Active Ingredients: Vitality, a call to arms for art and politics; Manipulation of TV images
Side Effects: Fictional elements; Historical explanations and didacticism
Far from Vietnam, a shape-shifting collaborative effort by a group of key New Wave filmmakers, creates a collage of strong reactions just as it creates a collage of images and cinematic forms. It’s riveting, moving, compelling and frustrating, just as it’s documentary, agit-prop, fiction and avant-garde. Far from Vietnam is many things—perhaps too many—but above all it’s vital filmmaking of a kind rarely seen today, art with a bone to pick both formally and politically.
As a reaction to the escalation of American involvement oversees and an expression of solidarity with North Vietnamese and revolutionaries everywhere, essay filmmaker Chris Marker (La Jetée) organized a group of artists and technicians to respond any way they could. The American fashion photographer William Klein captures raw and immediate footage of pro- and anti-war demonstrators in New York; the Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens provides scenes of Vietnamese life to give a face to the war’s victims. Contributions from the remaining French New Wave directors range from a fictional satire on European intellectuals (Alain Resnais), to a “flash back” of Vietnam’s colonial history (Agnès Varda), to a portrait of a war photographer sympathetic to the Vietcong (Claude Lelouch).
Like all omnibus films, Far from Vietnam feels scattered and schizophrenic, with certain segments creating more impact than others. Unlike other omnibus films, however, Far from Vietnam benefits from a unifying editorial vision from Chris Marker. That’s not to say he smooths over the vast gaps between the styles of each contribution, far from it. Instead, Marker uses montage to allow more incongruities to emerge, and with them an understanding of the Vietnam War as a multifaceted sociopolitical event with global significance. Cutting from the deafening roar of rockets blasting from a US warship to the labor of Vietnamese peasants, for example, carries with it an ideological statement: just as these images are contradictory, so too are the actions of colonialists and the people.
Of course, the radical politics and ideology that Far from Vietnam wears on its sleeves will validate some viewers and enrage others, but this engagement is precisely the goal of the project. Jean-Luc Godard’s typically talky and philosophical segment articulates the ethos of the film, and indeed of New Wave filmmaking in general. Godard was denied permission to film in Vietnam, forcing him to reflect on what a bohemian, first-world artist could possibly do to help. His answer: to make films, to do anything possible to digest and respond to what is happening in the world.
If Far from Vietnam is vehemently opposed to anything, then, it’s apathy, both towards American action in Vietnam and towards the uncritical consumption of visual images. For the New Wave, of course, this political and the aesthetic apathy is one and the same, two facets to a process of colonization. Whether you agree with this thesis or not, Far from Vietnam is invigorating cinema. As the film ends with an explosive sequence documenting the passion of New Yorkers on both sides of the issue, it implores us to leave the theater and open our eyes, no matter what reality we see around us.