When the Eye Frames Red/An Interview with Trinh T. Minh-ha

Lippit--In watching your films again recently, but also following from what you have just spoken of, I am interested in your sense of framing. It has a peculiar tendency, although different from film to film, to make the familiar look unfamiliar, even peculiar and unknown. I am thinking especially of Reassemblage, where one looks at images that are part of a cultural vocabulary and yet the look of that film is so absolutely distinct that one begins to notice the very consistent but subtle sense of framing. Perhaps that also relates to your earlier comments about edges and borders. The framing doesn't operate according to conventions, to the demands of balance or symmetry. Could you speak of your ideas regarding framing?

Trinh--Yes, actually we can go in many directions with this because it reminds me that when Reassemblage was first released, there were often, unavoidably, a couple of viewers in the audience at each screening who either praised the film or got very upset because they related it to a National Geographic product. Even today, I still occasionally encounter those kinds of response, whether in the U.S., in Europe or in Asia. And of course, there have also been instances where there is someone in the room who works for National Geographic who immediately says, "We would never accept such a film."

Sometimes the mere fact that the subject matter is located in rural contexts or in remote parts of the non-Western world (what the Japanese film milieu commonly calls "ethnic films"), and the fact that, in addition, the images are bright and colorful, with no immediately definable or recognizable political agenda attached, are sufficient for some viewers to attribute the film's look to the more familiar one of National Geographic images. I once said in response to a similar, aggressively voiced reaction that, ah yes, for some people all reds look alike, and that for them there's no difference between the red of a rose, the red of a ruby and the red of a flag; nor is there any difference within the reds of blood flowing unseen in life and of blood spilled out conspicuously in death.

Fortunately, a number of viewers do come to acknowledge on their own that what they first thought of as a National Geographic-type film does work on them, as the film advances, in such a way as to leave them ultimately perplexed and troubled. Days and even weeks after, they say, their perceptions of the film continue subtly to expand and to open onto unexpected views and directions. For me, this is largely due to a process of shooting and framing in which, as I mentioned earlier, the filming subject and the filming tools are always caught in the subject filmed. I don't mind it when viewers in Europe link my films to those of Johan Van der Keuken, who is known as one of those truly "mad about framing." I am not so much concerned here with composition, but as you've noted, I'm sensitive to the borders, edges and margins of an image-not only in terms of its rectangular confines, which today's digital technology easily modifies, but in the wider sense of framing as an intrinsic activity of image-making and of relation-forming. Working with Jean-Paul Bourdier, who is an architect, has incited me to see in terms of space so as to decide where to put the camera and how to move with it. This is quite prominent in A Tale of Love, for example. While Reassemblage and a large part of Naked Spaces were shot intuitively with the camera placed very close to ground level, where most daily activities are carried out in African villages. Such a decision has an important impact on the image, but the frame itself is very intimately created while I am shooting. Most of the time, if a good cinematographer sees an interesting subject and wants to use a pan, for example, she rehearses the gesture until the movement effected from one object to another is impeccable in its precision and certainty. In my case, I usually shoot with no forepractice and often with only one eye-the kino-eye, as Vertov called it. I may at times shoot the same subject more than once, but well, the first time always turns out to be the best, because when one repeats the gesture one becomes sure of oneself, which is what most cinematographers value-the sureness and smoothness of the gesture. But what I value is the hesitation or whatever happens when I first encounter what I am seeing through the camera lens. So the way one looks becomes totally unpredictable. Like wearing blinders and not seeing where one is going, the camera just moves with you according to the pace of your own body, or the pace of your camera pan.

It is this attentive half-blindness that interests me. Rather than merely conforming to the ideal of seeing with both eyes while shooting-one inside, the other outside the lens and the frame so as to foresee one's moves-I largely confine myself in the films I've shot to the eye that only sees reality via the camera. There is, in the look that goes toward things while letting things come to it unplanned, no desire to capture per se. You start a move and then simply continue it to see what comes into that framing in time and space.

Now there are films where I've worked with a cameraperson because I had to do more directing. Here, it is difficult to talk about one approach, because mine is necessarily mediated by the camera operator. In Surname Viet Given Name Nam, in the interview scenes of Shoot for the Contents, and especially in A Tale of Love where fiction intensifies framing, the sureness of the cinematographer's hand is inevitable. But I value that element as well, when it doesn't come from me. For it is then simply another element that contributes to the experience of film as an activity of production. Non-knowingness is an attitude, not a technique to perform.
What is specific to the cinematographer also has a place, and even if that cinematographer does not decide on the framing, the gesture, rhythm and sureness developed are hers. Treating these as her contribution to the process also means that one necessarily creates a different space for the film. What you have is something, let's say, between the open-ended process of the filmmaker and the skilled expertise of the operator.

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