Properly encircling modern spheres of film analysis and critical study, documentary ethics are unfurling through heated dialectical discourses, which seek to question the materialist functions of cinema’s ontology. Historical studies are being placed at the forefront of these debates, critically surveying the development of the camera: its position as an arbiter of violence guided by colonial and imperial gazes. Recently, a wave of neo-ethnographic films have been celebrated as actively reconfiguring the relationship between colonizer and colonized, the cameras now in the hands of those artists coming from within the communities they are representing. It’s not entirely convincing, however, that this exchange of whose hands the camera sits in fully contests the objectifying processes that such forms of documentary filmmaking (mostly taking root in observational/poetic methods) enact. Diem Ha Le’s Children of the Mist doesn’t do much to dissuade from this particular skepticism.
Diem’s film observes a family belonging to the Hmong people, an Indigenous ethnic minority local to southwestern China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. The family we are engaged with resides in the mountains of north Vietnam, close to the Chinese border, but the focal point of the documentary is the youngest child, Di. She’s a 12-year-old girl in the midst of exploring her current and future relationship with sexuality and autonomy, for the practice of “bride-napping” becomes an increasingly dominant subject of discussion as she involves herself with another boy from school. What’s conflicting here, then, is Diem’s positionality through the film as it plays out for an audience. Di, on multiple occasions, asks for the camera to be put away. This request goes either ignored or momentarily consented to, a cut transitioning us back into the scene, perhaps a few minutes later. A rather harrowing sequence close to the end of the film further accentuates the dual role of witness and invader that the camera must play, where Di is in the midst of a screaming match as she is forcibly dragged away by the family of the boy who has taken her for his bride. Diem seems intent on observing the events as they unfold, contemplating in real-time if she should intervene or not. In these moments of participation for Diem, where the situation no longer allows her to be comfortably set behind the camera, that it becomes most difficult to contend with the work and reconcile with these very clearly crossed and progressively blurred ethical lines. What is being presented persists in the othering of the film’s subjects — the camera remains as a material breach into the lives it takes as subject. A reflexivity in Diem’s double role as filmmaker/onlooker and our role — solely as onlooker — is not present here, and so these utilized forms feel merely like an echo to the ethnography of yesteryear. While Diem’s disconcerted eye protrudes sporadically through the majority of the silent observation, it doesn’t quite seem enough to trouble the faculties of a camera and its intrusive place within a community where the filmmaker, regardless of shared nationality, remains an outsider.
Originally published as part of New Directors/New Films 2022: Dispatch 3.