Forgetting Vietnam

Forgetting Vietnam

Influential feminist theorist and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha’s lyrical film essay commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War draws inspiration from ancient legend and from water as a force evoked in every aspect of Vietnamese culture. Images of contemporary life unfold as a dialogue between land and water. Fragments of text and song evoke the echoes and traces of a trauma of international proportions.



Erika Balsom: You’re well known as a documentary filmmaker and have written an influential critique of the genre; you have even said that there is no such thing as documentary. Could you elaborate?

Trinh T. Minh-ha: I don’t think of my films in terms of categories – documentary, fiction, film art, educational or experimental – but rather as fluid, interacting movements. The first is to let the world come to us through an outside-in movement – this is what some call ‘documentary’. The other is to reach out to the world from the inside out, which is what some call ‘fiction’. But these categories always overlap. I wrote ‘there is no such thing as documentary’ because it’s illusory to take the real and reality for granted and to think that a neutral language exists, even though we often strive for such neutrality in our scholarly work. To use an image is to enter fiction.

Trinh T. Minh-ha in conversation with Erika Balsom1


“There is a scene in Trinh T. Minh-ha’s provocative portrait of postwar Vietnam in Forgetting Vietnam (2015) that names a genre of dysphoric subjectivity under global capital. In an underexposed room backlit by the noon sun, the camera captures a fleeting moment of diverted attention. A figure, whose mahogany robes and shaved head mark his indelible difference as a nonsecular, ethnic subject, is seen sitting on a stool against a chipped plaster wall, monitoring a swaying wooden mallet. Though tasked to discipline the mallet into properly timed strikes against a temple gong for the tourists, his gaze, like the mallet, forgets the trajectory to which he is bound and begins to wander. At times, the figure steals a momentary glance at the surveilling regard of the camera, closing the distance between spectator and subject that sustains the voyeuristic relationship between a body marked by difference and its other. While the viewer is immersed in this mundane snapshot of fleeting distraction, a question interrupts the bottom right corner of the screen, evaporating out of sight as quickly as it came: ‘getting bored?’

Though the address remains ambivalent – to the figure in frame (bored of your task?), the audience in the theater (bored of this scene?), or the abstract voyeur of Vietnam (bored of these images?) – the question nonetheless interpellates a genre that links subjects across the time and space of global capital, especially in sites and populations zoned as disposable reservoirs of extractable labor.”

Nguyen, Trung Phan Quoc2

UPDATED ON 17.04.2023