Loin du Vietnam (Far From Vietnam) is made up of seven short films made in the ‘60s at the time of the occupation of Vietnam by celebrated political directors including Jean-luc Godard and Alain Resnais.
Paulo Gerbaudo looks at the parralels between film and war then and now Loin du Vietnam is both a failure and an inspiring experiment in war cinema. The film - a politically committed documentary dealing with the war in Vietnam - after its release in 1967 proved a commercial flop and was the victim of harsh critiques and early oblivion. One rare copy of the collaborative work of a number of great politically committed directors of the period such as the French Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais Claude Lelouch, Chris Marker, William Klein, Agnés Varda and the Netherland’s director Joris Ivens has been recently screened at Cine Lumiére of the Institut Francais.
The project of the film sprang out of the convulse atmosphere of 1967 during the escalation of military operation in Vietnam, and was the result of incipient ‘68 politics with their stress on participation, assemblies and direct democracy. The film, while dealing with a decisive political issue of the period, also aimed at questioning the French film industry and the one author canon to stress the importance of collaborative work of the film crew and of different directors. On the other hand the challenge was to realise an alternative representation of the war as seen in its multifaceted and often “distant” manifestations.
To do this Loin du Vietnam undertakes an expressive experiment in the documentary format by mixing together heterogeneous materials that compose an instable collage, notwithstanding the intelligent work of Chris Marker in the cutting room. In the film different inspirations and footage, documentary and fiction, converge. The long monologue scene by Godard about the political role of the cinematography in face of the war together with scenes from La Chinoise, interviews with Fidel Castro and Ho-chi Minh sided by brief visual clips and other cinematographic virtuosities. However some of the best moments of the film are the ones that stick more directly to documentary cinema, such as the war and everyday life in Hanoi under American bombings filmed by Joris Ivens and his wife, William Klein’s documentary footage about demonstrations in the United States and Lelouch’s sequences from an American carrier.
The film represents the war in Vietnam in the form of a historical tragedy staged on different scenes. Not only battlefields, but also North Vietnamese villages, American barracks, occupied cities, TV sets in living rooms, and demonstrations in the streets of Europe and America. Hence war emerges not as a simple military confrontation but rather as a mechanism of violence and conflict spreading its tentacles through supply lines, news programs, minds and hearts.
The two themes, evoked in the film’s title, Vietnam and distance, grasp a pair of great ideas which is what the film is all about. First of all, Vietnam within this film is not just a name for a particular country in South East Asia, 10 000 miles away from American shores, but also the name for a particular political, military, social and cultural conflict, characterised by harsh oppositions both in national and international politics. Thus the film represents Vietnam not only as a war between nations but also as a civil war, as any modern war has to be. In a long sequence by William Klein in front of Wall Street, during a huge peace demonstration in New York, a group of brokers shout “Bomb Hanoi! Bomb Hanoi!”. Demonstrants engage along the march path in harsh verbal confrontations with war supporters. New York appears kidnapped by a vibrant hysteria.
The film then slides along a theatre of operations that spans through the globe. Going from the streets of Paris crowded by demonstrants and policemen to a village in North Vietnam where people are assisting to a theatre show blaming Johnson and United States, to a paddy field where a unit of the National Liberation Army is training in hiding, to the mountains of Cuba. Distance, in turn, can be read as the description of the condition of civil populations in western country during such a war and its being exposed to a mediated war fought far away but capable, at the same time, of destabilising internal society and politics. As New Yorker reporter Michael Arlen put it, the Vietnam War, was a “living-room war”. Distance is also the principle that underlies the hypertechnological war machine deployed by the U.S. in Vietnam: a system controlling death and destruction from afar. The image that opens the film is a load of bombs being moved from a supply ship to a carrier. Lelouch’s camera follows those bombs while they are stored and eventually armed on the aircraft. In the middle of the ocean, far away from the dead bodies of the American bombings it enables, the carrier becomes a metaphor of a war machine that acts from afar. Distance thus emerges as instrumental to power. A removal of the horror of war through the media and thanks to its being out-of-sight. As one of the demonstrants appearing in the film says “Americans support the war because it is far away. Would they think the same, if their cities were attacked?”. The answer is as elusive today as it was then, best exemplified in the voting patterns of the American people post 9/11.
Notwithstanding the timely political rethorics that in some parts of the film tend to lean towards an apology to Vietnam, the work provides a vibrant description of the conflict in Vietnam and the social unrest that surrounded it. After the release the work was also criticised for its ‘easy ironies’, but it is actually through those ironies that the film shows the hypocritical goodwill justifying a distant war. This is also what the film does through the way it is cut. For example by joining a popular pro-war song with the reality of a Saigon populated by prostitutes, or by showing a speech of general Westmoreland through a damaged TV screen.
Viewing such a film today inspires a reflection about the similarities and differences between the media propagation of that war and of the current one, the war in Iraq in which the U.S. and its coalition are engaging in. Vietnam was a fortunate topic for cinema, and before that, it was extensively and crudely covered by television and newspapers. The American army had, at least initially, favoured the work of journalists and camera men on the front (much more than ever happened before and after that) for propaganda reasons. So Vietnam became the first televised war, and the war began losing consensus when too many dead corpses on the screen began to disgust the American public’s dinner time.
The Iraq war has undergone a more technically developed coverage that pretends to transmit battle images in real time (through embedded journalists) as if it were a football match and always jumps quickly to the site of an attack or a bombing. In this rapidity of news coverage something has been lost. The media war coverage of Iraq has not only censored the images of blood, tortures and body bags. It has also disminished the importance of other aspects of such a war: the conditions of the civil population in the occupied country and the unrest uniting millions of people across the world in the biggest anti-war protests ever. This erasure of such decisive aspects of war is what Au loin du Vietnam tries to overcome by following the many links that the war ties through conflicts and solidarities all around the globe.
Iraq wars have, until now, not been as fortunate as Vietnam in their representations within contemporary cinema. The only fiction titles deserving attention are David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999), the recently released Jarhead (2005) by Sam Mendes both dealing with soldiers’ stories during the 1991 conflict in Kuwait when Iraq invaded. Also Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Robert Greenwalth’s Uncovered: The War On Iraq (2003), both documentary films, deal with the current war in Iraq even though focusing on its role in American politics. Moreover all these films and documentaries are somehow limited to an internal vision of war as seen through the individual experience of American soldiers, citizens and their nation’s destiny and fail in providing a radical representation of war in all its complexity.
With its real-time - as much tempestive as anaesthaetised - war representation, television has produced an overload of recurrent images about the war in Iraq, restraining any space for debate, comprehension and radical analysis. In this condition it is hard to develop a committed war cinema without getting lost in easy political pedagogy a là Michael Moore or in rank paternalism in Live 8 fashion. Au loin du Vietnam can, in contrast, be an inspiration for a cinema that intends to observe war and represent what the war in Iraq means not only in terms of military and political experiences and events, but also in everyday life’s impact, in London as in Baghdad. A cinema able to document its incumbence on western countries and its consequences on the civil population of Iraq. A cinema capable of seeing war at a distance.