The radical filmmaker, teacher at Berkeley and writer talks essentialism in identity politics and why her films are neither documentary nor fiction.
Trinh T. Minh-ha’s first film, Reassemblage (1982), is in some sense a work of ethnographic cinema. Shot in Senegal, it is filled with scenes of daily life, especially of village women.
Yet, from its very title, which summons the fragmentary and constructed, Reassemblage signals that it will be no conventional documentary. Disentangling sound from image, foregoing an authoritative voice-over and relinquishing the long takes of an observational style for a disjunctive montage aesthetic, Trinh overturns the conventions traditionally employed in anthropological filmmaking. Rather than a work of ethnographic cinema, Reassemblage is better understood as anti-ethnography – a film that reflexively dismantles the objectification and exoticization of otherness which mark the ethnographic and colonial projects alike.
In the films, installations and books she has produced in the years since Reassemblage, Trinh has continued in this spirit, deconstructing claims to identity, presence and authenticity, holding them to be the product of patriarchal and colonialist epistemologies. Whether in the re-enactments of Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) and the poetic theorizing of Woman Native Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (1989), or in her more recent turn to exploring digitization and climate change, Trinh insists on dislodging the illusory purity of inherited categories to make way for the hybrid and in-between. Crucially, this cross-disciplinary practice is not one of simple negation: Trinh breaks down dominant languages in order to imagine other forms of relation and expression.
Her latest film, Forgetting Vietnam (2016), crosses the country of her birth from north to south, confronting changing imaging technologies and the ambivalence of modernization along the way. Through landscapes, history, folklore and popular songs, this essayistic travelogue commemorates both the passing of Trinh’s father and the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. The work possesses a lyricism not present in Reassemblage, but Trinh’s words from the earlier film resonate in it even more strongly: ‘Reality is delicate.’