In the film Surname Viet, Given Name Nam, Trinh T. Minh-na explores the issues Vietnamese women experienced during the political era in Vietnam, which corrupted the country. The film focused on the interviews of these women and the oppression they experienced which put them into silence. This film is a non-traditional documentary, with Trinh developing her own genre in this film.
During the beginning of the film, these interviews were conducted in English and the interviewees spoke in their heavily-accented English. The accent made it unclear and hard to understand. Was she trying to make us the foreigner by having all the interviewees with heavy accents? Sometimes the heavy accents were aided by the words of the women on the screen, and yet, we still struggle to listen and read. We also find that while the women are speaking, there is a translator voicing over the interview. Why does Trinh do this? Why does she choose to have them speak English and not Vietnamese? We struggle to listen to both voices as one takes over the other voice and the other fights to gain the attention back. At times, the words that do appear may not be the words they spoke. Their facial reactions were different from the words they spoke and they seemed to not understand what they were saying. Trinh also included beautiful background music into the film. Yet while the interviewee was talking, the song cuts her off and the English translation takes over, making the viewer focus on reading rather than listening. Once again, we struggle to read and listen at the same time. What does this mean?
As the viewers proceed with the film, one may think the women interviewed were playing their true selves. Dressed in traditional Vietnamese clothes, it’s hard not to assume it is their original role. Trinh Minh-Ha also made us think it was filmed in Vietnam but we also later learned it was set in a room in the states and she expertly used lighting to fool us. As the film progressed, we find that these women were non-professional actresses dramatizing the roles of the women interviewed. We later find them to be playing their true selves when they appeared in their “normal” clothes and spoke Vietnamese with English subtitles. Was this her intention? Why did she lead us to think the actresses had more than one identity? We later see these women in their normal roles; working at hydroelectricity plants, speaking at their child’s school, and attending pageants.
Trinh Minh-ha also draws attention to space. She also uses still photos as visual material, but she doesn’t to allow them to stay still on the screen. The camera scans them, moving from one point to another on the image. It doesn’t focus on one spot. At other times the still is framed by black and then she reveals more and more of the image that had been covered. Why does she cover and reveal a photo? Is there something more to this? A picture is never just a picture; there is always something outside of the frame.
I am always very intrigued by the psychological effect of studying film versus simply viewing it. To a naive cinema guest, Surname Viet, Given Name Nam would have a fantastical impact as the viewer watched the interviews on screen unfold to reveal their true form as staged recreations. For a film student, the realization comes instead as a source of relief – the mystery is solved, and we now finally understand why we came to the film – our minds say “Aha! it is a fake documentary.”
The psychological impact of our expectations is intriguing in that it provides further insight into and curiosity about the film experience – if I had not known that a twist was coming, that this film was one piece in a series syndicated to expand my knowledge of feminism and cinema – would I have digested these interviews at face value? And furthermore, what is face value?
Surname Viet, Given Name Nam includes controversy on multiple levels. First, the content matter of the actual interviews: Vietnamese women speaking out about the difficulty of their lives and the misfortune of their oppressive society – that’s racy stuff. Initially, these testimonials seem to give insight into the state of women’s rights and gender relations at the time, and it is only when the interviews become bizarre that we realize the second degree of controversy. These interviews are staged. What an incredible concept. It seems that as long as our preconceived notions of what a documentary’s subject matter entails is not too quickly denied, we are willing to accept a fake as if it were real. We assume immediately that the plainly dressed women in a barren room are just a few brave souls, and yet we eventually realize that we’ve been fooled and that these interviews were designed to be accepted our brains even though they aren’t real. The third level of controversy is revealed to us by the director.
Trinh T. Minh-Ha explains in our film notes that these “actresses” in the film were told to present themselves as they are in everyday life, and yet for their “real” interviews these women wore dramatic outfits, excessive make up and in some cases completely fabricated their everyday surroundings. This back story may be the true point of commentary in relation to feminism as these young actresses try to present themselves as something that in reality – they are not. Attempting to fulfill social roles and be perceived a certain way, the actions of these women reinforce Laura Mulvey’s notion that women are constantly portrayed as the object and that their captured film images are a source of voyeurism. This intentional creation of a fake reality to fulfill an external set of expectations provides amazing and more honest insight into the mindset of these women, because authentic or not, the perception each woman creates becomes our reality.
This concept of reality is explored further in many contexts that might be easier for the viewer to relate to. One such instance is the bold statements of academic writings such as F is for Phony, a series of essays created to comment on the implications of fake documentaries, that include such simple axioms as “many documentaries lie to tell the truth” that can be shocking and yet obvious–by the same degree to which a film student views any film with a biased set of eyes, any interviewee is likely to bend their reality to fit their desired image: despite the honest context of a true documentary.” Another, and likely more accessible example, is the Tim Burton film, Big Fish. Although not academic and commercial, it provides insights into the fake stories a father told his son, and ultimately shows the audience that even though fiction was built into every “truth” that was told–the impression that was created was much closer to the essence of the emotions, relationships, and true story behind the tale than honestly describing the events that transcribed ever could have.
That realization is what I believe is most incredible about this film. Beyond its role in commenting on feminism I believe the true power here lies is showing the audience that what we may perceive as truth could be a complete fallacy, and yet what we know to be fake provides us a view into truth that an honest answer never could have.