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October 29, 2007

Naked Spaces: Living Is Round, 1985

nakedspaces.gifIn Naked Spaces: Living Is Round, Trinh T. Minh-ha expounds on the themes of postcolonial identification and the geopolitical (and social) apparatus of disempowerment in Reassemblage to create dense, thoughtful, and articulate ethnographic essay film on indigenous identity, the impossibility of translation, and architecture as cultural representation. The prefacing image provides a terse, yet incisive encapsulation of Trinh's recurring preoccupations. Opening to a fragmentary, red filter shot of a Senegalese village celebration against the unsynchronized sound of tribal rhythms, the film then abruptly cuts to an extended black screen as the drums continue to beat in the background, before returning to the same idiosyncratic footage of unnaturally reddened villagers in the midst of their animated performance. In a way, Trinh's odd presentation of images serves as a metaphor for the abstract, often exotic representation of African culture in Western society - the reframing of images through the figurative filter of a usurped, privileged gaze - dissociated from its cultural rooting, repackaged, and systematically reinforced as quaint entertainment or exploited by the international community as justification for continued sovereign meddling (and consequently, domination) in the absence of a colonial-era "enlightened" mandate. Indeed, Trinh's symbolic crossing out of the word directed from the film's title sequence reflects her deliberate strategy to withhold preformed context to the presented images, not as a means of mystifying (nor exoticizing) African life, but as an act of resistance towards a filmmaker's unconscious process of interpretation as explanation in composing these ethnographic images - a defiance against reinforcing prescribed assumptions and perpetuating stereotypes that is announced in the film's tongue-in-cheek, pre-emptive opening statement, "Not descriptive, not informative, not interesting."

Implied in the opening tribal dance in Joola, Senegal is a sense of mutual causation - a body responding to the percussive rhythms through movement, that, in turn, drives the beating of the drums in a sympathetic resonance that the narrator (one of three accented female voices in the film) describes as the interactive process of mediated involvement. The theme of mediated ritual processes is subsequently revisited in the portrayal of native divinities, not as all-powerful gods who control the forces of nature and create mankind in their own image, but rather, as enlightened guides who initiate humanity into the "nature of death". Presented against images of house building and domestic rituals, Trinh introduces the idea of architecture as a fundamental life cycle - an initiation into the indigenous living culture. This essentiality between the organic and the inorganic is further reinforced in the subsequent chapter in Serer, Senegal where African folklore describes the creation of men and women as the elemental chemistry of air, water, earth, and light (a humbled sense of place that is also connected to the images of Bisa, Burkina Faso, where earth is symbolically collected from the center of a calabash during funeral rites). Juxtaposed against images that reinforce the idea of natural geometries found in everyday village life as rooted in the recurring pattern of circles - houses, granaries, calabash pots, the formation of harvest and ceremonial rituals, and even the shape of tombs - Trinh further expounds on the theme of native architecture as both a representation of cyclical life processes and its cultural function in forming an integral consciousness, a metaphysical convergence that is subsequently reflected in the description of the circle as a "spirit in eternal motion" in Peul, Senegal.

The idea of architecture as living testament of a collective consciousness surfaces throughout the film in unique and unexpected ways. In Jaxanke, Senegal, the tribal paintings depict, not a primitive mythology, but a mundane connection to the earth and its cycles of growth and harvest. In Birifor, Burkina Faso, the Western aesthetic of open floor plans is upended in the indigenous construction of dark passageways and secluded areas that prevent the layout of the house from being seen in totality, and whose spaces only reveal themselves in fragments through rays of directed, natural light - in essence, unfolding in levels of domestic intimacy. The stilt houses in Fon, Benin conflate the Western concepts of (demarcated) private and public spaces (a sentiment that is also inherent in the shared landscape of Peul, Senegal) as villagers row their boats from house to house exchanging essential provisions in the isolation of their floating community (a communal gesture that ironically plays out as a narrator comments on the nebulous distinction between external charity and conditioned dependency). In the traditionally conservative, deeply patriarchal society of Oualata, Mauritania, the austere, minimal exterior spaces open to ornately decorated interiors. Framed against the images of women instinctively withdrawing behind their veils in the presence of strangers, their domestic spaces, handed down from generation to generation, become the surrogate, silent guide to ingrained, unarticulated personal and cultural histories. In Moba, Togo, the metaphoric representation of the house as being is connected to the theme of natural communication in the description of doorways as mouths to the vault of heaven, a reflection of humanity's interdependency between the earth and sky for survival that is also reflected in the characterization of granaries as "celestial wombs" in Kabye, Togo that alludes to ecological and human cycles of fertility. This metaphor for living architecture is further illustrated in Soninke, Mauritania, where the breathing of houses - enabled by the incorporated structural design of open-air vents - becomes an overall reflection of a household's health and well-being. It is interesting to note that by using recurring images shot through vents and doorways, Trinh creates a sense of separated connectedness that supplants the filtered gaze of the opening images with one of obstructed transparency - a visual reinforcement of otherness that defines Trinh's (as well as the spectator's) mediated point of view that is also inherent in the inquisitive, stolen glances of the village women in Oualata. Concluding with the bookending shot of the Senegalese village ceremony - this time, without the distortion of red tinting - as a narrator comments on the mechanics of dance as a body's continuity to the gaps in the rhythm, the image becomes a dual-natured one: a reassertion of indigenous expression in the absence of imposed filters, and an invocation of ancestral spirits within the sacred circle of a shared cultural intimacy.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 29, 2007 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2007, Trinh T. Minh-ha


October 23, 2007

In Vanda's Room, 2000

vanda.gifThe first image of Vanda's childhood friend, Nhurro is an insightfully intimate one. On the morning of the scheduled demolition of his home - an abandoned house in the slums of Fonthainas that he had taken over and settled into as his own - Nhurro takes a final, almost ceremonial, thorough scrub down bath in near total darkness in the midst of pounding sledgehammers and approaching heavy machinery, using buckets of ported hot water to rinse off the soap suds in the absence of running water and electricity. Emerging in the shadows from his bath with the steam evaporating from the surface of his skin, Nhurro's obscured silhouette momentarily appears phantasmagoric and evanescent against the stray rays of light poking through the crumbling walls and covered windows of the barren house, transforming him into an almost spectral, otherworldly figure that is subsequently reframed against a more mundane reality when he awkwardly stumbles from the wet floor while trying to retrieve his clothes from a nearby chair. This metaphysical image proves to be Pedro Costa's most direct illustration of the marginalized, discarded Fonthainas residents as displaced ghosts in In Vanda's Room - a theme that would again surface in Colossal Youth and especially Tarrafal) - a manifestation of figurative lost souls drifting from one derelict landscape to another in the wake of the shantytown's looming, phased demolition, systematic depopulation, and involuntary exile. In an encounter with Vanda that occurs near the end of the film, Nhurro, once again forcibly displaced by advancing bulldozers from his newly claimed "home" (a house that he continues to fastidiously clean until the very end of his brief "tenancy", perhaps as a symbolic gesture of his human dignity), secretly takes refuge in Vanda's room for a few days while searching for other intact, abandoned houses to move into, and resignedly tells her of his life in perpetual transience, "living in ghost houses other people left empty." In a sense, the sad, adrift characters wandering into and out of Vanda's room are also leading impermanent, yet paradoxically static and inescapable lives in the doomed ghost town.

In Vanda's Room also anticipates José Luis Guerín's En Construcción in its untold stories of disposable lives and buried cultures that continue to surface and reassert their inerasable identities from the rubble of area revitalization. Composed of long take, stationary shots, often of cramped interior spaces or narrow alleys framed against neglected building façades, doorways, and even gouged walls that reflect the characters' economic bondage and spiritual captivity, the film's oppressive moral landscape and interminable stasis are also revealed through repeating episodes of inarticulate, idle conversations, hardscrabble drug use, door to door peddling, acts of petty theft, and habitual rummaging (most notably, in Vanda finding an antique model ship that had been inadvertently left outside that alludes to the country's own historical change in fortune from colonial empire to increasingly marginalized country within the economic homogenization of a borderless European Union). But there is also a specter of inevitable change in these uncomfortably intimate moments of destructive (and often self-inflicted) limbo as the remaining residents, too impoverished to move away, await their fate. (In one ironic juxtaposition, the extended image of Vanda resting in an alley with a crate of unsold vegetables is framed against a doorway as the song The Power by Snap! plays in the background.) The news of Nhurro's newfound residence that is mentioned during Vanda and her sister, Zita's opening conversation is supplanted by his subsequent eviction from his latest home during the course of the film. In another conversation, the state-enabled, mass eviction of Fonthainas is reflected in the inequitable dispensation of institutional justice over the apparent theft of Knorr soup cubes, where punishment is exacted against the arbitrary measure of human disposability. Perhaps the most emblematic of its systematic cultural extinction lies in the fate of a middle-aged woman named Geny who, early in the film, anxiously stands near the door of her home, having been evicted on the same morning as Nhurro. Raising a faint smile when a neighbor tries to cheer her up with a tongue in cheek offer of cohabitation, the fleeing moment of lightness becomes even more poignant within the context of a passing visitor's subsequent indirect account of her misfortune. This sobering convergence in Vanda's room - the evocation of Geny's faint smile, told by an emphysemic friend who trades a bouquet of flowers for a supply of respiratory medicine, in the room where Vanda and Zita get their heroin fix - powerfully encapsulates the film's haunted, indelible, and unflinching intimacy: an image of tragic souls hovering aimlessly over their physical captivity, pursuing distractive quests for transitory relief.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 23, 2007 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2007, Pedro Costa