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Trinh T. Minh-ha Film Club #1: Night Passage (2004)
hosted by Shaelyn Hanes and Emily Markert
July 2nd, 2020

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.



0:29 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts: ​ Welcome! The film will begin in just a few minutes.
0:40 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.
1:05 Emily Markert: Hello! I’m Emily. I’m also in the Curatorial Practice graduate program and work alongside Shaelyn as a Curatorial Fellow.
[FILM BEGINS AT 2:20]
3:14 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."
3:22 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts:​ You can also turn on timestamps using the three dots in the upper corner of the chat window.
3:27 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts: ​We will offer commentary throughout the film, but invite you to join our ongoing conversation with questions or comments if you have them.
3:41 Shaelyn Hanes: ​This opening sequence recalls the flat strip of celluloid film, “a film of still images speeding on screen.” Night Passage is Minh-ha’s second digital film.

4:16 Emily Markert: ​This fictional film is inspired by Ginga Tetsudo no Yoru, or Night on the Galactic Railroad, a famous Japanese children's book written in 1927 by Kenji Miyazawa.
11:40 Emily Markert: ​Miyazawa's original novel centers on a young boy whose father has left home. Minh-ha's decision to rewrite male characters as female is rooted in her work in feminist theory.
11:47 Emily Markert: ​(She is a Professor in Gender & Women's Studies and Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.)
12:29 Emily Markert: ​In Minh-ha's own words: "crossings in gender time, culture, geography, and technology bring to the fore the question of formed, barely formed, and unformed relations."
12:45 Emily Markert: ​We will see these types of crossings throughout the film.
13:00 Shaelyn Hanes: ​These beginning scenes are some of Minh-ha’s most clear nods to Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad.
13:16 Shaelyn Hanes: ​She has noted that she was drawn to the story because of its structure, which consists of an opening and closing sequence and “a space of free-flow happenings and encounters” between the two.
13:19 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts: ​If you are just joining us, you can always skip back to the beginning. Our chat will continue, though.
14:40 Emily Markert: ​This beautiful shot of Kyra biking on a long straightaway evokes the line spoken by Luis earlier: "Sometimes you go in a straight line... and sometimes you find yourself at the crossroads."

15:14 Emily Markert: ​Biking for Minh-ha also represents personal, bodily balance.
18:06 Emily Markert: ​Notice how the sounds of the train and the natural world outside shift and intermingle.
19:08 Emily Markert: ​Nabi's character is also male in Night on the Galactic Railroad. Here's another quote from Minh-ha speaking on this subject: ​"In feminist struggles, one recognizes the double political gesture, which consists of inserting women into history…while refusing the limiting linearity imposed by history’s time"

19:48 Emily Markert: ​Nabi and Kyra's arrival on the train in unknowable ways rather than a series of linear events evokes these latter ideas.
22:41 Emily Markert: ​This line about the train clattering is a direct quote from Night on the Galactic Railroad.
23:31 Shaelyn Hanes: ​Minh-ha notes that she edited the film in order to give the feeling that the train is running on water.
24:23 Shaelyn Hanes: ​She also likens the vehicle to Roland Barthes’s Argo: a ship that is continually rebuilt piece by piece until it is an entirely new boat. We’ll see clues to this a few times during the film.
24:32 Shaelyn Hanes: ​She writes, “A vessel whose parts keep on changing and whose totality is in constant motion: this is also a way of digital imaging, and this is how Night Passage works for me as digital film event.”
25:00 Emily Markert: ​This scene points to Minh-ha's use of a diversity of characters and actors. (In the original book, everyone is Japanese.)

25:23 Emily Markert: ​Minh-ha writes: "In normalizing diversity, multiculturalism remains deceptively color-blind and utterly divisive...Its bland melting-pot logic denies the racism and sexism that lie at the core of biopower and biopolitics."
26:02 Emily Markert: ​In the film, "the focus is on the interaction of passages. Rather than treating difference as mere conflict…difference comes with the art of spacing and is creatively transcultural."
27:28 Shaelyn Hanes: ​Minh-ha notes that this scene invites viewers to have a “bodily response to the sound of color.” She encourages an experience of synesthesia in which we hear with our eyes and see with our ears.
28:00 Emily Markert: ​This scene also makes it apparent that Minh-ha shot this film digitally.
29:49 Emily Markert: ​On her fictional films, Minh-ha says: ​"I work with musicians who improvise freely...This makes us all 'composers' whose interactions are intensely defined by the art of listening in relation rather than of 'making sounds'"

30:37 VIEWER: ​did she compose the music for any of her films?
31:45 Emily Markert: ​A great question! She often works with other musicians to collaborative compose her film's soundtracks. I am not aware of any times she has done this entirely alone, though.
32:02 VIEWER: ​ah ok, thanks!
32:22 Emily Markert: ​We will look into that ahead of our next film club screening.
32:46 Shaelyn Hanes: ​This scene shows three electronic musicians and their equipment that play in the background.

32:57 Shaelyn Hanes: ​By revealing the musicians, Minh-ha points to the material condition of the film’s production. This speaks to her investment in the interrelation between concept and form.
33:11 Emily Markert: ​Throughout Night Passage, Minh-ha treats "sound not as sound effects but as music, making full use of the forbidden yield of what the classic, musically trained ear calls ‘noise’ or ‘nonmusical.’”
33:48 Emily Markert: ​When I watch this scene, I wonder -- Do you think the characters can hear everything we are hearing? Or are we in their heads?
34:29 Shaelyn Hanes: ​Here the passengers find themselves in what might be the bowels of a ship.

34:40 Shaelyn Hanes: ​The imagery of industrial revolution may be linked with Minh-ha’s engagement of digital technology.
34:51 Shaelyn Hanes: ​“two historical moments of great change in our experience and understanding of relations between time and space as they have been, and continue to be, inscribed in cinematic practice.”
37:37 Emily Markert: ​"Nights are not made for the masses" - This is a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke. There are many hidden quotations such as this throughout the film, evidenced in the script.
38:33 Emily Markert: ​Minh-ha describes this character as: “She’s only this empty sound vessel through which [words] manifest themselves in leaps, bounces, and bursts.”

40:02 Emily Markert: ​Minh-ha thinks of "language being literally a body’s and a people’s music” and she is deeply interested in rhythm.
43:37 Shaelyn Hanes: ​This scene shows sculpture Joseph Slusky improvising and performing himself.

43:55 Shaelyn Hanes: ​Minh-ha, whose work often challenges the separation of art and documentary film, notes ​“these largely unscripted or at times self-scripted interventions constitute the documentary parts of Night Passage.”
44:54 Emily Markert: ​I wonder what happened to the piece after this shoot...
46:32 VIEWER: ​Were these sculptures commissioned specially for the film? Or are they his existing pieces?
47:31 Emily Markert: ​Created for the film, if I'm not mistaken.
47:48 VIEWER: ​Neat!
48:36 Emily Markert: ​This is one of the few scenes that is lifted directly from Night on the Galactic Railroad.
51:50 Shaelyn Hanes: ​The song just sang was pulled from a pom, Song of the Exiled, by Alicia Partnoy, a political prisoner during Argentine military dictatorship.
53:34 Emily Markert: ​"Die, Dissolve, Disappear: the three D’s." This line articulates Minh-ha's thinking about Night Passage as a whole.

53:40 Emily Markert: ​In fact, a book all about Night Passage, which contains many of the above quotes, is titled D-Passage in reference to this line.
53:59 Emily Markert: ​The "D" also refers to Digital in this context.
54:18 Shaelyn Hanes: ​“Remember the rules of night passage. Don’t stop in the dark or you’ll be lost. Move to the rhythm of your senses. Go where the road is alive.” This line evokes a famous Zen koan.
54:28 Shaelyn Hanes: ​The student is given a lit candle after telling his master, “it’s dark outside.” As the student is about to take the candle, the master blows it out, sparking a deep realization in the student.
54:29 Shaelyn Hanes: ​Minh-ha notes that both of these stories lead her to travel and darkness.
55:27 Shaelyn Hanes: ​Notice that Nabi allows herself to play in the water here, while Kyra is careful to follow the stone path.

58:40 Shaelyn Hanes: ​This scene shows twins performing a classical Indian dance that has been adapted to depict water. The dance harkens to “the flow of life, the struggle with the double and with death.”

59:26 Emily Markert: ​Although a fictional film, this section shows a series of real traditional dances.
59:57 Emily Markert: ​In Minh-ha's words: "In their conception and choreography, the dances form another instance of the transcultural…​The singular image that emerges from the passage between Eastern and Western traditions is a trajectory of fire that turns into light calligraphy."
1:00:32 Shaelyn Hanes: ​Here Nabi finds a Wind mask.

1:01:20 Shaelyn Hanes: ​After putting it on and entering into the space of the mask, Nabi encounters a Wind spirit and engages in an intense struggle.

1:02:06 Shaelyn Hanes: ​Kyra saves Nabi by unfurling the red ribbon, which serves as the red thread of life.

1:04:50 Emily Markert: ​They appreciated its representation of "a multiplicity of forms of coupling, pairing, doubling, and teaming” (which is seen elsewhere in the film, too).
1:10:08 Emily Markert: ​The non-linearity of Night Passage is constantly reinforced by the characters moving between "something" and "nothing," from light to dark.
1:10:53 Emily Markert: Minh-ha writes: ​“The passage in the film from the third to the fourth dimension during nighttime and back is, similarly, one in which a new digital image can be made to arise from the preceding one ​not linearly but from any point within the latter. The new arises anywhere from the old… The journey is indefinitely marked by comings and goings.”
1:11:19 Emily Markert: ​In this scene, Tom Zummer and Sherman Kennedy play “themselves” while adapting the roles of Uncle Borges and Dr. Kennedy, largely improvising the dialogues.

1:11:24 Emily Markert: ​The themes they discuss (and Uncle Borges's name) directly reference Jorge Luis Borges’s vision of immortality as depicted in his short story "The Immortal" from 1947.

1:11:56 Shaelyn Hanes: ​Note that they are in the “House of Immortals” — an important reference for determining where Kyra and Nabi are in their journey.
1:12:22 Shaelyn Hanes: ​The robot’s humanity is signaled by its ability to smoke a cigar - a reference to Freud, who was a prolific cigar smoker.

1:13:42 Emily Markert: ​Despite these references, the scene is also forward-looking in its focus on technology.
1:13:49 Emily Markert: ​As explained by Minh-ha: "these light squares speak of the 'no-image' frames digitally produced in the computer, freed of reference and freed from representation."

1:14:27 VIEWER: ​the squares of light also remind one of the train
1:14:52 Shaelyn Hanes: ​Very true!
1:17:37 Emily Markert: ​Here is another transparent acknowledgment of the filmmaker and her mechanisms, like the earlier soundboards.
1:19:24 Emily Markert: ​It is worth noting now that death and the concept of Christian heaven are major themes in Night on the Galactic Railroad.
1:19:50 Emily Markert: ​However, Minh-ha eschews these specific ideas in her reimagining of the story.
1:20:42 Shaelyn Hanes: ​The struggle of these two dancers performs a death by drowning, one that mirrors Nabi’s own struggle. According to the script, “through the dance, Nabi witnesses her own death.”

1:23:29 Shaelyn Hanes: ​Back on the train, we are reminded that the journey is at the core of this story, which Minh-ha has also compared to the practice of the Middle Way in Buddhism.
1:23:38 Shaelyn Hanes: ​“Practicing the Middle Way does not mean being halfway... On the contrary, the middle is where there’s no duality, no leaning on one side or the other, hence no foreclosures due to barriers.”
1:25:03 Emily Markert: ​Recall Nabi appeared on the train wet.
1:25:11 Emily Markert: ​"Rather than ascending to [heaven], the two young women enter the night to meet their own earthly dreams."
1:28:14 Emily Markert: ​Although not "heaven" per se, the world that Kyra and Nabi just inhabited together is described by Minh-ha as one of "the eccentric and the departed." Now Kyra is "back" and alone.
1:30:21 Emily Markert: ​Like the beginning of the film, this ending is a direct reference to Night on the Galactic Railroad.
1:32:01 Shaelyn Hanes: ​Once again we see Kyra’s red thread of life, which she employs in order to try to summon Nabi back to life. While the ribbon disrupted Nabi’s struggle with the Wind spirit before, it is of no use now.

1:32:18 Emily Markert: ​We will leave you with Minh-ha’s words on death:
1:32:26 Emily Markert: ​"If death is untimely, then it seems that one can’t help but be untimely. It may thus be said that in living the present, one is always slightly ahead or slightly behind. ​In today’s world...in which globalization fights globalization, it may be particularly relevant that D-cinema be a way of intimately addressing our mortality…​with filmmaking as a way of assuming our insecure path of freedom."
1:33:38 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts: ​Thank you so much for joining us. Tune in next Thursday at 5pm PST/8pm EST for "Fourth Dimension."
1:35:01 CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts: ​Be sure to visit wattis.org to learn more about each film in advance of our screenings.