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.