JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

Far from Vietnam as
intervention in critical subculture

In the 1990s Ivens rightwing Dutch biographer Hans Schoots called Far from Vietnam a “fretful,” “egocentric,” and “far-from-flattering” “bizarre mix” ([1995] 2000), and at the time of its release in late 1967 the film sparked strong responses from both French and U.S. critics as well. Such responses are a good indicator of the film’s success in intervening in the two milieux—in stirring up infrastructural subcultures of critics and audiences, but in different ways.

The U.S. critical response by and large showed total disarray, at best a primitive stage of political critical culture in that country in 1967, the postwar red scare having completely erased the legacy of political film culture of the Popular Front era. U.S. critics seemed to lack language and criteria for dealing with political cinema of any type, not to mention the resurfacing solidarity work of the 1960s. Moreover Far from Vietnam’s revelation of apparent anti-Americanism among native son Klein and the idolized leaders of the Nouvelle vague was apparently hard to swallow.

Andrew Sarris’s dismissal of the film as a “patchwork quilt” unlike anything he had seen since Mondo Cane (1962) is arguably apt[4], as is his critique of Ivens’ indulgent romanticization of the peasant similar to that in Spanish Earth. However, his rating of the entire film as “zero as art” says more about the confusion of U.S. liberals in 1967 than the worth and interest of the film. His Village Voice piece after the New York Film Festival showed Far from Vietnam is a masterpiece of evasion. He includes a sermon on the inherent conservatism of all peasants and a veiled attack on French intellectuals for their failure to stop their own Vietnam, Algeria (echoing a similar comment within Far from Vietnam  by Resnais, who along with Marker, Godard and Loridan had been far from silent on French colonialism in North Africa, as Sarris knew full well but seemed conveniently to forget). While politely applauding Ivens, Godard, and Resnais for at least trying to make a personal statement, Sarris scolds them for yielding their right to edit their own footage, such is his blinkered auteurism’s blocking of the concept of collaboration.

Sarris’s perception of the film as “lies from Hanoi and Paris” seems embarrassingly defensive in retrospect, but even he is outdone by the incoherent hysteria of the New York Times’s Renata Adler upon theatrical release of the film the following June (I’ll come back to Adler), which effectively seems to have killed the film’s career—at least in the United States.[5] [open endnotes in new window]

Meanwhile U.S. left film criticism had not found its voice, and Cineaste, then in its inaugural year at the outset of a decade of national leadership in New Left film criticism, somehow avoided reviewing the film. Only American Richard Roud, the New Wave devotee and presumably the programmer of the film in the New York festival, came to its defense. Writing as an expatriate for London’s Guardian, Roud critiques the U.S. schizoid bad conscience around what is undeniably a “progaganda film,” praising it as “an important film, a beautiful film, a moving film”:

“Rare indeed have been the occasions when contemporary art has successfully involved itself with politics. In this film, the cinema at last has its ‘Guernica’.”

The much greater richness and resilience of the French critical discourse around the film can be encapsulated briefly here simply by a repertory of the terminology deployed to describe the film. In contrast to the Americans’ dismissive and inaccurate invective, the Paris responses, unanimously positive across the ideological spectrum, included the following terms, culled from the ten reviews cited in my list of sources, as the basis of their criticism:

  1. Meditation; reflection—beyond testimony and fiction
  2. [Filmed political] essay
  3. Dossier (file)
  4. Film engagé (committed film)
  5. Film utile (useful film)
  6. Collective testimony  
  7. Demonstration; a manifesto (the French manifestation has the ring of both English concepts, though normally means the former)
  8. Didactic

To this list, the filmmakers themselves in their interviews and public discussions of the film, external or internal, added the simple terms: “a banner,” “un cri” (a cry or a shout) and the useful “cinematic roundtable/meeting.” 

Having the conceptual equipment to define and describe a film, its form and its objectives, is arguably the most basic tool of film criticism: the French had it, the Americans were still working on theirs.[6]

Far from Vietnam as “solidarity” film

Though the word “solidarity” is less prominent as a defining genre in the critical reception to Far from Vietnam, in the discourse around the production of this film and within the narration of the film itself, it designates both the film’s objectives and self-conception as part of a documentary genre. “Solidarity” is therefore a useful term for summing up the film’s significance historically.  The Left Bank collective’s letter to the North Vietnamese leadership, carried by Ivens and Loridan to seek permission to film from the Hanoi authorities, was explicit in this respect:

“Words of friendship and solidarity, however sincere they may be, are only words… Silence in the face of the war in Vietnam is impossible. But saying ‘solidarity’ from afar and without risk, may also be a convenient way of easing one’s conscience. Our solidarity occurs in towns that no one bombs, in lives that no one menaces. What does this mean? We know that this war is your war, that the peace, when it becomes possible, will be your peace, and that no one has the right, even with the best of intentions, to put themselves in your place, to speak on your behalf. Where is our place? To answer these questions, we have undertaken to make a film. It is a response that is neither praiseworthy nor heroic, but which has the sole motive of being tangible, within our means and within our limitations. It is with our work, it is within the context of our profession, that we want to bring a little life to this word ‘solidarity.’” (cited and trans. Mundell 2003, 26).

Marker’s narration takes up this theme in both his introduction and conclusion to Far from Vietnam, explicitly in the former:

“[58 names] and many other technicians, assistants and friends have made this film during the year 1967 to affirm, by the exercise of their craft, their solidarity with the Vietnamese people in struggle against aggression.”

Could anyone argue that this film failed in Marker’s objective to “bring a little life into this word solidarity”; that he and his colleagues made the political relationship between the Left Bank and Vietnam “tangible”; that they revived through craft the solidarity genre that had been invented in no small part thanks to Ivens three decades earlier? (Waugh 2009) And that the genre would now launch a whole new reinvigorated chapter in its history as fellow traveler of the New Left, still vigorously kicking fifty-three years later?

It is therefore fitting in conclusion to probe this “tangibility” of this film in the context of this genre a bit further, to cast FfV in terms of the perennial generic dynamics of the solidarity film. I have identified these dynamics within Ivens’s founding contributions to the genre from the 1930s, in terms of three factors (2009):

1. engagement with cultural difference, even conflict:  

Far from Vietnam offers a vivid depiction of the dialectics of rich vs. poor, calm vs. frenzy, Vietnam vs. France/U.S.A.…. with an emphatic dialectical rhythm throughout. It offers also a vivid depiction of cultural specificity in, for example, everything from low-tech shelter construction to agitprop theatrical performance techniques—but always as in the process of dynamic updating, never as static “otherness.”

2. engagement with constituency:

Far from Vietnam is not only addressed to the Left Bank in particular and the West in general—not the Vietnamese—but is also about this constituency, not about Vietnam. Marker makes this especially clear in the concluding narration:

“…This war is not a historical accident, nor the delayed resolution of a colonial problem: it is there, around us, within us. It begins when we begin ourselves to understand that the Vietnamese are fighting for us, and to measure our debt towards them … And the first honest movement that we can make towards them, is to try to look at their challenge head-on.”

This framework, together with the self-questioning of the Godard, Resnais and Ray episodes, suggests that the film could be valuably situated not only as an important moment in the rediscovery of the solidarity cinema by the New Left, but also as one of the founding texts of what we might call meta-solidarity, which both try to look head-on at a distant struggle and, as Godard puts it, endeavor to question our stakes in bringing it home.

3. engagement with documentary form, craft, language (however conservative formally solidarity documentary has tended to be):

Far from Vietnam inevitably grapples with the issue of forms, whether emerging or conventional, and their success in achieving an efficacy of communication and ethics of solidarity. There is no space here to go into the impassioned critical debates over Marker’s indulgent inclusion of clashing styles of material, all either loved or hated by critics, from vérité reportage of U.S. street politics to the first person interventions of the Left Bank auteurs, to Marker’s essayistic collage, praised as productive or decried as incoherent, depending on taste and ideological positioning. It is sufficient to acknowledge here their vigor and pertinence—and their prophetic laying out of the debates about form and technology that would dominate the aftermath of May 68, both in France and elsewhere.

Conclusion

The coalitional spirit of Far from Vietnam did not last long after its release, but lessons were learned. Launched at festivals in Montreal and New York in the summer and fall of 1967, Ivens and Lelouch publicly locked horns at the Paris official opening of the film in December (two months after screening it for the striking workers at Besançon). Ivens, just back from harrowing months literally underground filming 17th Parallel, castigated Lelouch’s attitude of pity towards the Vietnamese—what the Resnais episode in the film calls “victimes à la mode” and what we might now call a “victim aesthetics”—insisting rather on the necessity of unconditional victory for the besieged people.[7] The Lelouch eruption may have harmed the film’s lackluster exhibition career, since the distribution of the film had been entrusted to the director’s distribution firm. Schoots describes a lackluster exhibition for the film in “many provincial towns” and in four theatres in Paris, boosted by “a minor sensation when the right-wing extremist organization Occident protested by smashing showcases and slashing seats in one of the Paris theaters.” ([1995] 2000 292)

Even more serious for exhibition abroad was the hostile reception greeting the film’s U.S. opening at the New Yorker Theatre in Manhattan in the spring of 1968, with the New York Times critic dismissing it with the pretext that this banal and ugly “rambling partisan newreel collage,” “facile and slipshod and stereotyped,” had been overtaken by “events” anyway (meaning the Tet offensive of January 1968 and the subsequent withdrawal of Johnson from the Presidential race that spring). But critic Renata Adler unknowingly touched on the essence—both the virtues and the liabilities—of solidarity itself, its relation to “events.” No doubt related to this initial failure and this presumption about actuality, Far from Vietnam remains out of circulation in its English version to this day, a lamentable absence from the documentary, solidarity and essay filmic sub-canons, to which it clearly belongs. It is absent even from today’s ardent Marker canonicity on the English-language graduate dissertation market. Still, this exemplary solidarity film remains resonant for all the ephemerality of its hook to “events,” an exemplary study in artistic commitment at a pivotal moment in the trajectory of left politics and neo-imperialism. This film and the community from which it emerged have a transhistorical and transcultural relevance that could not be more acute to the renewal of both engaged documentary and neo-imperial conflict in the first decades of the twenty-first century.

Go to Notes


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