video and moving image works
From ‘HOW THE ESSAY FILM THINKS” (Laura Rascaroli) published by the Oxford University Press (2017)
To read the full chapter NARRATION: EPISTOLARITY AND LYRICISM : Rascaroli_How_the_Essay_Film_Thinks
THE EPISTOLARY ESSAY FILM AND THE RIGHT DISTANCE: LETTERS FROM PANDURANGA
Lettres de Panduranga (Letters from Panduranga, 2015), by the Hanoi- born filmmaker and media artist Nguyễn Trinh Thi, is a thirty- five- minute video essay in the form of an epistolary exchange between a woman and a man, who write to each other from two different Vietnamese provinces they are visiting; the letter format, thus, merges here with the travelogue. The woman (voiced by Nguyễn Trinh Thi) is in Ninh Thuận, formerly Panduranga, the only remaining area of the ancient Hindu culture of the Cham. The man (Nguyễn Xuân Sơn) is north of where she is, in Central Vietnam, first in Trường Sơn or Long Mountain, famous for the Hồ Chí Minh trail, which, used during the Vietnam war, is considered one of the great achievements of military engineering of the twentieth century; then in Đà Nẵng, near the ruins of Mỹ Sơn, the Hindu temples erected by the Cham kings between the fourth and fourteen century AD, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site and host to a Cham museum; finally, he writes from “the future,” as he says, in Quảng Trị, northern Central Vietnam, an area where landmines are still present today, decades after the war, and are made to explode every day.
The former Champa kingdom referenced in the film peaked in the seventh to tenth centuries and came to an end after wars with both the Khmer and the Viet; its last remaining parts were annexed to Vietnam in 1832. Not recognized as an indigenous population but merely as a minority, the descendants of the ancient Cham have seen their history, cultural heritage, and religious practices being progressively threatened and erased, both in historical accounts and in material ways. Their living conditions, then, are substandard when compared to those of ethnic Vietnamese, pointing at issues of discrimination and unequal access to resources. The film was sparked by the decision of the Vietnamese government to build the country’s first two nuclear power plants in Ninh Thuan by 2020( and by the absence of public debate on this program. As Nora Taylor (2015) has written, for a long time the Cham were subjected to colonialist discourses that tended to present them as “an inferior race, diluted by foreign cultural influences, inauthentic, unlike the pure and original Chinese and Indian civilizations” (57). The same strategy of presenting Champa as a land of the distant past, even a mythical place, already discussed in Chapter 3 in relation to what I called ethnolandscape and to colonialism, has shaped for Taylor the Vietnamese scholarship on the region, so much so that “[t] he land of Champa was detached from its history” (59). It is precisely this absence that is at the core of Letters from Panduranga. As the man remarks over images of the temples of Mỹ Sơn, the place was made a UNESCO site as evidence of an Asian civilization that is now extinct, and so he ironically wonders whether the Cham his friend is meeting in Panduranga are evidence of the same extinction. The film addresses a range of problems and tensions, including neocolonialism and enforced assimilation, the control and erasure of cultural identities, the preservation of cultural heritage versus its touristic exploitation, ethnography and the ethics of speaking on behalf the other, gender, and self- determination.
The film opens with an image of water, over which the woman’s voice recites, “I’m writing you this letter from what seems like a distant land. She was once called Panduranga”( a direct citation of the opening address of Marker’s Letter from Siberia (“I’m writing you this letter from a distant land. Its name is Siberia”). The reference is repeated because, as in Marker, the line is spoken again later in the film, in slight variations. The direct citation inscribes the film in the epistolary travelogue tradition and is a nod to Marker’s lifelong reflections on travel, culture, history, and ethnography, as well as to Letter from Siberia’s approach to the “distant country” as one perched between myth and history, past and modernity. It is significant that, at the start of the film, rather than a landscape view of the region from a vantage point, the image of a shifting expanse of seawater is offered (on which a single person floats on a small boat, capturing the impression of a lonely and fragile existence, as well as suggesting the filmmaker’s reluctance to assume a position of power over her subject matter. The film presents, indeed, the Cham as an ethnic and cultural island that has undergone processes of silencing and erasure, containment and dispossession.
The two geographical areas visited by the narrators, in southern and central Vietnam, respectively, are juxtaposed throughout. Images are shown of Cham people, shot as in portrait photography, individually, in couples, or in groups; these alternate with images of landscapes from both regions. The narrators debate the two different approaches and discuss the ideology behind modes of portraiture. At one point, the man refers to an article he once read in the National Geographic, analyzing the photos of non- Western people the magazine had published over the years: They said that those who are culturally defined as weak( women, children, people of color, the poor, the tribal rather than the modern, those without technology (are more likely to be depicted facing the camera while the more powerful or “sophisticated” are to be represented looking elsewhere.
Questions of the ideological and power structures of looking at and photographing people and landscapes are discussed throughout the film; at one point, the male narrator references the landscape theory of Masao Adachi (director of AKA: Serial Killer, 1969) and other radical Japanese filmmakers of the 1970s who, influenced by Marxist film criticism, posited that every landscape contains power structures( although, replies the woman over images of a quiet landscape at sunset, she is unsure that the landscapes she is seeing reveal such a thing.
Another essay film quoted in Letters from Panduranga is Alain Resnais’s collaboration with Chris Marker Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953), a critique of colonialism that discusses Sub- Saharan African statues as museum pieces, separated from their original cultural, religious, and spiritual values and lived contexts( a similar reflection is present in Letters from Panduranga, which pauses on the equally “dead” sculptures in the Cham museum. Issues of tourism, seen as a form of control, dispossession, and exploitation, are also discussed in relation to the temples of Mỹ Sơn: “Culture is being vulgarized; invisible beauties are forced into hiding in the name of tourism,” comments the woman in one of her letters. One of the statues discussed in the film, however, tells a different story: a replica of the Statue of Liberty in Hanoi, erected by the French colonial government, was toppled in 1945; the man reports that, in an ironic twist, it was melted down to cast a bronze of Buddha.
The epistolary dialogue between the two subjects shapes the whole narrative. The letters are read out by their authors; however, there is some ambiguity as to whether they are written letters or if they are audiovisual texts exchanged by the two correspondents( and, so, whether they are to be considered part of the diegesis, in the first case, or if the whole film is made up of fragments of letter- films (to use Naficy’s terminology) and fully coincides with them. The narrative ambiguity in Letters from Panduranga also pertains to the characters, which are not identified by their names or specific roles; they could be two filmmakers, intellectuals, activists, photographers, or media artists( or a combination of the above. Although the details of their status and relationship are never clarified, the two address each other on the basis of deep reciprocal familiarity, as collaborators, colleagues, or friends, who share similar interests and practices.
In temporal terms, the narration is chronological; yet, it is difficult to tell exactly how much time elapses between letters, which are not dated. Because only parts, sometimes fragments, of letters are read, the exchange seems instantaneous and comes across as a close dialogue; once, however, the man remarks that some time has elapsed since he received her previous letter. The narrative plausibly lasts a few weeks; in his first letter, the man says he has two weeks to travel along the Hồ Chí Minh trail on his old motorbike. Temporality in the film is complex, however, not least because the present is seen as a symptom of various layers of pastness, which are examined in their historicity and in their being shaped by ideological discourses of containment and control: the mythical substratum, the distant historical past of Panduranga, and the recent, conflictive history of Vietnam.
At one point, the man says he writes from the future( probably that of the nuclear power plants to be built, to which the futuristic uniform worn by a person seems to allude (Figure 6.1).
The two correspondents are the two main narrators; only one other point of view is expressed directly by somebody else: a Cham intellectual who comments on his people’s history and present state, quoting Nietzsche. With the exception of this sequence and, to a lesser extent, of two sequences in which first a man and then a woman sing the same Cham popular love song, all information in the film is filtered through the two main narrators; because they speak in the first person and the images we see are a direct visualization of their speech, they are the focalizers of all sounds and images and of all the knowledge that is conveyed to the spectator.
There are, however, moments when the presence of a separate level of enunciation becomes tangible; for instance, when female hands appear on screen manipulating photographs and objects, even if the male narrator is speaking; or when the woman and the man speak in turn, one after the other, over the same images, which contradicts the way in which the rest of the narration is organized. In such moments, the split between the textual figures is felt most strongly, and the source of the narration and focalization is problematized.
These moments of uncertainty, in which a gap appears more evidently in the narration and between its levels, echo the broader questions that are raised by this highly disjunctive text on who speaks, who sees, who knows, and who is addressed. Disjunction is, indeed, the cipher of a film in which dualism is pervasive. Not only two are the narrators, a woman and a man, and two the locations from which they write to each other; but also a whole series of binaries are highlighted( such as portrait versus landscape, foreground versus background, past versus present, close up versus distance, looking into the lens versus looking out of frame, and so on. Some of the figures of two emphasized in the film are the pairs of stones under which the Cham Bani bury their dead (Figure 6.2), the two power plants to be built in the two- thousand- year- old civilization, and the paired photographs and paired images of statues; as well as the postproduction interventions that visualize duality, such as the superimpositions of images or, even more striking, the split screens showing the same place from two slightly divergent angles or two slightly different moments in time (Figure 6.3). These split screens create the uncertainty of optical illusions because the two shots are often joined in a way that tricks the eye, concealing the “joint” and suggesting an impossible continuity, which is both emphasized and violated by bodies moving in and out of frame. Elsewhere, the same shot appears twice but separated by an imperceptible delay( our understanding of the sequence’s temporality being further challenged by the fact that the clip is run backward, suggesting the evocation of the past of the Cham, as well as their obliteration.
All this epistemological uncertainty chimes with the doubts voiced by the female narrator, who repeatedly alludes to her problem of how to relate to the story she came to tell: “I’m still struggling to find a way in,” she admits at one point. “I have made friends,” she acknowledges; “still, I can’t help but feeling conscious of being an outsider.” Being outside the story one wants to tell is a problem with which the man also grapples; after he describes being interrogated by the police about some footage of women he took one day, he comments that, finally, this time he found himself inside history.
The importance of this issue is clarified when the man observes, “You are
trying to access the story of another culture, another people, and I the story
of the past, of history.”
The question of where the essayist should be positioned in relation to the story to be told is central not only to this film, but also to the essay film tout court, because querying the narrating stance and its ethos (its proximity to/ distance from the story) is part of the essay’s self- evaluative process. As the woman clarifies, “I’m trying to avoid speaking on behalf of the other.”
This effort produces self- doubt, which is expressed, for instance, by the woman as a question on the functions and motivations of the essayist: “I want to leave. I am not an ethnographer systematically studying the Cham’s ways of life, traditions, rituals; nor am I a journalist who could write about issues directly. I don’t know what I’m doing here.” Neither ethnographer nor journalist, the narrator admits to having explored different methods of documentary and fiction, but “nothing seems right.” The advice of her correspondent is to “work at a distance”; as he comments, “I think there’s a point for you to use fiction in the Cham story. It gives you a bit of a distance. Documentary is often too close.” If documentary is too close, however, fiction can be too far; as he adds, “reality is more exciting than fiction,” because “it’s full of holes, gaps.”
Narration in the essay film is thus portrayed in Letters from Panduranga as the process of finding the right distance: as in a meaningful sequence in which a hand holding the picture of a standing stone slowly moves closer to the lens, so that the image, which was initially out of focus, becomes progressively sharper (Figure 6.4). In essay films, which are essentially performative texts incorporating a trace of the process of thinking, these progressive readjustments are often visible; they coincide with the film’s own narrative development. A state of narrative in- betweenness is identified as the best distance, the best way to tell the story of an interstitial place: “I write to you from what seems like a distant land. Her name is Panduranga. She lies somewhere between the Middle Ages and the twenty- first century. Between the earth and the moon, between humiliation and happiness.”
Developing between two correspondents, the epistolary form is inherently intermediate. It highlights a distance and a lack and at once offers temporal and geographical proximity. The intimate address of the letter compensates for the ethical distancing of the essayist from her subject matter, creating the ideal positioning between participation and detachment. But the apparent equilibrium of such a narrative form is deeply problematized in Letters from Panduranga. The pervasiveness of the figure of the
Figure 6.4: “Reality is full of holes, gaps.” Letters from Panduranga. Screenshot.
double in the film points, in fact, to a schism, a disjunction( at once of
the Cham from their past, their culture, and their land and of the subject
from itself. The dualism of the narrators hides, indeed, a split subjectivity.
As Nguyễn (2016) has confirmed, talking of her two narrators,
They are my self- portraits. They are both mostly myself, or to be more precise my different selves, my selves of different times and spaces. For example, in a way, the woman’s voice can represent my thinking and approach of a few years earlier, and the man’s voice represents the shift in my approach (shifting to the background, etc.). Or the woman’s voice represents my tendency when I was close to the scene, or being in the field; while the man’s voice represents my other self when I come back home from fieldwork, gaining a distance, and starting to do reflections.
This subjectivity split in time and in space, with two parts of the “I” taking
the form of correspondents who cinewrite letters to one another, is at the
basis of a narrative strategy of profound disjunction, barely concealed by
the stratagem of the intimate epistolary exchange. Letters always weave a
fragile textuality, one dependent on the next epistle being written, reaching
its addressee, and being read and understood; the whole text is perched
on the continuation of a dialogue that is deeply contingent and subject to
a range of material and emotional conditions. In Letters from Panduranga,
in turn, the split self is at the origin of an added risk of textual dissolution
that, however, is also the necessary condition for the creation of that inbetweenness
that, I have argued throughout this book, is at the core of the
essay form. As Nguyễn (2016) has meaningfully commented, “I usually
find myself being pulled by different impulses and desires. And I find myself
typically being in some kind of in- between spaces.” It is this split and this
in- betweenness that the epistolary narrative most distinctively has to offer
to the essay film and its disjunctive practices.