collected from the center of a calabash during funeral rites). Juxtaposed against images that reinforce the idea of natural geometries found in everyday village life as rooted in the recurring pattern of circles – houses, granaries, calabash pots, the formation of harvest and ceremonial rituals, and even the shape of tombs – Trinh further expounds on the theme of native architecture as both a representation of cyclical life processes and its cultural function in forming an integral consciousness, a metaphysical convergence that is subsequently reflected in the description of the circle as a “spirit in eternal motion” in Peul, Senegal.

The idea of architecture as living testament of a collective consciousness surfaces throughout the film in unique and unexpected ways. In Jaxanke, Senegal, the tribal paintings depict, not a primitive mythology, but a mundane connection to the earth and its cycles of growth and harvest. In Birifor, Burkina Faso, the Western aesthetic of open floor plans is upended in the indigenous construction of dark passageways and secluded areas that prevent the layout of the house from being seen in totality, and whose spaces only reveal themselves in fragments through rays of directed, natural light – in essence, unfolding in levels of domestic intimacy. The stilt houses in Fon, Benin conflate the Western concepts of (demarcated) private and public spaces (a sentiment that is also inherent in the shared landscape of Peul, Senegal) as villagers row their boats from house to house exchanging essential provisions in the isolation of their floating community (a communal gesture that ironically plays out as a narrator comments on the nebulous distinction between external charity and conditioned dependency). In the traditionally conservative, deeply patriarchal society of Oualata, Mauritania, the austere, minimal exterior spaces open to ornately decorated interiors. Framed against the images of women instinctively withdrawing behind their veils in the presence of strangers, their domestic spaces, handed down from generation to generation, become the surrogate, silent guide to ingrained, unarticulated personal and cultural histories. In Moba, Togo, the metaphoric representation of the house as being is connected to the theme of natural communication in the description of doorways as mouths to the vault of heaven, a reflection of humanity’s interdependency between the earth and sky for survival that is also reflected in the characterization of granaries as “celestial wombs” in Kabye, Togo that alludes to ecological and human cycles of fertility. This metaphor for living architecture is further illustrated in Soninke, Mauritania, where the breathing of houses – enabled by the incorporated structural design of open-air vents – becomes an overall reflection of a household’s health and well-being. It is interesting to note that by using recurring images shot through vents and doorways, Trinh creates a sense of separated connectedness that supplants the filtered gaze of the opening images with one of obstructed transparency – a visual reinforcement of otherness that defines Trinh’s (as well as the spectator’s) mediated point of view that is also inherent in the inquisitive, stolen glances of the village women in Oualata. Concluding with the bookending shot of the Senegalese village ceremony – this time, without the distortion of red tinting – as a narrator comments on the mechanics of dance as a body’s continuity to the gaps in the rhythm, the image becomes a dual-natured one: a reassertion of indigenous expression in the absence of imposed filters, and an invocation of ancestral spirits within the sacred circle of a shared cultural intimacy.

fourth_dimensionThe Fourth Dimension, 2001. The opening image of author, poet, theorist, composer, ethnographer, and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha’s first digital video feature, The Fourth Dimension is a view from a moving vehicle on a fog-laden stretch of highway at dusk. A secondary rectangular frame then blocks the visible image of the fleeting landscape, and the aperture begins to drift, slowly shifting as if to momentarily focus attention on an overlooked detail within the transient frame. This deceptively whimsical and eccentrically playful introductory sequence serves not only to illustrate the amorphous interdependence between observation and demarcation, but also provides an incisive framework into Trinh’s experimental approach to filming an ethnographic essay of contemporary Japan and, in particular, modern-day Japanese rituals. Creating motion within the observation of a “fixed” image, the dynamic frame within a frame becomes a metaphor for the film’s titular fourth dimension: a conscious awareness, yet transitory encapsulation of the invisible within the visible – the ephemeral representation of space, time, and memory through the observation of perceptional shifts in the liminal – through the coded aesthetics of capturing perpetual dislocation.

For Trinh, the essence of modern day, quotidian Japanese rituals does not reside within the synchrony of the unfamiliar spectacle, but in a state of transcendence derived in the act of conformity and repetition, the mode of commuting between two states through the performance of decontextualized, everyday ritual. In its most literal form, Trinh equates the experience of a ride in a bullet train as a phenomenological representation of the idea of motion within stasis, a state of duality in which inclusion itself, no matter how passive or unconscious, reflects the privilege of commuting from one physical state to another…a geographic rite of passage. Figuratively, this transcendence through repetitive ritual is reflected in the images of young people dancing euphorically in a public square, in the solemn chants of monks walking on a open field, in the deliberative gestures of a Noh performance that places traditional cultural arts within the visual framework of contemporary aesthetics, and in the perpetuated performances of ancient, local festivals within modernized cities.

Perhaps the most relevant, essential image of Japan is illustrated in the inherent incongruity in these everyday occurring cultural juxtapositions, a dichotomy epitomized through the images of ubiquitous Japanese tourists – the fellow traveler – who equally regard these decontextualized, seemingly alien rituals with a similar sense of curiosity and alterity, an observation that demystifies the cultural outsider’s notion of Japan as a paradigm for monoethnic uniformity. Rather, what Trinh captures is the image of contemporary Japanese society as peripheral outsiders within their own culture, for which the elusive ideal resides in the conscious act of achieving collective sameness – the paradoxical erasure of identity through the assumption of interchangeable social roles – the donning of masks. This internationalization of identity inevitably defines the essence of the fourth dimension, the idealized state of being intraordinary (as Trinh comments near the conclusion of the film) – the ability to conform outwardly through the enlightened sublimation of identity and human emotion – to achieve transcendence within the liminal through the quotidian rituals of conformity and self-erasure.

Acquarello 2006-2007 [reprinted]

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