When Far from Vietnam came out in the United States in 1968, Renata Adler described its narration in The New York Times as “serene banality and ugliness,” a judgment worth revisiting. Spearheaded and edited by Chris Marker, this documentary essay, conceived as an outcry against the Vietnam War, is a collaboration between Alain Resnais, Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein, Joris Ivens, and Agnès Varda, though it was released without individual credits. Throughout its collaging of found footage and direct cinema, much of it shot while following American bomber missions over Vietnam and the jungle raids against the Viet Cong, the film offers a panoramic study of the conflict. Again and again the question that drives the filmmakers is how to portray the plight of the Vietnamese nation under attack.
As its title suggests, the film is a reflection on distance (geographical, socio-political, and cultural, but also between fact and fiction), weaving together reactions and narratives that surround a war that, far more than the previous ones, reached Western homes via live images. After opening with footage of American bombs being loaded in the Gulf of Tonkin, the voiceover by Marker framing the conflict as a war between rich and poor, the narrative jumps to Fidel Castro and later to Ho Chi Minh. The film also examines propaganda on both sides of the Vietnam War, juxtaposing farcical Vietnamese street performers with America’s own political farce: the U.S. generals’ denials of excessive force. The voiceover’s forceful rhetoric is marked by Marker’s sardonic humor and quick turns of mind, such as when, in one section, comic-book characters serve to illustrate America’s overwhelming military might.
Nevertheless, Adler’s criticism retains some currency. When in Far from Vietnam the contextual lens turns inward, the historical Vietnam, in which bombs were falling as of Adler’s writing, becomes “a Vietnam of our feeling,” as Godard puts it, a phrase so vague it could mean anything. Kaleidoscopic spectrum allows for some fruitful links: a French strike demanding better working conditions, or an American street protest that breaks into partisan groups (Black Panthers and Puerto Ricans), offers glimpses of class and social tensions that shook the world. But at other times, “the Vietnam of feeling” serves as a springboard for a treatise on France’s intellectual paralysis, particularly for Resnais and Godard. Seated behind the camera, Godard declares that since he cannot go to Vietnam (Hanoi denied him permission), he’ll mention Vietnam in all his works. Resnais stages a fictional monologue, in which Bernard Fresson, playing writer Claude Ridder, confesses his moral ambiguities. Whether, given the context, these sections amount to more than tormented navel-gazing is open for debate.
Adler objected to the film’s jarring transitions from reports on fatalities to the war’s reception in popular culture as “easy ironies.” Indeed, Marker’s assertion that Vietnam “lives inside us” multiplies modes of analysis and vantage points, from archival to personal, advertising to comic books. And so the omnibus film includes ads that used the war to sell band-aids and photographic cameras. In this sense, in Marker’s fashion, Far from Vietnam is about multiple readings and cultural appropriations of the Vietnam War, and those wishing to understand the Vietnamese war experience may want to seek out instead Joris Iven’s 17th Parallel, also from 1967. But the ads may also be taken to illustrate what Susan Sontag called a failure of empathy, supporting the filmmakers’ aim to combat indifference and to end the war.
More problematic is the way in which the Vietnamese are romanticized, as if they had not fought for their livelihoods and land, visceral and specific, but for ideals alone. There are, however, some riveting moments, such as a visit with the widow of an American Quaker, Norman Morris, who immolated himself to protest the war. Far from the bombings, two women—one American, one Vietnamese—speak of Morris’s sacrifice. To hear Morris’s widow, Anne, discuss her husband’s violent death as a logical consequence of the U.S. actions, and an effective response to human suffering, is chilling, dampened only by the fact that we never learn the Vietnamese speaker’s story. A representative of a nation that’s under attack, the young woman praises Morris’s compassion but then gives the stage to Anne—a small but consequential switch in perspective that perhaps best illustrates the challenge of identification.