video and moving image works
Nguyen Trinh Thi Letters from Panduranga
Jeu de Paume, Paris October 20 – January 24
By Heidi Ballet
One of the images of the Vietnam War that is deeply engraved in the collective conscience of the West is ‘Napalm Girl’, in which a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl is seen running towards the camera with a terrified expression on her face. More often than not, the photograph is reproduced in a cropped format; in the original an American soldier was walking on the girl’s left, his attention totally focused on changing the film in his own camera. These two images together offered an interesting panorama of the war of images that is at stake, in which the machine that makes, edits and distributes the image has a decisive power in shaping public opinion. Nguyen Trinh Thi touches upon the complexity of image-making in her new video, Letters from Panduranga (2015), by using a multitude of perspectives to navigate and form a representative picture.
The work documents a journey to the site of Panduranga (where a new city called Phan Rang now sits) in South Vietnam, once the spiritual center of Champa, an ancient kingdom dating back nearly 2,000 years. The matriarchal Champa culture was considered impure by French archeologists because of inconsistencies in its iconography, and as a consequence, it was labelled a culture in decline and scarcely recorded in archeological history. To find leftovers of Panduranga, Nguyen spent two years traveling in the area, where she encountered the Cham people, the sole cultural descendants of the Champa civilization.
The video includes imagery of dreamy landscapes, more or less random gatherings of people posing for the camera and mundane moments that show cows bathing in a mud pool or women singing karaoke. The hesitant zooming-in of the camera seems to reflect the filmmaker’s personal experience of relative proximity to the subjects she portrays. The narrative is formed by letters exchanged between a male and a female character and read in voiceover. Their voices mingle with soft sounds of the video footage. The female figure, perhaps speaking for the filmmaker herself, describes how she is searching for traces of Panduranga and shares her frustrations and struggles to capture the Cham in a truthful way. The unidentified male figure acts as the receptor of her doubts, replying generously with his own reflections, which constitute a monologue about the power of images and the gaze.
In the oscillation between past and present, the Western presence in Vietnam appears in the video as a phantom of French colonialism mixed with images of present-day tourism. But it is even more harmful when Western judgement is perpetrated by the Vietnamese themselves. Champa culture remains ignored even now that Vietnamese archeologists have replaced their Western predecessors in writing the history of this land. In this sense, Nguyen’s Letters from Panduranga creates an image that bypasses the colonial gaze and speaks for the Cham. It is a subtle demonstration of framing and giving voice.