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Los Angeles Festival, "Home, Place and Memory" A Citywide Arts Fest : On the Border of Documentary and Fiction : Movies: Trinh T. Minh-ha, who was born in Vietnam, crosses cultural boundaries in films that speak with a female perspective.


For more than a decade, Vietnamese-born Trinh T. Minh-ha has been making a series of documentaries in which she questions the very nature of the form while constantly experimenting with it.

Trinh's films, although beautiful, are sometimes hard work for the viewer because she always makes us think about what we're seeing. She brings a highly contemporary consciousness involving her own identity as a woman and a native of Vietnam to art's eternal task of making us see the familiar in fresh ways; in any case, she always makes us aware of her presence in her work and of the filmmaking process itself.

As part of the Los Angeles Festival, Trinh's early film, the 1982 "Reassemblage," will screen Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica. Trinh will appear in person to discuss her work.

"Reassemblage" is a study of women in rural Senegal that reveals the filmmaker's determination to discover what their lives are really like--and to guard against imposing cultural preconceptions. The result is a film that captures the rhythm of daily life and the beauty and meaning of its ritual aspects.

"All the work I have been doing so far in films and in writing are focused on two things," said Trinh in a phone interview from her home in Berkeley. "First of all, it is important for us to enlarge the notion of film in relation to society. Therefore, this would entail the crossing of many boundaries, including cultural boundaries. Second, it is important to reflect on the tools that define our activities, whether we are writers or filmmakers. For this reason it means that whenever we deal with the personal or the autobiographical we are not just dealing with the individual but with a set of social and cultural practices.

"Most of my films deal with someone who is always shuffling between the position of the outsider and of the insider, whether to a situation or a cultural context. In Africa I'm clearly an outsider but I'm also an insider in the colonial experience we both shared. In my film 'Surname Viet Given Name Nam' (a highly formal documentary on Vietnamese women), I was also focusing on popular memory and the question of identity. The fact that I am Vietnamese does not make me automatically an insider, since making a film would already put me in the position of the outsider. So it is very important for me to deal with both aspects--as an insider and at the same time an outsider--even in the film that seems closest to me."

Although Trinh speaks with the formality and precision that characterize her films she laughed beguilingly as she asked herself at one point, "What can I tell you next?" She appears to be intrigued by duality--the dual identity she discovers as a documentarian and a duality in the very cultures she explores. In her film on China, "Shoot for the Contentes," she spoke of the tension between China as an ancestral culture and an oppressor for a millennium.

"I now have several film projects," she continued. "One, a film that concerns India, to be shot in India, which is the other ancestral culture for Vietnam. It would focus on the political and artistic situation in India viewed through the role of women as producers of culture. Another project is a film that would focus on two women's love stories--one about a woman who writes a poem, the other about the woman within the poem. It is inspired by a national love poem in Vietnam: 'A Tale of Kieu.' In the unfolding of the two stories, I will be able to expose the creative process."

Trinh brings a rich creative experience to filmmaking. "I was trained as a composer and got a degree in literature," she said. "I was very attracted to music and poetry, and I also have a background in painting and in China ink drawing, so film for me is a wonderful way to pull together all my interests in the visual and in poetry and music."

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