Image of Nguyen Trinh Thi’s daughter in “Fifth Cinema” (2018) (image courtesy the artist)

Who are you, dear reader? From where are you reading this? From where do we speak, for whom? As clashes with immigrants rise, and indigenous peoples remain imperiled around the world, these questions have a vital urgency. These questions matter.

Vietnamese artist Nguyen Trinh Thi meditates on these questions in “Fifth Cinema” (2018), currently on display at the inaugural Elevation Laos in Vientiane and the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial (APT9) in Australia. For Nguyen — born in Vietnam and educated in the USA, after which she returned to Vietnam and married a US citizen — there are no easy answers. This is true for an increasing number of people in the world. Certainly, Nguyen’s personal geographies extend well beyond the modern nation state of Vietnam.

Screen shot from Nguyen Trinh Thi’s, “Fifth Cinema” (2018) (16min)

“Fifth Cinema” is an evolution from “Fourth Cinema,” a term coined by indigenous filmmaker Barry Barclay. The text in Nguyen’s film — written in English and Vietnamese — is taken nearly entirely from Barclay’s “Celebrating Fourth Cinema,” wherein he proposes the new genre of Fourth Cinema, or indigenous cinema.

Barclay writes, “First, Second and Third cinema are all Cinemas of the Modern Nation State. From the Indigenous place of standing, these are all invader Cinemas.” Hollywood, art house, and world cinema, Barclay says, all perpetuate a colonialist worldview. They are the cinemas of the modern nation state. “He [the white man] will always film from within the national orthodoxy from whence he came,” he elaborates.

Screen shot from Nguyen Trinh Thi’s “Fifth Cinema” (2018) (37min), clip from Apocalypse Now

Instead, Barclay proposes movies made by indigenous peoples and consumed or distributed according to their wishes. His text made an impression on Nguyen, who has long been dedicated to laying bare how Vietnam is constructed in the media. Does this mean my artwork, that I myself, am part of an invader cinema? She must have asked herself.

Nguyen’s commitment to media representation within Vietnam goes well beyond her art practice. In 2009, she founded Hanoi Doclab, a hub for the education about and documentation of experimental and alternative film practices — a rare pursuit in the tightly controlled media landscape of Vietnam. For the last decade, she has been dedicated to nourishing a critical local discourse around how visual media affects society in Vietnam. Throughout her work, and especially in “Fifth Cinema,” we see a dizzying array of archival images and film segments that construct images of Vietnam, for those who call it home and those foreigners looking on.

Nguyen considers “Fifth Cinema” to be the culmination of her work from the last five years. In her 2015 piece “Letters from Panduranga,” she carefully ruminates on the impossibilities of representing an indigenous culture — in this case, the local Cham — as an outsider. Nguyen is Kinh, the ethnic and political majority in Vietnam; she certainly cannot make Fourth Cinema under Barclay’s definition.

Although “Fifth Cinema” relies heavily on indigenous theory, and utilizes footage of the Cham, any clear sense of “us” and “them” becomes blurred as hints of her family’s situation slowly emerge, particularly through her daughter.(My favorite scene is Nguyen’s daughter stumbling over legalese for filing US taxes abroad.) She becomes the subtle sub-plot, murmuring throughout the video. Her haunting presence, seemingly snippets from family footage over the years, asks: Where does she belong? From where can she speak?

Nguyen’s daughter enters early on in the film wearing roller skates and a shirt that reads “2002 Trash Generation”; the image is flipped sideways. As the image adjusts, Barclay’s text appears below. The words on screen, however, are not subtitles, but a careful and poetic weaving of Barclay’s (slightly edited) words with Nguyen’s family footage, along with her trademark material — found footage, archival images, and an eclectic array of films. Nguyen, who cut up the text into very small sections, wants the experience of reading to be more akin to a poem.

Screen shot from Nguyen Trinh Thi’s “Fifth Cinema” (2018) (46min)

“Fifth Cinema,” Nguyen writes in her statement, acts as a “metaphor for all things oppressed — women, minorities, the colonized.” She seeks to speak “from the point of view that any one of us can potentially be the oppressed; and the oppressor.” Nguyen’s daughter — seen over the course of her childhood — fills many of these roles.

While Nguyen’s daughter is not indigenous, Barclay’s text and theory of Fourth Cinema helps in thinking through her circumstance, particularly the sexualization and exoticization of brown-skinned women. However, Nguyen’s daughter — as a dual citizen and half-white — falls outside many of the easier categories of identity, and certainly beyond a neat dichotomy between colonizer and oppressed. While the term “Fifth Cinema” is never referenced or explained in the work, we are left assuming it is towards a kind of film from people in Nguyen’s daughter situation, between bordered nations and neat dichotomies.

Screen shot from Nguyen Trinh Thi’s “Fifth Cinema” (2018) (11min)

Some might wonder: Is Nguyen quoting, pay homage to, or appropriating Barclay’s words? I reached out to curator Zara Stanhope, who chose to include “Fifth Cinema” in APT9, for clarity. Stanhope explained over email that Nguyen’s film was not “created in the pursuit of an indigenous methodology for indigenous content in terms of Barclay’s interests.” She elaborated, “Like most other nations in the Asia Pacific, including Australia, Vietnam today is an imagined community, a people whose ancestors and themselves have lived through colonization, imperial, and other invasions and occupations … [“Fifth Cinema”] speaks about the question how to give voice in a visual sense to the people in Vietnam today as she asks as a citizen of the country.”

In his poetic text, Barclay seems to invite interpretations of his own theory of Fourth Cinema. He writes, “For you can do with text what you like, can you not? You can make a personal story out of the parts of anything.” “Fifth Cinema” is Nguyen’s stunning, and deeply complex, response for finding a way to speak about where she and her family are from.

The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial (APT9) continues at Queensland Art Gallery (Stanley Pl, South Brisbane, Australia) through April 28. Elevations Laos continues at i:cat gallery on Rue Setthathilath, Vientiane, through February 16.

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...