Experimental Exilic Documentaries: Jonas Mekas’s Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania & Trinh T-Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam
Jon Davies, 2003
Jonas Mekas’s Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania and Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam are experimental documentary films about exile and displacement. While Mekas and Trinh eschew the use of the term “documentary” to describe their films, I believe that the explorations of memory, history and displacement within them are part of a critical, self-reflexive and non-totalizing documentary tradition. In their formal experimentation, complex narrative strategies, and struggles for new kinds of representation, these films can be interpreted as experimental works as well. Finally, both films fit within Hamid Naficy definition of exilic cinema’s alternative modes of production: exilic films are often critical, collective, interstitial within the dominant film industry, low-budget and narrowly distributed, self-inscribed (the filmmaker performs or fulfills multiple roles on the crew), multilingual, and perhaps not surprisingly, sad. He states that “[E]very exilic film is at once an allegory of both exile and cinema” (132). In this paper, I will outline how Mekas and Trinh use formal experimentation and voice-over narration to express their themes of exile and displacement in challenging ways. Whether through image or sound, both seem to open up a radical space that offers opportunities for representing history and memory more critically and humanistically. In terms of the narration, this space is opened up by inadequacy and fragmentation in Mekas’s film and by diversity and difference in Trinh’s work. Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania “[T]he exile is more greedy for and more sensitive to the physical reality around him or her…he or she goes through a perpetual process of re-creating within the imaginary realm the physical reality that was lost and which is now remembered as an ideal of plenitude” (Radulescu 200). In “The Intolerable Gift,” film scholar Teshome Gabriel writes of his return home to Ethiopia for the first time in 32 years. He explains why he did not use the cameras he brought with him: “It was as if my camera-stylo had somehow flipped around and pointed its eraser end rather than its writing tip. This was precisely because a film, as a representational record, is fixed and cannot be transformed. As my own experience showed me, the memory of a lived experience is anything but fixed” (78). Gabriel seems to see film as a record of memory as opposed to a record of a lived event that refuses to be accurately recovered by memory. Jonas Mekas’ Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania and his other film diaries do not attempt to record memory, but instead they document the process of struggle between memory and experience by acknowledging that the events of the past cannot be fixed or preserved by anyone, filmmaker included. His film can only document the inadequacy of reality compared to his memory of it. Mekas’ film has primarily been discussed as an example of diaristic or autobiographical/ autoethnographic filmmaking, but I will argue that it can also be interpreted as a narrated documentary. Mekas’s voice – in conjunction with the music and the sounds recorded in Lithuania on the soundtrack – poetically narrates this profound experimental film on the subject of exile, loss and ultimately, transcendence. The film is in three sections. The first is comprised of images of displaced persons and a walk through the woods that Mekas shot within the first few years after his arrival in the United States. The second is composed of 91 glimpses of footage he shot on his return home to Lithuania to visit friends and family whom he had not seen in twenty-seven years. The third documents his trip to Vienna where he visits several artist friends. Mekas is a prototypical exile. Lithuania had been occupied by the Soviets since 1940. During World War 2, Lithuania became occupied by the Nazis, forcing he and his brother Adolphus to flee as they had worked against the Nazis and were no friends to the Soviets. To make a very long and painful story short (see Mekas), the brothers were sent to a forced labour camp near Hamburg for the length of the war and then spent years moving from one displaced person camp to another until they were sent to the United States, making New York their home in 1950. During this period, Mekas read constantly despite living in virtually constant starvation. He first picked up a camera once he was in New York. His entire film project can be seen as an attempt to “shout” about his own experiences and those of all other displaced persons and survivors of war and oppression (Warhol 49), to fulfill Bienek’s belief that “[e]xile is not a condition, it ought to be a revolt. One must resist. Exile must cry, if it wants to be heard. It must shout – also – at our indifference” (in Evelein 25). Mekas states in the film that he had wanted to make a film against the war, because people in AmErika didn’t understand the extremity of what was happening. In Mekas’s film, the feeling of home is above all conceptualized through the organic. Home for Mekas is represented by plants, animals, nature; he feels an intensely strong connection to the earth (Mekas 136): “A Lithuanian cannot live without nature” (Mekas 146). His narration constantly reminds us that he is a displaced person, with the entire film structured by his feelings of loss and his ruminations on the shifting locations of home and community. Also, in Mekas’s films, there is often a large gap in between the filming and editing processes, which according to Russell, “renders every image a memory,” as the images belong to a past which is mediated by the narration of the present (282). This narration is not as concerned with the present as it is obsessed with the past. Mekas’s voice is omnipresent on the soundtrack. Even during the moments of its absence, we get the sense that Mekas is there, listening or reminiscing. Mekas muses more than he narrates, giving us his impressions, feelings and thoughts rather than facts or arguments. Russell describes Mekas’s voice-over as “consistently inadequate. The forgetting is as pervasive as the remembering” (283). Mekas’s presence in the film is extremely strong. He begins speaking even before the opening titles. He does not edit out mistakes he makes – such as his uncertainty whether some footage was shot in 1957 or 1958 – and there is often “accidental” background noise on his narration track. Mekas is a poet, and his film employs poetic words and music as well as images, yet they are not necessarily synchronized. Mekas intersperses his footage with a square as a sort of visual punctuation at the ends of specific sequences. Three times he employs parentheses in the film, using titles stating “parentheses” before the footage and “parentheses closed” afterwards. Mekas also uses inter-titles to tell us further information about the images, though their tone is as subjective as the voice-over. In the first section of the film, Mekas’ words often suggest a more traumatic reading of his images than we actually experience. For example, in the first sequence, with footage shot in the woods, he states ”I wish I could forget the last ten years…there was a moment when I forgot my home…this was the beginning of my new home…I escaped the ropes of time once more.” While he speaks we see a frayed rope attached to a tree, as if a hanged man had been cut down from his noose. The implication is that in order to move on and be able to feel at home somewhere new, the exile must forget their original home, the old must die for the new to live. Another example is his footage of a displaced person picnic. He refers to the D.P.’s as “old and new immigrants” while showing us a group scene with both elderly people and babies. He then says they all look “like sad dying animals…that don’t belong there,” yet in our eyes they seem to be having a wonderful time at a festive picnic. This is perhaps the first instance where Mekas’ own experiences colours his interpretation of others. As Russell states: “Mekas’s films are all ultimately about himself, and by subsuming history within his own memory, the Others become fictional products of his memory, their own histories evacuated by the melancholia of his loss. Superimposing himself, his desires, his memories, his ego, onto everyone and everything, Mekas’s romanticism is a form of possession.” One could argue that because Mekas spent so long with nothing, it is understandable that his traumatic experiences would manifest themselves through possession, for his life’s narrative is one of dispossession. This possession will reach its greatest intensity in section two, where his friends and family members are staged like puppets performing his memories of home for his Bolex. They are filmed straight on, usually standing, and always very aware of the camera, actors in his Potemkin village. They don’t even have to move, stillness is enough. Despite this desire for re-enactment, Mekas suggests that images can never bring one back to the idealized past, like the narration, they will always be inadequate. Amid shots of crowds of displaced persons and images of himself is one where he waves away the camera as if to suggest that images can never really capture the moment. James suggests that the center of Mekas’ entire project is the inexistent and inconceivable filmic record of his childhood in Lithuania (168). Adams Sitney too states that “the vision of nature and of his childhood” is ”a presence that is forever absent to the camera lens” (360). In the end, no amount of technology, no form of art can turn back time. While the second, and most important, section of the film is introduced as “100 Glimpses of Lithuania August 1971” there are in fact only 91. Every glimpse here is numbered and they range in length from several seconds to several minutes. The second section is marked by its inclusion of music, mostly choral or folk songs, and recorded sound such as voices, bells or cats. Instead of starting early, Mekas only begins talking at #7, stating “and there was Mamma” when we first see his mother. She is the first to be introduced by an inter-title, and the first whose voice is recorded. The images in this section of the film are of increased speed, the editing is choppy, the camera handheld; the lighting intensity, focus and camera angle vary wildly. The overall effect is one of euphoria, urgency, confusion and fragmentation, but as Mekas quotes Dostoyevsky in a diary entry from June 7, 1950: “we are alive in the glimpses, seconds, when souls really speak, really meet, really see” (320). These formal experimentations express the qualities of the glimpse: “The glimpsing…is provocative, meant to stimulate an active seeing” (Turim 206). While we are capable of focusing on what Mekas is showing us, the experimentation reminds us constantly of Mekas’ mediating role, and poetically expresses his energy and state of mind on his return home. Also, as the reviewer in Variety suggests, the “editing is meant to reflect the patchwork way memory often works” (157). It is as if Mekas’s memories and expectations are colliding violently with the reality that he discovers, the disjunction between then and now can only result in chaos, an image that is hyperactive, even violent, despite the calm atmosphere of love and home. Radulescu describes the feeling of the exile as one of inner amputation or fracturing, loss and rupture, and Mekas manifests these through his excising of film, leaving us with elliptical edits that mimic his own forced nomadism (1,3). Ascher sees the “unprecedented experimentation with literary form” of the twentieth century as intimately bound up with the existence of unprecedented trauma in that century (69). Certainly the fragmentary narration and images of Mekas’ film can be seen as a reflection of trauma, especially since he has been a part of this modernist project working in experimentation since his youth. Gabriel believes that “[w]hat is not on the screen, but falls through the gap of the splice between images, is the eminent world that is not represented. Here I am referring to what is forced out or exiled from the image by virtue of the splice” (79). The act of editing itself exiles some moments from the film and from the historical record while keeping others. This is an aspect of all documentary which is often repressed. In diary films such as these, attention is drawn to what is left out, what is not or cannot be represented. Unlike the images of New York and Vienna, the majority of the images of Lithuania are rural: fields, trees, berries, eggs, potatoes, ducks, cats, cows, sheep, chickens, people plowing, eating, drinking, and singing. It is up for debate whether Mekas is trying to gain access to a rural life that he left behind through the lens of a film camera, the ambassador of industry and the mechanized West, or whether he is fully aware of the impossibility of this task and knows he cannot go back. Russell doesn’t see filmmaking as antithetical to the pastoral, she believes that it is his tool for transcending a subjectivity divided between child and adult, nature and culture, rural and urban (285). His home village Semeniskiai is introduced as “the center of the world” and the first thing they do upon returning to the home they grew up in is drink water from the well, “the best anywhere.” The seedlings that he remembers having been planted are now full grown trees, in his absence a forest has grown. During his time in the labour camp, Mekas had been forced to cut down trees to fuel the war (Mekas 48), but in his village, nature continued on despite the hardships. Mekas visits and is visited by his brothers and sisters, and other family members and friends, some identified for us and some not. There are two instances where Mekas tells us that his brother was embarrassed of his filming because of what Westerners might think of their living conditions. However, these moments are perhaps Mekas’s most pleasurable ones: sleeping on a bed of hay, and getting play-whipped by his brother as he drags an outmoded plow across a field. Mekas’s ancestors were all farmers and his father a carpenter (Mekas 8). He grew up as a farm boy but was enslaved in a factory, only to work again in factories once he was in New York: “During the lunch break other workers brought flowers and placed them on [the] machine. Flowers and machines. Life and misery… Drop your culture and return to earth; plow the fields, plant gardens…The civility of the land and the barbarism of humans just do not blend” (Mekas 29, 63). This adoration for nature is related to the body’s status as locus of memory. The images of nature that he shows us are accessed primarily through smell, taste, sound and feeling. While sound can be represented by the cinema, the taste of berries, the smell of hay, and the feeling of the ground cannot be. This further attests to cinema’s inability to fix memory. In the first part of the film, he describes how the sounds and smells in New York were not from there, but presumably from Lithuania, and he later asks “have you ever smelled birch bark in Times Square?” Another example is his mother’s memory of the Soviet police waiting for Mekas to return home. She recalls it through the sound of the dogs barking. Part of the return to more communal, familial rural life is Mekas’ ceding control of the camera and sound equipment to others. At one point an unidentified woman narrates briefly on his behalf, his mother speaks while he translates, and a group of relatives and friends sing a folk song around the microphone (“when more than one Lithuanian get together they sing”). In an brief but unforgettable scene, a woman wielding his film camera playfully chases others. However, Mekas is the only editor, and he constantly reminds us that this film is his and not ours through the images as well as the soundtrack. For example, he comes across a moose in the forest and films it, but it is so far in the distance that we can barely see it. The image has no meaning for us due to its illegibility but for him it was the pinnacle of drama, experienced with his family, one that cannot undergo translation for his audience. At one point he acknowledges that we are being led purely by his subjectivity, and that Lithuania and his images of it may be as foreign to us as it is familiar to him. He states: “O these personal ramblings, I can’t tell you about social realities, I’m just looking for home, traces of past.” The images that accompany this warning are of his family’s traditional height measuring. Time is being marked with chalk on a barn wall. However, twenty-five years of absence have gone unmarked on the wall with Mekas trying to make up for that with his camera: “time remains suspended but it is beginning to move.” During the second section, Mekas also reveals to us the events that happened in the years between leaving home and arriving in New York. This is one of the sections in parentheses. He tells us how he had worked for an anti-Nazi newspaper, that he hid his typewriter in a woodpile but it was stolen, so he had to flee, and he was told by his uncle to “see the West and come back.” At this point the images end for the first time and we are left in darkness while he narrates the rest of his story, the hideous disruption between old home and new home. He found false documents and went to study in Vienna, but the train he was on was re-routed to a labour camp. Parentheses closed. By putting these details of his life in parentheses, Mekas is marginalizing the horror from his idealized representation of home. In Lithuania we do not see any war, any horror, the images we see fit exactly with what Mekas seems to want to find. Just as he makes sure to play with the manual farm equipment he remembers, not the big machines that they use now (because mechanics interfere with his organic memories), he also shows us a Lithuania free from tyranny, like the one before the occupations, the Lithuania of his childhood. As he runs a race like a child, he asks: “Where are you now my old childhood friends? How many of you are alive? Where are you scattered? Through the graveyards? Through the torture rooms? Through the prisons? Through the labour camps of Western civilization?” His friends’ faces remain young in his memory. The trauma he suffered is conceptualized as the product of civilization – which he refers to as a carcass in his diaries (Mekas 101) – not Baltic agrarianism. The violence of the contemporary Communist regime is never mentioned. The one point where death is referred to directly is a scene in a cemetery, but we are never told who lies buried there. The third part of the film is comprised mostly of footage of Mekas spending time with friends of his in Austria. The filmmakers Peter Kubelka, Annette Michaelson and Ken Jacobs and the performer and composer Hermann Nitsch are all included, declared saints by Mekas. However, the section begins with a parenthesis, again referring to the horrors of the war, as it contains footage he shot in Germany before going to Vienna. The very first image is of his brother Adolphus laying down on the grass, and we are told that he is in the exact spot where their bed in the labour camp had been. Mekas states that the people around do not remember, only the grass does. Once again, nature is the bearer of memory, and perhaps the only thing that can be trusted. They then visit the same factory in which they had performed slave labour, but what disturbs Mekas even more (despite the fact that the foreman remembers Adolphus) is the children outside laughing. He identifies with them and loathes them at the same time. They laugh at him because he is an “auslander” (foreigner) and because of his camera. This moment suggests that the act of filming others marks one as an outsider as well, the exilic filmmaker is twice displaced. When they run away he states “I had to run from here once too.” He hates them because they are able to live happily in their homeland without realizing that they are frolicking outside what had once been a slave-mill. Simply the sight of children running can have a more sinister interpretation for Mekas, one that he knows these children will probably never have to know. The parentheses close and we are informed by an inter-title that we see Vienna in August 1971. We are introduced to Kubelka, seen feeding the birds like St. Francis of Assisi. They visit Wittgenstein’s home, though from what we are shown there is nothing out of the ordinary about it. The intellectual genius of Wittgenstein has not altered the material world at all: the wood, glass, and stone of his house are not concerned with questions philosophical. The third section returns to the punctuating squares that had been absent in the second section, and Mekas’s voice-over is ultimately one of admiration. He constantly extolls the virtues of his friends, and he sees in art, friendship, food and drink the indestructibility of the human spirit. He illustrates his assertion that the standards of human accomplishment will still be here when we are gone with an image of a skeleton. The friends play in trees, they tour a monastery, they go through a library, they eat, they dance, they even drink water from a fountain (it is filmed with as much reverence as the drinking from the well in Semeniskiai). They act like ideal children, innocent children, not the cruel little German monsters we saw earlier. We do not see his friends for their artworks, we see them as his playmates. However, his admiration for these friends is inseparable from their artistic acts, and there is an overwhelming sense that art, while not capable of bridging the gap to a lost time and space, re-affirms the value of human life which seemed during Mekas’s years of suffering to be an impossibility: “I begin to believe again in the indestructibility of the human spirit.” These images are more joyous than those from New York. Is it because as a displaced person he can be equally at home or not at home anywhere in the world? Is it because he has conquered his demon-memories by finally getting to Vienna twenty-five years after his train had been rerouted towards slavery and displacement? The last scene in the film is perhaps the most metaphorically charged. Vienna is burning. They find out that a fruit market is on fire, which Kubelka claims is the most beautiful in the city. He believes that the city burned it down intentionally in order to build one that is more modern. If it were not for the numerous lovingly filmed shots of people (especially Mamma) eating wild berries in Lithuania we might not note the tragedy implied for Mekas in an old fruit market burning down to be replaced by something more modern. It is a metaphor for the unbridgeable chasm of time, distance and industry that prevents him from accessing the untarnished rural home of his childhood. Surname Viet Given Name Nam “Displacement involves the invention of new forms of subjectivities, of pleasures, of intensities, or relationships, which also implies the continuous renewal of a critical work that looks carefully and intensively at the very system of values to which one refers in fabricating the tools of resistance…Walking on masterless and ownerless land is living always anew the exile’s condition; which is here not quite an imposition nor a choice, but a necessity” (Trinh 1991 19, 26). After making two post-colonial ethnographic films about the people of west Africa, Trinh T. Minh-ha turned to her own community of Vietnamese-AmErikan women in order to make Surname Viet Given Name Nam. This film re-stages published interviews with Vietnamese women in France, and juxtaposes them with archival footage and stills, documentary synch-sound footage, proverbs and poetry, two voice-over narrations, and written text. The film is in black and white, and colour, the voices speak in Vietnamese and English, and the text is white, blue and red. As Trinh states: “let difference replace conflict” (1991 150). The film employs a hybrid and heterogeneous form in order to articulate the complexity and diversity of Vietnamese women’s’ lives and roles within culture, and to counter any essentializing or universalizing myths that the West has about Vietnam and Vietnamese people. Working in the U.S., Trinh is also counteracting the AmErikan government propaganda campaigns that tried to drum up support for the Vietnam war. This is also achieved by drawing on an oral cultural tradition which inflects the narrations of Trinh’s film. Focusing on examining the productive qualities of difference, Trinh lets the seams and splices of her film carry the greatest articulation. Trinh’s film also acts to distance and even exile the viewer, thereby formally enacting its own content: the feelings of loss, displacement and negociation experienced by the women who left Vietnam, and the experience of suddenly being a visible minority, marked as a foreigner by their skin and their speech. The image of the boat, transporting people from one place to another, is privileged in Trinh’s film. For her, it represents a “no place,” a “reserve of the imagination,” which is the space in between two fixed locations: “The work of critical inquiry cannot be content with fixed anti-positions, which were, in their own time, necessary in regards to the war in Vietnam, but need to be problematized in the context of contemporary histories of political migration” (Trinh in McDonald 132). Trinh’s film also attempts to balance on the borderzone between one place and another, in a space of multiplicity and complexity, a women’s space, that is always in process. By embracing a multiplicity of voices and narrative forms, Trinh asserts, as interviewee Thu Van does, that “A society that imposes on its people a single way of thinking, a single way of perceiving life, cannot be a human society.” Trinh is also responding to the left’s glorification of the Vietnamese revolution, as interviewee Anh states: ”To say that we are courageous or heroic beings is to pay a tribute to our revolution. But to glorify us is, in a way, to deny our human limits.” Trinh’s film can be seen as a “third-time space…phenomena too heterogeneous, mobile and discontinuous for fixity, it remains anchored in the politics of history/location” (Lavie & Swedenburg 14). She advocates a condition of inbetweenness that shuttles between an appreciation of the specificity of the root culture and a sense of solidarity with a global Third World community (Trinh 1991 159). While much remains consistent throughout the film, it is clearly divided into two sections. In the first, the actresses speak as the interviewed French-Vietnamese women and discuss life in Vietnam. In the second section, the actresses perform their own subjective positions and they comment more on life in the United States, the problems of adjusting and their own motivations for appearing in the film. At one point, they are shown in locations of their choosing. In the first section, the women speak English yet they are positioned with props and costumes within sets that suggest they are speaking from inside Vietnam. In the second section, the women speak English or Vietnamese and are clearly shot on location in the U.S. around Anglo-AmErikans. The film thus applies the experience of displacement to the very structure of the film, the two geographic locations of the testimonies are never intertwined, but are joined by a “splice” of narration which self-reflexively discusses the documentary. Though, as the first narrator states, there really are no historical breaks, “the scene keeps on recurring, as unchangeable as change itself.” The position of the Vietnamese woman remains fraught with difficulty in the land of the free. By creating this critical, self-reflexive documentary, Trinh is ensuring that the canonical four virtues (Cong: skillful in her work, Dung: modest in her behaviour, Ngon: soft-spoken in her language, Hanh: faultless in her principles) will not be easily translated to AmErikan society, as the Miss Vietnam 1988 Pageant would desire. The “splice” of self-reflexive narration is a crucial moment in the film. The narrator discusses the problems with the interview format, the criteria for deciding whose lives will be represented, how content is framed, and the boundaries of documentary and fiction. The narration accompanies archival stills, whose framing we now begin to look at more critically. Ly is the last woman to speak before the “splice” (about women’s liberation – “you are still joking, aren’t you?”) and the actress who plays her the first to speak afterwards (to her son’s grade school class on the subject of Vietnamese women’s dress). “Thanks to their co-existence and the play between them, I was able to open a critically creative space for myself as director and viewer, and hopefully for the audiences as well. By having the staged and the real together, what is brought out is the element of fiction in representation – the fictions of film caught in the fictions of life” (Jayamanne & Rutherford 165). It is the AmErikan setting, shot in verité style that informs us definitively that the Vietnam we saw previously was re-enacted. The splice is the “no place” (like Mekas’ glimpse) that demands our utmost engagement and criticism towards the material that surrounds it. The first half of interviews are marked by a beautifully subdued acting style. The performances are too well-composed to be realistic, but they are extremely powerful and expressive and one does not focus on the fact that they are staged. Later, when the real women discuss themselves, they seem much more nervous and realistic than before, as they are more impassioned and spontaneous. Radulescu sees parallels between female embodiment and exilic experience, which I believe are brought out by the excellent performances of the women in Trinh’s film. Women’s experiences are exiled from dominant culture and society, while exiles are described in feminized terms, and Radulescu believes that the marginalization that the exile experiences is doubled if one is a woman (188). Both exilic and feminist discourses are both about resistance and reintegration, which links them to the idea of the third space . One way that Trinh distances a non-Vietnamese, English-speaking audience from her work is through her actresses’ heavy accents, which make us the foreigners. At times I found it very difficult to understand the words of some of the women, and this was entirely intentional on Trinh’s part. There are also differences in accents depending on where the women were originally from in Vietnam. At times white text appears on the screen during or before the speaker utters the words inscribed there. While this is helpful to us, Trinh places it in the space of the interviewee rather than at the bottom of the screen, making a spectacle of our incomprehension by obscuring her subjects’ bodies and even faces with their words. She thus draws attention to the fact that we need these texts even though they are speaking English and to how miscommunication or difference can obscure how we see others. We cannot help but realize that it is Trinh who selects which words receive emphasis through their written transcription on screen, and thus our power of total and masterful comprehension is eroded even further. Also, the words on the screen are not necessarily those being read, mistakes are made which distance us further: “My desire…was to ‘unsew’ [reading, hearing and seeing] and to present them as three distinct activities endowed with a certain degree of autonomy” (Trinh 1992 207). Another form of written text that appears in the film are the inter-titles where a specific spoken word is shown on screen. This occurs three times, once to show the many names that the warrior heroine Trieu Tri Trinh has, once to show the names of the four virtues, and once to show the many names that Vietnam has been given over its thousands of years of history, both by natives and colonizers. By making these text segments about a woman’s many names, woman’s responsibilities, and the nation’s many names, Trinh is showing how woman is wedded by tradition to her nation. This is the intended meaning of her title: Surname Viet Given Name Nam is taken from a popular phrase that asserts that all Vietnamese women are symbolically married to their fatherland. The listing of names also counters the very possibility of a “singular naming of a person, a race, a culture, a nation…” by “[g]rafting several languages, cultures and realities onto a single body. The problem of translation, after all, is a problem of reading and of identity” (86-9). Reading a list of the names that Vietnam has held also brings attention to its many colonial occupiers, and the list is followed by the first narrator speaking different euphemisms for prisons: “re-eduction camps, rehabilitation camps, concentration camps, annihilation camps. All the distinctive features of a civilization are laid bare.” This hybridization apparent in multiple namings attests to the negociation of difference within Vietnamese culture and not merely between East and West (Mayne 144). Language is omnipresent in the film. The interviewees testify, the two narrators speak (Trinh’s own voice with a tone of authority and a younger Vietnamese-AmErikan woman’s voice with a more personal tone – she reads the quotes), a woman sings proverbs and poems in Vietnamese which are subtitled most of the time, and quotes from the interviewees along with biographical information are written in text on screen, along with the forms of text discussed above. The overwhelming message is that there is no authoritative speaker, all of them speak through different forms in order to communicate different truths. They are not having a dialogue amongst themselves but rather they are addressing us from the position of a group of people with experiences both distinct and shared, and we are expected to listen and then act. Occasionally two voices will speak at once and we will necessarily have to decide which one will take priority. Or occasionally the subtitles that translate a Vietnamese voice will no longer be there. The difficulties in adequately translating lived experience into a language that is not one’s first is emphasized by the second narrator at one point: “to be able to buy little snacks to pass them on secretly to each other during class. O mai, xi mui, che dau do, che dau trang, how would you translate these into English?” Trinh brings our attention further to her role of author by speaking as the authoritative narrator – incidentally, it is she who narrates the “splice.” By having a young woman speak in the more conversational tone, reading from the position of various historical figures and other women, Trinh is emphasizing the diversity of identities and possibilities that are open in a postmodern age. In fact she is more like a multiple-personality interviewee than a narrator, and in fact she becomes visible, as the four interviewees do, in the second section, where she performs herself. Most of her comments (often spoken in conversation with her white friend Sue) attest to the complexities and contradictions of living in a multicultural and postmodern U.S. more explicitly than the older women’s’ words do. Another difference: She was born in the U.S., while her mother is the immigrant. The language that alienates a non-Vietnamese audience is not only verbal but visual as well. There are many instances when archival footage is used and is not explained or contextualized, and we are not sure how to interpret it. While we receive historical facts and information, the narrations never explain the images we see, they are not there for exposition. The only non-diegetic voice we hear on the soundtrack of a man is an AmErikan news announcer accompanying footage of Vietnamese P.O.W. women, shaping how the images will be received by the AmErikan public through a captioning narration, the dominant form of narration that Trinh’s film resists. Like the descriptions of celebrated women in Vietnam’s history, Trinh’s footage exists more as images gleaned from the repressed histories of many different women in Vietnam: dancers, schoolgirls, wives, warriors, mythic amazons. I think it is noteworthy that this project began with the words (from the book of interviews by Mai Thu Van) and that the images came later, which is different than her previous films, as well as Mekas’s film. There is no contemporary footage of Vietnam, it is only accessed through archival footage and enacted through speech. The majority of what is discussed is about life in Vietnam and not about life in the West. Trinh’s use of archival footage suggests her awareness at how history, especially the history of Vietnam, is mediated. Russell sees found footage filmmaking as a means of opening up a space between fiction and documentary. She suggests that it denies the transparency of culture by being once-removed from the original act of documenting: “the Other is relocated in a history that is not vanishing but exceeds and transcends representation” (238, 272). The Vietnam that Trinh and the interviewees left behind is literally inaccessible to them, and Trinh ensures that it is inaccessible in a way to us as well. There is thus a strict divide: the only contemporary footage is of the U.S. (showing a Vietnamese festival, people’s homes, workplaces, streets, etc.) and the only archival footage is of Vietnam. A form of mediation that Trinh employs throughout the film and to great effect is altering the speed of the archival footage. This draws attention to her mediating role, as well as to the intangibility of history. Most of the stories the women tell are about hardships and oppression, and the manipulation of images of women in the footage can be seen as another form of domination. Once recorded, the women are forced to repeat the same seductive look, or a dance can be made to last an eternity. The same footage often re-appears several times but in different ways, so we do not necessarily recognize it. At one point the narrator refers to change, and we see this change literally in the speed of some archival footage as it goes from slow to normal speed. Change in the world, whether for better or worse, always has someone behind it, pulling the strings. Trinh also uses still photos as visual material, but she refuses to allow them to stay still on the screen. The camera scans them, moving from one point to another on the surface of the image. At other times the still is framed by black and then Trinh reveals more and more of the image that had been concealed. Both these strategies emphasize how the meaning of an image is changed depending on how much of it or what parts of it you are given access to. She uses her power of authorship to clearly point out how little we can really know from an image, whether it is in a documentary or not. A picture is never just a picture, there is always something outside of the frame. This device is also used in the interview segments. Most of the interviews are framed in a way that draws attention to offscreen space, either by showing objects like a teapot or branch half off screen or by framing extremely tight close-ups. As an example of the latter, we see the Thu Van’s mouth in extreme close-up before we see anything else. In much of her interview the camera is extremely close to her body and it seems to move around her almost arbitrarily, it wavers from left to right, up and down, stopping at hands, at feet. At one point it is zoomed in on her black pants and it seems as if the film has faded to black. In the second half, Thu Van is filmed having a conversation with several people, none of whom we can see, as the camera focuses only on her face turned to the side, speaking to the others offscreen. The first image of an interviewee we see is a close-up of Ly’s face in colour, she does not speak and is clearly pre-occupied with an offscreen activity, her gaze wanders. We later see her in medium shot, visibly cutting vegetables. Again, when we see her later, she is filmed facing away from the camera, and then facing towards us. Not only do these editing strategies and framing devices draw attention to the practice of power inherent in selecting what we see, they also distance us through their disjunctive juxtapositions. Trinh states: “In my films, the notion of negative space has always been crucial…[negative space is] the space that makes both composition and framing possible… emptiness here is not merely opposed to fullness or objecthood; it is the very site that makes forms and contents possible – that is, also inseparable” (Mayne 142). In both films that I have examined, the complexities of exilic and displaced experience are expressed formally through the interconnections of sound and image. Both films attempt to express something ineffable and profound by drawing attention to what cannot be represented. In Mekas’s film, it is the space between memory and its failed reconstruction, with the narration consistently emphasizing its own inadequacy and the fragmentary glimpses in the images representing experience sensorially and emotionally if not figuratively. In Trinh’s film, a “third-time space” is opened up in the narration’s self-reflexive “splice” between the acted and autobiographical segments (fiction and documentary), within the heterogeneity of its points of view, and in the visual play of framing, negative space, and image manipulation. In a way, Trinh’s film uses theory to try to answer the problem presented by Mekas’s emotion-driven film. Her ideas about home seem much more critical as opposed to his blatant romanticism, and she analytically interrogates the shortcomings of cinematic documentation more overtly. As is evident from these films, the strategies of exilic, experimental and documentary cinemas can work to illuminate each other and increase our understanding of the complexities of representation.
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