Conference: “There is no such thing as documentary

Dublin Core


Conference: “There is no such thing as documentary



As the concluding programme of the exhibition Trinh T. Minh-ha. Films. (17 October 2020 – 28 February 2021) at NTU CCA Singapore, this four-part conference brings together scholars and practitioners across filmic, anthropological and curatorial disciplines, addressing notions of multivocality, performativity, and truth in fiction, through Trinh’s practice as a filmmaker and theorist.

As Trinh wrote: “There is no such thing as documentary…The words will not ring true.” Both a response and homage to Trinh’s provocation, and at once a close but also an opening, the conference extends multiple threads of inquiry beyond the ontological frames presented in Trinh’s films, to further explore the theoretical parallels and proximities between arrangement and composition, territorialisation and deterritorisalisation, that underscore Trinh’s cinematic works.

Co-organised by Dr Erika Balsom (Canada/United Kingdom), Prof Ute Meta Bauer (Germany/Singapore), Dr Marc Glöde(Germany/Singapore), and Dr Ella Raidel (Austria/Singapore)

Presented in collaboration with King’s College London

Supported by NTU Centre for Liberal Arts and Social Sciences



Friday, 26 February 2021, 4.00 – 7.00pm (SGT)

Session 1: Speaking Nearby
Chaired by Dr Erika Balsom (Canada/United Kingdom), Reader, Film Studies, King’s College London (KCL)

This session will explore historical and contextual approaches to films and writings of Trinh T. Minh-ha, putting her work into dialogue with questions of intercultural cinema, the critique of documentary naturalism, and the relationship between film theory and film practice. In particular, speakers will think through how notions of “speaking nearby” and “speaking about” may serve as a lens through which to open broader considerations of the aesthetics, ethics, and politics of Trinh’s cross-disciplinary work.


4.00 – 4.10pm               Introduction

4.10 – 4.25pm               Welcome address by Prof Ute Meta Bauer

4.25 – 5.15pm               Keynote Lecture: Is there still no such thing as documentary? by Dr Erika Balsom

Some thirty years ago, Trinh wrote, “There is no such thing as documentary… The words will not ring true.” This presentation will explore the context and meaning of this declaration. With reference to Trinh’s What About China? (Part I of II, 2020–2021) and other recent works of experimental nonfiction, it will question how this notion resonates today, some thirty years after its original formulation. 

5.15 – 5.45pm               Break

5.45 – 6.15pm              Presentation: What about Foreigners? Or, How Far Away is Nearby? Notes about Harmony, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s What About China? and  Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo, Cina by Prof Chris Berry (United Kingdom), Professor, Film Studies, KCL

This presentation draws on the juxtapositions between Trinh’s focus on harmony in What About China? (Part I of II, 2020–2021) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s very un-harmonious experiences with his 1972 film Chung Kuo, Cina, which was denounced by the Chinese government that had invited him to film in the country. The maintenance of a “harmonious society” (和谐社会) is an ancient Chinese ideal, much cited by the Chinese Communist Party in the twenty-first century. Was Antonioni’s film lacking in aesthetic harmony? Was Antonioni’s behaviour un-harmonious? Is Trinh’s famous “speaking alongside” a harmonious mode of filmmaking? What are some of the different ideas about harmony and the treatment of foreigners that might inform our understanding of these films?

6.15 – 6.45pm              Presentation: ‘About’ theory. About. by Dr Nicolas Helm-Grovas (Spain/United Kingdom), Lecturer, Film Studies, Education, KCL

‘About the cinema. About. The words will not ring true.’ In “Documentary Is/Not a Name,” Trinh asks: “How is one to cope with a “film theory” that can never theorise “about” film, but only with concepts that film raises in relation to concepts of other practices?” Whereas film theory is frequently understood as a form of metalanguage—as a systematic, explanatory, conceptual and/or speculative discourse that speaks about an object discourse, film—here it is precisely the relation of ‘aboutness’ that is criticised. This talk unpacks this objection to ‘aboutness’, arguing that it has both a political or ethical dimension, drawing on a Foucauldian critique of the disciplinary nature of speaking about, closely tied to Trinh’s critique of historic forms of documentary representation; and a conceptual or discursive dimension, based on a Barthesian critique of the distinction between science and literature from the standpoint of ‘writing’. Destabilising distinctions between theoretical discourse and artistic discourse, films and writing, theory and practice, what does this critique mean for the practice of film theory, and for the designation of certain films, including Trinh’s, as ‘theoretical’?

6.45 – 7.00pm              Response by Dr Daniel Mann (Israel/United Kingdom), Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, KCL

Saturday, 27 February 2021, 1.30 – 7.00pm (SGT)

Session 2: Filmic Interferences
Chaired by Dr Marc Glöde (Germany/Singapore), Assistant Professor, NTU School of Art, Design and Media

Filmic Interferences is a panel that will highlight the aspect of filmmaking from the perspective of contemporary filmmakers. It will address the changing role of categories like “documentary” and the increasing interferences that challenge these ideas. The presentations will take a closer look at the impact of forms and strategies from experimental film and discuss the impact on other filmic discourses such as visual anthropology, feminism or intercultural cinema. By taking the films of Trinh T. Minh-ha as a resonating point, the panel will investigate how these debates have created a development that has changed how we think through the filmic medium, how we think about film, and about filmic representation. Apart from aspects that are very closely related to the ideas of fact, fiction and narration, another focus will be directed towards the general frames of perception and discussion of film. 


1.30 – 2.00pm               Welcome

2.00 – 2.15pm               Introduction by Dr Marc Glöde

2.15 – 2.45pm               Presentation: Framing the Frame by Tan Pin Pin (Singapore), film director

In this presentation, Tan will speak about her film practice that now spans over twenty years. She will address the relationship between documentary and experimental film-making in her own work and how some of her filmic topics have oscillated between these fields. Apart from this journey through the formal and thematic aspects of her films, the presentation will delve into how specific institutional frames have created very different dynamics that have an impact on the general perception of the work. These raise the question: how do the works function in the different contexts, for example of the university, the museum, the cinema, or the festival, in society at large?

2.45 – 3.15pm              Presentation: Stories and Histories by Nguyễn Trinh Thi (Vietnam), artist and filmmaker

In this talk, Nguyễn will share her thoughts about her own filmic practice, addressing aspects of how the process of filmmaking connects with the process of remembering and critical reflection. Her work is always an engagement with socio-cultural environments and never shies away from a critical confrontation—either in relation to surrounding obstacles of society or in relation to the filmic form itself. She addresses these issues in her practice often by combining original footage gathered through extensive field research and found footage which complicates the distinctions between video art and documentary filmmaking. The outcomes of these meticulous compositions are always complex and multilayered renderings of Vietnam’s past and the continuing reverberations of historical events in the present. By highlighting some of these aspects in her works Nguyễn will offer a deeper insight into how this practice asks for alternative methods of accessing unwritten histories. 

3.15 – 3.30pm              Response by Dr David Teh (Australia/Singapore), Associate Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, NUS

3.30 – 3.45pm              Break


Session 3: Performing the Documents
Chaired by Dr Ella Raidel (Austria/Singapore), Assistant Professor, NTU ADM and WKWSCI

This panel attempts to define documents and performativity in filmmaking in terms of its methods, artistic processes and cultural political significance. To perform the documents means to take action to reveal their inner logic of cultural representation. Through the consideration of documents in relation to poetics, participation and activism it shows the way how colonial truth and knowledge are being constructed and how diasporic histories are experienced. Films become not only cultural-political texts, but also visual and acoustic apparatuses in making aware one’s origins and destinies.


3.45 – 4.00pm               Introduction by Dr Ella Raidel

4.00 – 4.30pm               Presentation: The Acoustics of the Archipelagic Imagination in Southeast Asian Artists’ Film, Dr Philippa Lovatt (Scotland), Lecturer, Film Studies, and Co-Director, Centre for Screen Cultures, University of St Andrews

How do we conceptualize films in relation? As we seek to trace the connections and affinities we see, hear, and feel across a regional cinema, what kinds of alternative cartographies (affective, aesthetic, cultural, or industrial) emerge? How do we think through and with the aesthetic practices of artists and filmmakers in a way that enables us to avoid both re-inscribing arbitrary lines across territories and disavowing the specific historic and lived conditions of the nation?  Drawing from Trinh T. Minh-ha’s writing on the acoustic experience of diaspora and Édouard Glissant on the poetics of relation, this talk will focus on Nguyễn Trinh Thi’s Everydays the Seventies (2018) and Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation (2017), and will reflect on how we might consider regionality through the acoustic, affective, and emotional cartographies depicted in these works, both of which explore experiences of migration in and out of the region during the 1970s and 1980s.  

4.30 – 5.00pm             Presentation: Performative Documentary Practices from The Epistemological South by Rosalia Namsai Engchuan (Germany/Thailand), anthropologist and filmmaker

In a world where everything and nothing has changed¾in a state of ongoing coloniality of knowledge production in the aftermath of epistemicide¾this talk acts as a space to valorise and explore artistic epistemologies as openings towards other futures. Contemplating the echoes of Trinh’s seminal provocation of documentary’s indexicality with truth, the talk proposes a shift in the focus of research from objects of art towards artistic processes, through an ethnographic exploration of the processual, dialogical, social, and material nature of knowledge formation. Drawing from her own artistic practice as well as ongoing conversations with the artists Korakrit Arunanondchai, Stephanie Comilang and Cahyo Prayogo, Rosalia Namsai Engchuan’s presentation responds to Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ call for epistemologies of the South, unfolding other ways of learning and knowing, that performatively transcend modernity’s temporally-conceived, institutionalised, and normative divisions of (official) knowledge formation inherited from the colonial order.

5.00 – 5.15pm              Response by Silke Schmickl (Germany/Hong Kong), Curator

5.15 – 5.30pm              Break

Session 4: Reverberations—Spatialising the Temporal, the Sonic, and the Pictorial
Chaired by Prof Ute Meta Bauer (Germany/Singapore), Professor, NTU ADM and Founding Director, NTU CCA Singapore

Reverberation: the prolonging of a sound, a continuing effect. Taking the exhibition Trinh T. Minh-ha. Films. as its starting point, this panel session discusses the spatio-temporal resonances of Trinh’s cinematic works when curated in an exhibition setting. The panel also explores collaborative curatorial practices, expanding into the realms of research, programming, and production, and how the Trans-Institutional Partnership among NTU CCA Singapore, Rockbund Art Museum, Würtembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, and the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts enables ongoing reverberations of support for an artist’s work across borders and time while allowing for distinction and differentiation based on each organisation’s context and approach.


5.30 – 5.45pm               Introduction by Prof Ute Meta Bauer

5.45 – 6.15pm                Presentation: Textures by Larys Frogier (France/China), Director, Rockbund Art Museum

Frogier’s presentation is a sincere engagement to go along with the work of Trinh T. Minh-ha, being fully available to unfold multiple relations to in/visibility, opacity, sound/silence, time, displacement and locality. Rather than identifying Trinh as a filmmaker, theoretician, poet, musician, Frogier suggests that it is worthwhile to return to a simple question: how do the textures that surface through image, text and sound making in Trinh’s work make us come alive as people, institutions, and political subjects? How about considering poetry, music, cinema, and theory not only as artistic, intellectual or academic disciplines, but as fundamental acts of life? It further explores the possibilities of curating Trinh’s work as an art institution, sometimes in extremely challenging ideological contexts, in order to develop a vision that, instead of a display or programme, has more to do with the subtle but deep distillation of soul, intuition, and movement.

6.15 – 6.45pm              Presentation: Loops and Entries: Performing Film in Exhibition Formats by Iris Dressler (Germany), Co-director, Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart

Since the 1990s, Iris Dressler and Hans D. Christ have been working in close collaboration with diverse artists on different models of presenting film in the exhibition space. The loop as a mode of repetition and shifting, in particular the shifting of entry points and thus of narrative orders, plays a central role, as well as aspects of the choreography of movement, light, and sound, experiments with the juxtaposition of extreme divergent sizes or with open and closed spaces. Dressler will present a selection of these approaches in her talk.

6.45 – 7.00pm              Response by Dr Karin Oen (United States/Singapore), Deputy Director, Curatorial Programmes, NTU CCA Singapore


26 February – 27 February 2021

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“Conference: “There is no such thing as documentary”,” NTU CCA Singapore Digital Archive, accessed May 27, 2024,

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This Item Is Part Of Item: Trinh T. Minh-ha. Films
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Item: Conference: "There is no such thing as documentary"
Session 2: Filmic Interferences
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Item: Conference: "There is no such thing as documentary"
Session 3: Performing the Documents
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Item: Conference: "There is no such thing as documentary"
Session 4: Reverberations—Spatialising the Temporal, the Sonic, and the Pictorial
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