: A Circle of Looks: Reflexivity and Representation in Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Film,
Author: Hannah Siden
Date: November 20, 2012
Institution name/journal where submitted: McGill University
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, released in 1982, is an experimental ethnographic film by Trinh T.
Minh-ha. Trinh portrays the lives of women in rural communities in five different regions of Senegal, arguing that she “do[es] not intend to speak about [these communities]/ Just speak near by” (Trinh 1992:96)
is comprised of fragments and layers of imagery and sound, with no clear narrative pattern. Trinh distances herself from the
“habit of imposing meaning to every single sign” (Trinh 1992:96) as well as the implied
“observer’s objectivity” (Trinh 1992:105) that she sees as being present in conventional anthropological modes of thought/ filmmaking by using narrative, montage, and sound in unconventional ways to speak “near by” rather than “about” Senegalese cultures. In doing so, Trinh challenges both filmmakers and viewers to reflect on the limitations of their gaze. Of course, Trinh’s strategy of “speaking near by” is not exempt from criticism, mainly regarding the ways in which it represents (or fails to represent) Senegal and Senegalese citizens, despite its many valuable insights.
What does “speaking near by” mean in practice? Because Trinh sees “one of the conceits of anthropology” as “l[ying] in its positivist dream of a neutralized language that strips off all its singularity to become nature’s exact, unmisted reflection” (1989:53), she is relentless in her pursuit to expose the subjectivity of ethnography and the translations that occur with even the most careful representations of others. Trinh’s narration throughout
is in first person, and she makes numerous references to her own gaze: “What I see is life looking at me/ I am looking through a circle in a circle of looks” (1992:105). One of the most powerful moments in
comes at the end of the film. Trinh narrates: “A woman comments on polygamy: “It’s good for men… not
contains a transcription of Trinh’s voice-over narration throughout
. Many of these quotes are from this transcription.
for us. We accept it owing to the force of circumstances. What about you? Do you have a husband all for yourself?” This question overturns the classic ethnographer/ subject relationship, and can be read as an invitation to continue the discourse regarding the complexities of such a relationship. Trinh then shows footage of a woman (although she does not clarify whether this particular woman made the comment) looking into the camera knowingly – returning Trinh’s gaze, so to speak, and completing the “circle of looks” that Trinh describes earlier in her narration. Trinh’s camera work is in many ways reminiscent of the human gaze – fleeting, selective, and uncertain: “I always blink when I look. Yet they pretend to gaze at it for you ten minutes, half an hour without blinking.
And I often take back what I’ve just shown, for I wish I had made a better choice” (Trinh
1991:68). Trinh’s use of stop-motion and editing are in effect cinematographic ways of
“blinking.” In Trinh’s hands the camera takes on human-like qualities, serving to remind viewers of its inherent subjectivity; Trinh’s self-referential narration also grounds viewers in the realization that the ethnographer’s voice is never objective.
Further exposing ethnographic subjectivity, Trinh also explores the colonial gaze and prevalent stereotypes of Africa in the West, often lingering on imagery that might be thought of as exotic or taboo in Western society. When Trinh repeatedly focuses on the bare breasts of Senegalese women, for instance, she appears to be both exposing the preoccupations of a Western, colonial gaze, and attempting to make the unusual into the usual through the use of repetition. As Trinh comments in her voice-over: “Nudity does not reveal/ The hidden/ It is its absence” (1992:101). Yet while Trinh might use imagery of nudity, animal carcasses, or deserted landscapes to play upon preconceived Western notions of Africa as exotic or underdeveloped, she is also careful to question Western
approaches to nudity through her editing and commentary, and to subvert stereotypes of
African poverty with images portraying happiness and health. In one instance, Trinh shows footage of children eating together contentedly while simultaneously asserting that, “filming in Africa means for many of us/ Colorful images, naked breast women, exotic dances and fearful rites/ The unusual” (1992:98). In
, Trinh expands on her critique of how Africa is portrayed in the West by noting the “widespread tendency to condemn beauty in certain political and artistic milieus… which vie[w] beauty and politics, beauty and life as being mutually exclusive.” Trinh then asserts that,
“turmoil was not what [she] experienced in rural West Africa and [she] feel[s] no necessity to contribute to images that the West has already had in abundance of Africa”
juxtapositions of meaning, as well as imagery of beauty in the ordinary and everyday, encourage viewers to reflect upon their own preconceived images of Africa.
Just as Trinh is heavily cynical of traditional modes of ethnographic thought, she also uses
to critique the development industry – inferring that many aspects of the development work and ethnographic research carried out in Senegal contribute to a disturbingly neo-colonial way of thinking that has become the norm, both in the West and in Africa. Trinh opens
with the statement: “Scarcely twenty years were enough to make two billion people define themselves as underdeveloped” (1992:96), emphasizing that the neo-colonial narrative has expanded to influence not solely Western perceptions, but how some Africans themselves (and people living in developing countries more broadly) view and describe their own lives. By refusing to “speak about” Senegal, Trinh means to expose this neo-colonial norm as well
as to challenge the anthropological need to “impose meaning,” or in other words, to define.
While Trinh is conscious of and critical about the “habit of assigning meaning” upon images, she nonetheless uses her own manipulation of sound and image in
to aid viewers in doing just that – guiding us to share in her conclusions about development work and ethnography through careful use of editing. Her conclusions are subversive and smart, yet while she criticizes the structure of ethnographic filmmaking, it appears that she is unable to completely free herself from its framework, instead bending it to serve in illustrating her own thesis. The imagery of fire that Trinh refers to throughout
is an illustration of this. Near the beginning of the film, Trinh narrates: “In numerous tales/ Woman is depicted as the one who possessed the fire/ Only she knew how to make fire” (1992:96). The same imagery of fire shown at this point then is used for effect in later points of the film – when Trinh describes the
Peace Corps volunteer introducing an agricultural method into the village for the first time, for instance, or to underscore her statement that “scarcely twenty years were enough to make two billion people define themselves as underdeveloped.” In these examples, the imagery of fire is lent meaning by context given in the narration. Trinh seems to be pointing to the absurdity of these neo-colonial definitions and interventions; how can they be truthful or of use when Senegalese women themselves have held the power to be self-sufficient since the very beginning? Viewers cannot help but assign meaning to the imagery of fire, given the context that Trinh has provided – and while this meaning is indeed powerful, it is notable that even Trinh’s own film cannot escape falling within the boundaries of her criticisms.
In Trinh’s attempts to distance herself from “anthropological preoccupations and expectations” (Trinh 1992:230), she creates and encounters a new set of ethical dilemmas. Trinh’s refusal to provide a linear structure, clear context for her images, or subtitles presents nearly as many problems as it does insights. Jay Ruby’s critique of
Robert Gardner’s film
Forest of Bliss
could apply equally to
Ruby accuses Gardner of “falsely mystify[ing]… the people in the film,” and of
“indicat[ing] that what is said is not important enough to translate and that the vignettes of behavior are not consequential enough to present in such a way as to make them understandable” – in essence, “transforming the lives of people… into aesthetic objects”
(2000:112). Ruby then concludes rather sharply that India (or Senegal, in the case of
) is “mysterious only to those who are too lazy to learn something about it”
(2000:112). Ruby also discusses how much artistic license a film can take with its material before it should no longer be considered ethnography, and what the goals of ethnographic film should be. He argues for the intellectual rather than artistic merits of ethnographic film, asserting that, “ethnographic film is too serious a thing to be left to filmmakers” (2000:39) and that, “making art out of the lives of people who are politically and economically disadvantaged… is increasingly difficult to justify” (2000:112).
a justifiable anthropological project? What are an ethnographer’s ethical obligations to their subject/s? Must an ethnographer attempt to represent their subject/s with as little of their own interference as possible by limiting editing, and by ensuring the agency of their subject/s within the film? While
provides a compelling, poetic reflection on methods of ethnographic filmmaking, the amount of information understood by viewers regarding Senegal is
arguably limited by Trinh’s desire not to “impose meaning on every sign”. Trinh seems to increase agency by refusing to “pi[n]” her subjects to a “butterfly board” (Trinh
1989:48) yet her choices also limit the agency of her subjects in many ways; she manipulates images and sound extensively, and rather than providing direct translations or subtitles she narrates her own thoughts using voice-over.
Is it also an ethical obligation for an ethnologist to ensure practical benefits for the communities portrayed on film? Ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch observed in an interview: “As soon as he aims the camera, the ethnographer disturbs the life he is recording” (Ruby 2000:195). Trinh’s strategy of “speaking near by” so as to avoid
“imposing meaning” on her subjects, while a genuine and in some ways successful approach to finding a respect for other cultures that is gapingly absent from many earlier ethnographic films, cannot avoid disturbing the lives of her subjects at least somewhat.
Given this, Ruby might argue that Trinh should have used her resources to provide a more informative portrayal of (perhaps one single) Senegalese community with more concrete, positive consequences for that community.
There are a number of ethnographic filmmakers making non-conventional films who feel more positively than Trinh about the possibilities presented by the study of ethnography as a method of research or of anthropological knowing, while at the same time agreeing with Trinh on the importance of reflexivity. Safi Faye’s film
Selbe et tant d’autres
stands in contrast to
. Faye “analyz[es]” her own community, and uses her camera as an “instrument for field research” (Ellerson 2004:187) while at the same time remaining respectful and accommodating of the agency and voice of her subjects. Rather than attempting to portray Senegal abstractly or in its entirety, Faye
follows one Senegalese woman, and listens intently as she describes her life. Using her camera, Faye provides an outlet for Selbe’s message, and a means through which others in Senegal and around the world might have access to Selbe’s knowledge and story.
While Faye’s subjectivity and power in shaping the film is made apparent – we hear her interviewing and guiding Selbe throughout the film – she does not distort images or sound in any way that appears to impede Selbe’s agency within the film.
Films such as Robert Gardner’s
and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s
, while not about Senegal, are also notable alternatives to more conventional modes of ethnographic filmmaking and thought.
consist for the most part of long takes with minimal editing, and for this reason stand in contrast to
. This style of filmmaking allows viewers to listen and observe at their own pace, and to come to conclusions that are, perhaps, grounded more solidly in the community’s experience than in the filmmaker’s vision or voice-over.
Because Trinh does not balance her critiques of ethnography and development with solutions, her criticisms can feel overly dismissive. The only approach she seems to find valid is her own strategy of “speaking near by” – a concept that reads beautifully but in practice becomes complex and at times problematic. Because of this, her valuable critiques stand the chance of becoming depressing and limiting rather than constructive.
Jay Ruby is also overly dismissive in many ways, labeling Trinh’s films as “uninspired derivatives of 60’s US Experimental film and… uninformed by the tradition of selfcriticism easily located within both fields [documentary film and anthropology]”
(2000:288). I would argue that Trinh and Ruby could learn from each other, for there are many ethnographic films that point to a way forward for ethnographic filmmaking that
incorporates ideas from both ‘sides.’
Selbe et tant d’autres
are all examples of films that pay close attention to the agencies of their subjects in order to communicate information clearly without being caught in the trap of “speaking
” in a condescending way.
In an interview from
, Trinh describes her intention in
to “expose the transformations that occurred with the attempt to materialize on film and between the frames the impossible experience of ‘what’ constituted Senegalese cultures” (1992:113). Trinh is successful in many ways: she encourages viewers to question and to engage critically with ethnography rather than interact on a passive level; she points to the infinite complexities and inequities of the ethnographer/ subject relationship as well as to the impossibility of true representation of the “other;” and she rightly criticizes many development interventions that seem at best misguided and at worst harmful. However, while Trinh’s methods do well to expose problems, they also create them, prompting critics to explore the ethical obligations that ethnographers have to portray their subjects in an informative and just manner.
Castaing-Taylor, Lucien. 2009.
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Ellerson, Beti. 2004. "Africa through a Woman's Eyes: Safi Faye's Cinema." In
, edited by Francoise Pfaff: Indiana University Press.
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Selbé Et Tant d'Autres
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, edited by Jean-Paul Bourdier. Senegal.
Minh-ha, Trinh T. 1991.
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Minh-ha, Trinh T. 1989.
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