Latent Image - Winter 1993

Interviewer Interviewed: A Discussion with Trinh T. Mihn-ha

by Tina Spangler
Emerson College

BORN IN VIETNAM, Trinh T. Minh-ha is a writer, composer and filmmaker She has been making films for better than ten years and may be best known for her first film Reassemblage, made in 1982. However her most recent film Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989), which examines "identity and culture through the struggle of Vietnamese women" has received much attention, including winning the Blue Ribbon Award at the American Film and Video festival Trinh T. Minh-ha is a professor of Woman Studies and Film at the University of California, Berkely and was recently a Visiting Professor at Harvard University.

LI: How do you feel that writing and film differently serve the needs of your message?

TM-H: I rarely think in terms of message. I think more in terms of processes of transformation. Every film that I make, for example, is a transformative process for me. I mean by that that whenever I start a film, I may start with an idea, an image or an impression. By the time I finish the film, lam somewhere else altogether, even though 1 have not lost what I started out with. In the process of making the film your consciousness has changed considerably.

It's the same with writing. I am not writing just to give a message, even though in my writings and my films I am always concerned with something that is very specific. For example, the subject that you have deliberately decided to focus on would be the site around which your energy would deploy. But, on the other hand, the subject is not all that there is in writing, and in filmmaking. One should always offer the reader and the viewer something else than just the subject. And that something else has to do with writing itself and with the tools that define your activities as a writer or a filmmaker. By focusing on these, you also offer the reader or the viewer your social positioning-how you position yourself as a writer and a filmmaker in society. So these are the issues that I immediately face in writing and in filmmaking.

But your question also focuses on the difference between writing and film. Film really allows me to pull together the many interests that I have had in different media, in the visual arts-Chinese ink painting and oil painting, for example.

On the other hand, film is a very expensive medium so when you make films, economically you really put your existence at stake, because you really don't know how you will be doing next year or on what kind of money you'll be living, since your debts are never-ending. Filmmaking does involve a lot of economical risk.

Also film is a younger medium, so for example, when I finished my first 16 millimeter film Reassemblage in 1982, for a whole year I didn't know bow it was going to be picked up, who was going to accept it, where it was going to be circulated. It took a whole year with rejections from everywhere, before the film finally took off. But once the film got to be shown in different venues, it provoked impassioned responses from all fronts. This has been a very rewarding process, and actually Reassemblage is one of my most circulated films.

With a book it is much more difficult for me because the literary establishment is older and far more conservative. I'd say that the book that really took off for me was Woman, Native, Other, written in 1983. It took me eight years to find a publisher. So I would say that in comparison, the literary establishment is much more difficult to break into when it is a question of doing different kinds of work-works that are not readily classified. But, on the other hand, with a book you don't risk that much, you don't have to put your economic livelihood on the line. With a pen and some ink you can go on writing. Whereas with
film, I really need to have a block of time available in order to work intensively on my own and with other people. It usually takes a whole year. So each medium has its own advantages and disadvantages.

LI: Why was it important to print the scripts of your films and also the constructive processes of your films - the lighting and the setting-in your book, Framer Framed?

TM-H: The publication of scripts is a very common practice. As for the lighting and setting instructions, it is important to show sonic of the processes of materializing a scene on film. Actually, you put your finger on a very important aspect of my scripts, which is that these scripts were not written before the film was made. They were mostly written during the shooting and during the editing. So the final form my scripts took at the time of publication is a form that was put together after the film was made. In that sense, they are tools that one works with rather than texts that one tries to conform to. It is important to keep in mind that the script is no more than a kind of skeleton. It is like a dead skin that the film leaves behind once it is completed.

LI: You wrote in your book When The Moon Waxes Red that many independent women are rejecting the label of feminist. Are you bothered by being ca/led a feminist filmmaker, a feminist writer?

TM-H: Depending on who's saying it. Every time that a label is put on someone, what is important is to see through the context in which such labels have been devised. I don't have any problem with being labeled a "feminist", it all depends on what is meant and connoted. It could be just a way of narrowing down the space in which you can work authoritatively "as a feminist." This I find to he very problematic.

However, labels circulate all the time in every sphere of our lives, and once more, it all depends on how one uses them. One can use it in an eye-opening way, so that the term "feminist" does not actually only concern women, for example. But it has to do with society in general. So you are not just talking about women, but also about a feminist consciousness that informs both men's and women s actions in daily life. Being a feminist is therefore being a critic of society in its oppressive workings.

LI: I often find that there is a gap between film theory and criticism and actual production. Yet I see you as forming a bridge between the two. Do you see yourself in that way?

TM-H: Oh yes. I have no problem with being more than one thing and carrying out several functions at the same time. It is only when I am reduced to being "either/or" that clear-cut boundaries become very questionable to me. For example, there is a certain tradition in viewing, and you can recognize it in many of the mainstream filmmakers or film industry discourse around cinema: if you are a filmmaker and you start making films that make people think, then you are said to be doomed because you ate no longer a popular entertainer. This is the form of established individualism linked to a context of capitalism as we have known it: here you can only he one thing at a time, a recognizable entity whose function is fixed in society. So if you are several things at the same time, people don't really know how to classify you. They don't know what kind of function you fulfill. And we are now in a period of history where all these fixed boundaries are being put to question. Boundaries keep on being modified. On the map of world politics, you see nations breaking down, identities being reclaimed. At the same time, you have a strong sense of separatism, you also have a very strong sense of independence. So while all these ate being played out in international politics, you also have a situation in society where people can no longer be just one thing.

For example, an artist cannot say "I couldn't care less about the audience that I have, about how my work is going to circulate; I'm just going to make my art as people have done in the past: to be pure in my intent and in my activities." You simply can't do that because you are constantly faced with other aspects of life. You have to goon earning a living, putting to work your many selves. Filmmakers find that they have to he involved with all aspects of film production, distribution, circulation, exhibition. You constantly deal with the politics of culture. I have had to fight this reductive form of individualism so many times that it becomes almost like a natural background noise For me to be condemned for being several things at the same time. People say that if you are a scholar, if you are teaching in an academic institution, you can't he an artist. People will always condemn the other aspect of yourself or your other selves. And when you move into the film world, you can't say anything about your scholarly quest or your theoretical background. You better hide that part because all they are interested in is the visionary artist, not one who would fall into the impure realm of theory and ideology.

LI: In When The Moon Waxes Red, you say "There is a need to make films politically as opposed to making political films." What is the difference between the two? Do you think it is possible to make a film without political ramifications?

TM-H: The answer has to do with how one sees the political. The filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard made a distinction between making films politically and making films that focus on a political subject or have a political content. Films classified as "political" usually center on authority figures. On institutions or on personalities from the body politic; or else, they focus, for example, on a strike of the workers, or a crisis that happened between suppliers and consumers or between the boss and the workers.

Such a reductive concept of the "political" has been challenged by the work carried out in the women's movement. The feminist struggle has contributed to breaking down the dichotomy between the private and the public or the personal and the societal. Is the political only something that focuses on the evident sources of authorities or institutions or of institutional values, or is the political also something that seeps in and invades every aspect of our lives?

Many contemporary theorists, like Michel Foucault, have focused their studies on power relationships in the intimate realms of our lives. Power relationships are, therefore, not just to be located in these evident sources that I have mentioned. Even if you criticize these sources, even if you eradicate them, the question remains how is it that we continue in our daily life to be violent, to be racist, to be sexist, to be homophobic, xenophobic and so on? How is it that we continue to oppress while being oppressed? So it must be in something that is much more than these locatable evident sources of power.

We come to a situation in which to make a Elm politically would be to put to question your own position as filmmaker. Power relationships can be looked at from many angles. You can look at how technology and the toots that define your activities are never neutral, and how they are always interpellated by ideology. The film industry, for example, has technologies that serve its own ideology of expansion and consumption.

When you work politically, you have to politicize all aspects of filmmaking. So it's not just when you focus on a political subject that your film is political. The film is not yet political enough, because you can focus on a political subject and yet reproduce all the language of the mainstream ideology reproducing thereby its oppressive mechanisms. In other words, to open up the field of your political activities you have to think politically about every aspect, not just the content of the film.

There are no apolitical works, hut some works politicize the daily realms of our lives and other works simply look at these daily realms without offering the viewer a critical space in which the tensions between the political and the personal are played out. So sometimes a filmmaker might think that their work does not have anything to do with
the political, but, as I said, there are no "apolitical" films. For someone to say "I'm apolitical" simply means "I haven't yet politicized my life or my work."

LI: I think many film students would he interested to know your filming process. For example, how do you get crews and finds together to make your films?

TM-H: (I'm speaking here to film students about funding. If I were speaking to a wider audience I would speak very differently.) It is very useful to think of funding not as something that is outside of yourself. You don't wait until the budget comes to you before you start on a project, which is the kind of attitude molded after that found in the mainstream film industry. People always think that if you don't have the budget for a film, you can't work on it.

I think that there are many kinds of filmmaking and one need not be bound to the model that dominates the media. If you have a lot of money, you can use that money, but if you don't have money, you are still going to make films, just a different kind of film. I didn't have money when I was making Reassemblage. That film can be said to be made by myself from A to Z. The cinematography, the writing, the editing, even the conforming of the negative of the film was all done by myself In other words, you fulfill all the functions, and like an artisan, you do the whole craft. You are not dependent on expertise and division of labor. That kind of film is, of course, something that experimental and avant-garde filmmakers always cherish because it allows them not to he dependent on any major sources of funding. They can incorporate the film process in their lives. So instead of going out to buy a package of cigarettes, you would go out and buy a can of film. And the cans of film you would get here-and-there would serve little-by-little to make a film. It is something that is incorporated into your daily expenses.

For me this is an important attitude that one can also adopt when writing for grants, for example, even if the world of grant donors is not always sympathetic to it. Because if they gave me $100,000 for a film, then I would make a certain kind of film. And if I only get $30,000 for a film, then I would make another kind of film. And neither film would be more important than the other. It is not a question of quality, it is a question of difference. So with these different approaches to filmmaking, you excel in the artistic realm, as well as in the so-called "entertaining" realm where you receive more money and can use a larger crew. One should keep in mind that kind of versatility, which allows one to go from one kind of filmmaking to another.

As for the question of crew, I usually prefer to work with a very small crew and with people who are really involved in many aspects of independent filmmaking. I work, for example, with cinematographer Kathleen Beeler who is independent filmmaker herself working both for the commercial film industry and for other independent filmmakers. She survives by charging the usual huge amount for work effected for the film industry while working for almost nothing for independent filmmakers. She and my other crew members are people highly committed to independent filmmaking and to different forms of filmmaking, so they are not just stuck in one realm of activities and remain receptive to innovations in film.