October 29, 2007
Naked Spaces: Living Is Round, 1985
In 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.