Trinh T. Minh-Ha says that she set out to make Reassemblage as an ethnographic film that paid no heed to conventions of documentary. It seems from interviews with her that her attempt wasn’t exactly to “defy” convention as to ignore it. This certainly seems questionable, just like her assertion that she hasn’t been influenced by any experimental films (which she contradicted in the same interview by saying she is unable to count her numerous influences). But to be fair, she isn’t overly concerned with classical Western notions of “consistency” and “contradiction,” rather more inclined to embrace dissonances in Eastern (or even Nietzschean) form while holding to a slightly more optimistic (albeit equally problematic) ideology.
Regardless of her thoughts on her own un/conscious, Reassemblage is a remarkable film for seemingly achieving what it set out to do: break with documentary and ethnographic tradition by questioning the positions of the filmmaker and audience in relation to the film’s subject(s). The highly poetic voiceover dialogue within the film states that she wanted to make a film “on Senegal,” to which her friends replied, what about Senegal? The lack of answer to this question functions well with the exploratory nature of the project. Apparently her only plan in making the film was to travel to five different regions of Senegal and record what she saw. She self-consciously proclaims her own presence through word and camera, though she is never actually seen on screen. The feminist nature of the film acts as a further acknowledgement of her presence and positioning: if the film has any “subjects,” they are the women of these regions of Senegal. Previous and conventional ethnographies, which have tended to be made by white men, have focused on the doings of males in third-world countries and only seen women as objects of exotic voyeuristic value. Trinh, however, switches the focus onto women while still cinematographically acknowledging the fetishistic male gaze of “native” women in all their unclothed glory. Her extreme close-ups, then, ironically cater to the male viewer’s expectation while simultaneously critiquing it. If the male viewer treats women like objects, Trinh has reversed the formula, turning objects back into women.
Some of the opening words of the film are, “I do not wish to speak about, only to speak nearby.” This famous distinction made by the film criticizes conventional ethnographies for arbitrarily asserting that one is only an ethnologist if s/he remains in the field for X amount of time, only and always after which one can supposedly “know” that culture. Trinh’s film contains no such pretenses, only the antithesis: an admittance of: (1) the gulf between herself and the film’s subjects and viewers, and (2) the inner pressure to make a documentary film in a certain kind of way in order to maximize its “realism.” Trinh certainly seems to succeed in furthering the field and style of ethnographic documentary. The ethnographic norm is explanation under the guise of exploration, while taking the whole filming process for granted as a scientific procedure. Trinh is exploratory all the way around. Her voice is poetic and her camera free. She avoids the dangers of imposing her own meanings and traditions even by avoiding translating the dialogue. Instead, the rhythmic language is intermingled with steady grain-pounding and native music, all blending together in polyphony.
At this point, the need for a new way in ethnography is well acknowledged. The continued patriarchal invasion by Western scientifethnolanthropologicians of lands still recovering from the wounds of colonialism in order to re-conquer them with a camera simply perpetuates, or perhaps reignites, the old problem. Oddly, though, the same masses who are now quite pleased with a recent political victory are largely the same masses who unwittingly allow such uninformed nationalism to survive through an unwillingness to reject once and for all the individualism that precludes the possibility of true altruism. Merely acknowledging the “other” is only step one. Strategies such as canceling the debt of the other, sending cash to the other, and documenting the other as if s/he were somehow less than the American ideal are all steps backward, in what they imply if not in what they do. A film like Reassemblage is a rare example of one that begins to work in the right direction and does so with humility.