AS the violence and confusion of the Vietnam war sink into the past, the memory of that disruptive event is being replaced by something else: images of Vietnam created by American movies according to their usual mass-marketing agenda. This is a slow and complex process, but it amounts to a kind of cultural imperialism that few moviegoers ever think of questioning. Trinh T. Minh-ha is acutely aware of this situation, and in addition, she has a stake in it - as a Vietnamese, a filmmaker, and a scholar who lives in the United States and teaches at an American university. Her newest film, a poetic documentary called ``Surname Viet Given Name Nam,'' is a many-faceted work that opposes the realities of Vietnam to the many myths that have been spun about it. Nor does she confine herself to criticisms of simplistic American perceptions. She also addresses problems in Vietnam itself, especially as these manifest themselves in the oppression and exploitation of women.
Distributed by Women Make Movies,``Surname Viet Given Name Nam'' was shown as the closing attraction of the prestigious New Directors/New Films festival at the Museum of Modern Art here over the weekendApril 1 and is now having a special week-long run (through April 9) at the Collective for Living Cinema, before going on to more widespread showings.
Ms. Trinh is a woman of many interests, holding degrees in both music and comparative literature. Her previous films, the short ``Reassemblage'' and the feature ``Naked Spaces: Living Is Round,'' were shot in West Africa and explore the relationships between people and the environments they create for themselves.
``Surname Viet Given Name Nam'' is less allusive and more specific than those movies, perhaps because it deals with Trinh's own compatriots. It zeroes in on Vietnam, probing the ways in which women there have always been deemed second-class citizens - just as Vietnam itself has been deemed a second-class nation by others with more physical and ideological power. The country's social and religious heritage is seen to be grimly oppressive in many ways: traditionally, as in the ``four virtues'' and ``three submissions'' which women are supposed to cultivate, and contemporaneously, as in the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust that Trinh sees as a byproduct of today's Vietnamese political structure. Ancient gender oppression is seen to have a bitter parallel in Vietnam's own oppression by outsiders, and in new social pressures that have built in the country since its reunification after the long period of war. AS if this weren't enough for a movie to deal with, Trinh has other concerns in mind, as well. Even as her examination of ancient and modern Vietnamese culture is unfolding, she looks with skepticism at the documentary form itself, questioning its so-called objectivity and its ability to uncover truth beyond the limits of built-in structures and motives. She reveals and probes her own filmmaking methods, including the use of reenacted interviews with rehearsed women playing the roles of ``authentic'' Vietnamese counterparts. And she indicates her doubt that cinema can capture the full complexity of a subject as deep and broad as a national culture.
``Surname Viet Given Name Nam'' is a visually striking film, weaving many elements - interviews, archival and news footage, songs and dances, printed words - into a rich tapestry of sights, sounds, and ideas. Scenes of traditional life are artfully juxtaposed with pointedly modern views; words take on new meanings as they appear in different contexts; and nonverbal communication comes delicately into play - as the camera quietly leaves the face of a speaking woman, for instance, and wanders to her gracefully moving hands. Trinh is an expressive filmmaker as well as an eloquent one. Her new film, which is her most personal work to date, deserves a wide and receptive audience.