Far From Vietnam

Today is the final screening of Far From Vietnam, a collectively produced experimental feature film from 1967. The film’s creative personnel includes Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and Alain Resnais. Additional material and support came from M. Ray, Agnés Varda, and countless other technical crew.

Presaging Marker’s A Grin Without A Cat by about forty years, Far From Vietnam employs documentary footage, personal testimony, narration, and a theatrical presentation of a crisis of faith. This diverse material is presented along with the experimental techniques of image deterioration, montage editing, re-filming, and sound/image relay. Underground Cinema, and its deep connection to the avant-garde, is in full play here, intentionally revealing ideology’s crucial role in supporting both hegemony and militarism.

Shared memory, and the distance evoked by its repression, is one of the acknowledged subjects of the film. Apathy, frustration, and despair are real effects of this experience, and they are alluded to by descriptions of living underground: “above us, the apocalypse,” “choking, no air,” and “there was nothing left to do, but go underground, like an animal, and hide.” Faced with the terrible force of the American military, the varied responses of domestic dissent seem like helpless cries.

We like to tell ourselves that we are a peaceful nation; that war is for other people, other cultures. That violence is for others. Far From Vietnam reminds us of the difficult fact that evil resides here at home as well. Actual history is recounted in the film, drawing an inexorable line from France’s colonization of Viet Nam to President Johnson’s declaration of war in 1964. Footage of arguments on the streets of New York underline the ugly side of America, and how easily the familiar smiling mask is discarded.

The film does provide two encouraging responses. They are also distinct calls to revolution. Godard, his eye on his eyepiece, urges us to find the Vietnam within ourselves, and to free ourselves from our prisons, be they economic or creative. And Castro, on a hillside in Cuba, conveys that Vietnam has given the world a gift. Their gift to us shows how the poor can resist the rich. By way of only a strong belief in their own moral self-determination, Vietnam is able to survive bombardment from the largest military force in history.

It is surprising when English is finally spoken in this film: a widow recounts the death of her husband on American soil. Norman Morrison was a Quaker who doused himself with kerosene and set himself on fire outside the Pentagon office of Robert McNamara. At the family table, with her young daughter on her lap, the widow relates the event, and amazingly, she recognizes aloud that his death makes sense. According to her husband’s beliefs, the privilege of wealth and safety seemed arbitrary to him; the knowledge that children were regularly being burned to death by Napalm was enough for him. He extended his understanding and equality by taking his own life in the very same way.


Screen Slate

Here is the first review I’ve written for Screen Slate (the links are below):

Currently showing at Luhring Augustine’s space in Bushwick is Ão, a 16mm film loop installation from 1981. The maker is Tunga, an interdisciplinary artist from Brazil, and the simplicity of the piece is stunning. Influenced by both Tropicalia and Russian Constructivism, Tunga’s Ão is formally striking, strange, ominous, and surprisingly timely.

The loop itself encompasses a diameter of about forty feet within the gallery, traveling along roller bearings seated on stands about two feet off the ground. The projector shines black and white footage directly on to the gallery wall. The pronounced horizontal quality of the loop brings the viewer into the space, challenging one to walk directly around its fragile structure. Simultaneously, the physical verticality of the film strip as it passes through the gate of the projector is brought to the mind.

The projected image is of an interminable tunnel, with no beginning and no end, and the sound system repeats the eponymous phrase from Frank Sinatra’s Night and Day, its campy luxury repeating over and over ad infinitum. The actual site of this never-ending path is the Dois Irmãos Tunnel in Rio de Janeiro. The tunnel connects two disparate neighborhoods, Rocinha, a notoriously rough favela, and Leblon, one of the richest and chiquest in Rio. It is commonly said that Rocinha gets tossed the trash of Leblon.

The tunnel has also been named alternatively in honor of Zuzu Angel, a Brazilian celebrity who died here mysteriously five years earlier, in 1976. Immediately before her death, she rallied fervently on behalf of her son, an outspoken political activist, who had been kidnapped, tortured, and made to disappear. On his behalf, she desperately wrote to many of her American colleagues, including Hollywood actresses Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, and Liza Minelli. She also reached out to American politicians Henry Kissinger and Ted Kennedy. Unfortunately, her voice was not heard, and her death, originally ruled an accident, was later determined to be caused by the Brazilian military police.

The effects of the aftershocks of that terrible event repeat again today in Brazil’s social unrest over a corrupt and unresponsive government. Or maybe it was just one event in a long series of nights and days, days and nights. A courageous piece, Ão eulogizes the hopeless glamour of Zuzu Angel, recognizing that in the end, her privilege could not protect her.


Mary Billyou is an experimental filmmaker living in NYC. Her interests include aleatory practices, alternative spaces, collaboration, and street photography. Her films have shown at The New Museum, Art in General, Images Festival, Sundance Int’l Film Festival, Microscope Gallery, and Film Mutations. Recently, she was awarded filmmaking grants from NYSCA and the Jerome Foundation for her upcoming film, GUN, HAT, GIRL... She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and attended The Whitney Independent Study Program.