Tuning in to the Music of the World
“I do not intend to speak about; just speak nearby.” With these words, spoken in her debut film, Reassemblage (1982), Trinh T. Minh-ha describes the attitude she adopts throughout her oeuvre. An attitude characterized by an aversion to institutional authority and expertise, and instead grounded in embodied experience and self-reflection. A way of positioning herself in relation to the world that expresses itself in all aspects of her films: verbally, musically, visually. For example, in Reassemblage, the first of two films she made in West Africa, she exposes the transformations that inevitably take place when attempting to put the impossible experience of “what” comprises Senegalese culture into cinematic form. That same urge to break down patterns of expectation and challenge the interpretive claims of authoritarian forms is also found in her writing. Her influential book Woman, Native, Other (1989; in French, Femme, indigène, autre [Paris: B42, 2022]), for instance, is primarily a questioning of the contradictory imperatives faced by the “I”, as a “Third World woman”, in creating and critiquing the role of creator and intellectual across literature, anthropology and the arts.
Born in Hanoi, Trinh T. Minh-ha emigrated to the US during the Vietnam War, where she studied music composition, ethnomusicology and French literature. Since the early 1980s, she has been problematising the forms of reductionism and essentialism that influence our self-image and worldview. By her own admission, her films are partly motivated by her experiences in former colonised Vietnam – experiences that she clearly recognised, shared and re-lived in Africa. These life experiences account for her decision to make films that point to the process of the construction of meaning, and to herself as an active element in that process. Her films are grounded in the question: why not approach a country, a people, a culture by starting with what comes with an image or with a name, like “Senegal”, but also “Vietnam”, “China”, or “Japan”? What exactly stands for, characterises and speaks to a cultural and political event? How does the medium of cinema allow one to show, tell and receive rather than merely represent? In other words, Trinh considers a given name or a recorded image not as finalities but as points of departure. In Shoot for the Contents (1991) and her latest film, What About China? (2022), she does not search for the “true” face of China but probes beneath and with the surface of the country’s image – an image, determined by the media and other forms of information, that’s taken for granted in our daily relationship to the country.
The space in which Trinh T. Minh-ha works and creates is where she confronts and leaves behind the world of beaten paths and traffic regulations. She seeks the in-between spaces where established boundaries can be rearranged and shifted, including those of the “I”. In each of her films, rather than as a source, the “I” is deployed as an open site where other manifestations of the “I” can take up residence and incongruous elements can converge. In Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), she approaches Vietnamese culture in all its multiplicity without endorsing the legitimized subjectivity of the “insider”. Rather than constructing a single homogeneous perspective or an “unmediated” personal account, she portrays culture through popular memory and oral traditions, primarily concerning Vietnamese women, while simultaneously addressing the politics of interviewing and the politics of translation. “Crisscrossing more than one occupied territory at a time”, she writes, “she remains perforce inappropriate/d – both inside and outside her own social positionings. . . . A trajectory across variable praxes of difference, her (un)location is necessarily the shifting and contextual interval between arrested boundaries.”
One of the most important, but also often overlooked, dimensions in the work of Trinh T. Minh-ha, is musicality. A musicality that can be felt in all facets of her work, expressed as exquisite configurations of breath, rhythm, silence, and timbre. As we hear her saying in her latest film, What About China? (2022): “reality is musical.” And elsewhere she writes: “Love, hatred, attraction, repulsion, suspension: all are music. The wider one’s outlook on life, it is said, the greater one’s musical hearing ability.” It is this dimension that musician, author and curator David Toop has tuned into in the recently published Breath, Rhythm, Silence, Resonance: Listening Beyond Seeing in the Films of Trinh T. Minh-ha, which was commissioned on the occasion of the Courtisane Festival 2023, where Trinh T. Minh-ha was Artist in Focus. As part of this program, we invited Trinh T. Minh-ha to talk about the music, the musical thinking and the thinking in musical terms that is at the heart of her work, starting off with an open question: how does music fashion her relationship to the world?
Trinh T. Minh-ha: When I was introducing the film What about China? I mentioned that in ancient East Asia, a painter is always also a poet and a musician. And a poet is always also a painter and a musician. The three activities are actually extremely connected. And in my film Naked Spaces: Living is Round (1985), there is a statement from Novalis that I quote, which says, “Every illness is a musical problem.” So if you want to heal from that illness, you solve it musically. That film, for example, has been compared by viewers in the audience to an Indian raga, which usually begins with a “prelude” that can be as long as it takes for the musician and the audience to tune in. With Naked Spaces, as with each film I made, I have to end somewhere arbitrarily, even though I could go on much longer. In my work, endings are meant to invite other beginnings. And in Naked Spaces, I was also connecting colour to light, as colours are determined by light. Colour, light, music, space, architecture and cinema are all extremely connected. In that sense, seeing the film as a raga is a wonderful response.
In another film, A Tale of Love (1995), I was dealing with a very long national poem of Vietnam, of more than 3,200 lines of verses. The poem is visualized in its key moments and put to music, so you can hear the verses being recited all along in a mode that lies between singing and telling (or “ngâm thơ”). Well, I was told by a viewer who introduced himself as the cousin of Ravi Shankar, that when he saw this film, he just turned off the visual to focus on the music. He followed the film through music, and added, “it was a fantastic experience. I just put on only the music.” I didn’t expect that, of course, because I was working with the two together. But these are examples that show how when one talks about composition, it could be writing composition, musical composition, visual composition, and many more.
For me, film could be at its core a musically composed work with its specific motifs, with visual phrases and rhythmic patterns that advance, shift and return. In Reassemblage (1982) for example, some sentences or fragments of sentences are rhythmically repeated. What is the function of that repetition? One can say that rather than trying to explain, you would emphasize a certain part of a commentary, a fragment of a statement by repeating it, calling attention to it, thus shifting the sentence’s meaning every time it returns. That’s also how music functions. There are certain sounds that we hear through commentaries and when you start composing, you would use these sounds again and each time you use them. . . It’s like ideas also: each time you come back to an idea, a sound an image, it’s in order to go a little bit further, somewhere else, not to come back to the same. So for me, the use of repetition in cinema is never a question of reproducing sameness. It’s always a question of reproducing in difference, with difference, and hence repetition and difference go together; they are not in conflict with one another.
I also think, and this becomes more prominent whenever I go to other parts of the world, that language is the music of a people and the music of a body. Each body has its own unique music. So you love someone because. . . It doesn’t matter if the person sounds horrible to other people, but for you, that person has a music that is very peculiar, very specific. And every time you hear it, you are tuned in to that music. In Reassemblage, even though I move across different regions, through different ethnic groups, and the language changes from one ethnic group to another, the musicality of certain languages stay on with me. Hence the focus on the sound of the language and its repetitions all along the film. Receiving language as music – the music of a people, the music of a body – leads you to a very different place than where you are when you confine yourself to language as meaning.
Sometimes I can also work with nonsense in a film. Again in Reassemblage, when I repeat “speak about”, I further repeat, “k-about”, which doesn’t mean anything, right? But it is a sound that is being repeated. So working with nonsense calls attention to the fact that language is also music, it’s something to listen to rather than simply to decipher meaning. Similarly, when images are not organized around a central story or message, questions such as “What does it mean?” or “What is the film about?” often arose among audiences who “see” not, “hear” not what is simply offered, first and foremost, to be seen and heard rather than understood.
I can also go into the relation between the verbal, the visual and the musical, which has never been one of domination and submission in my filmmaking. I don’t give priority to the visual, and then only add the sound afterwards. The way I work on the montage of my films is to come to the editing table with all raw materials: raw footage, raw sound and raw commentary. So I may have hundreds of commentaries that I’ve written before, during and after the shooting, but I only choose a number of them for the film, as the editing process unfolds. Same thing as with the image and the music. You have to select what to retain in the film and you don’t know in advance how they come together. You intensely experiment and create new relations as you go. So sometimes the image would guide the music and sometimes the music would guide the image. There’s no preset order, but you do cut very specifically according to visual, musical, and textual rhythm.
And life is rhythm – the way a film breathes, flows, dances or rests. I can come in and watch a film and immediately feel that the film has no rhythm, because relations or the way things relate to one another is not worked on. So rhythm is a way of dealing with a very large amount of material without having to resort to a central message or a central story. Centralization and hierarchization of norms in the film world are bound to take effect when people use a story, a message or a theme to organize the whole of a work. But this is not the only way to make films. Thinking, for example, in terms of music, of musical compositions, and the many possibilities these offer, like the rhythm of the body, of the voice, and the rhythm of elements coming in and out of the frame, the rhythm between movements, times, shots, sequences, transitions, and more could open unexpected doors to the way one approaches cinema.
An anecdote during the filming of Naked Spaces: In West African villages, I often woke up at 5 a.m. to the sound of women pounding millet with pestle and mortar. Listening to dawn breaking with this pounding was so incredible because it told me something about rhythm and relationships. Together, two women pounding, three women pounding, four women pounding. And never do they clash with their pestle. Whereas if I come in and start pounding with them, I might go all wrong and then smash on someone else’s pestle. But here they just do it effortlessly. They enter and leave the collective pounding fluidly. How do they do that, in rhythm? Because when you enter a certain rhythm and you go with it, it is this very rhythm that drives the relationship between you and others. You catch it, it catches you. No conflict, no wrong move.
The same applies to cinema. If you have rhythm in your film, you can have a vast amount of material coming together fluidly in the shooting and editing processes, even in situations of incompatibility and unpredictability. And of course, a rhythm that is forced or a rhythm that is unaware of its workings might also really disperse your film. What holds everything together and holds the viewer to the film is rhythm. Without it the film would not find its form. As stated in the film What About China?, “Every manifestation of life is a manifestation of rhythm.” In other words, rather than abiding by a linear relation of domination and subordination, I’m working here with a relation of multiplicity.
And how do you work with multiplicity? Again, it is with rhythm that thinking meets singing. A window into another world, a film like a song, is the rhythm of heart and head moving in tune with one another. I work with a lot of folk songs and with diverse singing genres and styles in my films. In What About China? there are many definitions and many functions for the songs. Like a song can be a bridge – “a bridge with a heart”, as stated in the film. A bridge between two different times (“it keeps past and present alive”) two different cultures; a bridge between people – “A song of love for the disappeared.” As mentioned earlier in relation to A Tale of Love, in another film of mine, Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), we have a singing practice called “ngâm thơ” that remains very peculiar to Vietnamese culture. It’s the way in which people recite verses, poetry – not quite a song, not quite speech, not a lyrical read either. It’s something in between. Every time you would want to recite a poem to someone else, you would be saying and singing verses in such a way that they remain between song and speech. This is an aspect quite prominent in the films that I made on Vietnam. But songs have a very strong role across my works, to the point that you can say the song is a main structural device, and in its overall What About China? is a song, an “ode to sensorial China/the China of the hinterlands”.
I would like to ask you something about what you have called “tuning in”. Tuning in to reality, tuning in to the music of the world. I find it a vital notion, but also one that remains undervalued, understudied perhaps. And yet for you, especially for your films, it’s essential because for every film you start without a preconceived map, story or structure. Every film sets off a kind of jump into the void. For you, this tuning in, is that a way to approach the void, to perhaps approach it as a kind of open space of possibilities and resonances?
Yes, we can take this in many directions. The first example that comes to my mind: recently I was asked to write the foreword for a volume of conversations of Édouard Glissant with Hans Ulrich Obrist (isolarii, 2021). And I told myself, how do I tune in with, tune in to Édouard Glissant? Rather than simply try to comment on, explain, or analyse his work, I preferred to put our works in relation and that’s exactly what Glissant has always tried to bring out in his writings: the poetics of relations. So to put something in relation, you have to tune in. You have to tune in to what Édouard Glissant is saying in his work. But in tuning in with his work, I can also bring in mine. There were many resonances between the two works, so I actually came up with a selection of quotes from my own writings that would go with selected fragments of Glissant’s work. Two quotes, two independent fragments coming together in an encounter of resonances that you create between two forces. It’s at the same time very free and yet also very specific because it’s not just about what resonates, but how they resonate together. Sometimes you can recognize a word that we both use, but most of the time it’s a question of expanding each other rather than simply finding ourselves in similarities. It’s not in similarities only, it’s in the mutual enrichment and the widening of one’s horizon. To be able to resonate with someone else’s thinking, you have to tune in. So that’s one example.
But regarding this freedom that you’re talking about, I know many artists, filmmakers or film students who would be terrified of it. I mean, freedom is not easy to assume. I was wondering, where do you get the confidence to deal with this void, with this freedom?
I realize I haven’t addressed the notion of the void that you brought up earlier. The void is something we have to deal with all the time in our lives. For example, in common situations like when we are very nervous. In my youth, when I was playing piano on stage, and was very nervous, I suddenly went blank. I didn’t even know what the previous or the following notes were, what I was performing or where I was. There were no longer any traces of what I learned, only a big hole in my memory. Being hit by stage fright was truly a nerve-racking ordeal. So the void could be very terrifying in its manifestations.
But that experience could also lead to new beginnings. Every time we experience something as a new beginning, it’s due to the void from which it comes. You are able to void everything that stagnates, or has become stale. You are able to empty out in order to begin anew. The void is simply vital to any creative work.
And yes, as you said, my students are sometimes terrified by this freedom given to them. So let’s say they have a course where there is one teacher who teaches them to write scripts, and I’m the one who often makes films without preconceived scripts. So they would come to me and they would say, “Minh-ha, how would you react if someone compel you to write a script and follow a script?” I would then tell them, “You should just take advantage of what each teacher has best.” In my case, “you don’t need a script, but you need to be extremely attentive to your processes – where you are in relation to what you do. You can give all to that now-moment – the moment you shoot, hold your camera, see with its eyes and gape at what you see; the moment you skip, cut and assemble; or any moment in the process would become just that moment, you don’t have to do anything with it. It would be like a void. And you are in it and you start anew. You don’t know what comes next.” Without this open attentiveness, it’s terrifying. But being able to put yourself in a situation to respond anew is very refreshing. It’s almost magical. It allows you to see things with new eyes.
I remember, when I was working with a film crew on the film A Tale of Love. There was a scene where Kieu, the main character, was walking back home. While on her way, she came across a dog. In order for the dog to come toward her and stay with her, the actress had taken out some sweets that she discreetly gave to the dog. The dog got so excited; he jumped all over her. And I was happy. I was looking through the camera and saying, “This is perfect.” I see the happiness and the love between Kieu and the dog. But the whole film crew was then yelling at me, “Minh-ha, this is so obscene. You can’t shoot this. You just can’t do that.” Because the dog was so excited that he had an erection. But I didn’t see that. I was just seeing the joy and the love. So for me, why would a scene like that become obscene? You know, it’s a question mark. If we are not able to enjoy that moment of love and of joy, then it’s difficult to see anything anew. We’ll always see through whatever luggage we carry with us. This is another aspect of the void that links up with the term “tuning in”. You tune in to the moment, you tune in to that vibrant emotion. This is how I see the processes of filmmaking.
Another musical term that is pivotal in your work is the interval. Of course, it’s a term that has been used before in cinema, notably by filmmakers like Vertov, who himself had a musical education. Like Vertov, you tend to consider the interval not as a gap or a distance but rather as a possible correlation or relation. How would you define your interpretation of interval? Since you were talking about Édouard Glissant, does it resonate with his poetics of relation?
If we try to put them together, certainly. But I also see a difference. For me the interval is that space between, it’s really an emphasis on between. If you take the term musically, you know how in music education we are trained to listen to intervals. You might have a major interval or you might have a minor interval. And in the book I wrote titled Cinema Interval (Routledge, 1999), I discussed the “wolf interval”, which is hard on the ears and doesn’t fit in with the rest. It is something you have to be careful about because when you have a wolf interval, it brings dissonance and disharmony to your music. But, depending on how it is placed, a transformative “wolf” is very different from an imposed wolf that you just throw in because you want some dissonance. You should reach a point in your work where the wolf interval effortlessly finds its own place. This also applies to how I see experimental film. Experimental is not simply a language of the avant-garde. You can come up with the kind of devices and strategies that avant-garde films use – like the adoption of automated repetition, of disjunctive manoeuvres or of heedless, jerky camera movements. You can easily recognize many of them as “avant-garde styles” of filmmaking, including this tendency to prioritize abstraction. But for me, anything that people come up with and call abstract is actually very concrete. Like the notion of “speaking nearby”. People say, “Oh, it’s abstract.” No, it’s very concrete. You are doing it every day. You’re doing it all the time. If you pay attention to how you do it, then you know what speaking nearby means instead of speaking for, against, on top of, on behalf of, and so on.
For me, this is part of how one also works with intervals: you focus on the between, on something that neither fits squarely in one place nor into another place. Something you haven’t recognized yet with a name, something yet to name. You can always come up with a name, there’s nothing wrong with that. But that name would continue to open itself up again and again. A word like “feminist”, for example. How do you work with that term so that it doesn’t merely close down, but also keeps on reopening to begin anew: what might be a feminist aesthetic, a feminist strategy, a feminist film? Furthermore, the question is not whether a film’s aesthetic is feminist or whether the film identifies itself as feminist. What seems more relevant is to make films that address feminist viewers – who can be of any gender. This is a way to leave that term grounded and yet open. Even when you need to close it, it’s in order to open further, it’s never a mere closing that confines reality to a category.
Working with intervals is a way of remaining constantly open. And to return to Glissant’s poetics of relation, it is a way to relate, to be in relation. When someone asks, what’s that interval? Well, you don’t know yet. Until you work with the between and let yourself be led somewhere. The interval is what remains unoccupied and transformative. The interval between interviewer and interviewee, for example. . . In French entretien also relates to entretenir – to keep, to entertain; a verb also used, for example, in extramarital relationships when a woman is financially “kept” by a man. So how does that work, in terms of cinema? For me, entretien speaks to the word entre, or “between” but also “enter”, and the word tenir, or to hold – to hold between, to enter between. What enables an interview to unfold are encounters (of languages, voices, thoughts, feelings, seeings, hearings) that provide for an interval of open-ended becomings. No one owns it. It remains indefinitely in force between the two.
I would like to quote a sentence from your wonderful book, Woman, Native, Other (Indiana University Press, 1989): “Writing, in a way, is listening to the others’ language and reading with the others’ eyes. The more ears I am able to hear with, the farther I see the plurality of meaning and the less I lend myself to the illusions of a single message.” What does it mean for you to listen with different ears? How does this process of attunement work and how does it relate to your notion of speaking nearby?
That’s very nicely linked up. Yes, in socially oriented writing, there is a tendency to think that you have to be politically correct on all fronts. For example, the term “intersectionality” actually helps bring together the different struggles – how one struggles actually intersects with another. But it’s not at all a new notion or practice; it has been there among our grandmothers and great-grandmothers for as far as memory goes – maybe not named that way or maybe not even named. When we are fully attuned to a struggle, that struggle would allow us to speak to other struggles, to hear from other struggles. A simple line that tells all and could open the way to faring across struggles used to remind: “You don’t do to other people what you don’t want people to do to you.” As it’s impossible to cover every struggle of marginalized people, when I write, I am all ears – not only listening as if I hear a word for the first time, but also following the path it creates from one writer, one person, one context to another. There are lots of references in Woman, Native, Other to queer writings for example. But I cannot cover all the territories, and would not name them all. Rather than trying to be complete and all-inclusive – which is literally unfeasible – since there are always more struggles than what you can see and take in, you could disclose incompleteness in its blanks, holes or stuttering, and work, instead, with many differing ears, whatever the focus of your subject turns out to be. The more ears you develop, the richer the multiplicity you can embody and manifest in writing, even when you don’t name everything.
Aside from the political ear, there’s, for example, the physical ear. Sometimes I have a number of ideas that I write down so as to use them later in the writing, but I cannot force an idea in whenever I want because when I force it in, the sentence doesn’t work. And for me, it doesn't work because it lacks musicality: the combination of sound in that sentence is totally not acceptable to my ear. I keep on saying, this is where that idea should be, but I cannot force it in. I have to wait until it finds its place. It’s like the wolf interval, you know? So you have to work with an ear. And that’s my own process. But actually, one of the first readers of Woman, Native, Other is a woman from Trinidad who told me, “Your whole book is written in cadences. Every sentence has its own cadence.” So she hears it. She internalizes its musicality in the process of reading. Writing and reading with an ear would free you from having to focus only on ideas and meaning. As such, the sentence exerts its own musical independence.
At the beginning of Naked Spaces we hear the sentence “Sounds are bubbles on the surface of silence”. We cannot speak about music or sound without speaking about the sound of silence and the language of silence. Many composers, notably John Cage and Toru Takemitsu, have developed the idea of silence as “plenum rather than vacuum”. But I have the feeling that silence has other aesthetic and cultural meanings and implications for you.
As you could see, the viewer is drawn into a situation where the music is very strong. And then it is incisively cut off, the way I also let the images go black in Reassemblage – as you hear the sounds of a woman’s hooting or of people’s activities, you are faced with black sequences. So the notion of silence can be taken in many, many ways. We think of silence as holes in the fabric. For example, if someone suddenly stopped speaking for a while, you could be unsettled by that because it doesn’t seem normal to many. When I first came to the States, for a long time people got really unsettled whenever they noted that I was not speaking, even though my silence was totally peaceful. And I could see the difference with my sister sitting next to me and whose silence didn’t seem to bother anyone. But with my silence, people were so uncomfortable. I was wondering, why? I was not thinking anything negative, I was just silent. This kind of silence, for me, is actually the fabric of our life. We are born into that silence. The sounds coming out from it are just like bubbles. These come and go, but the silence is always there. It’s not something that is happening from time to time, it is always there.
There was also a very nice instance of a musician and friend who, after a few days of quiet meditation, took up his guitar and started playing, while looking at me and saying “Minh-Ha, I am listening, I can hear silence.” It was not the mere sound played on his guitar that he was hearing. Through intense sound, he could hear silence. And I think that’s the situation with music. John Cage has very nicely brought out in his piece (4:33) how silence has always been vital to music. You cannot have sound without silence and vice versa. Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian writer, actually wrote a very nice piece on silence. She meditated on “this silence with no memory of words” – “a silence that doesn’t sleep”; is “immobile but awake”; different from the muteness of snow that leaves traces. Silence appears when, from the quiet body, an attentive spirit arises; or when you least expect it: “between one . . . burst of laughter and another. After a word is said [or] sometimes in the very heart of a word.”
This is the kind of silence you suddenly tune into. Because most of the time, if you don’t pay attention, you would think the whole of reality’s fabric is this wall of sound. What I did in Reassemblage and in Naked Spaces is to have explicit holes in the sound wall. When Reassemblage first showed at the Robert Flaherty Seminar, I just came back from Senegal, so I knew neither the reputation of this seminar nor the Who’s Who among those present. After the screening, there was a man looking very authoritarian who just stood up and said, “Your soundtrack is a disaster.” I was so surprised and I asked, “Why?” And the man was looking at me like, “you don’t even know that it is a disaster?” But what’s the disaster here? He replied, “Because of all the silences. . . the repetitions.” Well, I certainly did something that would bother a “fine ear”. Usually on a film soundtrack, you always have ambient sound or some kind of room tone – term used for the noise recorded on set in an empty room. You don’t have complete silence, as room tone and ambient sound (buzz of electric light sources, rain falling, birds chirping) help to provide a continuous-sounding background. But in Reassemblage, as a structural device I just cut off all sound at given moments, and I didn’t even at least clean the soundtrack – eliminating for example the swish sound detectable as you push the recording button on and off. You could clean that out, but I didn’t. At the time, the impact of having these “sounding holes” puncture the sound wall was important for the film.
Once done in Reassemblage, it’s enough, I don’t need to do this again in my other films. It’s just a device. But it also reminds us that synchronized sound is nothing natural. We always think of film without sync sound as being weird, flawed or lacking because sync sound is the norm for reality effect. When people speak, you should hear what people say. When something falls on the floor, you need to hear the falling on the floor and so on. But these are all part of an artificial process of trying very hard to imitate and confine reality – or, as Marguerite Duras (who works at introducing silence into speech and images) would say, to screw a voice to a head. Synchronized sounds are not natural. They are forced, manufactured through a fastidious process. So why do we have to abide by such a convention? And why has this convention become so dominant? You can, for example, convey a situation or a persona without synchronization of dialogues. This is why I keep on saying the ear and the eye have their own independent function. You don’t have to always homogenize their relation to bring them together.
You were talking about the voice. One of the things I admire in your films is the vocal delivery, the use of voice. For me, it’s one of the most mysterious facets of filmmaking: the use of the voice, including the voiceover, including polyvocality. So do you approach the voice musically? I mean, do you compose its use of breath and dynamic texture?
Definitely. Although not necessarily in a rational, systematic way. Sometimes I also use the voice for the regional accent, for example in Surname Viet. Perhaps for an outsider to Vietnamese culture, you may not hear it, but for insiders there are three accents that represent all three regions of Vietnam. North, Central and South. I deliberately chose women with different accents so as bring about the diversity of sounds and textures, but also of the locations of the women involved. I would further ask the verse singer to perform in three different accents. A person’s voice is a musical instrument; so is the body that listens while performing. They resonate and vibrate musically. The voices of commentary and narration are usually chosen for their musicality and for how they relate to one another, even though it’s very rare to encounter narrators who immediately find the right voice for the text they read, with effortless simplicity. It’s not merely a matter of grain, timbre or tonality, but also of rhythm – the way the voice “breathes”, as you noticed.
For example, in What About China?, you have three women’s voices and if you are not tuned in to the sound dimension of film, you may think they are all my voice, as a viewer put it. But no, there are three very different voices. You wouldn’t have any problem distinguishing different images, but when it comes to the ear, very often people don’t even hear the difference. There’s no need to feel guilty if you don’t hear it. It’s just that your ears aren’t trained yet and you haven’t sharpened them to hear the different voices. In terms of content, however, there’s also a deliberate choice to have a multiplicity of “I” at work, with all three women narrators situated in an insider-outsider kind of relationship using the personal pronoun “I” in their commentaries. One voice is that of memoir and autobiography; the second, that of poetry; the third (my own voice), that of meditation and reflection. And the man’s voice gives information from Chinese sources. So the function and the telling mode differ from one voice to another although they could also at time overlap. The tonality may be close, but an attentive ear can hear the difference: I have a French-Vietnamese-American inflected accent that is different from Xiaolu Guo, who has a British-Chinese accent, and from Xiao Yue Shan, the poet, whose English sounds quite Americanized. I didn’t put them together in any which way, but they relate to one another in their musicality.
Not only rhythm and voice are pivotal in Naked Spaces, but also, as you mentioned, light and colour. In film education we are often taught to see light and colour as functional, to create or enhance dramatic effect, set up an atmosphere or depict a psychological landscape. In your films, they seem to have a force and a presence of their own. As is said in the film: “Colour is life / Light becoming music”. You can feel in some of the scenes in the film, in the way you explore spaces, that you really tune in to colour and light as something lively.
Yes, wonderful. Filmmaker Maya Deren used the notion of “controlled accident” in her writing. It’s something that comes to you by accident, but then you end up giving it a pivotal role in your film. In my case, why the red colour at the beginning of Naked Spaces? It’s because when you travel in Africa, it’s very hot. And when you’re shooting in 16mm, it’s very difficult to keep cool the film stock that you carry with you. So, we had to make do with what was available. We put all the film cans in a plastic bag and wrapped cotton and linen around it. During the travel, we just placed it on top of the car and then poured water on it to keep it cool with the wind while driving. This worked very well as a cooler device, but when I returned to the US and sent the film reels to the lab, there were two that came out all red. I immediately went to the lab and ask what they have done with my footage. What is this chemical that makes the film totally red? And they said, “Well, we were going to ask you the same. What did you do with this footage? Because if it’s the heat, it would usually look a little bit brownish, yellowish and reddish, but it wouldn’t come out that red. We don’t know what happened, but the heat must have had something to do with this.” In this uncanny “accident”, red turns out to be an index of the condition of filming in Africa. I didn’t plan for it, but it came out that way, so I started the film with the red footage.
Right at the beginning of Naked Spaces, viewers see a sequence of images in deep red, a colour that pulls them in intimately, inviting them to enter something like an innerscape. Then you have images in green, which is a restful colour that pulls you out. So there is a back-and forth, pulling-in and pulling-out, from internal-to-external and external-to-internal movement of the images through two colours opposites of each other on the colour wheel. And with this movement, what the opening images show is a dance of Jola initiation rites – which is also an accident, and it’s a blessing, because such rites were then said to have only happened after a twenty year wait in Casamance (Senegal). Twenty villages actually gathered to celebrate the coming of age of their young men. During this dance of passage to manhood, the young men were stomping rhythmically on the ground, each beating time with a stick on which is drawn among others, the zigzagging of water. Femininity, water and light. Water is always attributed to women, and the young men were holding this sign of femininity in their hand while dancing and chanting. Time of deliverance and jubilation marking their coming out from the dark of the “sacred wood”. All this is part of their initiation in the film.
So working with these two colours at the same time, with masculinity and femininity, or with something very close and yet distant, was very important in the structuring process. For the rest of the film, dealing with light, as you just said, is dealing with space. Like cinema, architecture is precisely a way of composing with light. Light also determines the kind of colour and the quality of a colour. For example, a red next to a black looks very different from a red next to a yellow. So relation – we’re coming back here to the poetics of relation – is a way of working with colour, cinematically as well as socially and politically.
You’ve been talking about another film of yours in which colour and light is really important, which is A Tale of Love. It’s a film in which you touch upon the theme of love, but also of sensuality, hapticity, touch and smell. It’s perhaps the film in which the sensual dimension of your work comes the most to the fore. In contrast to most of your other films, this film was to a great extent scripted or rather choreographed. I mean, you could decide on the shifts of colour, texture, lighting, setting, framing, or the movements of actors and camera. It’s not so much a love story then, it’s a scenography of love. Does that kind of working imply a different way of tuning in?
So insightfully put, but before I answer this question, I must give credit to Jean-Paul Bourdier, who is the producer of all of my films. In this film he is also the co-director and the production designer, so actually the colours are very much initiated by him, but it’s initiated in both senses of the term, as we work together on what they denote and connote. As mentioned earlier, one is the question of the colour itself: how to work with primary colours? Colours that are very strong and stand on their own? And the other is how they fare in their political undertones. In another film of mine, Shoot for the Contents (1991), colour works in many layers when applied to the social realm. We call ourselves “people of colour”; do you think we can just be blended in? Like in the notion of multiculturalism in the States? It’s a melting pot, in which assimilation means having all colours lose their discrete identities in the process of uniformization. With primary colours, however, you cannot melt them together. You’ll need to work with their differences and unique properties. They stand on their own, and this is very challenging. They have their own strength, unlike pastel colours that could nicely be blended together. This approach is mainly initiated by Jean-Paul, who hates pastel colours and is always working with primary colours.
The film was scripted, but I had simply written some seventy scenes whose order was not all decided in advance. Needless to say, for the woman who volunteered to be the script supervisor, it was a nightmare because she was paying attention to continuity between the scenes. She would say for example, “In this scene, Kieu is wearing these clothes. So in the following scene, she has to wear the same clothes.” But I said, “I don’t even know which scene is coming first and which scene is coming after! So just don’t worry about the clothing anymore.” Most of the time, these are like pieces of puzzle. You don’t know yet in advance how the puzzle would come out.
This is one aspect of the unscripted. The second aspect concerns the “central story”. The film is based on the Tale of Kieu, which is a national poem Vietnamese carry with them all over the world, whether in the diaspora or in Vietnam. People from all walks of life use this poem in their everyday. So in focusing on such a cultural landmark, you would have to brace up for a lot of criticism, depending on how this national poem is presented. Some Vietnamese viewers who saw the film said, “why are you beginning with a verse that is at the end of the of the poem?” They seemed quite troubled by the order of what comes first and what comes after.
But this is also true to the way the film unfolds. Even though it begins with the Tale of Kieu, you could see that in the process of watching it, it widens and the story disintegrates. What seemingly starts out as a story decentralizes itself as the film unravels. Instead, it’s the state of being in love that comes into focus – that is, how your senses respond to reality. Smell for example is very strong in this state of being. You can recognize the person you love from afar through smell. And even though today talking about perfume is not very popular among the younger generation, the question of perfume as narrative here is quite relevant. “Behind every perfume lies a love story” says a character in the film. When I did this film, I had to do considerable research on scent and fragrance, and on how perfumes were created. It’s all about the seduction of smell. Each scent unfolds with it a whole narrative track. You could say that as we start tuning in with the story of Kieu, we are also tuning out of it. Becoming more intensely attuned to the olfactory realm and the situations conveyed with the state of being in love, you don’t need the centralized story anymore.
The film focuses on the state of being in love, an altered state in which our senses are strangely aroused. We hear the main character, Kieu, say “Isn’t a writer someone who loves for a living?’ Would you say that all your films depart from a state of love? Is it the matrix from which each film takes shape?
Yes, definitely. Even though here, we can understand the term “love” in its wider sense. You can love a person or an individual, but you can also be in a state of being in love and this state can put you in relation with infinity. You are in love with life. You are in love with music. You are in love with the ocean. Your identity changes as you live fully. You don’t need to be Asian, American, doctor or. . . (no profession we come up with can truly define ourselves). You can be skin, you can be water, you can be tree, you can be mountain, you can be mosquito. . . One and many things at the same time. For me, that’s the state of being in love.
Images (1) and (5) from What About China (Trinh T. Minh-ha, 2022)
Images (2) and (4) from Reassemblage: From the Firelight to the Screen (Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1983)
Images (3) and (6) from A Tale of Love (Jean-Paul Bourdier & Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1995)
This interview was conducted in the context of the Courtisane Festival 2023, as part of the research project Echoes of Dissent (Stoffel Debuysere, KASK & Conservatory / School of Arts Ghent).
Breath, Rhythm, Silence, Resonance: Listening beyond Seeing in the Films of Trinh T. Minh-ha by David Toop (Courtisane, 2023) is the first publication in the Echoes of Dissent series, devoted to the politics of the soundtrack. The publication can be purchased here.