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Trinh T. Minh-ha en México - Variations on Polyphony

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Trinh T. Minh-ha: Variations on Polyphony

If this text were like Trinh T. Minh-ha’s films, it could probably start with two blank lines, followed by a series of question marks. It would proceed with a polyphonic discourse, composed of different voices in several languages and with diverse accents. Some sentences would be written from right to left, with intentional spelling errors, and meanings as ambiguous as suggestive. This polemic filmmaker, who was born in Vietnam and has lived in the United States for four decades, breaks radically with the rules of film language and disrupts all the conventions of documentary cinema, prompting simultaneously a profound questioning of the anthropological gaze and the classic methods of visually representing other cultures.

TM-ha4Since the early 1980s, Trinh T. Minh-ha has made a series of film essays, overtly subjective audiovisual ethnographies, in places as varied as Senegal, Burkina Faso, Togo, Mali, Vietnam, China and Japan. Her work has been awarded numerous international prizes, and enjoys a cult-following among certain film circles. In addition to her career as a director, she flourished in academia: she is a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and has been invited as a visiting professor in various universities around the world. She is the author of several books that address subjects such as gender, power, ritual, representation, film theory, and cultural politics in the postcolonial or neocolonial era. Without a doubt, she is one of the most interesting and controversial figures in critical thinking and contemporary visual counter-culture.

In order to decipher the complexity of her work, we could begin with the notion of “experimental ethnographic cinema”, although she would surely reject this or any other category that seeks to classify her films. Her critical discourse unfolds around several axes: feminism, hegemonic discourses on social difference and inequality, identity issues, cultural clashes and hybridizations, the problem of truth in anthropological sciences and documentary cinema, as well as free experimentation with film media.

From her first works, Trinh T. Minh-ha established one of the ethical and epistemological principles that would mark her oeuvre: she claims that she does not pretend to speak about others, but rather, to speak nearby. She launches a poignant critique of the attitude regarding otherness —common in Western countries— which tends to objectify subjects and render cultural difference consumable. Her work reveals, above all, the dynamics of power underlying ethnographic cinema and photography, in particular in Europe and the United States, which in her view, project a colonialist and ethnocentric vision related to consumerism, exoticism, voyeurism, and even pornography. On a separate front, she denounces the obsession in Western thought for explaining and imposing meaning on all symbols and images with which we grasp the world. In contrast, the cinema of this auteur appeals to the plural, fragmentary and polysemic nature of human experience.

Besides working in cinema and anthropology, Trinh T. Minh-ha is a renowned music composer. Thus, a salient characteristic of her films is a strong interest in ethnomusicology: she explores different rhythms, sounds, and instruments, as well as the body movements that accompany them. Her films represent an important contribution to the preservation and reproduction of traditional music, dances, and rituals from different cultures.

Another distinctive characteristic of her work is that the visual track is often dissociated, juxtaposed, or in contrast with the soundtrack. Image and audio construct parallel but practically disarticulated discourses. They are independent but at the same time complementary. Some authors have suggested that her films can be understood as cinematic performances, and she describes her own creative process as similar to the process of making music or writing poetry. Perhaps we should understand Trinh T. Minh-ha’s film work as an “accented” cinema, which embraces an aesthetic of imperfection, forging a unique style of creative audiovisual ethnology.

Her work has managed to shake and destabilize the privileged canons and status quo of academia, provoking strong reactions, particularly amongst the more conservative sectors. Indeed, some authors have put forward serious and well-founded arguments against her work. Speaking from a personal perspective, the first time I saw her films, I was profoundly moved and they struck me as genius. Further viewings and certain readings revealed a more complex impression that included strengths and important shortcomings. Then, after studying her writings, I was better able to understand and appreciate the complexity of her films. But beyond personal experience and taste, without doubt her films have a singular capacity to impact and stir any audience.

Trinh T. Minh-ha’s critical vision and voice, her bold artistic experimentation and sophisticated aesthetics, her relentless ethnographic drive and persistent subversion of dominant discourses, make her a key figure in the intersection between cinema and the visual arts with anthropology, social sciences and the humanities. Her oeuvre remains enigmatic, invites multiple points of view, and continues to elicit new analysis and reflections. In this spirit, and to end in the style of this extraordinary filmmaker, I renounce the authorship of this brief text and declare it open to interpretation or appropriation by its readers.

Antonio Zirión.





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