Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989)

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Running Time: 108 min

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In Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989), Trinh T. Minh-Ha deconstructs the idea that documentary reveals the “real world,” especially within the context of the ethnographic interview, and critiques the ways “ideologies of authenticity legitimize exclusionary systems of representation” (Gracki, 53). In the first half of the film, the audience is shown a series of first-person interviews, seemingly of Vietnamese women in Vietnam, intercut with newsreel footage, still photos of the Vietnam war, and footage of traditional folk dances. The interviewed women are dressed in the simple attire of socialist Vietnam, a “feminist natural look,” forming an impression of a “natural” portrayal of the Vietnamese feminist activist, and the footage aligns with and reproduces popular Eurocentric conceptions of Vietnam. In the second half of the film, this illusion of an “authentic” representation is shattered as the previously seen women are revealed to be non-professional Vietnamese actresses living in California – the interviews are, in reality, reenactments of the translated and transcribed interviews originally conducted by Mai Thu Van in Vietnam: un peuple, desvoix. In the second half of the film, Minh-Ha interviews the actresses, questioning them on why they agreed to be a part of the film, and displays footage of them in their day-to-day, “real life” activities. In these interviews, the women no longer dress in costume, and are able to choose their clothing — this time, it appears to be a more “genuine” account of them. Yet, even now, in these “real” interviews, the women choose to wear showy clothing and makeup that they don’t wear in ordinary life, and choose backgrounds for the interviews, such as a fish pond, that don’t represent their own lived realities. Paradoxically, the performative nature of this self-representation is able to reveal more about their lived experience as working class women, and in this way, Minh-Ha illustrates how “fictionalization need not be associated with fraud, duplicity and lies, for it is ultimately able to draw out a greater truth than the mere attempt to mirror ‘reality’ and everyday life” (Gracki, 52). Ultimately, Min-Ha exposes the way ethnographic films and film makers construct authenticity for ideological reasons, and the way these neocolonial narratives of authenticity “exclude, silence, and objectify Third World Women within debilitating stereotypes that not only deny them agency and subjectivity, but make this lack appear somehow ‘natural’ and inevitable” (Gracki, 53).

Bibliographic item:

To understand the intentions behind and develop a greater understanding of the critical theory surrounding Surname Viet, Given Name Nam, it may be helpful to read the book Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, especially Chapter 3: Difference: “A Special Third World Woman Issue,” and the journal article Documentary Is/Not a Name, both written by Trinh Minh-Ha. I also found the journal article True Lies: Staging the Ethnographic Interview in Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989) by Katherine Gracki to be incredibly enlightening in attempting to understand the film and getting a background to its creation, release, and reception.

Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism:,contains,woman%20native%20other&offset=0

Documentary Is/Not a Name:

True Lies: Staging the Ethnographic Interview in Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989):

Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women (1989)

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Running Time: 30 min


Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women is a documentary tribute to the lives of jazz musicians Ernestine “Tiny” Davis and Ruby Lucas, including their forty year romantic partnership.  The ladies’ careers were so prolific that after a few minutes, they begin to sound like myths.  Tiny started her own all-female jazz band and travelled around the country playing before she turned 30.  Ruby was on Louis Armstrong’s very good side, and played at least three different instruments in countless bands (including Tiny’s).  Together, they cultivated “Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot”, a queer club in Chicago; one of few safe spaces for queer people at that time in the city.  These ladies have lived well and authentically, and director Greta Schiller doesn’t skimp on their accomplishments.

But Hell Divin’ Women is more than jazz history and lively vintage footage. It weaves the public with the private beautifully, featuring rare musical recordings, home videos, off-the-cuff interviews with the couple, publicity photos, and narrative poetry by Cheryl Clarke.  The result is a nostalgic and intimately fresh approach to historical documentary with some good laughs too. Ruby and Tiny are hilarious.  They know who they are; it seems like Greta Schiller does, too.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of scholarly materials on the film, but I personally found the film’s references to 1950s queer Chicago subculture fascinating, such as the couple’s famous club in the South Side. This Chicago Encyclopedia entry details more about the highly intersectional history of gays and lesbians in the city.

The third and fourth paragraphs relate specifically to the black gay and lesbian community that formed the South Side during the Great Migration, which Tiny and Ruby largely contributed to.  Strangely, their bar is not mentioned.