Letters from Panduranga
An essay film in the form of a letter exchange, Nguyễn’s personal and poetic film explores the complex legacy of cultural and historical occupation, its ongoing presence in the indigenous Cham community, and her role as an artist.
Letters from Panduranga was developed in response to the Vietnamese government’s plan to build the country’s first nuclear power plants in Ninh Thuân. This is a province once known as Panduranga and a spiritual centre for the ancient matriarchal Cham culture, now an ethnic minority in the country. The Cham indigenous culture originated almost two thousand years ago, and Panduranga was the last of the Champa territories to be annexed in 1832 by the kingdom of Dai Viêt, present-day Vietnam.
Nguyễn’s film thinks through the marginalisation and erasure of indigenous history and experience, alongside media censorship of ecological destruction and injustice. Responding to this censorship in the form of letters, she situates the film between the macro of these power structures and the micro ecologies of specific places, details and personal stories.
Questioning her position as an artist and outsider to the Cham community, the film investigates distance and proximity. Through the letters, two voices both representative of Nguyễn, address the crossing of distances; of lands, time, the camera lens, and the space between this community and themselves. The two voices hesitate at their own roles as narrators. The film asks what is carried across such distance by people and memory, quietly exploring how history lives in the present.
The audience’s attention is guided between the background and the foreground. As Nguyễn states in one interview: “The only way for me to tell the story is to talk about two stories at once: the intimate story of the Cham and the wider story of colonialism, war, contemporary politics and the position of the artist”. Contemplating the relational dynamic between the subject and the lens, an ongoing question in Nguyễn’s work, the voice in the film says: “Nothing feels right”.
Addressing the unease of fiction and documentary filmmaking, and the politics of representation in art, Letters from Panduranga asks the perhaps unanswerable question of how to tell a story. —Christina Demetriou
 Nguyen Trinh Thi – interview: ‘I want to unpick the way we look at things’, Studio International, 18/02/2019
Nguyễn Trinh Thi (1973, Vietnam) is a Hanoi-based independent filmmaker and video/media artist. Nguyễn studied journalism, photography, international relations and ethnographic film in the United States. Her diverse practice has consistently investigated the role of memory in the necessary unveiling of hidden, displaced or misinterpreted histories; and examined the position of artists in the Vietnamese society. Nguyễn is the founder and director of Hanoi DOCLAB, an independent centre for documentary film and the moving image art in Hanoi since 2009. Her films and video art works have been shown at festivals and art exhibitions including Jeu de Paume (Paris); CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux; the Lyon Biennale 2015; Asian Art Biennial 2015 (Taiwan); Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial 2014; Singapore Biennale 2013; Jakarta Biennale 2013; Oberhausen International Film Festival; Bangkok Experimental Film Festival; Artist Films International; DEN FRIE Centre of Contemporary Art (Copenhagen); and Kuandu Biennale (Taipei).
Nguyễn’s film Eleven Men (Mười một người đàn ông) screened at BFMAF 2016.
How to Improve the World (2021), Fifth Cinema (2018), Everyday’s the Seventies (2018), Eleven Men (2016), Vietnam The Movie (2016), Letters from Panduranga (2015), Landscape Series #1 (2013) SOLO for a Choir (2013) Que Faire (2012), Jo Ha Kyu, (2012) I Died for Beauty (2012), Song to the Front (2011), Unsubtitled (2011), Chronicle of a Tape Recorded Over (2011), Terminal (2009), Spring Comes Winter After (2009), 93 Years, 1383 Days (2008), Love Man Love Woman (2007), A Chungking Road Opening (2005)