An intrinsic aspect of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s cinema is her particularity of observation from a perspective that is neither of enlightened privilege nor indigenous intimacy, but rather, suspended between elements of objectivity and subjectivity, a gaze belonging to neither cultural insider nor curious outsider. By filming in this state of cultural hybridity, Trinh reassesses not only the form and structure of traditional ethnography, but also confronts the very philosophy and collective conscience behind this process of cultural documentation. Specifically, Trinh examines the traditional strategy of ethnographic filmmaking within the context of broader cultural relationships that segregate populations into social, political, and economic classes as defined by cultural dominance, history (and specifically, colonialism), and dissemination of information. In revealing the complex – and elusive – interrelation between the seemingly objective, pure documentation of “untouched” cultures and ideals of self-representation, and the human history that inevitably renders the impurity of that gaze, Trinh transects conventional documentary either/or perspectives of cultural sameness, and instead navigates through a symbiotic resonance of social marginalization and alterity. In the Cinema Interval chapter, Jumping into the Void, Trinh discusses the notion of hybridity with Bérénice Reynaud and the traces the evolution of this aesthetic perspective to her time spent living and teaching in Senegal and other West African countries as an anthropologist who, nonetheless, was aware of the dichotomy of her status as both a non-native and recognized cultural authority.
For me, there is no such thing as pure culture. Whether I deal with Africa or with Vietnam, my own culture, I would have to deal with the very hybridity of the culture itself…Hence, the necessity immediately to question my own position as outsider and as a ‘hybrid insider’ because, despite the differences, I recognize acutely the ethics and the experiences related to colonialism’s aftermath, which I myself grew up with in Vietnam. If it was odd, as an insider, to read about oneself being offered up as a cultural entity by experts writing on Vietnamese culture, it was unsettling to look at oneself and others from the standpoint of an outside-insider in Senegal. The encounter with African cultures thus became a catalyst to think about questions of subjectivity and power relations.
Moreover, Trinh’s films are not only formed by the inescapable perspective of cultural hybridity, but are also marked by the awareness that the very structure of (conventional) documentary filmmaking – the underlying roadmap by which these thematic expositions are developed – is, itself, a kind of cultural imperialism that guides (and perhaps, even steers) the direction of the author’s logical arguments. In this respect, Trinh’s elliptical, rhythmic, and intuitive cinema can be seen as a conscious (and conscientious) rejection of the linearization of explanatory language that is deployed by dominant cultures to contextualize – and conveniently encapsulate – information about marginalized cultures.
What is at stake is the problem of established power relationships. When this explanatory language becomes dominant, when it becomes so pervasive that the only way people can think about something is to think about it literally, then for me, that language also becomes dangerous, because its cultural centralization constitutes a form of impoverishment – the ways in which we think are reduced and homogenized – as it excludes or invalidates all other ways of communicating.
It is also interesting to note that in discussing the notion of hybridity within the myth of cultural assimilation and domination, Trinh broaches on the prevailing theme of Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s Les Statues meurent aussi, where the systematic process of displaying cultural artifacts in non-native museums for exhibition results in the decontextualization of these objects from their true purpose and utility to the point where they become removed from the living culture of the dominated society and simply become objects of curiosity: a figurative death that also serves as a broader metaphor for the fate of the colonized, indigenous societies from which the artifacts were appropriated.
This seems to be the case with a notion like ‘hybridity’, which has provided a strategic space for a range of new possibilities in identity struggles, but is being reappropriated in diverse milieus, such as the art milieu. Curators can continue to “collect cultures” from remote parts of the world, but rather than retrieving information and salvaging tradition, they now expertly stage and circulate the ‘hybrid object’.
In the chapter Two Spirals, an interview with Linda Tyler, Sarah Williams, Toroa Pohatu, and Tessa Barringer, Trinh introduces the notion of film as a snapshot of a continuum – a crystallization of a moment and circumstance – an idea that Pohatu associates with the Maori belief that the past and future are happening in the present. Citing the example of teaching the philosophy of Jacques Derrida through the method of logical progression by also teaching the classical texts of Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger in order to illustrate the evolutionary development of Derrida’s ideas, Trinh illustrates the pitfalls of such a linear approach that can lead to a neverending task of tracing back to the original text – an essentially pedantic distraction that inevitably stultifies the real process of critical thought and propagates the informational structure of hierarchical, dominant cultural authority.
Instead of going back to Kant and Heidegger, why not explore, for example, how Derrida’s theories can meet Merce Cunningham’s dances, or intersect with certain trends in contemporary performance arts? Why follow only the vertical and its hierarchies when the oblique and the horizontal in their multiplicities are no less relevant and no less fascinating for the quest of truth and knowledge? Why not first and foremost explore how any theory or writing speaks specifically to us – to our situated social and individual selves – from where we are, in our actualities, in our cultural differences, our circumstantial positionings and diversely mediated backgrounds?
In the interview Scent, Sound, and Cinema with Marie Zournazi, the inherent imperfectness and limitation of translation serves as an appropriate introduction for the intrinsic, non-verbal intuitiveness of Trinh’s cinema. It is, therefore, not surprising that the specter of Marguerite Duras’ India Song would enter into the discussion of Trinh’s own film, A Tale of Love, both films evoking a profound resonance of loss, separation, rootlessness, and longing through cumulative (and assimilative) sensorial repetition rather than narrative explication. In this respect, India Song serves as a paradigm for the articulation of the postcolonial experience where elusive notions of home, nationality, and identity are expressed through equally ephemeral, non-narrative devices of textures, rhythms, and montage.
I feel a great affinity with Marguerite Duras’ remark that after the premiere of her film India Song, she had the impression of being dispossessed, not only of a given area, a place, her habitat, but even of her identity…It is through the politics of denationalizing the refugee and the émigré, that a person-who-leaves becomes normalized, being systematically compelled to undergo the process of giving up their home, their country, their language, their proper name. In order to be accepted, one has to abandon one’s unwanted self. In order to belong anew, one has to take the oath of loyalty, which entails disloyalty to one’s home nation and identity.
Acquarello, 2006 [reprinted]