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

by Thomas Waugh

Far from Vietnam: a “Left Bank” Collective film

Historians of the cinema of the French New Wave of the 1960s have traditionally divided the phenomenon loosely into the Right Bank current—incorporating filmmakers aspiring to break into the star-studded auteur or commercial cinema, such as François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Claude Lelouch—and the Left Bank current, whose members blended their cinephilia with leftwing political commitment—such as Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais. If the contribution of two panels on the Left Bank current at the 2010 “Visible Evidence” is indeed visible evidence, the Left Bank is attracting considerable historical and critical attention. The feature documentary film Loin du Vietnam (henceforth Far from Vietnam) provides a useful introit into this sometimes revisionist focus on the Left Bank, for it was a key document in trajectory of the Left Bank cinema and political culture, synthesizing the transformations of the hinge year in which it was produced, 1967. As a cinematic conversation among Left Bank committed artists whose political and artistic consensus was being challenged by this historical conjuncture, this rich film symbolically inaugurated the convergence of left cinema and political upheaval known as May 1968.

1967 was marked on the international scale by the escalation of the military conflict in Vietnam, which had involved WWII-scale bombardment of Hanoi since February 1965—and of course the martyrdom of Che Guevara—and in France momentous industrial strikes at Rhodiaceta (Besançon) and St-Nazaire echoed by growing student unrest. All these developments hailed Left Bank filmmakers, and set the context in which a coalitional cinematic response became possible—and necessary.

The project was instigated by Marker, veteran documentarist and frequent collaborator of other filmmakers on the scene from Ivens to Resnais, the eventual maître d’oeuvre and editor of the work, together with Varda and a host of sympathizers within the film milieu. FfV was the first major production—and test case—of  the Société pour le lancement des œuvres nouvelles (S.L.O.N. or Society for Launching New Works), the French collective production and distribution organization which Marker and others formed that year to promote political filmmaking in France and which would mark the subsequent decade of French committed cinema. Also on board with the Vietnam project were Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy, the Brazilian expatriate Ruy Guerra, the New Wave pillars Resnais and Godard, the newly commercial New Wave hanger-on Lelouch, fresh from his Oscar-winning blockbuster Un homme et une femme, plus the U.S. expatriate William Klein, a fashion photographer known for acerbic satire of his homeland. Ivens had produced in Hanoi a short poster film on the North Vietnamese resistance to U.S. aggression, Le Ciel la terre (The Threatening Sky) that had created a strong impression in Paris in March 1966. So Ivens’s presence in the group seemed indispensable, despite the political difference between the 69-year-old communist and the thirty-something unaffiliated-left filmmakers at the peak of their power. Michèle Ray, French journalist, also came on board with her footage of South Vietnam from both sides of the National Liberation Front membrane, complementing Ivens’s Hanoi testimony. The lineup reflected the spectrum of Left Bank allegiances but also constituted a major coalitional achievement for the skilled diplomat Marker, joining together artists with a strong track record of working with communists and the left like Varda and Resnais with hyper-individualist avant-gardists like Godard and Klein. The precariousness of this coalition would become evident as the planned contributions by Demy and Guerra were soon dropped (the collective didn’t like Demy’s proposed narrative about a Puerto Rican male G.I. and a female Vietnamese prostitute [Varda 1994, 92]), but problems came to the surface even more dramatically upon the release of the film.

The final two-hour film included eleven fairly distinct parts:

  • long episodes on the theme of the anguish and impotent self-interrogation of intellectuals, courtesy Resnais, Godard, and Ray;
  • actuality footage from North and South, some of it even then already familiar to Western audiences;
  • impressionistic footage of U.S. operations in the South and pro and anti-war demonstrations in New York, shot by LeLouch and Klein respectively;
  • an interview with Fidel Castro;
  • a compilation historical backdrop to the Vietnam conflict narrated by Varda;
  • an interview with Anne Morrison, widow of Norman Morrison, the Quaker who burned himself in front of the Pentagon in 1965, intercut with a testimony by Ann Uyen, a Vietnamese woman living in exile with a similar young family;
  • and a collage refrain of miscellaneous media artifacts of the war and U.S. civilization in general (newsreel footage, video material, a televised speech by General Westmoreland alongside testimony by black power advocates, analyzed and distorted, stills, comic strips, radio voices, popular music, etc.).

All was assembled with hyperbolic flair and dialectical rigor by Marker, who also provided an eloquent voice-over intro and conclusion, respectively situating the conflict as a war of the rich against the poor, and urging spectators to face the challenge of the war far from Vietnam.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

Far from Vietnam as an Ivens film

I came to this topic of course from the vantage point of my comprehensive monograph-forever-in-progress on the work of Joris Ivens, who at that time had been based on the Left Bank for scarcely a decade but who had interacted with that milieu as well as with the Parti communiste français and its international patron Moscow since the late 1920s. In the interwar years Ivens was a regular of the Paris left avant-garde, commuting regularly from Amsterdam and elsewhere. He collaborated with artists ranging from Éli Lotar, Luis Buñuel and Jean Renoir to his sometimes wife, the constructivist photographer Germaine Krull, and he contributed to the debates in left periodicals around the nature of art and politics. For example in 1931 the Revue des vivants ran his “Reflexions on avant-garde documentaries:”

“I call 'avant-garde cinema' the cinema that takes the initiative of progress and keeps it, flag-bearer of cinematic sincerity… Documentary film is the positive means left to the avant-garde filmmaker for working and for putting the most of him/herself, as representative of the expression of the masses, of popular expression in his/her work…. It is impossible for the director of a documentary to lie, to not be in what is true. The raw material will not allow treason: …only the personality of the artist distinguishes him from ordinary newsreel work, from simple cinematography.”

That this text echoed in important ways the manifesto from the previous year by Jean Vigo (Vigo 1930), another stalwart of the same milieu, no doubt indicates that such views represented a consensus among committed filmmakers of the Left Bank milieu. Ivens’ solidarity work around the Spanish Civil War, 1936-38, was a key later moment in the interwars’ chapter in this history; and references to this conflict and/or Ivens’ intervention in it are a refrain in the discourse within and around the Indochina films two decades later.

In the postwar era, Ivens remained a fixture of the Paris communist milieu, moving there in 1957 at the time of his prizewinning collaboration with communist film historian and critic Georges Sadoul on the poetic documentary La Seine a rencontré Paris (Paris Meets the Seine). Thereafter he shared the milieu’s solidarity with the emerging third world, spearheading its enchantment with Cuba, and making like Varda and Marker documentaries on Fidel’s revolution.

Early 1967 found Ivens back in Hanoi, now with his soon to be inseparable partner Marceline Loridan,[2] about to embark on his most important Indochina work, the feature documentary Le 17me Parallèle (The 17th Parallel).  Ivens had met with Marker and Resnais before leaving Paris to discuss the “theme and direction” of the planned film (Ivens and Destanque 1982, 290).  A follow-up list drawn up by Varda on behalf of the collective for the couple to take to Hanoi made a number of requests for specific shots for the film, e.g.:

“men and women lying and hidden in a rice-field (or corn or some kind of bushes)—when they get up they are covered with leaves.”

Varda had clearly been impressed with an allusion to Macbeth and Birnam Wood in Le Ciel, and given color stock for the purpose, Ivens was happy to oblige. Or rather, taken ill in Hanoi, Ivens happily delegated the half-dozen sets of shots to Loridan who commendably absorbed her partner’s style for the purpose.[3] This shot, prominent in the prologue, shows a brilliantly yellow expanse of waving grain, first coming to life with the choreographed advance of a troop of camouflaged militia and then returning to its former serenity. Similar requests included

“a shot of soldiers matching three or four abreast, leaves in helmet, and the same thing rear view, and a single man. Also camouflaged with leaves, not marching, standing immobile in extreme close-up, and then the same man lying nude on the road or running through a village.”

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), Ivens drew the line at the last detail of the request, apparently in deference to his hosts’ sense of decorum, but the other material was all sent back to Paris. The former shot appears as the penultimate movement of the film, while Marker inserted the close-ups of the soldier, with its heroic poster-like stylization, in the midst of Godard’s monologue halfway through the film. Varda also asked for some atrocity footage, “flaming ruins,” etc. which Ivens apparently did not provide; the producers had no shortage of this material in any case, either from North or South.

Ivens’ and Loridan’s finest contribution to the film, however, was conceived in his own style. No preconceptions of Parisian intellectuals were necessary to stimulate four or five concise sequences of matchless precision and calm attention to detail which stand distinctly apart from the other currents in the film. The Ivens sequences are all silent and all in color with one exception. This is the first brief scene, in black and white, which shows peasants defusing and collecting small fragmentation bombs filled with tiny ball bearings aimed at chest level, the target of which “is human flesh.” The camera follows the defusing process in close-up, scans the stockpiles that the workers have accumulated, and records their absorbed expressions and purposeful gestures. The same watchful attitude informs the color sequences, which record brigades preparing individual concrete air-raid shelters for the streets of Hanoi. The first of these, an attentive record of women filling wooden moulds with concrete, is followed by an actual alert with passersby running to the shelters we have just witnessed being built as the camera tracks up and down the street from a car, recording rows of faces settling in to or emerging from their individual shelters beneath the street. Detailed subjective information on the future of the war is offered in the Ivens/Loridan footage. Their tightly coordinated close attention and panning close-ups of moving workers’ faces and hands and the product of their labor seem to encapsulate materialist cinema.

A further sequence records a troupe of agitprop players performing in a village, the camera shifting back and forth between the relaxed and cheerful spectators and the ingenious show, which presents an unrecognizably painted President Johnson lamenting his woebegone U.S. Air Force. The commentary repeats Ivens’ impression of the great calm pervading the atmosphere in Hanoi. However, it is not only Hanoi but Ivens’ footage itself which seems an island of calm in this otherwise chaotic film, relying mostly for its impact on sensory and affective discourse, rather than factual exposition. Ivens’ footage of concrete activities on the part of both Hanoi civilians and rural peasants offers clear evidentiary support for the range of perspectives and emotions expressed elsewhere in the film by the collective. As usual with Ivens, the ordinary tasks accomplished with the hands of workers, unassumingly and unremittingly, constitute the most visible and most truthful emblem of the revolution in action.

Ivens’ unquestioning faith in the evidence of cluster bombs being defused or bomb shelters being moulded by women’s hands, and in the unassailable political relevance of this evidence for Western society, might situate him in apparent sharp contrast to Godard’s minimalist self-interrogation that takes place within the same film. Godard’s segment searches for the lessons of imperialist war and their application at home, expresses a personal agony at the dilemmas of industrial strikes in his own back yard, and regrets an elitist cinema that cannot speak to the proletariat. Both moments, however divergent they may be, emerge from the film seen now, as it loses the immediacy of its agitational role almost a half-century later. They have an impact as compellingly parallel testimonies and perceptions with a relevance extending far beyond the issues of 1967. The two presences, Ivens and Godard, superficially separated by a seemingly insurmountable gulf—stylistic, conceptual, cultural and generational—ironically appear in retrospect to have the most affinity of any two contributors to the film. Both present workers and their means of production: respectively peasants and their tools, and an intellectual/artist and his camera. Both meditate on this evidence as the final authority for and subject of political analysis and revolutionary art.

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