Loin du Vietnam (1967),
Joris Ivens and Left Bank documentary

by Thomas Waugh

Part one: a visual essay

The title of this collective film “Far from Vietnam” is taken from Chris Marker’s concluding voice-over speech ...

“In a few minutes, this film will come to an end. You will leave this theatre and for many of you rejoin a world without war. This is also our world, that is to say how easy it is to forget certain realities. We are far from Vietnam. The Vietnam of our emotions and our indignations is sometimes as far from the real Vietnam as our indifference would be. We live in a society that has pushed very far its capacity to hide its own goals, its own dizzy excesses and above all its own violences.

This war is not a historical accident, nor the delayed resolution of a colonial problem. It is here, surrounding us, within us. It begins when we ourselves begin to understand that the Vietnamese are fighting for us and to measure our consciousness in their terms. When the Vietnamese say “Stop this war, OK, but not at any price,” we are told that they’re not being reasonable. It is true that the Vietnamese are not reasonable, it’s true they are mad and their intransigence assaults us in a way tied to our privilege. But the Vietnamese madness is perhaps the political wisdom of our time.

And the first honest step we can take toward them is to try to look at their challenge head-on. In the face of this challenge, the choice of the society of the rich is quite simple. Either this society must carry out the physical destruction of everything that resists it — and this is a job that risks going beyond its own means of destruction — or else this society must carry out a total destruction within itself. This is perhaps too much to ask of a society at the height of its powers. If it refuses this choice, it will only have to sacrifice its reassuring illusions, accept this war of the poor against the rich as inevitable and lose it. ”

Claude Lelouch’s footage of bombs being unloaded onto a U.S. aircraft carrier off Vietnam opens the film juxtaposed against a charged image… … of a bucolic field of grain being transformed into a no-longer-hidden fighting army, now standing and advancing — which the Paris producers had requested from Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan — and the meticulous dismantling of fragmentation bombs ... … called “guavas” by the locals: “They gather them and defuse the unexploded ones. A mother-bomb sends three hundred of them flying within a radius of one kilometer, and each one sprays in its turn 600 small steel pellets at the level of a human body. These pellets are practically useless on concrete and on metal: their logical target is human skin.”
A G.I. prepares bombs on board the aircraft carrier… …while pilots approach their bombers in readiness for takeoff. Hanoi citizens make individual bomb shelter cylinders out of cement…
…and others wait for the alert to be over. The commentary explains: “Joris Ivens writes us from Hanoi as he was shooting this sequence: 'Simply by living with them, one becomes calm like them and sure of victory.' All travelers and even American journalists have testified to this calm, to this certitude ... ... The Vietnamese are not yielding. They suffer every day this criminal bombardment but it’s a useless crime." Vietnamese newsreel shots show local casualties. Meanwhile U.S. Vice-President Humphrey’s triumphalist visit to Paris is met by adamant French antiwar protesters.
In New York, William Klein’s footage shows a Veterans’ Day parade becoming a feverish prowar demonstration… …featuring a hawkish Cardinal Spellman. Virulent Wall Street onlookers at an anti-war demonstration chant “Bomb Hanoi!”
Another kind of demonstration in a Vietnamese village: itinerant agitprop performers, well versed in aircraft recognition, impersonate Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara lamenting that all of their Phantom planes have now become fantoms. Alain Resnais’s 14-minute contribution features a fictionalized male Parisian agonizing over the ethical and political contradictions of Vietnam becoming the fashionable new cause of French intellectuals and Americans, the new Nazis… …while, in an unconscious indictment of the lingering sexism of the New Left, his heavily made-up girlfriend listens blankly and without a peep.
Agnès Varda then reads a chronology of almost two decades of the Vietnamese anti-colonial struggle, illustrated by inspired editor Marker with newsreel stock shots, U.S. comic strips… …a shot of a brutal beating of a prisoner by a South Vietnamese officer, stutter-repeated ten times to deconstruct atrocity footage clichés… …and an affable, calmly determined statement by Ho Chi Minh: “The Americans are mistaken to believe that by winning in the North they can win the war in the South. Never, never will they win this war. Never, never will we surrender. Because our war is a patriotic war, a peasant war. And we have decided to struggle whether it takes five years, ten years, twenty years, or however long. We shall win.”
Varda’s own classic footage of peasants repairing damaged dikes by hand (shot in Paris!), the link to the next segment, provided by Godard. Jean-Luc Godard’s 10-minute episode comes next, a personal essay focused on the tools of his trade ... …and including shots from his most recent film, La Chinoise.
Ivens’s and Loridan’s shots of resistance, ordered by the Parisian producers: a file of villagers running through a maze of trenches; ... a 360-degrees pan around a determined lone soldier; ... …and images of ongoing strikes by industrial workers in France. The key to “creating a Vietnam within ourselves, we who are not in a revolutionary situation in France, we must shout all the louder. Perhaps others can shout less than us, Régis Debray [Che’s French companion, then prisoner in Bolivia] isn’t shouting, nor is Che Guevara [recently killed in Bolivia]. They are real revolutionaries — we who cannot be so, or not yet, we have to listen and retransmit these shouts as often as possible.”
The next episode features U.S. protest-folk singer Tom Paxton and his fiercely satiric lyrics: “Lyndon Johnson told the nation, Though it isn’t really war, We’re sending fifty thousand more, To help save Vietnam from the Vietnamese,” — accompanied by scenes of G.I.s being rickshawed around occupied Saigon. Next, French journalist Michèle Ray offers footage taken both behind the National Liberation Front lines and the zone occupied by the U.S. Army, including patrols of the waterways in a futile attempt to keep supplies away from “Victor Charlie” and ... …“suspects” being force-marched through the jungle towards interrogation centres: “It is always difficult to be a witness, especially powerless witnesses of a war. Being behind a camera does not mean being neutral. The film is on one side, but my heart is there with the suspects, with this boy."
Go to page 2: visual essay, continued    

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