Review by Trylon volunteer Patrick Vehling.
There was a period in my early twenties where war films took up a large part of my film viewing, particularly films that portrayed the part of the philosophical soldier–always questioning the authenticity of war, or rather, a more humanistic approach. Definitely not the generic “heroics” of most 50s-60s Hollywood war films, with their chiseled-chinned good-ol’-boys grinning while blowing up a U-boat, barely breaking a sweat.
Obviously there are exceptions to that formula, but the typical ease and lack of grit was something that wasn’t portrayed nearly as often in Vietnam war films, especially films made by younger directors that were directly impacted by the social upheaval in America in the 60s and 70s. With this youthful enthusiasm and cynicism a more realistic vision of war emerged, especially in the intimate documentaries like Hearts and Minds and the important character studies of Oliver Stone’s and Francis Ford Coppola’s classic anti-war films, a trend which continues to this day.
Far From Vietnam (Loin du Vietnam) is presented in a series of montages by prominent, mostly French, film directors, as assembled by Chris Marker. It is filled with typical stock footage of anti-war protesters, a strange Godard segment where the camera focuses on Godard himself in various angles as he talks and moves another camera around, and a stilted exposition from a rather bad French actor on some generic philosophy with an attractive women staring awkwardly at him as he expounds and emotes with extreme gesticulation. There is also an interview with Fidel Castro presented in a intriguingly staged jungle locale in typical guerrilla garb where he restates many of his viewpoints on armed struggle and shows support of the Vietnamese people. He reiterates Che in the need to create “many Vietnams” so the peasants can throw the yoke of exploitation – a viewpoint defended by the filmmakers.
The most interesting and important segment is the history behind the war from the French perspective, based on their multiple, decades-long colonization and downfall directly caused by the paramount failure at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. There, thousands of French died and many more thousands were wounded and captured, including two American soldiers killed in action, information of which was only recently declassified in 2004.
This path to America’s involvement is typically passed over, particularly the fact of America’s involvement in Vietnamese politics reaching as far back as the early 50s. Bernard Fall’s excellent and exhausting book Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (1967, J.B. Lippincott Company) explores in great detail the amount of money and strategy tossed around in preparation for this battle–as the pages go on, the absurdity level increases while simultaneously respect for the Vietnamese increases more quickly.
The tale of modern Vietnam is the classic story of a group of people rejecting imperialist ideals and exploitative colonialism for centuries, a rejection that many powerful countries continue to ignore out of arrogance and greed–a general theme in Loin du Vietnam’s nearly two hours. Much of the documentary portrays that youthful protest and longing explored in the Vietnam war film canon I was weaned on. Despite its flaws, I recommend it as a good starting point to further study of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, and as a refresher of alternative viewpoints to modern American media coverage of war and all its humanity so highly exploited.
Patrick Vehling was raised in Minneapolis, weaned by Kurosawa, Tarkovsky and Herzog, interested in travel, linguistics, coffee, whiskey and sometimes has been known to make a film on Super 8.
Far From Vietnam (Loin du Vietnam) screens at the Trylon microcinema Monday and Tuesday at 7:00 & 9:15. Purchase tickets here.