My Ailing Beliefs Can Cure Your Wretched Desires

    04/09  | 19:30
    07/09  | 22:00
    08/09  | 22:00

€ 6 / € 4
18min 51sec

Told from the point of view of the wandering spirit of the last Javan rhino that was poached in the jungles of Vietnam in 2010, the film Empty Forest, My Ailing Beliefs Can Cure Your Wretched Desires takes us through a complex structure of narratives and visuals, both gruesome and beautiful, real and mythological, that have built and upheld certain Vietnamese traditions. The complex systems of Vietnamese beliefs in the magical healing power of certain animals have led to the current global predicament that threatens the extinction of rhinos and other species, simultaneously fuelling the extensive illegal trade in endangered animals. From the perspective of science, Vietnam’s ecology, despite decades of warfare and bombings, continues to be one of the most complex natural ecosystems around. Two new species have been discovered every week for the last 10 years. Simultaneously, Vietnam is also the country with the most species of endangered animals. In the film the animals tell a different side of the story: from Chinese colonialism and its assertion through the practice of medicine, to French colonialism and its obsession with trophy kills, and then throughout the Vietnam war. A story that resonates strikingly with today’s health crisis and holds a mirror up to us humans.

Presentation: Kunstenfestivaldesarts-Les Halles de Schaerbeek

A film by: Tuan Andrew Nguyen
Cinematography: Huỳnh Ngô Vân Anh, Andrew Yuyi Truong
Art fabrication: Khim Đặng
Flycam & follow focus: Trung Lê
Production manager: Thọ Phan
Consultant: Nguyễn Thị Mai Hương
Voice of Rhino: Wowy Nguyễn
Voice of Turtle: Nguyễn Ngọc Nam Phương
Music: NVN
Sound design and color grading: Trần Mạnh Hoàng
Subtitles: Babel Subtitling

Special thanks to: Yến Võ; Cat Tien National Park, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, Vietnam Forest Museum, Vietnam National Museum of Nature, Museum of Biology (Hanoi University of Science); and all the volunteers, interns and workers who helped realise the creation of Empty Forest

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“Our English word ‘human’ derives from the Latin humando, which means ‘burying.’ That's where ‘humility’ and ‘humanity’ -- the words themselves -- come from. We are vanishing organisms. We are disappearing creatures on the way to death, extinction. We're featherless, two-legged, linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and feces. That's us.”  (Cornel West)  

We humans share something squarely in common with all living things on the planet: we will die. The irony of our shared condition of mortality is that humans endanger most life on earth in the futile attempt to prolong their own conscious time on it. In the essay Why Look at Animals, John Berger reminds us that our psychological separation of humanity from the animal kingdom was a process that began in the nineteenth century, “today being completed by 20th century corporate capitalism, by which every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature was broken. Before this rupture, animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded humans.” Our language is full of traces of the success of this process; when we dehumanize people, “we treat them like animals.” We tend to zoomorphize humans to give heightened senses of power and beauty; a brave and determined person could be described as ‘lion-hearted,’ while the plastic surgery to enhance the aesthetics of one’s nose is called ‘rhinoplasty,’ and people wear and display animal prints or skins to project wealth and status. Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s two-channel film (and its pulsing, hypnotic soundtrack) My Ailing Beliefs Can Cure Your Wretched Desires (2017) creates tension by anthropomorphizing the spirits of extinct animals in Vietnam that address the zoomorphic tendencies of humans and the interplay between ritual, greed and superstition, and the ongoing history of colonization and revolution. Communism banned religion and revolution, but all of these elements found a way to embed themselves and intertwine together in Vietnamese culture in another avatar, fueled by another banned concept, capitalism.  

Capitalism gives us the possibility to live far past our natural dates of expiration; with enough wealth, we can push back death, we can hoard time, but at what cost to future generations? “Humans do the things they do for fear of dying,” declares the ghostly spirit of the recently extinct giant soft-shelled Hoàn Kiếm turtle Cụ Rùa in the film. Ailing belief systems found in Chinese medicine (tainted by the rise of capitalism in Southeast Asia where an exponential rise in wealth has been paired with an exponential loss of contextual wisdom) and wretched desires for animal-like powers such as virility have contributed to increased demand for parts of exotic/endangered animals, such as pangolin scales and rhinoceros horns. Long before our species began to fear its own mass-irradiation from the Covid-19 pandemic, ecocide has been a reality for animals in Vietnam, which boasts the highest rates of extinction on the planet.  

Set in Vietnam, the film draws us in as an invisible audience to a Socratic debate between the spirit of the last soft-shelled turtle and the spirit of the last Javan rhino (poached into extinction in the jungles of Vietnam in 2010), who argue whether it was better for animals to hide and influence a more enlightened attitude in humanity, reminding them of their connection to the animal world, or for animals to rage a full-on war against the human species and draw them to their knees. The film positions us in a hazy in-between space (the zoo as an in-between place between the wild and the civilized, the museum as the in-between space between the past and the present, the here and the far-away), the same kind of in-between space that the rhino spirit inhabits as he haunts the world, unable to reincarnate since his body is on display within a museum case, thus unable to be buried/returned back to the earth. There is potential in this in-between space between a past life, current death, and the next life; it is a space in-between a state of change, a productive space where movements can marinate, not dissimilar to the space we are in now with the rise of BLM and other movements around the globe. The rhino quotes revolutionaries such as Ho Chi Minh, Emiliano Zapata, and Fidel Castro, who directly positions revolutions in time with the adage “revolution is the struggle between the future and the past.”   

One of the wandering rhino spirit’s potential revolutionary acts to overthrow humans and their oppression of non-human life is to “reincarnate as a virus infecting every gram of animal horn being cut.” The zombie rhino and a virus already have a lot in common; neither of them is alive and both roam in a space between life and death. Viruses need to invade a living body in order to survive and reproduce; to the rhino, humans are also a pathogen invading animals, extracting meat, bones, and labor from their bodies in a process similar to the Chinese and French colonialism of Vietnam. The turtle spirit posits that if the idea of reincarnation were introduced to humans, they could consider that they could re-enter the world in an animal form, forcing them to see the world from a non-human perspective. She invokes the story of the karmic development of the Buddha, which was connected to a human sacrificing his own flesh to feed starving tigers. Another mind set could be possible, bringing animals and humans back together in harmonic co-existence. As in any Socratic debate, one leaves the film full of questions and a quest to seek answers. In this time where death surrounds us, we are left with deep existential questions of “who are you gonna be in light of the past – the corpse; the present – you; the future – those who come after you?” (Cornel West)

Diana Campbell Betancourt, August 2020

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The practice of Tuan Andrew Nguyen (Born 1976, Sai Gon, Viet Nam) explores strategies of political resistance enacted through counter-memory and post-memory. Extracting and re-working narratives via history and supernaturalisms is an essential part of Nguyen’s video works and sculptures where fact and fiction are both held accountable. Nguyen has received several awards in both film and visual arts, including an Art Matters grant in 2010 and best feature film at VietFilmFest in 2018 for his film The Island. His work has been included in several international exhibitions including the Asia Pacific Triennial 2006, the Whitney Biennial 2017, and the Sharjah Biennial 2019. Nguyen founded The Propeller Group in 2006, a platform for collectivity that situates itself between an art collective and an advertising company. Accolades for the group include the grand prize at the 2015 Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur for the film The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music and a Creative Capital award for their video project Television Commercial for Communism. Besides a major travelling retrospective that began at the MCA Chicago, the collective has participated in international exhibitions including The Ungovernables (New Museum Triennial, 2012), 2012 LA Biennial, Prospect3 (New Orleans Triennial, 2014), and the Venice Biennale 2015.

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