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Examining Vietnam’s Modernity Through the Lens of South Asian Independent Documentaries

The idea for Moving Reels: A Social Dialog formed in 2016 as the result of a dialogue between Dr. Shweta Kishore, a scholar, documentary filmmaker, film and media lecturer at RMIT University, and Zoe Butt, a director and curator at The Factory Contemporary Arts Center. The program is a series of workshops that includes screenings of films made in a different geographical context, followed by a discussion. The first phase of the program looks at the social, cultural and political linkage between South Asia and Vietnam.

“The program is really about creating, showing some stimulus materials and then being able to draw trends and see how they operate in the Vietnamese context and then creating discussion. We look at the world not just from a nationalistic way but in a bigger way connected through forces of history, connected through global flows, culture, and capital,” Shweta tells Saigoneer.

The first Moving Reels workshop occurred in July 2018, which screened the 2017 independent documentary film Nostalgia for the Future directed by Avijit Mukul Kishore and Rohan Shivkumar. The film is a collaboration between two people from two different disciplines — Avijit is a filmmaker and cinematographer and Shivkumar is an architect. Nostalgia for the Future looks at modernity and nationhood in India through the lens of architecture. The discussion that followed was facilitated by Shweta and Mel Schenck, a historian and architect in Vietnam.

The second workshop was conducted three months later and screened the 2015 documentary Cities of Sleep, which explores homelessness and poverty through the economics and politics of sleep in Delhi, followed by a discussion with Vietnamese architect and researcher Hoanh Tran. The film was directed by filmmaker and scholar Shaunak Sen. 

Both films are works of independent filmmakers, both produced and funded by the Films Divisions of India, a government organization. While this might seems paradoxical, Shweta explained that while the division’s initial function is to be a medium through which the government can communicate with its citizens, there has been some rethinking about its merit after the 1991 economic reforms in India. Those changes saw the establishment of a plethora of new television and media channels and a decrease in the Films Division’s popularity. There have since been efforts within the organization to support independent filmmaking in India.

The program’s focus stems from Shweta’s research on independent filmmaking in India and from being engaged in the changes in public discourses in Saigon and Vietnam occurring since she moved to the country two years ago. The films are translated into Vietnamese and English while the discussion that followed was conducted in English with a Vietnamese translator. “The idea is to be able to make that film not only symbolically but literally translated,” she adds.

While discussion topics vary between different workshops, one can safely say that the overarching theme of the program is modernity. “How modernity has created or resulted in or being interpreted in different ways and has created different types of effects,” said Shweta.

Yet, to speak of modernity is to delve into, to borrow historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s phrase, a “muddle” of complexities and contradictions that weave history, sociopolitical forces and categories. This is perhaps why such a program is important in the first place — its possibility of opening up contentious terrains for reflection, interlocution and critique.

 

Modernity and the Common Threads Between Vietnam and India

In Susan Bayly’s comparative analysis of the repercussions of colonialism and the legacies of socialism in Vietnam and India, the historical anthropology scholar lists down at least three characteristics that inform the current public discourse in Vietnam’s national history that echoes similar accounts in India. They are: Vietnam’s relationship with its colonial past, its post-independence revolutionary socialist phase and the shift towards a socialist-led market economy after đổi mới started in 1986.

India also wrestles with a colonial past that lasted up until its independence and partition from Pakistan in 1947. Post-independence India embraced a mixed economy system in which the public sector coexists with a strictly regulated private sector. After its 1991 economic reforms, the country shifted from a socialist welfare ideology to a free market and neo-liberal one.

While neo-liberalism is not commonly associated with Vietnam, the country is not immune to its effects. As Christina Schwenkel and Ann Marie Leshkowich pointed out in How Is Neoliberalism Good to Think Vietnam? How Is Vietnam Good to Think Neoliberalism?, it is important to think of neo-liberal capitalism in Vietnam as not a uniform process but to examine its form beyond binaries of public and private or socialist and capitalist, and situate its logic in a network of different social, cultural and political actors.

It is vital to frame Vietnam’s modernity within this purview as well. Albeit Euro-centric, many accounts trace Vietnam and India’s modernity to both country’s colonial era. For Vietnam, some reference French colonial modernity and the proliferation of print capitalism in the 1920s and 1930s as the source through which the idea of being modern circulates.

Others might point towards the emergence of Vietnamese anti-colonial and nationalistic groups organized by Vietnamese intelligentsia class such as Can Vuong, Tonkin Free School (Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc) or Duy Tan, which advocated for breaking free from sino-centricism perpetuated by Chinese colonialism and aspire towards modernity by learning from the French and Japanese in order to construct self-strength and a national identity needed for the anti-colonial project against the French. The dissemination of such modernity, despite its totalizing claims, is hardly even or uniform.

 

Nostalgia for the Future: Performing Modernity, Performing Nationhood

In Nostalgia for the Future, Avijit Mukul Kishore and Rohan Shivkumar introduce their vantage point through a metaphor of clothing.

“Homes: these are the machines we live in. The clothes we wear to protect our bodies and families. They house our desires. They are places that we dream. And our dreams in turn take the shape of our homes,” muses the narrator in Hindi. Within this lens, the film points the audience towards a fascinating implication, that modern aspirations are performed through the medium a home, and such performativities shape and change the bodies and identities that inhabit them.

The 54-minute film is an entrancing spectacle of buildings and the people that move within and outside them, juxtaposed by a simultaneously poetic and expository voice-over in Hindi. The film then goes on to examine four “homes” associated with different historical marks in India, starting with The Lukshmi Vilas Palace in Baroda built by the progressive ruler Sayajirao Gaekwad III in 1890. The palace is a stunning spectacle that takes inspiration from Western art and architectural tradition, which is reflective of Sayarijao as a figure as well. 

“This is how we become modern. By imitation. By wanting to become what we are not. Checking ourselves in the mirrors, becoming what we hope to be. Sometimes the image reaches out from behind the mirror to change us. Modernity provides the paraphernalia that makes this possible,” the narrator says, as the camera moves from one interior inside the palace to the next, closing up on sculptures that echoes Western classical art tradition.

As the body of postcolonial literature has pointed out, the imaginations of modernity, despite its universalistic claim, often fail to navigate within the intricacies of different histories and dynamics of its subaltern subject, and this is true for postcolonial contexts like India and Vietnam. Hence, the film entertains the idea that to be modern involves a certain form of uprooting, which then gets normalized through repetitive performativities.

Lukshmi Vilas Palace. Photo courtesy of Films Divison of India via Nostalgia for the Future.

The documentary then moves on to the Chandigarh project and the Villa Shodhan in Ahmedabad, both built by modernist architect Le Corbusier; and then to Mahatma Gandhi’s house, Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Le Corbusier’s buildings reflect his post-independence vision of India as embraced by the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, while the Sabarmati Ashram reflects Gandhi’s vision, both of which channel national aspirations to be emancipated from its old “clothes” — be it caste, gender or religion — and weave a new fabric for the future. From this blank slate, the nation enters the body. 

The last subject is the public housing project designed by India’s government after independence to house refugees and bureaucrats. Oscillating between scenes of architectural plans and the subject of their designs, the film shows how the architecture of these homes can be a technology of power that governs bodies and perpetuates the ideal practice of a nuclear family. The modernist project, which claims to be free from the sociopolitical strings of the past — be it caste, gender or religion — ended up reproducing these social stratifications as it couldn’t escape the larger hierarchical system in which it operates.

A still from the film. Photo courtesy of Films Division of India via Nostalgia for the Future.

Throughout the documentary, the directors provide subtle ways in which the subjects of the project (the citizens) failed to fit neatly in these clothes that have been tailored for them by a power figure. As later segments of the film also make clear, attempts rooted in utopian aspirations to start anew also run the risk of constructing new types of exclusion politics and margins.

 

Cities of Sleep: Notes From the Urban Margins

The opening sequence of Cities of Sleep starts by addressing the spectators in the room directly with a question: “Have you ever wondered why people sleep on (road) dividers during summer?” To prevent mosquitoes bites, as the gust from cars pass will blow them away, the narrator explains, in a mundane manner.

“The whole city is divided on the basis of sleep. To figure out the extent of someone’s power, observe the way they sleep,” muses Ranjit, one of the main protagonists of the film.

Directed by Shaunak Sen with the help of a team of producers, the documentary is a beautifully yet harrowing look at the lives of the most marginalized citizens of the city  to whom finding a place to sleep is a matter of life and death  through a biographical observation at the economics of sleep and sleep communities in Delhi. The documentary’s main foci are two informal sleep shelters Meena Bazaar and Loha Pul.

The two shelters are drastically different in the way they were run and operated. Meena Bazaar, a marketplace in Old Delhi during the daytime that turns into a sleep business at night, was run by Jamaal who rents out cots to people who can’t fit in rain baseras (government-run night shelters). Jamaal decides who get to rent the cot beds and how to price rentals in winter.

In Meena Bazaar’s complex politics, Jamaal is both a fearsome businessman and a protector. On the other end of the spectrum is Loha Pul, a sleep shelter that also doubles as an open theater, located under the Loha Pul iron bridge over the Yamuna River. It’s run by Ranjit, a former rickshaw puller. People can pay 10 rupees (US$0.14 or VND3,500) to secure a spot at Loha Pul, where they can choose to watch three films or sleep through them. There is a communal ethos to Lohan Pul. Sen frames the place as an “autonomous sleep community.”

Meena Bazaar (top) and Loha Pul (bottom). Photo courtesy of Films Division of India via Facebook page Cities of Sleep.

The documentary traces two tracks of narratives, one driven by Shakeel, a beggar. It follows Shakeel’s daily life: desperately scouring and begging from one makeshift place to another just to find a spot to doze off. Watching and following Shakeel’s track is an eye-opening experience, as it wears one down in the process.

Shakeel’s story, however, is too fascinating a character to not pay attention to in the film. He is unlikable and unreliable, he invites both empathy and skepticism. Shakeel constantly lies in his story, even about his own identity — he’s Hindu but changed his name to a Muslim-sounding name to make it easier to score a sleeping space in a Muslim-populated area. Shaunak Sen, in a talk, shared how Shakeel’s basic life decisions and identity are governed by sleep which made Sen decide to focus on him.

The second section of the narrative, led by Loha Pul, plays out in a more abstract manner. It is laden with Ranjit’s philosophical contemplations. Ranjit’s brilliant sensibilities mesh incredibly well with Shakeel’s, so much that at times it feels as if Ranjit is narrating Shakeel’s journey. Ranjit’s utterances encapsulate what poverty means: not just hardship but also the stripping off of one’s autonomy and mobility.

“Poverty means you can’t choose what wears you down. Others decide what your body must be doing and when it should be resting,” he says.

Being homeless, according to Ranjit, is also being not completely human, but shapeshifting from one realm to another and oscillating between city life and death.

In the landscape of increasing privatization of public space and everyday life in cities, the films poignantly lay bare the ramifications of forces such as global capitalism, neo-liberalism and current development discourse on the livelihoods of people who don’t have agency in the market. Shweta points out that while the effects of the 1991 market reform in India are uneven, populist discourse remains positive. Regarding the lack of marginalized voices: “The middle classes are happier because, of course, they have access to more services, higher consumption, but then if you are not a consumer and you don’t have access to consumption as your primary way of engaging in the society then what?” she ponders.

The urbanization process and increasing deregulation of the private sector in Vietnam also yields uneven results: despite benefiting some, the changes also come with growing economic, social and political inequality. The discussion with Hoanh Tran later involves the implications of urban planning developments, the abundance of real estate projects catered to the affluent, or recent efforts to “sanitize” the image of the city. Hence, questions such as who has the rights to the city, whom is the city built for and whose bodies are dispensable in the urbanization process, are important to ask and reflect on. 

Cities of Sleep manages to escape the pitfalls of voyeuristic gazing that documentary films about vulnerable subjects are often plagued by. Towards the end of the film, when Shakeel is too tired and decides to crash at a bus stop, he looks at the camera and asks: “You only shoot, you won’t do anything for me?” The question directly addresses the power dynamics between filmmakers and their subjects as well as between spectators and the characters they’re observing.

 

The Merits of Cross-Contextual Examination

The program’s focus on independent documentary filmmaking in India, according to Shweta, could foster different types of self-expression and open new terrains of critique because of its different approach to the means of film production. By working outside of both the state and the market-based system, independent documentary practitioners give themselves “the freedom to not have to be answerable to somebody’s expectations or performance and evaluation criteria.”

“And what they were doing was […] saying ‘you know if we work within the system, the economically-determined market-based media system there are a lot of issues and voices that will not find a place’,” she continues.

While the program is framed as focusing on South Asia as a whole, the two films are both from Indian filmmakers. Addressing this question, Shweta shares that it’s the simple case of having access to films. Her previous research has given her easier access to India’s independent documentary materials. However, the program wants to curate more films from other parts of South Asia as well as East Asia and Southeast Asia. Getting through the regulatory framework, however, will be a challenge. 

“In a way, it’s a project of decolonizing Euro-centric knowledge so that when we’re trying to study Asian history or Asian societies we look at materials from countries which are geographically closer and also countries that share similar historical and political trajectories. In this way, we construct knowledge which is not periphalizing Asia.”

In this sense, the workshops also offer its participants an opportunity to rethink the hegemony of the public sphere as well, circulating parallel discourses that embrace engagement from different perspectives and interpretations.

[Top photo courtesy of The Factory Contemporary Arts, via The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre’s Facebook page]


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