The Reflexive Documentary: ‘Surname Viet Given Name Nam’

Bill Nichols, author of Introduction to Documentary, writes that “documentaries can be reflexive from both formal and political perspectives” (p. 128). Surname Viet Given Name Nam, made by Trinh T. Minh-ha is one example of a documentary that is both reflexive in form and in content.

Reflexive in Form

According to Bill Nichols, “reflexive documentaries… tackle issues posed by realism as a style” (126). In ‘Surname…,’ Minh-ha places her subjects on the edges of the frame. While such a strange stylistic approach might symbolize the way women feel marginalized within their own society, its peculiarity alone “heightens” the viewer’s consciousness (128). Each frame looks a bit like an oddly-staged painting, forcing the viewer to question why the filmmaker would make such a choice and thus reminding them of the presence of the camera that intervenes between the viewer and real life.

Secondly, as Bill Nichols notes, “the interviews were staged in more ways than one: the women who play Vietnamese women in Vietnam are actually immigrants to the United States reciting, on a stage set, accounts transcribed and edited by Trinh T. Minh-ha from interviews conducted in Vietnam by someone else with other women” (126-7). Such a choice is controversial in a documentary because it questions “the solemn indexical bond between the indexical image and what it represents” (128). By all appearances, these female actors seem to be discussing their own experiences for a large portion of the film: They even have Vietnamese accents, a trait not technically necessary if the people reenacting or reporting on the interviews were not going to be the original interviewees.

Is Minh-ha’s choice to stage the interviews in such a manner equivalent to unfaithful representation? Perhaps in other forms of documentary, it would be, but the staged nature of the film also highlights an important fact that most documentaries ignore in order to seem authoritative: No group of women, whether they experienced oppression in Vietnam or are simply acting as a mouthpiece for those who did, can represent their whole population or gender. Yet these women try anyway, because someone has to speak up. The staged interviews are thus simultaneously an acknowledgment of the limited perspective one documentary can offer and an earnest attempt to offer as much perspective as it can.

Reflexive in Content

Documentaries are reflexive in content when they “call social conventions into question” (129). The women in ‘Surname…’ focus on their marginal place in society and discuss it eloquently. One woman draws attention to the imbalance of power between genders in Vietnam, for example: “The men want to keep the better share of the cake. They hold the key positions of power; women only get the leftovers… There is not a single woman at the Political Bureau. The men are the only ones to discuss problems that concern us.” Rather than simply implying the Vietnamese women’s plight through imagery, these women focus on analyzing the various strains of systemic sexism in Vietnamese society, an approach unique to the reflexive documentary.

My Take in Three Points: Is the Reflexive Form Effective in Surname Viet Given Name Nam?

1.) Form-wise, the framing and staging of subjects is certainly odd, and its strangeness may distract from the messages the women are attempting to share. For a mature, analytical audience, the film’s stylistic tendencies may in fact heighten their consciousness of the film and cause them to focus more intently on the film’s intentions and limitations, but it may lose less open-minded viewers all together.

2.) Given that the interviews are staged, the subjects may also be analyzed as part of the documentary’s form. As noted previously, the women possess Vietnamese accents although not all people of Vietnamese descent have accents and it was not technically necessary to cast women who did. Such a choice makes it harder for a native-English audience to understand. Why not have someone without an accent perform the lines if they are to be spoken in English at all? This interesting reflexive tactic may comment on the disparity between the manner Vietnamese women are treated versus how they actually are. Asian women with accents are often perceived as less intelligent in English-speaking societies, which tend to have significant populations of people of Asian descent whose native language is English. However, the commentary on screen is highly intellectual despite being at times difficult to understand, highlighting the potential contrast between the level of discourse a biased viewer may expect from the women versus what they actually hear.

The commentary on screen is highly intellectual despite being at times difficult to understand, highlighting the potential contrast between the level of discourse a biased viewer may expect from the women versus what they actually hear.

3.) I would conclude that the strength of a reflexive documentary such as Surname Viet Given Name Nam is that it works like a well-researched essay: Not the view of the subject matter, but a well-articulated, organized view that a documentary made up of authentic, on-the-spot interviews and observational footage could not provide.

Works Cited: 

Nichols, Bill. “How Can We Differentiate Among Documentary Models and Modes? What Are the Poetic, Expository, and Reflexive Modes?” Introduction to Documentary, 3rd ed., Indiana University Press, 2017, pp. 126–129.

Born Into Brothels: The Expository Mode and Its Ethical Implications

Bill Nichols, author of Introduction to Documentary, defines a documentary made in the expository mode as:

1.) An alternative to fiction/avant-garde.

2.) Treats knowledge as disembodied or abstract ideas, concepts, or perspectives.

3.) Time and space are discontinuous. Uses images from many different times and places to illustrate a perspective or argument.

4.) Ethical concerns include: Represent others fairly and avoid making people into helpless victims.

5.) A voice characterized by classic oration in pursuit of the truth and seeking to inform and move an audience.

6.) Assembles fragments of the historical world into a more rhetorical frame, rather than an aesthetic one or a poetic one.

While Nichols differentiates the expository-mode documentary from a fictional film, as noted in class, Born Into Brothels (Zara Briski, 2004) retains a story-telling style, even utilizing the structural backbone of a fictional narrative to maintain cohesion; Briski’s goal, to send children from the red light district of Calcutta to boarding school, mirrors fiction’s basic driving force: ‘Someone wants something and is having a hard time getting it.’

However, the very nature of Briski’s goal clearly implies a rhetorical argument: That the children of the red light district need saving, and that the best way to help them is to send them away to boarding schools. While there is a certain linearity to the goal itself (We find out at the end of the film which of the children continued their education and which did not), the images themselves are discontinuous, “assembled,” as Nichols says, around Zara Briski’s perspective. Her camera reveals poor children lacking purpose and direction in their lives, trapped in the brothels and destined for the ‘industries’ of prostitution and drug-dealing.

These images are unified by Briski’s frequent use of voice-over and on-camera conversations, emphasizing her genuine belief that she is under the moral imperative to better the children’s lives by giving them an education. In this sense, Briski’s oration pursues a concept or truth disembodied from the world of the film; no one in the red light district and nothing inherent in it indisputably confirm that Briski’s solution is the correct one: In fact, many of the children’s parents and grandparents question the importance or necessity of sending the children off on their own, preventing them from helping around the house or immediately earning a living. Thus this solution, this “truth” Briski seeks to delineate in her film may be more subjective than she realizes, and it is here that the ethical implications of the expository mode are worth exploring.

Nichols suggests that an expository documentary may tend to represent its subjects unfairly – both literally and figuratively through the lenses of the documentarian’s camera and his/her opinions – and that it may be guilty of victimization. The children in the brothels are clearly presented as victims of their situations, in desperate need of some change that will prevent them from following in the footsteps of their parents. This change, in Briski’s view, is a boarding school education. Briski sees a problem that needs to be solved, and while most people would agree that prostitution and drug-dealing are far from desirable lifestyles, especially when there is no viable alternative, the potential issue is that while Briski and the residents of the red light district may essentially recognize the same problem, this does not guarantee that they see the same solution.

Such differences in perspective feasibly set Briski up as a ‘white savior’ figure, which is problematic given western society’s history of imposing its beliefs and traditions upon other cultures. While one may counter that it is impossible for the ignorant or uneducated to know what is best for them (and I personally would rather risk doing something if I could to help rather than turning a blind eye), it is important for documentarians to recognize that people’s experiences are an education in its own right, and that such experiences may lead to differing definitions of solutions and success – a truly abstract concept that no one person or society – ‘educated’ in the Western sense or not – is capable of single-handedly deciding.

Works Cited:

Nichols, Bill. “How Can We Differentiate Among Documentary Models and Modes? What Are the Poetic, Expository, and Reflexive Modes?” Introduction to Documentary, 3rd ed., Indiana University Press, 2017, pp. 108–121.

The Importance of Being Honest: Documentary as Prosecutor

In the earliest years of World War II, a genre of documentary emerged called the “bugle-call film” (139). In his book, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Erik Barnouw defines the purpose of a bugle-call film: to, “stir the blood, building determination to the highest pitch; as to the enemy, to chill the marrow, paralyzing the will to resist” (139). In other words, the bugle-call film was a call to action, and in those years, it tended to be nationalistic, biased, and often outright dishonest.

After the war, European filmmakers were left to grapple with the heinous war crimes that liberation brought to light. In these first post-war decades, a new genre of documentary emerged with the purpose of indicting war criminals (178). Barnouw defines this type of documentary as the prosecutor film.
The ultimate example of a prosecutor film may well be Alan Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955). Like other films in its genre, Night and Fog’s colored footage of the present-day is “supplemented by captured material including documents and still photographs” as well as chilling footage recorded by the Nazis themselves (172).

Yet even as it stands in opposition to the anti-Semitism that characterized many bugle-call films, Night and Fog shares several qualities with them. One such is the extensive use of narration to evoke emotion and make the filmmaker’s stance clear. In the bugle-call film, Baptism of Fire, narration is used to glorify the destruction of Warsaw, where as in Night and Fog, it attempts to warn the audience that people willing to perpetuate crimes as unthinkable as the Holocaust are never confined to one point in history (139, 180).

Both types of films “link” their narration to inflammatory imagery meant to portray their subjects in a specific, often condemnatory, light (141). In bugle-call films such as Fritz Hippler’s The Eternal Jew, completed about a year after the commencement of World War II, such imagery includes “pornography, and slaughterhouse scenes” which the narration suggests to be depictions of Jewish rituals (141). The post-war prosecution film Night and Fog flips the narrative by linking distressing images of slaughtered Jews to the Nazi regime. Thus the greatest difference between the two types of films, when compared in this manner, seems not to be the qualities of the films themselves, but the honesty of the filmmakers. Himmler perpetuated a false narrative about the Jewish people through the use of disturbing fictional footage meant to seem real; Resnais’ disturbing footage was real (142).  In the latter’s documentary, the Nazi’s obsessive documentation of their own crimes becomes self-incriminating evidence (173).

The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer, 2012), in a way picks up where Night and Fog left off, proving some of its darkest prophecies: that the same evil motivating the Holocaust would re-surface in a new manner – this time in Indonesia. It thoroughly answers the question that Barnouw implies is quintessential to the prosecutor film – What became of the perpetrators? –  by allowing them to become the documentary’s protagonists (178). While The Act of Killing is similar to a bugle-call film in that it harnesses fictional sequences to a jarring effect, Oppenheimer emphasizes that these sequences are re-enactments shot in the filmic style of the subject’s preference (unlike Hippler, who intentionally fails to mention the staged nature of those sequences). From the exaggerated make-up in the interrogation scenes to the dream-like lighting that portrays those murdered as grateful to their ‘benevolent’ killers for doing the ‘right thing,’ it is always clear that these segments of the film are fictional representations of the murders as told by the murderers. In doing so, The Act of Killing is possibly a subtler prosecutor, allowing the war criminals to speak for – and thus incriminate – themselves.

A comparison of early-war bugle call films to the post-war prosecutor documentaries Night and Fog and The Act of Killing highlights how necessary it is to have an honest person behind the camera. Their similarities show how easy it is to set up a false but compelling indictment, and those who have become cynical because of an awareness of dishonest documentation sometimes take such knowledge to an extreme. Holocaust deniers, for example, may see in prosecutor documentaries the same emotional tactics of powerful narration and inflammatory footage used in the biased bugle-call films and question the veracity of any documentary that claims to reveal incriminating evidence.

Additionally, both Night and Fog and The Act of Killing also reveal cinema’s unique ability to self-incriminate its subjects. Both documentaries allow the perpetrators of genocide to ultimately speak for themselves – whether through their own recorded footage, or the scenes they choose to re-enact on camera, illustrating the unquenchable human thirst to document one’s actions, even if doing so risks preserving evidence of one’s own depravity.

Works Cited

Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: a History of the Non-Fiction Film. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1993.

Nanook of the North: An Enterprise of Deceit?

In 1898, newspapers advertising the Battle of San Juan Hill as a triumphant charge presented documentarian Albert E. Smith with an uncomfortable ethical challenge. Theaters as well as the press expected an exciting photoplay of the Spanish-American war, but Mr. Smith’s footage was hardly riveting: Erik Barnouw, author of Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, describes the “charge” as more of “a dull uphill walk” (24).

To disappoint the audiences could easily mean financial losses, and so Vitagraph, the studio handling the distribution of Smith’s film, combined Smith’s authentic footage with faked scenes of sinking ships and smoky battles, and the added dramatic flair resulted in a smashing success. According to Barnouw, “The public apparently did not suspect [the film’s] true nature” (24). Such a conclusion would be ethically damning in a world obsessed with historical accuracy and suspicious of financially-motivated portrayals, as it is today, yet Barnouw suggests that filmmakers at the turn of the 20th century viewed the actions of Vitagraph “not so much [as] deceit as enterprise” (24). He explained that “the public was accustomed to news pictures having an uncertain and remote link to events. The relationship was scarcely thought about” (25).

Alternatively, the current zeitgeist is highly concerned about the virus-like spread of “fake news” on the internet, and many a warrior of social justice will reach out to decry the slightest historical or geographical inaccuracies even in fiction films.

Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that a 2017 screening of Nanook of the North – Robert Flaherty’s 1922 documentary about the Eskimo peoples in Quebec, Canada ­– received a rather negative reaction from several film students at Brigham Young University. The discussion centered around moments of perceived inauthenticity: The roof-less igloo built as a set to allow the camera to film “inside” and the multiple takes of Nanook’s actions, but more importantly, instances that portrayed primitive behaviors in what was already the beginning of modern times. For example, Nanook and his team hunted with spears for the camera although they typically used guns, and they paddled their kayaks despite the fact that many already had motors.


Most film students can acknowledge the occasional necessity of sets and multiple takes in documentary film, given that, as Barnouw notes, “history does not always happen where one waits for it,” and neither do individual events (27). What concerned the students most was the potential misrepresentation or exploitation of a culture without the subjects’ full understanding or consent, and as such, the film becoming an unethical manipulation of the audience’s expectations of honesty and accuracy. I would like to address the students’ primary concerns using evidence from Erik Barnouw’s book to examine whether Nanook of the North is indeed truly an “enterprise of deceit.”

It is true that a documentarian may be financially motivated to misrepresent his/her subjects, or that s/he may do so accidentally through lack of experience. Robert Flaherty is cleared on both these fronts upon closer examination: Flaherty spent twenty years “exploring and living with the Eskimos,” re-shooting his film until he felt he got it right, pushing through in spite of a fire that destroyed his original footage and years of effort with no guarantee of success (47, 35-36). While a documentary about Eskimos made through the lens of a white man rightly raises suspicion, it is clear that Flaherty was no tourist or Hollywood fortune-seeker there for a quick superficial glance in order to make a profit.

Robert Flaherty’s intent in the creation of his groundbreaking documentary is recorded abundantly both in his own journals and the accounts of others, and these records may help us to decide whether the filmmaker truly intended to exploit the Eskimo people or trick the audience into believing that the Eskimos were an utterly uncivilized society. In his own writings, Flaherty’s love for the native people of northern Canada, in addition to his concern for the negative effects the white settlers had on their society, is well-documented. Flaherty wrote,

“I want to show… the former majesty and character of these people, while it is still possible – before the white man has destroyed not only their character, but the people as well. The urge I had to make Nanook came from the way I felt about these people, my admiration for them; I wanted to tell others about them” (45).

Notably, an audience member wrote that Nanook “show[s] the primitive existence of a people in the way they lived before being brought into contact with explorers. [Flaherty] is looking to bring them out in the best way” (35). Such a statement reveals that the audience was informed that the Eskimos were being portrayed as they might have been anciently and not as they were currently, putting to rest any concerns of intentional duplicity. Contrast these accounts with the Johnsons’ documentary, Congorilla (1932), which purposely mocked its African subjects as “savages” or the previous example of the Battle of San Juan Hill, and it becomes clear that exploitation and deceit were far from Flaherty’s mind (51).

As subjects, Nanook and his team were extremely excited about the documentary, and Nanook himself actively suggested scenes to be portrayed (36). Barnouw emphasized that “the film reflected their image of their traditional life” ­ – in other words, how Nanook believed his forefathers lived – and acknowledges that “a people’s self-image may be a crucial ingredient in its culture, and worth recording” (45).

Accusations of ‘inauthenticity’ viewed in this light are thus hypocritical, given that today’s modern audience fully accepts filmic reenactments of past events or ways of life that pre-date the camera’s existence (such as the civil war) as long as said events are portrayed with as much historical accuracy as possible. It is clear that Nanook and Flaherty worked together to create what Barnouw calls “salvage ethnography,” reenactments of one’s heritage – e.g. hunting with spears – on film to better preserve its memory. Such a practice could hardly be considered deceit.

In conclusion, it seems that an audience’s perception of a documentary’s ethicality depends largely upon its expectations and experience. Early audiences had comparatively few expectations since documentary as a genre was still in its first stages of evolution. Given that in the decades since the creation of Nanook of the North, audiences such as film students at BYU have become more suspicious of ulterior motives that lead to deceptive filmmaking, and also that we, unlike the original audience member in the account above, are probably less aware of when the Eskimos first became ‘modernized’ and thus may have thought that the film was actually portraying a primitive culture that still existed in the 1920s, a simple explanation of the documentarian’s intent may suffice to remove any remaining concerns regarding Nanook of the North’s authenticity.

Works Cited

Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: a History of the Non-Fiction Film. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1993.