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