Reassemblage, 1982

Neither an ennobled (or exoticized) slice-of-life cultural documentary nor an expository thesis framed within the logic structure of an essay film, Reassemblage is, instead, what Trinh T. Minh-ha describes in her book Cinema Interval as an “interrogation” – an idiosyncratic (if not compositionally radical) approach to the ethnographic study of contemporary Senegal that seeks to erase the filmmaker’s intrinsic interpretation of the recorded rituals through unsynchronized repetition of audio and visual imagery, using variations in shot placement (a methodology articulated in the comment “different views from different angles – the ABC of photography”) and in the incorporation (or exclusion) of the non-diegetic soundtrack that, in its intrinsically abstract rhythms, nevertheless, convey the empirical essence of the quotidian. The film’s introductory sequence – a black screen accompanied by the sound of tribal drums, followed by images of the Senagalese people without sound, fragmented into singular shots of limbs and torsos – illustrates this strategy of modulating, decontextualizing, and re-purposing seemingly familiar ethnographic imagery towards new ways of seeing.

At the core of Trinh’s interrogation is the demystification of otherness or, more broadly, the application of binary logic in society’s (and in partcular, western society’s) examination of non-native cultures. The first words spoken by the narrator (Trinh) in the film, “scarcely twenty years were enough to make two billion people define themselves as underdeveloped”, encapsulates this idea of externally imposed, arbitrary classification of populations into first and third world stratifications (as defined by standards of global economies set by industrialized nations), sameness and otherness, progress and underdevelopment …and consequently, inclusion and exclusion. Prefaced with the recurring comment, “First create need, then help”, the narrator recounts an encounter with a peace corps volunteer who attempts to teach the village women how to grow vegetables in their garden for profit. Implicit in their interaction is the specter of colonialism – the disingenuous claim of divine mandate to educate the “savages” as a rationalization for economic exploitation. It is this (delusive) image of the assimilated, enlightened westerner that is also repeated in the subsequent anecdote of an ethnographer who returns to a tribal village for two weeks in the belief that the extended duration of his visit renders him closer to understanding the culture, even as consumer artifacts from his own culture – in particular, a Sony Walkman – continue to intrude on his self-proclaimed goal of cultural immersion and indigenous assimilation. In both anecdotes, the ubiquitous electronic gadget serves as an iconic representation of the impossibility of true understanding and assimilation of one’s non-native culture, an intranscendable limitation that Trinh defines as the hybridity of culture.

But beyond Trinh’s examination of prevailing social attitudes that render true ethnographic documentation an impossibility, Reassemblage also seeks to subvert the perpetuated myths and common perceptions about African people. Stereotypical images of famine and disease are subverted through shots of healthy children at play and women milling grains that are cross-cut against shots of emaciated animal carcasses splayed on a deserted landscape to underscore the disconnection. Popularized ethnographic images of naked tribal women are confronted within the perpetual debate of what constitutes art and pornography, education and titillation. Even the traditionally common sense image of African people as having black skin is subverted through the image of albinism, further challenging the audience to redefine its superficial notions about race and ethnicity. Ironically, by creating a perpetual state of dislocation and fracture, Trinh creates a more honest and unmanipulated portrait of collective identity – a probing reassembly and decontextualization of familiar and iconic ethnographic images towards a deeper awareness of the underlying, indefinable essential alchemy that binds disparate people into the sociology of indigenous culture.

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