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.
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.
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.