Arts & culture, Film, Visual arts

Filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha on the beauty of receiving the world

"Working on the politics of the everyday means that everything happening in front of me, with and within me is interesting," said the longtime Berkeley professor

Portrait of a person outside with a video camera

For nearly three decades, Trinh T. Minh-ha was a professor of gender and women’s studies and of rhetoric at UC Berkeley. Since she retired in 2020, she has been a Distinguished Professor of the Graduate School. (Photo by Jean-Paul Bourdier; copyright Moongift Films)

For Trinh T. Minh-ha, learning isn’t about accumulating knowledge.

“This has been something that my students very much appreciate,” said Trinh, a longtime UC Berkeley professor of gender and women’s studies and of rhetoric who retired in 2020. “But also, I have had students who agonized with me over the whole semester because of this.

When students write their dissertations, said Trinh, now a Distinguished Professor of the Graduate School, they are expected to prove their knowledge on a specific subject by showing how much they know. But this isn’t knowledge, she said. It’s merely what we’ve come to accept and expect as being learned in an academic setting.

Instead, Trinh asks students to think about how certain knowledge impacts their lives.

“It has to be related to their experiences,” said Trinh. “Students can be very bright. They can throw around all kinds of ideas and big words. But I ask them, ‘What is it that creates a link between you and that work?’

“I have consistently put emphasis not on acquiring and accumulating knowledge, per se,” she continued. “The challenge in teaching and advising remains, for me, not that of providing or transmitting a body of knowledge, but that of introducing a substantial difference in the students’ relation to knowledge. This practice of collective ‘theory-in-the making’ has been developed through the years — at the cost of a certain difficulty for both student and teacher.”

As a renowned filmmaker, writer, composer and literary theorist, Trinh explores these questions and ideas in her works. Over the past three decades, Trinh has produced nine feature-length films, written 12 books and created six large-scale multimedia installations.

She has received dozens of awards for her films, including the Wild Dreamer Lifetime Achievement Award at the Subversive Festival in Zagreb, the Trailblazer Award at MIPDOC in Cannes and the Maya Deren National Independent Filmmaker Award from the American Film Institute. In 2022, she received the Prix Bartók at the Jean Rouch Festival, the New:Vision Award at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen and the Persistence of Vision Award at the San Francisco Film Festival.

The Persistence of Vision Award celebration was hosted earlier this month by Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), during which Trinh screened her latest film, What About China?, and joined in conversation with Rizvana Bradley, assistant professor of film and media at Berkeley. BAMPFA also recently honored Trinh, along with artist Amalia Mesa-Bains, at its annual Art and Film Benefit.

“As an artist, educator, composer and theorist, Minh-ha’s boundary-breaking work defies categorization as she explores history and memory, the migration of people and ideas and legacies of colonial violence,” said Kate MacKay, associate film curator at BAMPFA, which holds some of Trinh’s films in its collection. “It is impossible to overstate the impact of her films, classics of the essay film genre, which remain as urgent and relevant now as when they were made.”

Berkeley News recently spoke with Trinh about her experience growing up amid the Vietnam War, why she’s not interested in telling individual stories and how she conveys the beauty of letting the world come to us.

Can you describe the meaning behind your name?

black and white photo of a person wearing round glasses and holding a pencil to her chin

Trinh grew up in the 1950s and ’60s amid the Vietnam War. “The soundscape of my childhood included the sound of bullets firing and rockets exploding on a daily basis,” she said. (Photo by Jean-Paul Bourdier; copyright Moongift Films)

I keep the order of my name as it is in Vietnam, in Asia and in certain parts of the world, which is to have your last name first. Trinh is my last name and Minh-ha is my first name. And there’s a T. — Trinh T. Minh-ha. The T. stands for “Thị” which people so very kindly keep when they introduce me. Thị immediately tells you that I’m a woman. Many of the women’s names in Vietnamese have Thị because otherwise you cannot tell if it’s a woman’s or a man’s name. “Minh” is “very bright” and “ha” is “water,” mainly a river, so “Minh-ha” means “crystalline river.”

Vietnam is a country born from water, as the Vietnamese word for country, nứớc or đất nứớc, also means water or land and water. There are thousands of waterways that crisscross Vietnam. Because the country is so much related to water and the way of water, whenever the weather here becomes a little bit cloudy and the rain starts falling, it brings me right back to the smell of the earth and the trees and everything else in Vietnam.

When and where in Vietnam did you grow up?

I have been a refugee for a long time. My parents were from Hanoi and Hai Phong. I was born in Hanoi but grew up in Saigon. Because of complex political circumstances, my father was separated from his family and sent to South Vietnam against his will by the French administration, so we had to move to Saigon. I was still a baby then. That was the first wave of displacement in 1954, at the start of what is inaccurately called the Vietnam War.

The second wave of displacement was in 1975, when Saigon fell. At the time, I was a student at the University of Illinois studying as an exchange student in Paris. I had to come back from Paris to join my parents in the United States, where they immigrated as refugees.

Are there specific experiences, sounds, sights or feelings from your childhood that stand out in your mind?

I wrote a piece called “Far Away, From Home: The Comma Between,” in which I mentioned how the soundscape of my childhood included the sound of bullets firing and rockets exploding on a daily basis, especially in 1968, because we lived near the main police station, which was a constant target of long-range rockets. Every time a rocket landed nearby, there were always a few seconds of silence just before the explosion, during which we would stop dead in our activities. Then, after the explosion, we could hear people wailing and crying, and then the sound of ambulance sirens. That was my everyday soundscape.

My father wanted me and my sister to have an education. He made sure that no matter what, we would do our school assignments. I remember the number of times when we had been speaking with him on these assignments, and right in the middle of one word, we all felt that a rocket was coming. There was this moment of silence when we’d all freeze. And sure enough, the rocket would be flying.

That kind of fear was almost permanent — always trying in vain to duck or protect yourself. It was worse for my younger sisters who, in the middle of the night when they heard bombing, they would wake up and yell all over the house. This was the kind of atmosphere we were living in at the time. The fear is very strong. We had to learn to live with fear and death.

So, you have to ask the question: Why all this war all the time? We have war after war after war. It’s in one place, then it pops up in another place. It’s like an unending war all over the world. Of course, it’s not just in Ukraine. War is going on in many other parts of the world, as well.

In my most recent book, Lovecidal, I came to terms with this traumatic part of my past. The title is not a word that exists, but I wanted to invent it because it’s not talking about the suicide of a person, but actually the suicide of love, caused by unending war.

black and white tryptic of a woman with a bowl

From Trinh’s 1989 film, Surname Viet Given Name Nam. (Copyright Moongift Films)

You have said that films in the United States often focus on a central story about people — that we, as the individualistic society, are obsessed with this format. But your films explore themes with non-human characters, like water, identity, power and change, in a non-linear way. How do you decide what to focus on in your films, in how to convey meaning?

I am not interested in individual stories, per se. Most of the time when people make a film — the whole establishment of filmmaking, the whole network of grant giving, is focused on having a good, centralized story; so one subject, one story or a few individual stories are centralized and everything else is in the margins. The same applies to politics, and you can see that relations among humans in our societies are based on such division and hierarchy — who is closest to the center and who is further, in the margins. This binary of center and margin is precisely what I want to break with in my films and books.

In my films, I focus on the politics of the everyday. The politics of the everyday can be related, for example, to the women’s struggle. Feminists have long pointed to the political aspects of everyday life — every single action that we carry out within the home or outside the home could be a political action.

So, you start valuing small things, and you don’t merely focus on the body politic, but on everything around you, how you relate to other people, how you perform your daily activities, including in my case, for example, how I do research, how I teach, how I write, how I make films. Everything that we do can be looked at politically.

I wrote a book called Woman, Native, Other, in which there’s a whole chapter called “Grandma’s Story.” It discusses all these beautiful stories, told by ordinary people, wise elders, storytellers and poets, which have no simplistic happy ending. Their endings can be very puzzling because they lead you to your life rather than simply ending the story. Unlike the individualized and centralized stories mentioned earlier, these stories remain extremely inspiring to me.

a person on a screen speaks to an audience of people at night

Trinh was honored at BAMPFA’s annual Art and Film Benefit in May. (Photo by Monica Semergiu Photography)

You also say that every aspect of filmmaking is political, that the process of how you put together a film is political. Can you explain how?

I make a distinction between making a conventional political film and making film politically, which requires that one always questions one’s own activities and the creative tools that define them. To give just an example: Very often, the normalized way to create a film is to shoot the footage first, then have the music composed after. But that’s not at all the way I work. I shoot, I write, I gather music — those are parallel activities.

By the time I get to the editing table, I have raw footage, raw writing and raw sound. They all come together at the same time. And this is to maintain the relationship between music, image and text as a relationship of multiplicity rather than a relationship of domination and subordination. For me, rather than being merely an art for the eye, cinema is an experience of the whole body.

So, this kind of film actually has a form that is such that you can pull out threads from many sides according to your own background, according to what you see and hear. If you build with the film, you can come out with interpretations and readings that are relevant to your own experience at the same time as they connect tightly with the film. In other words, the viewer could be just as creative as the maker in the process of showing, telling and receiving. So, the film is not centralized, but it could have many centers. It keeps the relationship of multiplicity and of multivocality alive.

One thing that I have heard you say that I found really interesting is that in American culture — and other similar societies based on individualism, domination and subordination — we have this idea that we are discovering the world as we walk around in it. But you talk about the importance of letting the world come to you. Can you talk about that concept and how it shows up in your art?

One installation that I made for the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac is on the walk. It’s called L’autre Marche (2006-2009). If you translate it into English, it could be “the other walk” or “the other is walking ” — it could be a verb or a noun. It’s the walk along the 160 meter-long ramp at the Musée du Quai Branly that leads to the exhibition spaces inside the museum.

Since it’s a long ramp, how you walk into the exhibition of the musée and how you walk out of it is the part that I worked on. As you said, there is a tendency to think, especially within the colonial enterprise, that you are the one to discover.

a wooden structure in China surrounded by grass

From Trinh’s 2021 film, What About China? (Copyright Moongift Films)

What I’m offering is that rather than say, “I discover” wherever you go, you put the focus on how you receive the world with each step. This is also something very particular to ancient East Asian tradition in which independent walkers dispossess themselves when they walk. They walk to redefine themselves spiritually. With each step taken they go empty to fully receive the world.

Working on the politics of the everyday means that everything happening in front of me, with and within me is interesting. As soon as you put a frame on it, it’s charged, and you are constantly receiving the world. In my last film, What About China?, there is a statement that says, “The question is not, ‘What have we seen?’ or ‘What are we seeing?’ but, ‘What has caught China’s eye?’” This is a position of reception. It’s not a position of projecting yourself onto the other. You will see this is in all the films I have made so far.

In your 2016 book Lovecidal that you talked about earlier, you mentioned that the emotion of love is relegated to women. Can you expand on that idea? What causes the suicide of love, in your opinion?

We live in a context where the heart is always relegated to women. And it is hardly surprising that the macho, patriarchal society is the one that actually has been carrying on this unending war, and the war mindset throughout the years, to the benefit of the military-industrial complex.

The Dalai Lama was the one who said that all of our education in modern societies is focused on cultivating the brain, but it has been rather underdeveloped in terms of cultivating the heart. Cultivating the heart is almost nonexistent. Even though I wrote that book six years ago, right now, with the war going on in different parts of the world, you can see that everything that I discussed is still very present. Nothing has changed in the binary setup of winners and losers.