Curiosity and the role of the artist: Vietnamese artist and filmmaker Nguyen Trinh Thi – interview

Contemporary artist and filmmaker Nguyen Trinh Thi reflects on her career as a documentary filmmaker recording the post-colonial experiences of modern Vietnam and all its complexity.

Hanoi-based artist Nguyen Trinh Thi weaves stories about her home country, Vietnam, within the broader historical, cultural and political realities of Southeast Asia.

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Nguyen Trinh Thi, ‘Letters from Panduranga’, 2015, single channel video, sound, 35m:00s. In “Ghosts and Spectres – Shadows of History”, 2017, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, installation view. Image courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

Known for her experimental and poignant video work, Nguyen Trinh Thi is a prominent female filmmaker and media artist residing in Hanoi, Vietnam. Two of her video works, Love Man Love Woman (2007) and Letters from Panduranga (2015) were showcased at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA Singapore) for the exhibition “Ghosts and Spectres—Shadows of History”, which ended on 19 November 2017. Nguyen’s works dealt with unspoken histories in Vietnam and called into question national agendas and societal norms. Her nuanced treatment of provocative and political content encapsulates the complexities of Southeast Asian history and the perplexing (and sometimes frustrating) role of the artist working within this multi-faceted sociopolitical framework.

Art Radar spoke to Nguyen Trinh Thi about her filmmaking process, what drives her practice and her role as a practicing artist in the region.

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Nguyen Trinh Thi, ‘Landscape Series #1’, 2013, still from single channel video, colour, sound, 4m:55s. Image courtesy the artist.

Your videos are spectacular because of your subtle and earnest portrayals of complex cultural histories in Vietnam. Can you tell us about your artistic process?

My process is very open. I almost always begin with a vague question or hypothesis, and end up with something different. A lot of my work is born out of curiosity – that’s still the basic call for me. I don’t like projects where I know the answer beforehand, like a fiction film with a script. That process is not attractive to me. I want to understand issues, the bigger picture, our lives, our relationship between things; and I find that the process of filmmaking actually helped me explore these subject matters.

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Nguyen Trinh Thi, ‘Unsubtitled’, 2010, video installation, 10 projectors, 10 media file players, 19 wooden cut-out screens, various loops, colour, sound. Image courtesy the artist.

You consider yourself both a filmmaker and a media artist. What do you think are the differences between working as a filmmaker and a media artist?

None of these terms are very precise. There is so much overlap that there is no such thing as a pure category anymore. I can use any of these words in any situation, but I still use the word “filmmaker” because I tend to make videos that are self-contained. Single screen is quite typical for my work. I don’t usually produce films for commission or produce work for specific spaces. For that, single screen is more like a film – it is more self-contained.

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Nguyen Trinh Thi, ‘Letters from Panduranga’, 2015, single channel video, sound, 35m:00s. In “Ghosts and Spectres – Shadows of History”, 2017, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, installation view. Image courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

You are right that none of these terms are very precise anymore and this affects the process of making. You do not follow conventional filmmaking practices

I didn’t study in a film school or art school so I don’t follow any rules. My background is in journalism. I first learned photography while studying journalism and fell in love with the process. When I went on to do a degree in international relations, I took a course in ethnographic film. I had to learn the techniques on my own because no one would teach me. However, it’s through that process that I realised I really loved film, especially the editing process. I could spend all night editing.

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Nguyen Trinh Thi, ‘Love Man Love Woman’, 2007, documentary film, sound, 52m:00s. In “Ghosts and Spectres – Shadows of History”, 2017, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, installation view. Image courtesy NTU CCA Singapore.

What was it about film that resonated with you more than journalism? I am asking because you are interested in similar contents but expressing them in different media.

You can understand things by different means. You can read texts or learn through your own experiences. Film has its own process and language that you have to negotiate to create content. The form is the content. You have to use the form to express your politics. As I grow with the medium, and as my thinking changes, my approach changes. Everything influences the form and approach that I use. For example, if I decide to have a completely open-ended process and rely on chance, then that is one philosophy that affects the outcome of my work.

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Nguyen Trinh Thi, ‘Letters from Panduranga’, 2015, still from single channel video, sound, 35m:00s. Image courtesy the artist.

In Letters from Panduranga, you included video portraits in which the subject looks directly at the camera, without moving, for some time. You can see the discomfort in some of their faces and that creates an interesting relationship with the audience. What was that experience like for you as the filmmaker? Is there a reason why you wanted to do film portraits instead of photographic portraits?

I really love studying still moments in real life. That’s why I love film – for the time element. When you film very still objects, you still get the sense of presence. A person has greater agency in film than in photography. In photography, you capture a moment and it signals a death. In film, you capture the way a person spends time in front of the camera; his or her gaze during the moments of stillness. In some of my videos, I explore the power relationship between the camera person and the subject because the camera has a type of power over its subject.

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Nguyen Trinh Thi, ‘Letters from Panduranga’, 2015, still from single channel video, sound, 35m:00s. Image courtesy the artist.

How would you describe that power?

I think, in a way, the camera is like the police. It has the power to capture you and watch you. It has the power to alter your behaviour. When I am filming, I don’t think of this power relationship. It comes out during the process of editing. I think a lot of the work surfaces when you’re looking back at the footage. Power structures are a theme that I keep coming back to in my work. The underlying theme in Letters from Panduranga is the power structures in our everyday lives – the image is one of them. For example, if you are the camera person, you have the power. It is not [an] obvious authority (like government) but, in that video work, I interrogated my own power as an artist and a person who has the power to represent other people.

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Nguyen Trinh Thi, ‘Letters from Panduranga’, 2015, still from single channel video, sound, 35m:00s. Image courtesy the artist.

In Letters from Panduranga, you said you did not want to speak on behalf of the other” – the Cham community. However, they are part of contemporary Vietnam and their history has been subsumed into Vietnamese history. Why were you nervous to represent the Cham people?

Although we are all part of Vietnam now, we belong to very different groups. Vietnam is a national group, but there are so many methods of categorisation. My biggest concern was that I was imposing my perspective and vision on them. After the trip, I made a version that was more like a documentary, but I didn’t like it. It felt like the film was pretending to be objective, without really reflecting the depth and complexity of the story. Letters from Panduranga is not a film solely about the Cham people. I tried to connect their struggle to a broader issue – suppression of our voices. As I mentioned earlier, the underlying theme is power structures and who can use the image.

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Nguyen Trinh Thi, ‘Love Man Love Woman’, 2007, still from documentary film, sound, 52m:00s. Image courtesy the artist.

Your approach to Love Man Love Woman is completely different from Letters from Panduranga as it has more documentary elements. Do you think Love Man Love Woman was closer to what you originally thought of filmmaking?  

Yes. At that time, that was my idea of how to make a film. I was very interested in observational cinema and the idea that the camera is a fly on the wall. It’s more experiential for the audience, but they don’t know how much the editor intervened because it’s done in an invisible way. It’s like journalism– you think it’s objective but it’s not. Love Man Love Woman is not an ethnographic film about the Dao Mau community. The essence of the film is Master Luu Ngoc Duc, a spirit medium of the religion. He has a very rich Vietnamese vocabulary and was always quoting literature, poetry and folk phrases. It is amazing to watch him talk, and that kind of language is dying. Young people don’t talk like that anymore, even I find my Vietnamese so poor.

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Nguyen Trinh Thi, ‘Love Man Love Woman’, 2007, still from documentary film, sound, 52m:00s. Image courtesy the artist.

I am also interested to know more about DOCLAB, the film organisation that you founded in 2009. Do you think that it is part of the role of the artist in Southeast Asia to create platforms for public exposure in the arts?

DOCLAB came out of a need to start a community. Before I moved back to Vietnam, there were not many independent artist communities in Hanoi. Community is very important when you work as an independent artist. When I lived in Los Angeles, I was close to the Echo Park Film Center and it was very inspiring for me. When I moved back to Hanoi, I became involved in different film projects and learned more about the local conditions through those experiences. When the Goethe Institut offered a grant to do something in documentary film, I already had an idea about what we needed locally and the best approach to take in building such an organisation. Over the years, DOCLAB became a complete system with training courses, screenings, exchange, and now we even have festivals. I taught there for the first three years but now I’ve stopped to focus on my own work.

Jean Wong

1947

Related topics: Vietnamese, interviews, film, documentary, identity art

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