Inspiring Thursday: Trịnh Thị Minh Hà

Trịnh Thị Minh Hà is a Vietnamese filmmaker, feminist, writer, composer and professor of Gender and Women Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Born in Hanoi in 1952, Trinh emigrated to the United States in 1970 where she studied musical composition, ethnomusicology and French literature at the University of Illinois, completing her PhD dissertation in 1977 under the title: Un Art sans Oeuvre: l’Anonymat dans les Arts Contemporains [An Art Without Oeuvre: Anonymity in Contemporary Arts].

Trinh has travelled and lectured extensively in the States, as well as in Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, on film, art, feminism, and cultural politics. Her work in cultural politics have been influenced by her Vietnamese heritage as well as years spent in West Africa, Japan, and the United States. She is also the recipient of many distinguished awards and grants. Among her many influential films, publications, and multi-media installations, Trinh is the author of Lovecidal. Walking with The Disappeared (2016), D-Passage. The Digital Way (2013), Elsewhere Within Here, Immigration, Refugeeism and The Boundary Event (2010); The Digital Film Event (2005), Cinema Interval (1999), Framer Framed (on film, 1992), When the Moon Waxes Red, on representation, gender and cultural politics, (1991), Woman, Native, Other (on post-coloniality and feminism (1989), and En minuscules (poems, 1987).

Trinh does not locate herself as primarily Asian or American but situates herself within “this whole context of Asia whose cultural heritages cut across national borderlines”. The conceptualization of cultural heritages that transgress borderlines is one that continues to inform her work as both a filmmaker and a literary theorist. With her three films around Vietnam: Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), A Tale of Love (1995) and Forgetting Vietnam (2015), Trinh approaches cultures. By doing so, what appeals to her is not the search for a good story, the individual story, or the clear message that marks our consumerist society’s media productions: “Whenever I go to places and shoot in cultures different than my own, I’m not interested at all in ‘covering a story’ – an individual’s story or an individualist subject. I never work that way. I’d rather come into places and events with questions like: What characterises a culture? What is its everyday reality? What leads a country to be seen as such? And importantly, how do we show and tell (from what position, with what tools)?”.

Surname Viet Given Name Nam concerns the naming of a country. It has to do with gender and national identity, as well as with the politics of naming, translating and interviewing. A Tale of Love deals with the genre commonly called ‘fiction’ or ‘narrative feature’ in which the love story is requisite. “With the love story comes a whole process of voyeurism, for every story of love on screen is a story of voyeurism. The more of a voyeur you are in a feature narrative, the more intimate the view you offer to the spectator, right? So the camera would follow people everywhere. In their bathroom, in their shower, in their bed, in their nudity, but also in their terminal illness, in their hunger, in their suffering. It is an extreme form of voyeurism which I literally and provocatively exposed and incorporated into the role of one of the main characters of the film: the photographer. A Tale of Love is structured in such a way as to give you at first the feeling that you have a story, but as the film moves on, the story seems to disappear. As it loses its linearity and is made to dissolve, the viewer is invited to follow the narrative threads the way a deer would track a scent”. Forgetting Vietnam is made in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the end of the war and of its survivors. It engages with the process of remembering and forgetting, and relates to the naming of a country, by featuring the multi-dimensional roles of land and water. Vietnam in ancient times was named đất nứớc vạn xuân—the land of ten thousand springs. Trinh used low and high technology to get tradition and modernity, rural and urban. “Like other Third World countries, this is a problem that Vietnam is struggling with, not only because the leap required to bridge the gap between old and new is much more abrupt than in European countries, but also because the concept regulating the relation between low tech and high tech in today’s consumer society is incompatibility. Everything is linearly made incompatible between past and present, North and South, East and West, so that we are constantly compelled to keep on consuming in our throwaway society”.

She made films from the 80s to the early 2000s dealing with feminism and post-colonialism. Her ethnographic film Reassemblage was her debut film and was shot in rural Senegal. It was a critique of traditional ethnographic film and colonialism. She tried to make a film without the imposition of her own preconceptions, or the traditional preconceptions of Senegal. She was not claiming to show what life in Senegal is like but instead critiquing the idea that an outsider could. The opening sequence has a blank screen with drumming and whooping heard in the background and then a short, silent montage of fragmented images before she begins her narration. The sounds and images were deliberately confusing to show how, without a narrator or translator to provide contextualization, outside audiences would be unable to understand anything about Senegal. Trinh was an onlooker in the film, she was never seen and only narrated in short statements that were not necessarily related to the images being shown. In an interview a decade after Reassemblage was released, Trinh acknowledges that the critique in Reassemblage “is not simply aimed at the anthropologist, but also at the missionary, the tourist and myself as onlooker”. She was asserting that no ethnography can ever show the true reality of a community. Trinh wanted to tell us something about our compartmentalised world, how knowledge is forcibly compartmentalised for control purposes, and how, even with the constant talk about virtual boundlessness in globalisation, the world we live is a world of proliferating fences and walls. Boundaries are all over in our language, in the way we relate to people and events in life.

Trinh works with a range of references, largely drawing from French philosophy and anthropology juxtaposed with writings by U.S. women of colour and other Third World women. Most controversially, she criticizes many of the contemporary attempts to formulate ‘progressive’ anthropological methods–‘insider anthropology,’ ‘shared anthropology,’ and various efforts to ‘give voice’ to the Other–which mask and prolong the relations of power between Western ‘experts’ and Third World subjects, rather than unsettling them. Trinh implicates anthropology in the ideology of ‘development,’ the latest in a long line of Western definitions of the outsider where the underlying dynamics remain constant: the barbarian, the pagan, the infidel, the wild man, the native, the underdeveloped. In such a context, debates over the terms of representation all to easily function to update and re-legitimate underlying power relationships, questioning how the Other is represented–‘positive image’ vs. ‘negative images,’ ‘stereotypes vs. ‘realistic depiction’–without considering who controls the definitions. Her third chapter, entitled ‘Difference: A Special Third World Women Issue’, represents a search for language acknowledging differences but resisting tendencies toward both universal explanations of systems of difference and the imposition of rigidly-defined differences, for instance, those represented by the token and the exception. In this context, she again turns to writings by various women of colour, particularly works from ‘marginalized’ and ‘feminized’ genres–prose fiction, poetry, autobiography–although she reads these texts as philosophy and theory as well as literature. Her own writing, too, incorporates poetic language and forms and a personal, although never explicitly autobiographical, voice.

Tracing the separation of ‘literature’ and ‘history’ as distinct narrative practices in Western culture, she proposes their re-integration. Working with texts by Teresa Hak Kyung Cha and Maxine Hong Kingston, Trinh explores the overlapping effects of storytelling: passing on information, inspiration, a sense of history, and emotional bonding, what she terms a ‘living female tradition.’ In many instances, she refers to traditional cultures as sites of cultural space that is female, gendered, but not subordinated; a postcolonial re-appropriation of ‘women’s space’ against the movement of ‘genderless hegemonic standardization.’

Since the early 1980s she has developed a complex theoretical, visual and poetic response to the implicit politics regulating the production of discourses and images of cultural difference. Working through the multidimensional effects of imperialism and neo-colonial modernity, her work played a pivotal role in the emergence of postcolonial theory and critique. Her 1989 book, Woman, Native, Other, investigates the contradictory imperatives faced by an ‘I’ positioned ‘in difference’ as a ‘Third World woman’ in the act of writing, as well as in critiquing the roles of the creator, intellectual and anthropologist. “Within feminism, there are, as in all movements, women whose questioning of the dominant system constantly pushes to the outer limits of what feminism is and what it is not. But you also have others who just hop on the wagon and are likely to turn feminism into a rigidly prescriptive practice, perpetuating thereby the same power relations as those established in the patriarchal system. Feminism is thus weakened in its political undertaking as it is reduced to something as simplistic and essentialist as man-hating. Sure, the mainstream is always very quick to appropriate subversive strands for their own conservative end, but one need not fall prey to this. For me, the notion of post-feminism is as problematic, but also as interesting, as the notion of postmodernism through which, for example, the definition of modernism keeps on being displaced in its certainties. Therefore, postmodernism cannot be reduced to something that merely comes after modernism or to a simple rejection of modernism.

As some theorists argue, it can point back to a nascent stage of modernism, a dawning stage before the closure, in other words, a stage in between closures. Post-feminism in this context is both a return to a nascent stage of feminism where the movement is at its most subversive, and a move forward to a stage in which we have learned from the many difficulties we’ve encountered that, in spite of all the refinements of sexist ideology, the fight is far from being over. It has, on the contrary, become so much more complex now that the movement has reached an impasse on the issue of essentialism, whether this idea of an innate ‘womanness’ is defined by men or championed by women. I don’t believe the movement to be other than heterogeneous in its origins. In fact, this is the condition of any socio-political or aesthetic movement. That’s why history and culture keep on having to be rewritten. Because of their more privileged status, white feminists have been taking up this task more extensively, but the women’s movement resulted from the works of both white women and women of colour around the world. Now that more women of colour have access to education, there will be more and more rewriting work to be done on our side. Moreover, the influence has always been mutual: if women of colour have at times taken their cue from white women’s sexual politics, their fight has consistently contributed to the radicalization of the feminist struggle. As you put it, it continues to shift the framework of Euro-American feminism and, depending on how the work is carried out, the refocus on women of colour in white feminist discourse lately can be seen as a simultaneous form of appropriation and expropriation, or as an acknowledgement of intercultural enrichment and of interdependency in the fighting-learning process. The precarious line we walk on is one that allows us to challenge the West as authoritative subject of feminist knowledge, while also resisting the terms of a binarist discourse that would concede feminism to the West all over again”.


By Chiara Paganelli, WAVE Intern



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