Science fiction elucidates, though it rarely does so with such precision. Minh Quý Truong’s Nhà Cây (The Treehouse) began as a documentary on indigenous tribes, but it morphed toward abstraction during its lengthy edit. What Truong wanted to say with his film — about the ways in which we remember, and about the ethics and brutality of the moving image — could not be contained within the literal, or within the traditionally cinematic. So, he chose a new narrative framework: human colonies on Mars in the year 2045. 

You’d be forgiven for confusing The Treehouse with a human-interest piece; for all intents and purposes, it is one.  The film is composed of long, languid shots of indigenous subjects — the Ruc, Hmong and Kor peoples, many of whom live in the caves and forests of Vietnam — as they reflect on their pasts, their surroundings and their daily lives. But the film we’re watching, as narrated by a fictitious filmmaker living on Mars, arrives with transmuted context.

This “narrator” shot The Treehouse on Earth in 2045 and abandoned it shortly after. Now back on Mars, he relays its images (and the meaning he gleams from them) to his father, over some sort of radio broadcast. In fact, the film, composed of real, celluloid documentary footage shot by Truong, may not be a documentary at all, but a series of memories, interpreted and re-interpreted by the filmmaker. His weighty, contemplative narration is accompanied by signal interference and low, electronic hums. However, neither Mars, nor the futuristic technology spoken of and heard throughout the film, are ever seen on screen. Mars only appears superimposed on the film strip — think Star Wars’ twin suns — high in the sky, like a minor background detail the human subjects are unconcerned with it. The film’s genre, if one chooses to classify it as sci-fi, depends almost entirely on spoken word and oral tradition. 

This tradition, a way of canonizing cultures and stories divorced from western cinema, is Truong’s key focus. His subjects seem constrained by the frame. They’re barely able to move within it (or move around their lush green backdrops), but the stories they tell about their own lives are vivid, wildly imaginative, and likely true. One man tells of the tall treehouse where he lived with his father; another woman points to the rock on which she was born, as if she remembers it. Several subjects speak of relocation, forced upon them (and upon their “ancestors”) by American troops during the Vietnam war, and by the Vietnamese government during, what is for us, the recent past.

About halfway through the 84-minute runtime, the narrator provides visual context for this violent history. He does so by using documentary footage shot by American soldiers as they burned and brutalized local villages, prompting him to question his own place in this cinematic tradition. When the Americans came with their cameras, they used them as weapons — something filmmakers Kirsten Johnson and Kaori Oda contemplate in her own documentaries, Cameraperson and Toward a Common Tenderness. The ethics of the image are a vital topic in the digital age, and will become even more so as we approach 2045; in The Treehouse, Truong interrogates the image not only as a tool with potentially negative impact, but as de facto harm, in the context of his indigenous subjects. 

As the unseen narrator drives between destinations, the news on his car radio tells of an indigenous father-son duo who stumbled into a modern town. As one might expect, there was a breakdown in communication, and the duo was arrested (luckily, the narrator has a translator with him at all times, someone to interpret both literal meaning and the unspoken nuances of culture). All this transpires in between phone calls to the narrator’s own father, rife with beeps and whirs that might belong on a Star Trek show.

The evocation of such a pillar of western sci-fi is fitting. The Prime Directive on Star Trek barred the U.S.S. Enterprise from interfering with the normal development of societies on other planets; we on Earth have, historically, done poorly with this tenet when it comes to our own neighbors. Just last year, an American missionary was killed while trying to contact a remote tribe on an Island in the Indian Ocean. He had travelled there as part of a long-standing colonial tradition: to impose western culture on indigenous peoples.  

Truong is acutely aware of this dynamic. He not only places the American documentary footage alongside his own, as if to implicate himself in adhering to harmful traditions, but he also uses footage shot by accident, when his operator left the camera running. The narrator compares this to the accidental footage in Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I, which Varda called “the dance of the lens cap” — but here, the narrator speaks of his footage mournfully, as if he regrets having stolen glimpses of indigenous land.  

Regret seems to permeate the entire film; a feeling that capturing and canonizing these intimate traditions is a form of barbarism. Truong appears to wrestle with the long-held wisdom of “show, don’t tell” when he arrives at a particular point in his story. The funeral practice of one of the tribes involves building houses; small tombs, as monuments to the dead, where loved ones can enter and mourn. Truong captures these houses the way he captures any other facet of life — matter-of-fact-ly — but his presentation is skewed. Every time he films a tomb, every time he sits alongside a mourning family member, and every time the narrator (or one of the subjects) speaks of death, Truong presents The Treehouse in colour-negative. 

It’s a stark, unsettling depiction of an already macabre subject, but Truong’s attempt here is to tie the tradition of images, with which he’s familiar, to the tradition of language and stories, from which he, and the narrator on Mars, could not feel more distant. In the language of his subjects, words like “life” and “death,” when translated, come to mean “positive” and “negative.” The words, in their original incarnations, tie the tribe in question to something spiritual and universal. But when translated to filmic terms, the result is an ugly, uneasy reflection. It isn’t hard to see why the narrator gave up on his film.

There are, of course, silent socio-economic implications the film feels no need to address. Who gets to go to Mars? Who gets left behind, and how has climate change affected them? While it leaves these questions up to the imagination, what it presents, front and center, is a poetic contemplation about answering them — or answering any questions — cinematically in the first place.

The Treehouse is a richly detailed exploration of peoples yet unseen — though in the process of its making, it begins to wonder if they should stay that way. 

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About the Author

Siddhant is an independent filmmaker & film critic working out of Mumbai & New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @SidizenKane.