This narration from Chris Marker opens the first segment of Far from Vietnam, a film that hasn’t graced American screens since its initial release in 1968. Booed out of its premiere at the New York Film Festival for being little more than communist propaganda and called anti-American by critics, the film was never released on American home video and is notoriously rare elsewhere. (Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum laments that the only copy he could find was a Japanese VHS in 1998). Icarus is now releasing it again for a second chance at an American run. Nearly 50 years after its initial release, it’s hard to imagine how this film was received in its mid-Vietnam era heyday, but its agitprop vitriol is still powerful today.
Directors: Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais
Producer: Chris Marker
Writer: Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Jacques Sternberg
Editor: Jacques Meppiel
Cinematographer: Jean Boffety, Denys Clerval, Ghislain Cloquet, Willy Kurant, Alain Levant, Kieu Tham, Bernard Zitzermann
Cast: Anne Bellec, Karen Blangueronon, Bernard Fresson, Maurice Garrel, Jean-Luc Godard, Ho Chi Minh, Valérie Mayoux, Marie-France Mignal, Fidel Castro
Runtime: 115 minutes
Premiere: October 1, 1967 - New York Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: June 6, 1968
US Distributor: New Yorker Films, Icarus Films
Conceptualized by Chris Marker, who is the primary creative force behind the film’s episodes, Far from Vietnam meanders around the Vietnam War, approaching it from multiple angles. This is Marker’s most collaborative film by far, pulling in contributions from a swathe of the French New Wave’s best and brightest, including not only Marker (the New Wave’s most mysterious and elusive dissident), but also Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, and William Klein, along with the slightly more mainstream Claude Lelouch and the veteran Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens. The result of this collaboration is canny, no doubt due to Marker’s mysterious supervision and ethereal editorial voice; despite its episodic nature, the film’s many segments echo each other eerily, accruing meaning and understanding as they develop. Even those sections directed consciously by different auteurs, with vastly disparate aesthetic choices, manage to stay true to the essential theme and ideals of the film at large. Nearly as formally progressive as it is politically radical (at least for 1967), it’s no wonder that the film was unsuccessful in its initial release. It feels so ahead of its time that it may, only now, be coming into its own.
Like most of Marker’s films, this one is built from the humanist roots up, with nearly all of its documentary footage shot so that it gives due credit to every inhabitant of the frame. Whether it shows Hanoi citizens climbing leisurely into the manhole-sized bomb shelters (built into every city street), New York Mayor John Lindsay leading a pro-war parade down the side of Central Park, traditional Vietnamese clowns parodying Lyndon Johnson, or even Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh describing their philosophies (both interviewed specifically for this film), every individual we see on film is presented with such acuity and compassion that they become a figure of real depth. As usual, it is Marker’s knack for finding the profound in the ordinary that ties this all together. And the rest of his formidable crew follows suit. Varda’s own short section is so humanizing as to be nearly psychologically internal, truly climbing into the mind of the Vietnamese oppressed. As she says in voice over, accompanied by footage of imprisoned Viet Cong (or suspected Viet Cong), “I film on one side but my heart is on the other.”
The film bounces between three geographic poles—Vietnam, New York City, and Paris—exploring not only the reactions and interventions from each of them in this conflict, but the struggle’s sociopolitical origins. Beginning in Hanoi, with some of the physical realities of war, and continuing with a concise history of American and French involvement in the conflict, and antiwar movements in both first world cities, Far from Vietnam paints a complex portrait of the situation. As Marker’s narration explains “This war isn’t an accident, nor an unresolved colonial problem. It’s here. Around us. Inside us.” The myriad connections between these three spaces dominate the documentary structure.
As we hopscotch our way through the film it becomes even more complex. From Marker and Ivens’s humanist documentary footage, we enter into Alain Resnais’s contribution, a parodic narrative monologue. Performed by Bernard Fresson (who made his big screen debut eight years earlier in Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour), the speech is cloying and pretentious, and deliberately so. Fresson opines loudly—his words directed at a silent, glowering, and nameless partner played by Karen Blanguernon—on the responsibility of French intellectuals, like himself, with regards to Vietnam. His speechification excuses his political apathy while stoking his ego. Through all of this, Blangernon stares at him odiously. If any part of this film has aged poorly, it is its treatment of women, with Blangernon’s position as an object to be talked at feeling particularly 1960’s pre-feminist, but in this context it goes to make Fresson’s character look even more repugnant, which seems to be Resnais’s intent.
Godard’s insertion too plays on his own particular style, this one a philosophizing meditation on form. Godard muses on how he might involve himself in the struggle in Vietnam, settling for the conclusion that, “The best I can do is make cinema.” While he talks we watch as he masterfully and obsessively twiddles with the knobs of a sophisticated camera mount, tilting and panning a camera that stares straight back at us. Intercut with images from Vietnam and from his films, this section comes across as particularly self-centered, yet Godard’s philosophic chops are impressive enough to make up for it. We also see snippets from several of Godard’s films, illustrating his claim that he “puts Vietnam in every film he makes.” Particularly striking in his oeuvre of Vietnam references is one that fits into Pierrot Le Fout, a sequence that condemns brusque American imperialists: Ferdinand and Marianne perform a dramatization of the Vietnam War for them, replete with Jean Paul Belmondo’s full English vocabulary (three words: “yeah,” “sure,” and “communist”) and a shrill Anna Karina dressed like the traditional Vietnamese clowns that featured earlier in this film.
Despite the New Wave pedigree of the other contributors, the most powerful section is undoubtedly the one made by one of the least well-known directors. At the time, William Klein was an American expat in Paris and a fashion photographer turned director with only one feature film under his belt (the scathing, sardonic Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966)). Yet his interview with Ann Morrison, widow of the Baltimore Quaker who set himself on fire outside the Pentagon to protest the war, is incredible. Shot at a Norman Rockwell-esque dinner table, Ann recounts the story of her husband’s symbolic suicide while their toddler bounces up and down on her lap, interrupting her. Ann’s serenity and grace in the face of such a life-shattering act is truly incredible, and Klein intercuts her interview with another one: Ann Uyen, a Vietnamese woman living in Paris, who talks about how important this act was to Vietnam. This 8-minute segment is unbelievably moving, and is captured perfectly by Klein. Despite the varied and impressive career that would follow, this short may stand out as his finest work.
And after all of these notorious and auspicious contributions, only Chris Marker could tie it together without disappointing. We watch protests and counter-protests in New York, an excellent sampling of the American mood. The protesters are hippies, quakers, black power activists, Latino rights advocates, and more, and their cacophony of motives and desires is well illustrated while their opposites: suit and tie-clad Wall Street New Yorkers yelling at the “bums,” come across as equally varied. One tie-wearing man seems particularly distraught as he yells, “What are you doing? We have enough guys right here we could go win the war tomorrow!” This sentiment, though it seems ludicrous in retrospect, goes a long way to explain the exasperation in the pro-war movement in America, and Marker’s decision to include it, even in this deliberately politicized documentary, makes it more interesting.
The French New Wave itself is a wildly political film movement, perhaps the most political there has ever been, and implicit in it are both a critique of American capitalism and a glorification of that same culture. Take Godard as an example. His films from this era are conscious critiques of Keynesian capitalism (perhaps most intensely felt in the Marxist/Maoist diatribe La Chinoise (1967)), yet without the films of Humphrey Bogart, he may have never made Breathless (1960), a film so indebted to that Hollywood cool as to be nearly homage. Far from Vietnam’s take is similar to the movement as a whole; its relation to America is just as complicated. Its goal, however, is simple: it is a deliberate intervention, an attempt to do something about the war through film—to change that land it both critiques and reveres. Marker’s first-person outro cuts straight to its core complexity, decrying the ineffectuality of intellectuals trying to stop this injustice, but at the same time, emphasizing the necessity of doing something. In a voiceover delivered alongside unsettling close-ups and the sound of thunderclaps, he intones, “We are far from Vietnam.”