Saturday, April 17, 2010

Vietnam's War in Color

We did not feel guilty. We killed to save our homes. That's why we had no nightmares, unlike the Americans...

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a remarkable two-part documentary, called Indochine: A People's War in Colour, on The Discovery Channel. As remarkable as the content of the film is the fact that it was shown in Vietnam.

The film uses a combination of archival footage and eyewitness testimony to tell the story of Vietnam's tumultuous 20th century, beginning with French colonialism, and including Japanese occupation, the independence war against France, and later, Vietnam's Civil War and U.S. intervention. Incredibly, all of the footage is in color.

This is not a gimmick or a result of post-production. During their research, the producers of the show discovered that much of the original footage – those grainy images of Việt Minh fighters firing anti-aircraft weapons against the Japanese, French forces surrounded at Điện Biên Phủ, and camouflaged NVA fighters moving down the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" – had in fact been shot on color stock. Indochine: A People's War in Colour brings this footage to the public for the first time.

What is the emotional effect of color? Color takes the war from the realm of history into the realm of personal experience. Whether viewing agrarian life in the 1930s, or late 1960s urban Saigon, color evokes a sense of immediacy that black-and-white film cannot. You see Hồ Chí Minh as a thin, aging man with wispy hair smoking his cigarettes and sitting in quiet contemplation, and you feel yourself beside him. You see schoolchildren studying in the Cu Chi Tunnels (Địa đạo Củ Chi), their faces illuminated by candlelight, and you feel their earnestness. This is not history. It is real.

Adding to the emotional impact are the eyewitness testimonies that accompany the footage. Vietnamese and French soldiers who took part in the siege of Điện Biên Phủ describe their feelings as you watch the jungled airstrip assailed by artillery. Mothers talk about seeing their sons for the last time as you watch soldiers in Hanoi getting onto trucks to go fight the war down south. Watching their young faces under oversized helmets, I could see the students I teach every day. They were the same faces.

Indochine: A People's War in Colour was first aired in May, 2009. Beforehand, it had been heavily advertised on The Discovery Channel and, among Vietnam's expatriate community at least, was eagerly anticipated. Then, on the night it was scheduled to air, it simply wasn't shown. Government censors had apparently pulled the show, with no explanation. So the fact that I was able to watch it nearly a year later, seems to indicate a reversal of government policy.

Nothing in the program should be seen as particularly threatening to Hanoi's government. The film briefly touches on the communist mistreatment of North Vietnamese landowners in the late 1950s, but Hanoi has long (for the most part) acknowledged the atrocities. If anything, the film shows tremendous sympathy to the people of Vietnam who, irrespective of political allegiances, bore the brunt of the century's burdens. One can only wonder what provoked the government's original ban...other than a general, knee-jerk sensitivity to political content.

I've written before about how little Vietnam's wars continue to play in modern Vietnamese memory (see William Calley and Vietnam's Spiritual Renewal). While not exactly an irrelevant subject, war seems to be hardly ever thought about, even by those old enough to have experienced it.

Watching crowds in Hanoi saying goodbye to their soldiers from places I pass every day, however, I couldn't help but reflect on how much this country had endured. And it made me see the faces of my neighbors, those old enough to have lived through those difficult times, differently.

A friend has just alerted me to the fact that you can see the film on YouTube. By all means, check it out!


  1. The Vietnamese resistance to the foreign invaders of the 20th century is one of the most heroic true stories of world history.
    American atrocities towards Vietnam were/are horrific. They still are found in the birth defects from left over agent orange and other chemicals we threw over the jungle cover. Or in unexploded bombs.