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

Lippit--The images are beautiful in your films, strikingly beautiful-much more so than in National Geographic-and that may be an effect precisely of what you have described. Your description of the process of filmmaking for you suggests something more on the order of the sublime.
Rather positing mastery over her medium, her subject matter, the filmmaker here loses herself in the process of making a film.
It's very different from the more popular notion of the filmmaker as a master of one's craft, of one's subject, of one's space. Your description of the first gesture, the first movement as the one that you regularly prefer suggests a kind of dissipation or a loss of the self in the act of filmmaking.
And the result can be a very beautiful image that emerges from the encounter with that dissipation, rather than from the assertion of one's mastery in the form of a pan, or tilt, or some kind of practiced gesture.

Trinh--What you've just elucidated is very different from how people usually understand it.
I feel much more affinity with the terms you use-"the loss of oneself," by which one gains everything else, and hence no mere loss. The tendency among many, when I try to put this process of filmmaking into word, is immediately to recast it in terms of spontaneity and personal subjectivity.
The first gesture is then viewed as the more truthful one. But the moment of spontaneity, which is so sacred for modernist art in general, has its limits. One can be quite cliched when being spontaneous. And there are often more instances, where instead of encountering elements of surprise or newness in spontaneity, one simply faces a form of reification of the individualist self.

Lippit--The fantasy of a spontaneous gesture does suggest the emergence of an authentic or genuine self: A truer self that escapes in the inattention of spontaneity. Another feature that I find striking in your work is the adamant tension between images but also the sounds that are sometimes naturalistic and at others synthetic, artificial, and staged. Sounds are often broken, just when one is ready to be drawn into their flow. And one feels this at work in a variety of places, certainly I would say in Shoot for the Contents. During the interview with the Chinese filmmaker, for example, one recognizes a very theatrical mise-en-scene; similarly in the interviews that constitute Surname Viet Given Name Nam. Do you see these tensions between naturalistic and synthetic representations as an element of your style, or do you see them as a dialectic that works between the notion of nature, naturalism, or things as they are, and the process of reflecting, commenting, filmmaking-"being nearby"?

Trinh--Neither one of those. Perhaps if I can find a way to say it on my own terms, it would be to say that what is viewed as being natural on the one hand and staged on the other belongs to a whole process. If one looks at the image in terms of representation, then I'm not simply representing "substance," but I'm actually bringing out what one can call "function" or "condition." In Shoot for the Contents, the image is mediated by the translator-a literal translator during the interview with the Chinese filmmaker, but also other translators heard or seen through the voices of the narrators and of myself as writer, editor and photographer of images of China. The fact that both makers and viewers depend here on translation in order to have an "entry" into the culture was clearly brought out in the sound-image. On one level, this interdependence made visible and audible may appear artificial, but on the level of its function within the process of producing meaning and images, it is totally natural.

This "natural" process is precisely what has been widely suppressed in films that try to get at "substance" while forgetting the importance of function and field in the mediation of reality on film. As the Indian philosopher Coomaraswami said, one cannot imitate nature, one can only operate the way nature operates. When one thinks in those terms, the two currents you mentioned (one naturalistic, the other synthetic) are one and the same. To call attention to the subjectivity at work and to show the activity of production in the production is to deal with film in its most natural, realistic and truthful aspect. So I don't see the separation. This largely applies to my first four films; with A Tale of Love, where everything was thought out down to the smallest detail, the situation is different. Ultimately, despite the contrasting way with which this last film fractures conventions of genre and of narrativity-or of psychological realism in acting and in consuming-its direction expands the one adopted by the previous films.

[Berkeley October 8th, 1998]

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