A man on a New York City street corner seems to be wrestling with a word. Sandwiched between the usual street preachers and clutching the hand of a small child, his tongue rolls over the single word, “napalm”, in just about every way, attacking the syllables in turn with his eyes squeezed shut. Naturally, a small crowd forms, and people point to the small pin on the man’s lapel as if to say, “of course, that’s why he’s being so crazy.” Finally, someone interrupts him: “what is ‘napalm’?”
The omnibus Far From Vietnam (1967), a collaboration initiated and edited by Chris Marker that brings together Agnès Varda, William Klein, Joris Ivens, Claude Lelouch, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Luc Godard, attacks American military involvement in Vietnam by dissecting the ways in which the idea of Vietnam, what it means to the Vietnamese and to the rest of the world, has been sublimated and, often, alienated from the conflict itself.
Far From Vietnam‘s only explicit claim is, as Marker says, “to affirm…solidarity with the Vietnamese people in struggle against aggression”, but the film takes great pains to interrogate its own position, challenging the very notion and function of solidarity. The only fictional piece of the film, a vignette contributed by Resnais, is a self-critical monologue in which a man questions his own ability to pick a side. He fought with the Americans against the Germans in WWII, so how could he consciously fight the Americans now? But aren’t the Americans the Vietnamese’s Germans? Experience ultimately prevents him from being able to completely align himself with one side or the other, and experience is what makes solidarity inherently problematic: there is a fine line between empathizing with the struggles of another person or group of people and actively appropriating or confusing that struggle through the lens of one’s own experience.
If Resnais’ vignette acknowledges that there is a fundamental disconnect between the experiences of European intellectuals and the North Vietnamese, Godard’s contribution attempts to bridge that divide. Honest, self-aware, and frustratingly self-centered, this section highlights the pitfalls of attempting to understand the struggle of others through one’s own experience. Speaking from behind a camera, Godard talks about why the North Vietnamese delegation wouldn’t let him film in the country (his ideology isn’t explicit enough), why he feels compelled to talk about Vietnam constantly, and his desire to illustrate the bomb through the form of a naked woman. Intercut with images and scenes from La Chinoise, it’s Godard doing Godard at his worst, which is to say that it’s Godard illustrating the ways in which the left frequently glosses over the importance of context and privilege in order to make a point about class struggle.
But Godard’s assertion that his experience combating the American film industry is comparable to the North Vietnamese struggle against the American military manages to coexist with Resnais’ questioning of the ability to even properly relate, and that, beyond the aesthetic triumphs of Far From Vietnam, is what makes the film essential viewing for anyone remotely interested in a critical engagement with politics. I say ‘politics’ because the film demonstrates just how nebulous the term is in actuality – the ways in which theory and practice become complicated by human reality and action, but also how disparate parts can coexist in a single body, how a singular statement can be self-critical and self-aware while simultaneously dredging up what has become buried in discourse.
Inspired by Far From Vietnam, Far From Afghanistan (2012) attempts to engage with the War in Afghanistan on similar terms. The United States’ military action in Afghanistan has often been compared to that of its involvement in Vietnam, a comparison that reached a head in 2011, when the current war surpassed Vietnam as the longest war in United States’ history. While Far From Vietnam succeeds in deconstructing a hegemonic understanding of Vietnam, Far From Afghanistan never seems to even attempt to complicate the dominant, critical narrative of the War in Afghanistan.
If Vietnam became inseparable from Western contemporary existence, Afghanistan has largely existed on the margins of American daily life, and Far From Afghanistan is primarily tasked with trying to make what has become invisible visible. While it succeeds in doing so primarily by nature of its existence, it doesn’t ever push against what has come to define Afghanistan for those still paying attention. If you tend to be more critical of the rise and dominance of the military-industrial complex, Jon Jost’s Empire’s Cross and other segments are for you; if you take the more Liberal approach to Afghanistan and focus on the ways in which women have been denied equal access to education or have been disproportionately affected by military conflicts, there are, again, sections of Far From Afghanistan that will appeal to your sensibilities. When Far From Afghanistan offers something that deviates from the standard narrative, it does so in muddled ways, offering up a hypothesis that American engagement in Afghanistan was really about the country’s uncharted and unclaimed material riches and failing to establish that claim beyond intertitles conveying Dick Cheney’s pre-9/11 belief that Afghanistan was a strategic necessity and the fairly recent discovery of vast lithium deposits in the country.
Travis Wilkerson’s Fragments of Dissolution offers the most interesting take on the subject, addressing America’s decay from a domestic perspective. Based on the perspectives of four women, two seen and two unseen, Wilkerson connects the casualties of poverty in Detroit to the suicides of American soldiers home from Afghanistan. Unified under the claim that “the empire is eating its intestines”, Fragments of Dissolution presents one of the more radical and developed claims of any of the segments in Far From Afghanistan. In a film that deals with problems of visibility, why are the women faced with crippling poverty left invisible? Can the image of self-devouring coexist with John Gianvito’s My Heart Swims in Blood, an earlier segment that establishes the blissful, consumerist ignorance of Americans in the face of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan?
Chock full of ideas, Far From Afghanistan lacks the editorial direction and strength of Far From Vietnam; it focuses primarily on the ideology of its subject matter at the expense of its aesthetics. But it is objectively unfair to compare the two films, regardless of the more recent film’s intention to act as something like a spiritual successor; Far From Afghanistan simply can’t replicate the creative and political contexts that make Far From Vietnam so powerful. While it could never have Chris Marker, Far From Afghanistan could have used a firmer editorial hand; part of what makes Far From Vietnam work as a film is the way in which Marker edited the disparate parts together, merging what, in lesser hands, wouldn’t have been unifiable. Far From Afghanistan, despite its frustrating intellectual cohesion, functions largely as a collection of varied, isolated segments brought together under a banner that seems more superficial than it ought to be; its intentions alone are worthy of recognition, but its practice lacks the guidance and aesthetic strength necessary to garner the attention the film attempts to demand.
Far From Vietnam screens Wednesday August 28 and Thursday August 29, and Far From Afghanistan screens Wednesday August 28, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.