Reading lists, conversations, and other texts
Reading lists, conversations, and other texts
Trinh T. Minh-ha Film Club #3: Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989)July 16th, 2020
hosted by Shaelyn Hanes and Emily Markert
hosted by Shaelyn Hanes and Emily Markert
The Trinh T. Minh-ha Film Club is a weekly viewing party to screen one of Trinh’s films, with shared materials that help us understand and appreciate it, whether a passage from a piece of literature, a video clip, or a text that addresses Trinh’s work directly.
As we watch, we have a live discussion about how our research relates to the film and highlight points of interest. Viewers are invited to join the discussion in the live chat or simply watch. Through our conversation, we identify motifs that carry us to the following week’s film.
0:54 Shaelyn Hanes: Hi I’m Shaelyn. I’m a second year graduate student in CCA’s Curatorial Practice Program and one of the Wattis Curatorial Fellows.
1:07 Emily Markert: Hello! I’m Emily. I’m also in the Curatorial Practice graduate program and work alongside Shaelyn as a Curatorial Fellow.
1:17 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts: In order to follow along with our commentary, please make sure your chat window is displaying the "Live Chat" instead of "Top Chat."
1:28 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts: You can also turn on timestamps using the three dots in the upper corner of the chat window.
1:39 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts: If you have a comment or question at any time, feel free to join the conversation. You will need to be logged in with your YouTube or Gmail account to do so.
[FILM BEGINS AT 3:55]
4:05 Emily Markert: We originally planned to screen A Tale of Love tonight, but due to technical difficulties, have switched to Trinh’s 1989 documentary piece Surname Viet Given Name Nam.
4:27 Emily Markert: Not only does Surname Viet precede A Tale of Love (1995) chronologically, but it also prefaces its content and format. We hope you’ll come back for A Tale of Love next week to see how.
4:46 Shaelyn Hanes: The title of this film is lifted from a quotation from Vietnamese anticolonial nationalist Phan Bội Châu (1867-1940).
4:52 Shaelyn Hanes: He is known to have said that an unmarried woman needed to identify her marital status by saying, “My surname is Việt, given name is Nam.”
5:02 Shaelyn Hanes: To quote film & media scholar Lan P. Duong, Trinh’s use of this phrase “reveals how the Vietnamese female subject is not only caught in the heteronormative binds of the family and the nation but also that she holds no singular identity.”
5:16 Shaelyn Hanes: The multiplicity of Vietnamese women’s roles and identities on an individual and national level is a key subject of this film.
5:26 Emily Markert: We will see this particular archival footage clip a few times, but as with Night Passage and The Fourth Dimension, Trinh does not use archival images in Surname Viet to construct a linear timeline.
5:35 Emily Markert: They simply lend context. The footage mostly comes from the 1950s.
6:01 Emily Markert: As you can see, Surname Viet does not start with a single event or “establishing shot,” nor an authoritative voice. Where are we? When are we?
7:10 Shaelyn Hanes: You may feel like these subtitles are flashing by too fast, or faster than you are used to. This is deliberate, of course.
7:15 Shaelyn Hanes: Trinh is asking us to question the role of and importance of subtitles as a cinematic apparatus, as well as the type of hierarchical worldview bold-faced English subtitles represent.
7:48 Emily Markert:A mainstream film tries to hide its artifices and structures. In Trinh’s words, tools like subtitles represent an attempt to “protect the unity of the subject…to collapse...reading, hearing and seeing into one single activity, as if they were all the same. My desire, on the contrary, is to ‘unsew’ them and to present them as three distinct activities endowed with a certain degree of autonomy.”
8:04 Emily Markert: Keep this in mind as the film continues.
8:50 Shaelyn Hanes: You might be having a bit of trouble understanding every word this woman is saying. That is actually intentional.
8:55 Shaelyn Hanes: She speaks in English with a heavy Vietnamese accent, sometimes mispronouncing things. John Mowitt calls these “linguistic antagonisms.” No subtitles appear on-screen.
9:04 Shaelyn Hanes: What does this do to our perception of the accuracy and legibility of translation?
13:57 Emily Markert: Here is that archival clip repeated. The woman speaking is describing events from the 1970s, but, again, the footage is from the 1950s.
14:07 Emily Markert: And once again, hearing and seeing are autonomous events.
14:14 Emily Markert: In Trinh’s words: “what seems more important to me is the specific nature of the problems women of many times and many places have to undergo—as women.”
14:42 Shaelyn Hanes: This speaker’s accent is also quite thick, and we are seeing an unexpectedly fragmented view of her.
14:50 Shaelyn Hanes: These are a few of the ways Trinh subverts the documentary interview form throughout the first half of the film. These Vietnamese women are presented not just as elusive but perhaps unknowable.
14:59 Shaelyn Hanes: Using close-ups of this kind, Trinh prevents objectification of the women in the name of nationalism or exoticization by the West.
17:34 Emily Markert: Last week we spoke a lot about binaries in The Fourth Dimension.
17:50 Emily Markert: Here Trinh mentions beginnings and endings as another type of binary.
17:57 Emily Markert: Consider what the black-and-white archival footage evokes or implies in this sense.
18:03 Emily Markert: Documentary versus fiction; objective versus subjective; authentic versus fake.
20:28 Shaelyn Hanes: This, of course, refers both to these literal male figures and the nation of Vietnam.
20:34 Shaelyn Hanes: The use of English and Vietnamese thus far in the film points to the fact that the roles and expectations of Vietnamese women we are seeing and hearing about do not just apply to women in Vietnam but also diasporic Vietnamese women, especially those who live in America.
20:54 Emily Markert: Consider how male-centric the American narrative and mythology of Vietnam is—largely because it is centered on an event, rather than a place or society.
20:59 Emily Markert: This film offers a feminist counter to that narrative, and the oppression of women in the US, as *well* as the oppressive patriarchy at work in the country of Vietnam.
22:06 Shaelyn Hanes: The speaker just mentioned she is from South Vietnam. Trinh made sure that the three regions of Vietnam (North, South, Center) were represented by the speakers.
22:11 Shaelyn Hanes: They are from different geographic as well as linguistic backgrounds. (You may detect that the women’s accents differ slightly.)
23:12 Emily Markert: Notice that each woman has been filmed wearing fairly plain, modest clothing, without makeup or jewelry.
23:16 Emily Markert: The backgrounds, when visible, do not distract, and feel quite staged, as we might expect a documentary interview scene to look.
24:53 Shaelyn Hanes: Between the speaker, the singer, and the subtitles, we are affronted here with three layers of the film at once. We see and hear English, but also Vietnamese.
24:58 Shaelyn Hanes: Trinh has said: “Translation seeks faithfulness and accuracy and ends up always betraying either the letter of the text, its spirit, or its aesthetics.”
25:06 Shaelyn Hanes: Do you see these three threads as collaborating, weaving the story of the documentary together, or unraveling it?
26:50 Emily Markert: Even this narrative-within-a-film is unable to proceed in a linear way as we miss portions of her monologue.
26:58 Emily Markert: Now, the Vietnamese song seems to drown out the speaker, but with the subtitles, Trinh can focus our attention on the songs’ content as well as or instead of their musicality.
27:03 Emily Markert: This is a markedly different approach from her later films, such as The Fourth Dimension.
27:09 Emily Markert: The lyrics tend to reflect traditional Vietnamese gender roles.
27:50 VIEWER: Are there supposed to be subtitles?
28:13 Emily Markert: Periodically -- not throughout.
28:28 VIEWER: Thank you for the clarification
29:56 Shaelyn Hanes: In an interview after a screening of Surname Viet, Trinh recalled a time a translator at a film festival in Paris came to her panicked.
30:02 Shaelyn Hanes: She didn’t know how to translate Trinh’s films into French because they often contain multiple languages simultaneously.
30:10 Shaelyn Hanes: Trinh forced the woman to simply make a decision, ostensibly asking her to experience first-hand the very problems of translation this film tries to depict.
30:30 Emily Markert: In addition to the title quote from Phan Bội Châu and the folk songs, Trinh cites other figures from Vietnamese history and literature throughout the film.
30:36 Emily Markert: They all relate to traditional gender roles and Vietnamese society’s expectations of women.
30:42 Emily Markert: Here she describes Nguyễn Du's Tale of Kiều, which is also the central inspiration for our next film, A Tale of Love.
30:56 Emily Markert: However, Trinh also includes quotations from female writers from the 18th and 19th century in Surname Viet.
31:02 Emily Markert: The purpose of this is to show that feminist ideas also have historical precedent, especially in the face of what is deemed "traditional."
31:42 Emily Markert: I love that Paris film festival anecdote 🙂
32:33 Shaelyn Hanes: Even though we cannot see her face, we can tell that the speaker, Thu Van, is looking directly at the camera in a brightly-lit space, unlike the other two speakers.
32:47 Shaelyn Hanes: She confronts our gaze while Trinh works with her to distract or subvert it. This is an ongoing theme we will address in our screening of A Tale of Love next week.
33:06 Emily Markert: This rare moment of cohesion, with the subtitles matching the audio, may strike you as surprising.
33:19 Emily Markert: Suddenly it is clear that the film has damaged our faith in the system of subtitles, which we typically consider authoritative and reliable.
33:41 Emily Markert: And we're only 30 minutes in!
34:02 Emily Markert: In Trinh’s words: “interviews which occupy a dominant role in documentary practices—in terms of authenticating information;
34:08 Emily Markert: validating the voices recruited for the sake of the argument the film advances;
34:14 Emily Markert: and legitimizing an exclusionary system of representation based on the dominant ideology of presence and authenticity —are actually sophisticated devices of fiction.
34:42 Emily Markert: She has also said: “Every documentary practice fundamentally involves elements of fiction, just as every good fiction film has a profound documentary quality to it.”
36:27 Shaelyn Hanes: As words invade the frame occupied by Thu Van, consider how women’s bodies are themselves sites of translation.
36:36 Shaelyn Hanes: Women move seamlessly from role to role in society.
36:47 Shaelyn Hanes: And here, Thu Van speaks in English about experiences in Vietnam, literally translating herself.
38:44 Emily Markert: Consider the differences you perceive between the narrator (Trinh) and the on-screen speakers.
39:00 Emily Markert: In reality, much of her narration is lifted from interviews with women who we simply do not see.
39:23 Emily Markert: One scholar has contended that the use of storytelling throughout this film “acknowledge[s] the craft of construction and delivery, the pleasures of interchange, the biases of the teller, and the moral or lesson unmistakably transmitted.”
41:29 Shaelyn Hanes: This list of names creates a kind of historical timeline in the form of language, but also speaks to the film’s title, and how people, especially women, attempt to name and rename their own culture.
41:33 Shaelyn Hanes: Control of one’s own names and narratives stands in stark contrast to the structures of colonialism.
43:09 Emily Markert: You may notice that the interviews are becoming increasingly stylized, here with dramatic lighting, which emphasizes that we are inside, as opposed to the footage we just saw.
43:29 Emily Markert: What is “real” and what is “staged”?
43:57 Emily Markert: This binary breaks down over the course of the film.
45:10 Emily Markert: To quote writer Susan Pui San Lok: “Frequent lighting and 'prop' changes within otherwise bare interiors foreground the simple manipulations by which a private/domestic and public/professional space, and associated notions of intimacy/subjectivity and distance /objectivity, might be simultaneously evoked and undermined. As 'props', including clothes, seem to oscillate between function and metaphor, so settings hover between naturalism and abstraction, their very neutrality giving rise to ambiguity.'”
48:02 Shaelyn Hanes: As Trinh talks of the sun, she is actually quoting an outside source.
48:09 Shaelyn Hanes: The temporality of the narrator is constantly in flux.
48:16 Shaelyn Hanes: Is she telling us stories from the perspective of the present, or is she also recounting memories?
49:28 Emily Markert: Here, the audio and image are deliberately out of sync. These women are sites of translation, but also sites of memory. The performance of this particular memory seems hazy.
50:26 Emily Markert: Consider Trinh’s words on memory: “Language used in excess, both via the spoken and the written word, has an effect almost like that of memory: something that is triggered despite yourself.
50:32 Emily Markert: And knowledge in its ready-made assertions makes it very difficult to come back to a place of beginner’s wonder – unlike the outsider who can often encounter things as if for the first time.... But how to become a stranger in your own culture, your own territory, your own home?”
54:34 Shaelyn Hanes: Despite the age of this citation, this sentiment still rings true as a feminist idea today.
56:33 Shaelyn Hanes: Consider the power dynamics at play as the woman alludes the man's gaze while peering back at him.
58:03 Emily Markert: If these words do not identically match what is being said, should we still consider them subtitles?
58:31 Emily Markert: This comment about Vietnamese women not easily “unburdening” themselves lends new meaning to the earlier moment when another speaker speaks directly to the camera and says, “I will talk to you.”
58:42 Emily Markert: Trinh's focus on women who support other people–especially other women–emphasizes their collective agency and privileges collaboration.
58:50 Emily Markert: This is also Trinh's preferred method for filmmaking: collaborating with composers, writers, actors.
1:02:07 Emily Markert: And here, as Anh looks into the camera, she signals a break from the memory or identity she has been performing through her words and the props she has removed from her body.
1:02:15 Emily Markert: She is the subject of the camera’s gaze, but has the power and volition to disrupt its format with her own.
1:02:29 Emily Markert: (The format of the traditional documentary.)
1:03:43 Shaelyn Hanes: The predictability of the documentary interview format is continuing to break down in front of us, as this speaker paces in front of us, not looking at the camera.
1:07:55 Emily Markert: Here Trinh is being interviewed by an off-screen narrator named Lan Trinh, a second-generation Vietnamese American.
1:08:02 Emily Markert: In this way, Trinh makes clear her role in creating the film as a translator herself. This move is part of her overall critique of the authenticity and authorship of the documentary form.
1:08:27 Emily Markert: You may be wondering, why did Trinh interview 150 women only to show us about five?
1:08:35 Emily Markert: Well, the interviews we have seen were actually scripted, lifted from a book entitled Vietnam: un peuple, des voix.
1:08:44 Emily Markert: This book, by Mai Thu Vân, was published in 1983. It contains interviews with Vietnamese women that Mai conducted in Vietnamese, and then translated into French.
1:08:55 Emily Markert: Trinh translated a selection of these interviews into English for this film. This is why some of the “subtitles”, pulled from the book, did not match the audio, which was interpreted by the speakers.
1:09:11 Emily Markert: Thus the big reveal: The women on screen did not live through the experiences they so far recounted. However, they did experience similar things growing up at the same time as the women interviewed.
1:10:11 Shaelyn Hanes: As we have seen through the interviews and the archival footage, women’s clothing constitutes a major thread woven through this film.
1:11:49 Shaelyn Hanes: Here we see the children dressed in áo dài, a Vietnamese national garment
1:13:00 Emily Markert: The microphones are now picking up not just the woman speaking, but also the ambient sounds as she eats a meal with other people, conducting her daily life.
1:13:11 Emily Markert: This scene does not match our expectations of the “truthful” or “authoritative” documentary interview. And yet, it feels far more authentic than the staged interviews we saw earlier.
1:15:10 Shaelyn Hanes: Trinh writes: “These interviews in which a camera and a microphone are set up to catch the "spontaneous words" of a woman while she is having lunch, for example, are no less staged than the reenacted ones; but now the "staging" may be taken more for granted by the viewer, it's more hidden, concealed, because it is no longer perceptible via the mise en scene or the language, but more via the situating, framing, editing and contextualizing.”
1:19:38 Emily Markert: Here is another instance where we see layers of time collapsing. This woman speaks to us now (meaning 1989) of her mother who by the 70s had already experienced “fleeing on foot” at least once.
1:20:35 Emily Markert: There women's lived experiences reflect a larger legacy of colonialism and patriarchal authority in Vietnam.
1:21:41 Emily Markert: This dialogue between two young girls brings a new interview dynamic to the fore.
1:21:53 Emily Markert: Their conversation invites us to consider how amicable, intimate conversations might be more honest and authentic than formal interviews.
1:24:32 Shaelyn Hanes: Here Trinh is quoting Mai Thu Vân.
1:24:37 Shaelyn Hanes: Many essays on this film consider Mai’s text nothing more than an inspiration, but Trinh would have us read the film as collaborative, decentralizing her ownership and authorship of the “script.”
1:24:45 Shaelyn Hanes: As she explains, Mai had difficulty getting Vietnam: un peuple, des voix published in France without a preface by Simone De Beauvoir.
1:24:52 Shaelyn Hanes: For Mai and Trinh, this emblematized how Western ideas of feminism remained hegemonic rather than intersectional.
1:26:38 Emily Markert: You may think a beauty pageant stands in opposition to the feminist values and desires for female empowerment and volition we have heard until this point.
1:26:54 Emily Markert: Trinh talks about how she struggled to depict this scene critically but without condemning the women: “It seems important to be caring at the same time as one is critical.
1:27:01 Emily Markert: That's something I find most difficult in working on this film. ...Can a critique also be a compliment without being any less of a critique?”
1:27:20 Shaelyn Hanes: “The three obediences and four virtues” are a set of moral principles coded behaviours for young women in Confucianism.
1:28:49 Emily Markert: Here we continue to see the same women who spoke in starkly lit, stylized rooms earlier in the film in their daily lives.
1:29:02 Emily Markert: According to Trinh, “To push the limits of self-representation a bit further, the second, and even more so the third, parts of the film are organized around ‘documented’ scenes that materialize the choices the women made when , as a structural device, I asked each of them how they would like to see themselves represented.”
1:29:17 Emily Markert: This freedom is also reflected in their clothing and makeup choices.
1:30:18 Shaelyn Hanes: Filmmaker Isaac Julien responded to the contrast of the women’s attire and their choices around self-representation by saying: “That's very interesting, because for me that’s about desire, and wanting to fictionalize yourself in a particular way, because to a certain extent they realize they want to present themselves in a way that may be different from the way they may be every day. Because it's a special experience.”
1:30:45 Shaelyn Hanes: In either case, the presence of the camera drives us to present ourselves in a certain, perhaps inauthentic way; the way we would like to be seen.
1:30:54 Shaelyn Hanes: These are “differing fictions of living and acting,” in Trinh’s words.
1:32:31 Emily Markert: Julien and Trinh spoke together at the Wattis in February.
1:33:34 Emily Markert: As we hear layers of words and music, think of Trinh’s recent remark in a 2018 interview: “Nonsense can come with an overload of meaning: you can hear the sound of a word rather than its intended meaning.”
1:35:08 Shaelyn Hanes: Seeing these women in the United States, speaking about their experiences in Vietnamese, in their own clothes and homes and workspaces, creates a doubling effect.
1:35:19 Shaelyn Hanes: We saw the same women earlier speaking English as they spoke about Vietnam. In place of dialectical binaries, which Trinh often uses, here we face a mirror.
1:36:08 Emily Markert: Trinh’s continued use of close-up shots and layers of audio speaks to how the film demonstrates the fragmented ways Vietnamese women are composed and imagined in nationalist discourse.
1:36:31 Emily Markert: Especially here, towards, the end, as they speak in Vietnamese.
1:40:53 Emily Markert: The joyous wedding and this energetic, joyful scene contrast the negative, pervasive authority of husbands and fathers described earlier in the film.
1:41:21 Emily Markert: We are seeing these women enjoy a level of liberation from authoritarian, patriarchal structures through their ability to be “themselves,” or at least use their voices to tell us about themselves.
1:41:38 Emily Markert: As Susan Pui San Lok writes, “Trinh’s camera not only demonstrates how the women look at spectacles but also reveals their pleasure in being spectacles themselves.”
1:42:21 Shaelyn Hanes: Trinh writes: “the notion of displacement is also a place of identity: there is no real me to return to, no whole self that synthesizes the woman, the woman of colour and the writer; instead, diverse recognitions of self through difference, and unfinished, contingent, arbitrary closures that make possible both politics and identity.”
1:43:15 Emily Markert: Susan Pui San Lok has also remarked that the film "demonstrates the insistent designation of Vietnamese women at the intersection of gender and nation, in terms of subordination to father, son, husband, state — never fully witnessing, only glorified as heroines or victimized as bystanders of, spectators to, and exiles in their own history."
1:43:57 Emily Markert: Surname Viet was produced just three years after Vietnam’s Đổi Mới Policy was enacted, opening up the state to market capitalism.
1:44:05 Emily Markert: This caused a major shift in how Vietnam interacted with other nations. In a way, these women’s reflections from 1989 act as a type of time capsule of that moment.
1:44:11 Emily Markert: The film critiques and captures women's roles then.
1:45:53 Shaelyn Hanes: This list of names for Vietnam again speaks to history and the power of naming.
1:45:59 Shaelyn Hanes: Who is speaking when you hear each name? Who owns or created each name?
1:46:08 Shaelyn Hanes: The film speaks to “the feminist necessity to rethink the questions of community, nation, and identity, and to challenge nationalist assumptions of cultural mastery.”
1:46:47 Emily Markert: Here we revisit footage seen at the beginning Surname Viet.
1:47:24 Emily Markert: To end with a quote from Duong: “Since the final frames of the film repeat images of woman-as-nation, there appears to be a cyclical return to the film’s beginning—yet, with a difference.
1:47:28 Emily Markert: If the film begins with the theatricality of war and the spectacle of womanhood, Surname Viet also shows how the actresses are bound up in this same system of image-making but simultaneously attempt to resist it.”
1:50:43 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts: Thank you for joining us! Be sure to visit wattis.org for more information about all of the films we've screened so far.
1:51:01 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts: Click here to get "reminded" about next week's screening (our fourth and final session). https://youtu.be/Kudaw-ad2A0