Reflections on “Ekleipsis”

December 7, 2012 at 7:58 am Leave a comment

Tran T. Kim-Trang’s Ekleipsis, which highlights the story of a community of hysterically blind Cambodian women in Long Beach, California, also plays with the use of blankness and blackness in the primarily image-based medium of video.  Like History and Memory, Ekleipsis displays a montage of different visual texts that constitute our understanding of the history of the Khmer Rouge’s reign.  However, in addition to found photographs of Cambodian women and (pseudo)scientific graphs of the female body and the eye’s function of sight, Ekleipsis also presents an eclectic cycle of fifty-two different images—shots of the hysterically blind Cambodian women lying down or getting their eyes checked by doctors, symbolic objects (‘glasses’ referencing the Khmer Rouge’s murder of all those wearing spectacles, because they signified inclusion in the elite intellectual class; ‘jewelry’ citing the phenomenon of Cambodian women hiding valuables in their vagina for safekeeping), newsreel images of Cambodians working in the fields and soldiers riding through towns on tanks, and clips from Hollywood films such as The Killing Fields (dir. Roland Joffé, 1985)—that are punctuated by ever decreasing periods of blackness.  These shots of blankness reflect the hysterical blindness of the Cambodian women, who were so traumatized by the images they saw during the reign of the Khmer Rouge that they lost their vision: “How do you make sense of a senseless experience?  We were so afraid of the Khmer Rouge and their senseless brutality that we just could not see anymore.”[1]  Milan Kundera asserts that “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”[2]  However, Ekleipsis troubles this schema, arguing instead that “forgetting” can perhaps be used as a tool of resistance.[3]  A willed amnesia may perhaps be a way to weaken the potency of the Khmer Rouge’s official historical narrative.  Formally, this weakening and challenging of the official History is reflected in shots of a chronology of the history of Cambodia printed on a piece of paper.  Rather than privileging the text and its information, the camera travels closely across the paper, causing the text to sometimes shift out of focus and instead emphasizing the textuality—indeed, the manufactured flimsiness—of the paper itself.  Thus, Ekleipsis suggests that the absence of memory can perhaps act as a productive counter-memory in and of itself.  Interestingly, even if the Cambodian women were willing to talk about their traumatic experiences, they were not available to be interviewed.  By the time Tran heard about this community from a 1998 newspaper article and decided to make this film, these transient women had disappeared, blending back into the population in an effort to be forgotten—because forgetting historically symbolized a means for safety.  Perhaps this forgetting is an example of what Carole McGranaham has coined “arrested histories”—histories that are “not so much erased or forgotten as they are postponed and archived for future use,” when it may be more strategically safe and productive to utilize them.[4]

Given its emphasis on the anti-visual, Ekleipsis highlights four different voices that embody the different relationships of power, History, and Memory.  One voice, rendered at a low, almost indecipherable pitch, speaks in the first person, embodying the positionality of a Cambodian interviewee.  A second voice, rendered at a high pitch and given a pompous tone, speaks in the third person, citing psychoanalytic theory such as the writings of Sigmund Freud.  A third voice, rendered at a “normal” pitch, also speaks in the third person, narrating the biography and struggles of a particular Cambodian woman in a journalistic manner.  These three voices are all articulated by Tran herself, attesting to the mediation and manipulation of all claims to historical and scientific Truth.  A fourth voice, played by Tran’s younger sister, speaks in the first person and pretends to be a Cambodian refugee as well.  The two voices that speak in first person express personal memories that challenge and nuance the official and purportedly “objective” discourse proclaimed by both the psychoanalytic and journalistic voices, as well as the dry chronology of the history of Cambodia as represented in the extreme close-up shots of the printed timeline.  Notably however, the first person voices do not purport to be any more “real” or “unmediated.”  Although they are based on historical research and do embody a kernel of Truth, they are in the end “fictional:” because Tran did not have access to the Cambodian women, she could not interview them, and thus the script is actually written by herself.[5]  In this way Ekleipsis self-reflexively embodies Lisa Yoneyama’s caution to not reify personal memories in a new regime of totality or universal truthfulness, but rather to have them “remain self-critically unsettling.”[6]

Ekleipsis does not victimize the hysterically blind Cambodian women, nor does it conceptualize hysterically blindness solely as a disease, as illustrated with the film’s last line, which is quoted from Seanglim Bit’s The Warrior Heritage: A Psychological Perspective of Cambodian Trauma: “Ascendant personalities provide ample evidence that there’s the equal potential for using the experience to reflect on our lives in more positive way.”[7]  Furthermore, the video ends on a relatively optimistic note, as the periods of blackness between each image in the cycle shrink until the sequence finally plays uninterrupted, hinting at the possibility of fully regaining sight.  Thus Ekleipsis asserts that the process of interweaving personal memories into official historical discourses not only changes conceptualizations of the past, but can also enable visions of a more hopeful future.[8]

-Evyn Le Espiritu

[1] Tran T. Kim-Trang, Video, Ekleipsis, 1998.

[2] Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (New York: Knopf, 1981), 3.

[3] “Forgetting can also be an attempt to keep the past from damaging the present.” -Hue-Tam Ho Tai, “Faces of Remembrance and Forgetting,” in The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam, ed. Hue-Tam Ho Tai (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 190.

[4] Carole McGranahan, “Truth, Fear, and Lies: Exile Politics and Arrested Histories of the Tibetan Resistance,” in Cultural Anthropology 20, no. 4 (2005): 571.

[5] Indeed, even if Tran had interviewed the actual Khmer Rouge survivors, their interviews could still be considered “fictional,” given that people’s constructions of memory are always narratives whose “facts” are colored by the passage of time, affect, and considerations of self-representation.

[6] Lisa Yoneyama, Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 5.

[7] Seanglim Bit, The Warrior Heritage: A Psychological Perspective of Cambodian Trauma (Lanham: University Press of America, 1991), 10.

[8] For more on this affect of hope, see Jose Esteban Munoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009).

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