2016, HD video, sound, 28 minutes
Eleven Men combines footage from a range of Vietnamese classic feature films produced by the state-owned Vietnam Feature Film Studio with Franz Kafka’s short story Eleven Sons. Focusing on a single actress, Nhu Quynh, and spanning three decades of her career, Eleven Men transposes Kafka’s male family imaginary to the analysis of a woman’s relation to her lovers.
Magdalena Magiera: What made you use Franz Kafka’s short story Eleven Sons (1917) as a blueprint for Eleven Men? What triggered your interest?
Nguyễn Trinh Thi: My initial idea was to survey Như Quỳnh's roles over the decades of her career from the late 1960s when she was 18 until the present day. I thought that by observing her female roles over the years and alongside the changes in Vietnamese society we might be able to see how women have been seen and portrayed in Vietnamese cinema and media.
I was also interested in somehow trying to give back some agency to the women and actors/actresses—maybe also subversions.
After looking at some of her films and having a clearer idea of what they implied, I started looking for a structure that could help to bring the material together. And I was looking for a text, potentially written by women talking about men. There was a short story written about 30 years ago by a Vietnamese female writer, Pham Thi Hoai, about men in her life which was structurally inspired by Kafka's Eleven Sons. I was drawn to the straightforward structure of the narrative, which simply lists the different men and goes into details of each one.
I arrived at Kafka's story after Phạm Thi Hoai's text. What I like about the quality of Kafka's text is its openness and ambivalence, it's almost like a canvas on which I could draw with my own material. Also the fact that the telling of the story was by a father about his sons makes it much more ambiguous when I changed the relationship to woman-about-her-men. I think it's more open and humanist rather than pre-determinedly feminist. I also like the fact that the original version featured a father writing about his sons—despite being critical, the thinking became more complicated, with a hint of unconditional love.
Maybe it's a feeling that one might have for one's own country or fellow citizens. Or for me at least.
MM: Do the eleven characters speak about any particular men (or situation) in Vietnam? What are they standing for?
NTT: I follow the order of films more or less chronologically, so naturally the men would stand for different periods of Vietnamese history, from World War II (the second man, for example, joined the side of the Japanese; some men joined the communists; later on one fought for the Saigon army in the south; one was actually an American advisor; after Vietnam changed to a more capitalist system from the late 1980s/early ‘90s the men became a pimp, a businessman... etc.). But I think this happened quiet naturally.
MM: The chosen language in your work is very particular and possibly not very well known to everyone, so I wonder how important is accessibility of history for you in your work?
NTT: Accessibility of history is only half important for me, maybe not even half. I usually work on different layers, so the local and national history is only one of these layers. If you’re not familiar with Vietnamese cinema or Vietnamese history you can still understand and enjoy the work from a different point of view—of humanity and universality.
That's also why I was interested in using a text from 100 years ago and from a completely different context.
MM: What is the role of women in Vietnamese cinema?
NTT: I think that women—not only in Vietnamese cinema—are usually there to be looked at. During the war and the socialist times, the image of women was used for propaganda purposes, to garner support from everyone, regardless of their gender, for war and socialism building efforts. And it’s not like things got any better in our present times.
MM: You mentioned that you reflect about yourself in your work. What are your reflections in relation to this specific work?
NTT: I think that the reflections of myself in my works are quite indirect. Maybe more in the way in how I think about power and structure in society. I just want to give agency to the suppressed voices. So I think the most important gesture in this work is that of giving a woman a chance to speak. The voice of the film is hers. It's the main thing. What the men are and who they stand for is secondary.
MM: You have been a journalist for quite a while before becoming a filmmaker, how would you see and describe (your) artistic research, as well as the role of an artist?
NTT: I think I use all the skills that I have to combine with my interests, including the skills for research and investigation. But I'd say my research and investigations are of subjective and intuitive nature rather than scholarly or systematic.
Nguyễn Trinh Thi’s Love Man Love Woman and Letters from Panduranga are presented in collaboration with NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, in the context of the exhibition “Ghosts and Spectres – Shadows of History”, which can be visited until the 19th of November 2017
with text adapted fromEleven Sons by Franz Kafka(translated by Willa and Edwin Muir)
footage found from films:
“Đến hẹn lại lên” (1974, dir. Trần Vũ)“Ngày lễ thánh” / The Holly Day (1976, dir. Bạch Diệp)“Bài ca ra trận” / Song to the Front (1973, dir. Trần Đắc)
“Mối tình đầu” / First Love (1977, dir. Hải Ninh)“Nổi gió” / The Wind Rises (1966, dir. Huy Thành)
“Hy vọng cuối cùng” / The last hope (1978, dir. Trần Phương)“Mùa hè chiều thẳng đứng” / Vertical Rays of the Sun (2000, dir. Trần Anh Hùng)“Xích lô” / Cyclo (1995, dir. Trần Anh Hùng)