Reassemblage – A Review of From the Firelight to the Screen
Posted On January 7, 2021
>Deconstructing the Mind’s Preconceptions by Vago Damitio
This is the question that is asked in the Trinh T. Minh-ha experimental documentary Reassemblage. On the surface level, the film is about the women of Senegal and the way they live. This is, however, simply one layer on a veritable onion of a psychological experiment that Trinh is conducting on her audience. Using a diverse bag of tricks, she leads the viewer to multiple rabbit holes that are filled with self reflexive mirrors that not only examine where she is coming from and going to as a film maker, but also what we, as the audience, are seeing, thinking, and even feeling. Her unusual use of sound, light, color, editing, and narration provide the starting point for an experience that is more internal than external. This sensation of falling into the film itself, is far from the normal externalized viewing of the other that most of us associate with viewing a film.
The surface level is important, but it is not the only thing going on. However, it is a good place to start. The footage for the film was shot in Senegal by Trinh T. Minh Ha when she was doing anthropological field work as an ethnographer with the University of California at Berkley in 1951. The footage is of the day to day life of the people of Senegal doing what they need to do to survive. There are long takes of women working, children playing, and men taking part in the day to day activities of a village in Senegal. If one were watching the footage uncut and without sound, one would be excused for expecting a male British accent that explained the tiniest details of life among the Senegalese. The catch, of course, is that the footage is not uncut and the narrator is not a British man.
The editing of the film focuses on things that our learned decorum tell us that it should not. Endless shots focused on breasts that are exposed shamelessly, focused on bouncing breasts, focused on large nipples, focused on one breast after another, focused on a parade of naked black breasts like the obsessed eye-camera of a perverted fourteen year old boy in 1950’s Indiana tearing through a stack of National Geographics in the bathroom of his grandmother. Trinh wants us to see what we are ashamed to look at. She wants us to be exposed just as the breasts are exposed. She is interested in jarring us with a continuous barrage of African breasts of all shapes and sizes until we can see nothing else and it is only then that she releases us with a piece of her monotone narration.
“ Nudity does not reveal the hidden, it is the absence.”
And then more.
More not just in the sense of narration which is redoubled upon itself and piled sparingly upon the uncomfortable silences that she allows to take hold of us as we begin to wonder what it is that we are seeing, but more in the sense of destroying the colonization of not just Africa but of our minds. Where we have started with a bludgeoning of sexuality that must be de-sexed in order to be understood, we have left the landing pad of our externalized role as the observer and entered the world of not just seeing and judging the other, but of being the other.
Trinh’s use of sound makes us stop in our tracks and shift uncomfortably in our seats as trance inducing music is cut off without a proper segway and more uncomfortable silence is laid upon the tracks of our perception. WAKE UP! And indeed, we must because the silence is not long enough to be lulled into the images flashing across the screen in a sometimes non-aligned version of lineal events. Interspersed cacophony overlaid on the Senegalese working, living, and laughing. Why are they laughing? Why don’t we hear them? Why aren’t we told what they are laughing at as they look into the camera at US!
“Less and less the need to express myself” Trinh T. Minh Ha deadpans to us in lieu of a reasonable explanation of what is going on. We know she was making a documentary and we know that she was going to tell us something, like all documentary film makers tell us something. Isn’t that the reason why a person makes a documentary? To tell us what they think. “Less and less the need to express myself” as the dog moves back and forward in time upon the screen in front of our eyes and the role of gender moves back and forth on the screen in front of our minds. Why is she showing us these breasts that are nursing and bouncing and working and laughing and living? Why are these breasts in such random seeming sequences with fire and flies and carcasses?
It is a ride that engages all of the synapses as we try to figure out what exactly she has made. Was she aware of the deconstructing that the construction of this conception of her work and her self would have upon the viewer? And finally as she asks “Do you have a husband for yourself?” we are left with less than we expected but more than we started with in the words that we must use to ask ourselves again.