QUINN LATIMER CONSIDERS FILMMAKER, WRITER, AND THEORIST, TRINH T. MINH-HA’S LATEST ARTIST BOOK, THE TWOFOLD COMMITMENT.
Twofold, we might say, from a stage and from a screen, from a text and from the street. We might mean that the meaning or reasoning lies not in a set of oppositions but in both. The paradigm that we are avoiding – you know it – is constructed out of hierarchal binaries at once false and familiar. Male or female, north or south, memory or oblivion, this against that. But this is not our way. Instead, our duos of fold and feeling find relief in one matrixial surface, one irradiating body. Is this the other side of the coin of the demeaning double bind, in which one is ever trapped, always wrong? (And by one, we mean her.) And yet the bound implicitly suggests the fold; it does. Indeed, twofold makes me think of skin and paper, body and book, and again of some screen for both reflection and projection. Images, at once psychic and aesthetic, cross it, charting a continuum of movements – corporeal, political, theoretical, technological, musical, feminist – and their effects and affects. Sound waves or waves of love score these images. After all, it is only the most ardent self, critically interested and absolutely implicated, that readily accepts the idea of holding room for both – whatever those two might be – thereby bringing them into her life, her thought, her texts, her sounds, her images.
By her, I mean Trinh T. Minh-ha (and perhaps the possibility of everyone else). But it is Trinh whose film Forgetting Vietnam (2015) opens by noting: “It all begins with two.” Stills from the film – all smeary digital colour, reds and greens and peachy pinks, both Hi-8 and HDV – also strobe the opening pages of The Twofold Commitment (Primary Information, 2023), Trinh’s new book of collected conversations from the past decade that limn and elucidate her filmic practice. A practice manifold yet lens-based in every sense, even when it is producing writing or sound, theory or poetry. If Trinh’s oeuvre famously encompasses postcolonial feminist theory, poetics and ethnomusicology, it is her moving images – at once documentary and fictive, experimental and ethnographic, ecological and mythosymbolic, self-reflexive and ludically collective – that are both means and subject of her work. As is visuality and its technologies, both ancient and nascent.
Trinh’s style is – what – unmistakable. In her assiduous production of cross-genre work across almost four decades, Trinh has established her own genre: we call it postcolonial feminist documentary poetics, or we call it experimental ethnographic essay films, or we call it Trinh T. Minh-ha. ‘Documentary Is/Not a Name’, as her remarkable early essay from 1990 goes, perhaps suggesting where our desire for naming has gone wrong. And yet, despite this, in each of the seven interviews that constitute her new book, Trinh’s interlocutors attempt, in various ways, to locate the meaning of her regular transgression of borders and difference – of medium, discipline, geography, genre, language, culture – and the frisson she finds in their mutability. Meaning in the sense of naming, in the sense of explication and definition. And yet. Despite each interviewer’s best aims, Trinh manages to return each conversation to the titular ‘two’, to her idea of the nonbinary and its commitments, of holding, that is, both. Whatever they might be.
If we have been taught to think, and thus live, in the paradigm of opposition, that colonial ethos and its patriarchal binary, Trinh understands this more than most. She left Vietnam in 1970; she was a teenager, and the US was at war in her country. She immigrated to the US, where she studied ethnomusicology and French literature in Illinois. She then completed her PhD at the Sorbonne and moved to Dakar to teach. It was in Senegal that she made her first major work, the 16 mm film Reassemblage (1982). Focusing on the lives of rural women and their daily rhythms, utilising the sounds and movements of their everyday life in a non-linear, hypnotic and dreamlike structure, the film suggested her work to come, in which the spectral and collective find their place within frames of cultural difference and quotidian likeness. The work played with the aesthetic signifiers and formulas of more experimental ethnographic film – shades of Maya Deren and Jean Rouch – while emphasising the falsity of objectivity and neutrality, that is, of the anthropological gaze. The film understood that it was forging memory in its making, its images, while simultaneously enacting their oblivion.
The double-sided coins of memory and forgetfulness, colonial amnesia and political resistance, all our doubles, also mark Forgetting Vietnam (2016), whose title and images speak, paradoxically, of the memorial. Vietnam’s origin story – which is also Trinh’s origin story – invokes two entwined dragons, and this repeated figure of the ‘two’ structures the film. As Trinh notes in the interview in the book with Patricia Alvarez Astacio and Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa, here her ‘two’ designates “mountain and river; solid and liquid; stillness and movement; masculine and feminine; dwelling and travelling; leaving and returning; North and South; low and high technology.” Her film employs song, speech, poetry, struggle, dreams, the small and large moves of daily life. Later in The Twofold Commitment, in a further conversation with Erika Balsom, Trinh emphasises that such ‘nonbinary twos’ of multiplicity and commitment, like those figured in her film, are often those upheld in feminist and trans struggles and writings; they are that on which democracy relies and relates.
“There are always at least two ways to enter my films,” Trinh notes to Lucie Kim-Chi Mercier in another dialogue. And: “land records, water dissolves.” Reading her recent words across recent years, her reconsiderations of the same films and issues again and again, I noted how often Trinh uses the language of moving-image technology to describe the larger forces of preservation and oblivion. Indeed, she has long attended to both. And her lens is often the lens itself, which means all that it has been constituted by: the colonial systems that produced the fields of anthropology and ethnographic film, the free market system that controls the film industry, the powers of Western hegemony and patriarchal capitalism that control nearly everything. Affective, ethical, politically and technologically positioned, her work remains remarkably focused on the act of looking, with a reflexivity that breaks the immersive illusion of whatever genre and medium she is working in. Frames are highlighted. Mediums are transposed, if not translated. Narrative traditions of cinematic and literary structure are destabilised for a camera that thinks – and shows its thinking.
Her writing, meanwhile, has also long engaged in such cinematic reflexivity, merging theory, poetry, storytelling and criticism, from the classic Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (1989) – strobing every syllabus – to the more recent Lovecidal: Walking with the Disappeared (2016). Her cross-genre writings, at once cinematic and theoretical and self-staging, seem to have predicted the abundant autos of the current moment – autoethnography, autotheory, autofiction – in myriad ways, including how they freely employ both cinematic and literary imaginaries for their intertextual work.
And yet. How do my complicated feelings about Trinh’s films sit with my fierce attraction to her writing and speaking about their processes of production? Well. Perhaps it is in keeping with her own modalities that I sometimes like reading about film more than I like watching it. In a PhD class recently, surrounded by students engaged in artistic research (shades of Trinh’s own career of departments and appointments), I was asked what the lens was of some work, and to name the main methods. And I thought, thinking of a younger artist, Na Mira, and of her filmmaking and writing, that Na’s lens might be literally the lens. That is, the lens of light – filmic and autoethnographic, of enlightenment and its extant imperialisms, its coloniality and feminisms, its ancestors and apparatuses – so as to explore darkness and its enigmas. The lens of authorship or ancestry, images of polyphony that are flickering and ungraspable, spectral and spirit. Here, as elsewhere, I felt, that is, I saw, Trinh’s enormous influence.
I saw it again, the following week, as I had my art students in Basel read Trinh’s essay, ‘Documentary Is/Not a Name’ (October, Vol. 52, 1990), which begins, twofold, with a set of negations. That is, two no’s. The epigraph, by Walter Benjamin, goes: “Nothing is poorer than a truth expressed as it was thought.” Trinh’s own opening lines follow in the same spirit of negative capability: “There is no such thing as documentary – whether the term designates a category of material, a genre, an approach, or a set of techniques. This assertion – as old and as fundamental as the antagonism between names and reality – needs incessantly to be restated, despite the very visible existence of a documentary tradition.”
As I listened to my students continue to read her words out loud, I thought about the psychic transfer of screens, and the antagonism between names and reality. I considered our need for names and traditions – documentary, for example – and about our desire for images that reflect our reality. For words to define it. What about our current cultural obsession – across mediums and genres, across cultures and borders – with the aesthetic signature of the real, of realism’s affects and “the reality effect,” as Trinh has called it, and of the documentary? That none of these things are exactly the same thing is to be understood. Yet our hunger to see a picture of our current conditions and realities remains true and real (whatever that word might mean). And yet: “To use an image is to enter fiction,” as Trinh writes, further down in her essay. The laconicism of her line, a kind of fluorescent equation, seems to speak across fields and forms, across students and centuries, as she does.
In Athens last winter, I saw Trinh’s most recent film What About China (2022) at the closing of Ethnofest (terribly named, wonderfully programmed). Afterwards, she spoke briefly about her work, surprising me by repeating some favourite lines from that same essay from the 1990s. “What is known as documentary may simply refer to an outside-in movement whereby one lets the world come to oneself with every move,” she recited, as if for the first time. “And what is known as fiction may refer to an inside-out movement whereby one reaches out from the world to the inside. These two interdependent movements always overlap.” These lines from ‘Documentary Is/Not a Name’ are also repeated in her many interviews in the new book. In their odd repetition, at once compulsive and soothing, they seem to take on the form of refrains, both familiar and foreign.
But the rhythmic truth of her statement about this twofold movement, and about how we live and how we work, in our twofold commitment, as aesthetic strategies and techniques of living, also evoked, for me, another reflection from her recent book, one about her editing process. Reconsidering her first film in Senegal, and the long take as an ethnographic signature versus the fast edits of what may be considered fiction film, Trinh replies: “As an art of relations – at intervals of strong, weak, syncopated beats – rhythm is powerfully social when it’s at its creative best. And what ultimately comes with the sense of rhythm is the feeling of freedom.” I am usually nonplussed by that latter word – it has echoes of the tinny imperialism of my American childhood – but Trinh’s voice conjured images of trance and ritual, of poiesis and the art of the social, of all their rhythms. An art of relations – I can think of nothing better to describe the poetics of Trinh’s larger project, nor her illumined approach to the moving image and to the real, coaxing co-existence out of nonexistence. That is, both.
Quinn Latimer is the author of Like a Woman: Essays, Readings, Poems (Sternberg Press, 2017) and other books.