As I watch the art of the Vietnamese diaspora unfold, I observe also its bleeds and blends. How it folds into, becomes folded into, melds and overlaps, coheres and collaborates, intermingles, with stories from also other diasporas—our friends, inevitably—whom we’ve met on this shore, where we know ourselves as being of here yet also as being of diaspora—which is to say, being of here, there, and points in between—and we meet on common yet disparate grounds, each with our panoplies of family stories and histories; and here perhaps we find that our multiple elsewheres sometimes shadow each other, or parallel, or follow similar patterns—at least of ethos—in the crossing of time and cultures. Haft-Seen, described as a “visual poem”, is this sort of vessel. As a poem though, maybe really it is a boat, I think, or maybe a jar, or maybe a blanket, perpetually unfurling, upon which objects are tenuously displayed, as it travels between bodies—bodies with voices that relay stories—and culls rituals, flavors, textures, sounds, remembrances from each source. In more straightforward terms Haft-Seen is an experimental visual/filmic project that is a collaboration between three artists who contribute moving image, poetry, and sound/music. They are—between them—of Southeast-, East- and West Asian, and American, backgrounds. Haft-Seen is a piece of collaborative storytelling that engages a wide range of the storytelling “senses”—oral/anecdotal, oral/poetic, aural/musical, and image—while also seamlessly integrating a multilingual presence that traverses Farsi, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and English. We read subtitles in English, but sonically we slip between the languages and from one continent of memory to the next, with no jarring; the movement is harmonious and flows, which speaks also to the tenor of interaction between the distinct cultural threads in this collaboration.
At one point in the interview below, one of Haft-Seen’s creators sums up the common ground between the three collaborators in these terms: “Our families are from miscellaneous countries that are all considered to be part of the continent of Asia” [dubbed by the West at an initial point in history as] “the Orient.” So maybe Haft-Seen could be said to be a modern miscellany, if one can also say a miscellany is a place where we gather those things we cannot otherwise easily label or contain, and in this state of miscellany we also collect and de-center, re-imagine and re-orient. [Editor: DS]
HAFT-SEEN is a collaboration between Roland Dahwen Wu, Stacey Tran, and Jonathan Raissi. Interview conducted by Becky Win.
Next screening: May 19, 2018, 7-9 PM. Portland State University’s 5th Avenue Cinema.
Becky Win: What is “Haft-Seen”? Why did you choose this as your title?
Roland Dahwen Wu: Haft-Seen is part of Nowruz, the celebration of Persian New Year – Jonathan first proposed Haft-Seen as a potential title.
Jonathan Raissi: Haft-Seen was a yearly ritual in my home that I always took for granted. It offers symbols of growth, prosperity and reflection (this quite literally, as one of the pieces on the Haft-Seen table is a mirror meant to confront you with yourself). Nowruz was the most anticipated holiday for my family, and, throughout the month, Haft-Seen was a calm reminder in one’s home to think on the past and engender growth. It was not marred by religiosity, or death or guilt; it was just a joyous acceptance of rebirth.
I proposed this as the title for this project because it was a consistent part of my youth that I allowed to slip away. Every year, our Nowruz rituals were a bold assertion and maintenance of our heritage. Entire city blocks in Southern California had to be closed so every family like mine could gather in parks to bring in the New Year, and every single person in your extended family would circulate and share each other’s Haft-Seen table. The title serves that purpose. It is an assertion of history and a promise to keep memory, as difficult as it may be in Western life.
Stacey Tran: We were inspired by cultural traditions, our ancestors, and the altars we build for them, the stories that are wrapped up in symbolism. As children of immigrants, we look to our ancestry for inspiration and meaning in celebrating community. Coincidentally, we planned to release Haft-Seen right around the Iranian new year.
RDW: The piece was set to premiere in March, around the time of the Persian New Year that year. It will betray a personal prejudice if I say that I simply find the word haft-seen very beautiful.
Titles are unavoidable, for better or worse. For my own work, I try to find titles quickly, almost haphazardly, so that I can forget them and think about other things. If I were to attempt to justify the title of this piece, I would say that Haft-Seen suggests the many calendars that exist, and always have existed, as long as people have arranged and constructed time. The three of us – Stacey, Jonathan and I – were raised with multiple calendars in our families, and perhaps Haft-Seen hints at this: the existence of numerous calendars, and therefore numerous histories. Dominant calendars are inescapable, yet at the margins, there are erosions: in Haft-Seen, there is a section entitled “May 35th,” which refers to the Tiananmen Square Massacre that happened on June 4th. The Chinese government censored the term “June 4th,” and so “May 35th” evolved to circumvent censorship.
BW: Why did you three decide to work together and what were some anticipated, as well as unanticipated, consequences of this collaboration? Why did you make Haft-Seen and how did you each uniquely contribute to the film?
ST: I was introduced to Roland’s work by Michael Harper, who had collaborated with Roland previously. In 2014, I started the series Pure Surface with my friend Danielle Ross, a choreographer and dancer. Each month we invited a dancer, a writer, a film artist to collaborate and create a 30-minute performance score and perform it at a local bar. We launched our first event with Roland, Michael Harper, and Portland’s powerhouse Linda Austin. Roland and Jonathan were already friends, and later collaborated for another Pure Surface piece and that sparked the idea that all three of us could collaborate on a project. Jonathan and I worked at a coffee shop together for a minute, in which he’d nerd out to Steve Reich and talk about the album he’s working on, while I’d geek out about projects I’d had my hands in, and when Roland came through for espresso it made sense that we should all put our heads together. I think “3” is a nice number of elements for collaboration—think of the primary colors: red, yellow, blue.
Originally, Jonathan performed the sound live with the first screening of Haft-Seen. After that, he made a new recording and scored the film so we could continue screening it in other venues.
RDW: Years ago, the three of us wanted to engage somehow in questions around orientalism. Our families are from miscellaneous countries that are all considered to be part of the continent of Asia. If we examine this idea from Edward Said that the Orient is a theater for the european (or western) imagination, how do we, as people raised in the ‘west,’ re-imagine the Orient? How are we complicit in the residues of orientalism? How do we replicate or reject these ideas?
We didn’t produce anything together for several years – life took each of us in different directions – until our friend offered us access to a gallery. I had no idea what we would do. In one of our early meetings, Stacey shared the manuscript of her forthcoming book, Soap for the Dogs, and one of the poems – Stock photo – seemed like a perfect script for a scene. That was the beginning of everything. The entire piece was unanticipated. Haft-Seen owes much to Stacey’s writing. Her text led Jonathan and I to write, something that is very difficult for me. Without a doubt, I had her writing in mind when I wrote other scenes for Haft-Seen. There is one thing that perhaps we could have anticipated: the production of Haft-Seen was very fast and condensed. We had been thinking about it for years – which is a type of work – yet in the end, it took only a few weeks to create.
JR: Over the past several years we have all collaborated in many forms and variations. Our relationships grew deeper with these projects, and mostly in merely discussing our thoughts and stories. Through that, the three of us have developed an indelibly close relationship that lends itself to such ease and comfort in collaboration. So after three years I think it made sense that we moved to take on larger projects, the themes and ideas of which have been often in our collective dialogue. Haft-Seen is the first of these larger projects.
For myself, projects like these begin with theory. Roland and I established a general framework in what we wanted to establish: the Orientalism of heritage and the apparition of self and memory as remnants of migratory adjustment. In executing that, adapting Stacey’s writing was a complete no-brainer for us. Stacey was thrilled about what we wanted to achieve with this and joined us. She completed what I think was the perfect collaborative dynamic. We all work across many disciplines, and motivate each other in between. Writing used to be a foundation for me, but I have had a complicated relationship with my comfort as a writer. Inclusion of my writing was by sheer force of encouragement and inspiration by Stacey and Roland. I think a strong collaboration is one where the others either directly or indirectly push you to incorporate something you would be otherwise uncomfortable with. It should drag out of you what you may not have the faculties to display in individual work.
BW: One of the products of your collaboration is Haft-Seen’s expansiveness; there’s a sense of traveling great distances, in part because of the variety of experiences and languages in the film.
ST: I like that there’s no distinct place that defines Haft-Seen. The film isn’t explicitly set in a place we can quickly identify (no Eiffel Tower, no Times Square). Perhaps that is a strength that supports the film’s expansiveness. Other than the subtitles which are in English, I would argue a predominant language is not spoken—it is visual. In between scenes, the camera captures what appears to be an urban environment, colors and typography quickly flash past the window while we’re on a train or subway commute, traveling across distance. The sky is big while we look out of the glass elevator. A man looks very small while sweeping the leaves that have fallen onto the roof of his house. At the same time, he is close to the sky. Haft-Seen is equally grounded on this earth in a reality of intonations, while simultaneously dreaming in multiple languages which creates (hopefully) an inclusive experience.
RDW: I don’t understand this idea of distance, I don’t know what that means. To me, much of this piece is very close – the voices, actors, and scenes are close-by, they don’t feel distant at all. It’s true that there are many languages and places evoked, but the actual evocation is happening close to us. And in a literal sense, almost everyone who directly contributed to Haft-Seen lives in the same city as us. I don’t know if I’m explaining this well. The recollections may be in the distant past or some geographical distance, yet the place of recollection is very intimate, close at hand, looking us in the eye.
It would have been impossible to make Haft-Seen without the many people who lent their time and ideas and voice to the piece. Stacey’s mother begins the film, Jonathan’s father and uncle contributed from two continents, my father translated and voiced two sections. Perhaps this is what I’m trying to express: these memories, these texts, these voices, are all close to our hearts.
BW: Within the confines of your specific artistic vision, Haft-Seen is a stylistic collage; natural, seemingly improvised scenes are juxtaposed with theatrical, even artificial scenes. Why tell these stories in this particular way?
RDW: Haft-Seen, in many ways, is not a short film – or was not meant to be a short film. It is an installation condensed into a film. Perhaps in the future, we will present this material is a different way: one room is only the voice of Stacey’s mother. Another is only the hillside in the typhoon. The sense that this is a collage, to use your word, is purposeful. I’m convinced that the most honest representation of anything is splintered, heterogeneous, angular, dispersed. Coherence is, and always has been, an illusion.
BW: Haft-Seen’s vignettes, which are mostly memories, are interspersed with unrelated scenes, a man sweeping a roof or a forest caught in the throes of a hurricane. Practically, these scenes segment story from story but they’re also meditative, an opportunity to reflect. Can you elaborate on Haft-Seen’s relationship with time and, more specifically, with the past?
RDW: Of the three of us, I am the most to blame for the visuals in Haft-Seen. I gathered much of the footage – the man sweeping the roof and the plants in the typhoon, for example – over many years, filming without purpose, without a plan. And so, in some way, these are my memories that I had on hand, easy to reach.
I am unsure how to justify these scenes, these choices. I understand this is contrary to much of what is expected of contemporary artists, who are asked to articulate their intentions for everything. Luckily I am not an artist. If I had a logic, I’ve forgotten it. I suffer from the good fortune of amnesia about my work, and it always seems as if it were made long ago, by someone else.
BW: I was struck by the film’s relationship with sound and silence. What role does music play in the film?
RDW: The score is entirely Jonathan’s – he can speak of the music better than I. If I’m not mistaken, all the monologues in Haft-Seen are only voice, or voice with environmental noise. Adding music while people are talking is a very common technical device that I almost always find disappointing. For Haft-Seen, adding music under the monologues seemed unnecessary. The one exception is during the section when Jonathan’s father is listing the current and former street names in Tehran – the music overwhelms the voice, which was a conscious decision.
From early on, I was persuaded that we must include the singing of Nazli Rahmanian. I have an unequivocal memory of hearing Nazli sing years ago, and I have been unable to leave behind the memory of her voice that is not of this earth. Stacey’s text, Stock photo, evoked in me a similar feeling that I had when I first heard Nazli sing. Nazli and her brother translated Jonathan’s text Alms, and Nazli narrated that section. We could think of no better way to end Haft-Seen than with Nazli’s song. We are unworthy of her incomparable grace.
JR: Much of the score was meant to feel disparate and distant. I wanted to convey the feeling of earnestly trying to recall memories of musicality. For example, the cacophonous string plucking throughout is a call to memories of my family members playing a Santoor, but it is made to feel as uneasy and anxious as I feel when trying to recollect, for myself, the tragic musicality of my youth. I cannot remember the melodies, the titles or the lyrics of songs sung together with my family. All I have is sense memory. And in that way, I think Haft-Seen achieved what we wanted. It conveys only the essence of memories and rituals, and a burning struggle to reclaim them. The sounds created for this piece are meant to allude to this faint tunnel-vision of our sensory stories, and the tumult felt when faced with their fading or loss.
BW: The language in Haft-Seen is more poetic snapshot than narrative. What is the role of poetry in Haft-Seen? Do you see any similarities between the two?
RDW: Haft-Seen is absolutely not narrative. I have little interest in plot, or dramatic tension, or build up and resolution. It seems unnecessary to say that linear time does not interest me. The piece moves how memories move: one evokes another, which evokes another, and the memories return later, altered. I am convinced that we alter memories when we recall them, just as we alter reality when we observe it. And in this case, the memories perhaps are not even ours – they are second-hand memories, passed between people, between family members, between generations, and they mutate because they are second-hand.
I don’t know how to compare Haft-Seen and poetry – poetry is intangible and contains everything. If I were to hazard a generalization, I would say that we approached the creation of Haft-Seen as we would have approached a poem. I don’t know what else to say.
If you are in the Portland area, you can see HAFT-SEEN on May 19, 2018, 7-9 PM, at Portland State University’s 5th Avenue Cinema:
Roland Dahwen Wu is a filmmaker whose work explores migration, race and memory. His films and installations have shown at CalArts, Portland Art Museum, Time Based Art Festival, Northwest Film Center, and numerous galleries. He is a 2018 artist-in-residence at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Creative Exchange Lab. His films include We are all the production line I & II, Ya no hay pájaros en los nidos de ayer, Haft-Seen, and Quarantine. He is the founder of Patuá Films.
Stacey Tran is a writer from Portland, OR. She is the creator of Tender Table, a storytelling series about food, family, identity. She is the author of Soap for the Dogs (Gramma, 2018). staceytran.com
Jonathan Raissi is a sound artist, photographer and writer whose thematic interests involve critical theory, modernity and memory. He received a B.A. in Labor History from the University of California, Los Angeles before moving to Portland, OR where he focuses on developing his visual and theoretical practice. Jonathan’s experimental noise project, Yasna, has released four full-length digital albums in the last three years. jonathanraissi.com
Becky Win is a poet and performance artist living in Portland, Oregon.