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Oeuvre: Varda: Far from Vietnam

Oeuvre: Varda: Far from Vietnam

As with Varda’s career, a nascent kernel of political awareness was developing into an activist cinema that would only grow more aggressive as the decade progressed.

From the beginning, Agnès Varda’s work has been focused both communally and cooperatively, adopting a street-level entanglement in social spheres that frequently causes the films themselves to reflect the patterns and rhythms of those worlds. This approach stems from the free-form exploration of 1958’s L’opéra-mouffe, a stylistic exercise which took off from Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice, while making the most of her own limited circumstances as a pregnant woman confined to her own block. In early documentary work like Black Panthers, Varda has the good sense to just sit back and listen, absorbing the content of the milieu without forcing any aggressive use of style.

Such sensibilities are apparent in 1967’s Far from Vietnam, a collaboratively produced anti-Vietnam film that’s not a significant work in her oeuvre – she’s low-billed in the credits and doesn’t make an apparently huge, or even obvious, contribution – but which slots in neatly nonetheless. An omnibus that’s actually a composite effort, the film doesn’t always demarcate between who’s responsible for which segment, which makes it functionally impossible to determine which one Varda might have directed. The likeliest candidate seems to be an early theater scene, shot in North Vietnam, in which a traditional public square performance satirizes LBJ’s itchy trigger finger. Nosing its way right into the action, the segment’s camera seems redolent of either Varda or Chris Marker (another mysterious contributor here), or perhaps somewhere in between.

The entire film in fact operates this way, leaving it as a vital document of the French New Wave in action, its biggest names melting together in a hot broth of ideas. Some notable names do bob up to the surface with signature bits. Resnais slots in 20 minutes for fictional writer Claude Ridder (a year later the name of his protagonist from Je t’aime, je t’aime) delivering a long lecture about the state of the war. Godard, bitter about being denied a travel visa, muses about whether the entire project is even possible, shooting footage of himself brooding in his Paris apartment, a preview of his later anchorite works.

Yet what stands out most potently are the crowd shots, captured from both sides of the conflict. Vietnam protest footage from the U.S., much of it lensed by ex-pat former fashion photographer William Klein, captures pro- and anti-war sentiments, usually in direct contention with one another. As hippies feebly push arguments about love to packs of sneering, power-addled pro-war teens, it’s hard not to think of today’s political environment, in which convincing a committed hardcore of the basic human rights of others seems to remain just as impossible. On the Vietnamese side, meanwhile, the streets scenes are less focused on questions of debate than one’s survival, newsreel-style footage demonstrating the utter normality of citizens ducking into premade bomb holes, complete with defensive covers, dug into the streets of Hanoi.

Far from Vietnam isn’t the finest effort the French New Wave produced, but it’s among the best it created collectively, and provides interesting insight as to where the movement was in 1967. As with Varda’s career, a nascent kernel of political awareness was developing into an activist cinema that would only grow more aggressive as the decade progressed. The film captures this change in action, adapting one of the era’s primary political crisis points into a fascinating piece of cultural anthropology.

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