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Pankaj Butalia. Review of Thủy Trần, Văn; Lê, Thanh Dũng, In Whose Eyes: The Memoir of a Vietnamese Filmmaker in War and Peace

17 October 2019

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Văn Thủy Trần, Thanh Dũng Lê. In Whose Eyes: The Memoir of a Vietnamese Filmmaker in War and Peace. Edited and adapted by Wayne Karli. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016. 224 pp. $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62534-252-2; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62534-251-5.

Reviewed by Pankaj Butalia (Independent Filmmaker)
Published on H-Asia (October, 2019)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Trần Văn Thủy is an ordinary man who lived in extraordinary times. He came from a family of standing in North Vietnam, but in the mid-sixties, to be born to privilege in North Vietnam was considered a handicap, like it was in neighboring China. Young Thủy was driven by an all-consuming desire to make films and landed himself in the unenviable position of being assigned an almost impossible task—that of documenting the war in Vietnam at its peak. He threw himself into what he considered his one opportunity to realize his dream with a doggedness that would put professional filmmakers to shame. In the three years that he spent in the most violent period of the Vietnam War, where he almost died a thousand deaths in the jungles, he came through with moving images that provide us a completely new lens through which to view a war that had until then only a singular narrative.

Thủy’s move into the arena of war takes place with remarkable ease. It would seem the most natural thing because, in Vietnam at that time, war had an uncanny ability to move into people’s lives. It didn’t really matter if the enemy was French, American, or even Vietnamese, because wasn’t there also a major civil war going on simultaneously?

When he was still a child, “French soldiers came to our hometown and tried to kill us” (p. 3). This was just a year after that terrible famine in 1945, the year of the rooster. Within the next five years, his brother was shot dead by the French and the family abandoned their villa in Nam Djnh to take shelter in the countryside. The war followed them—relentlessly. These would be major events in any child’s life but get mention only in passing in Thủy’s narrative—almost as if there is so much going on at the same time that there isn’t enough space for every tragedy or enough time to grieve.

There is thus a casualness in the reporting of what we know to be earth-shattering events—which comes from feeling chaos, pain, and trauma as norms of everyday life—by a man possessed to chronicle the havoc being wreaked around him, and also to complete the task given to him—a task he neither comprehends the exact nature of nor knows how to pursue. This is a man driven by a strong desire to be “worthy”—to be taken seriously by those who would judge him but by whom he had already been prejudged as unworthy.

Trần Văn Thủy moves breathlessly in and out of the theater of war, armed with a 16 mm Bolex camera and film stock he knows nothing about. The Vietnamese were used to East Germany’s ORWO B&W film but had no idea about how to use West Germany’s color film by Agfa. They neither knew how to shoot with it nor how to process it. So a hurriedly trained cinema student was thrown into the deep end of the war with nary an idea of what he was supposed to shoot or how to deal with or use the equipment he was carrying.

Trần Văn Thủy’s first documentary, The People of My Homeland, finished a few years after the Tet Offensive, was made from footage shot over three years in the thick of the war. The Vietnamese documentarist was not the privileged war reporter we are used to seeing but a poor, starving unprofessional. He only wanted to learn how to make films, but war has no time for such ordinary aspirations. Like others who were also thrown into the thick of action, Thủy survived on limited rations and nonexistent assistance. Soldiers had to grow their own crops to supplement the little the state was able to provide them, or face certain starvation. Confronted with the mighty B-57 and B-58 bombers, or the killer helicopter gunships, and unlimited firepower of the enemy, the ragged, starving, skinny, unbathed Thủy scurried from one shelter to another, recording whatever he felt was important with no clear idea of how it would fit into any kind of coherent structure. All this time the primary concern was to not let the footage he was shooting be lost. In the thick of war, with bombs raining down on hapless souls, fires raging, and people dying around him, Thủy learns that the legendary filmmaker Nguyen Giahe is in the vicinity, darting out of bunkers and shelters, shooting hard-core action. For Thủy, his one thought is to be able to see this man at work—and so he runs out, disregarding all danger to see the master at work and learn something from him. At another moment there is an encounter with the terrible beauty Van Thj Xoa, chief of a village militia. Half of Xoa’s beautiful face had been smashed by a bullet, but she had become not only the head of the village militia but also an ace sniper. So Thủy sets out to meet her, to record her participation in the war. In recording such a war, no detail must be lost because this was an unequal war—between peasants with half blown-off faces, with tattered clothes, and an enemy seated in a secure helicopter strafing anything that moves with incessant machine gun fire.

All this we learn from Trần Văn Thủy’s memoir, In Whose Eyes, intended primarily to give another interpretation of the Vietnam War, and an English translation of a work that appeared in 2013. It is inspired by a chance meeting between Wayne Karlin, an American helicopter gunner in Vietnam during the war and Thủy, many decades after the war. As Karlin remarks in his introduction to the book, had the two met when the war was on, one of them would certainly not have been alive. Yet, now as friends, Karlin encourages Thủy to write about his experiences, to give a different perspective to the war than the one Karlin is familiar with. This is a war which the ordinary citizen is sucked into—where there is no heroism, no bravery, no glamour, no medal. It is a war that claims to be nothing other than what it is—relentless, brutal, and overwhelming. This is not a war on the scale of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). There is no meta narrative, no grand plan, no metaphor —only daily death and deprivation. It is this that Thủy creates so evocatively in this book, as he did in his first documentary, The People of My Homeland. Thủy is an archiver of small events, of microscopic details that elude others. His empathy reaches out to the ordinary folk struggling to live and not trying too hard to make sense of the murderous violence around them.

About a third of the book covers Thủy’s travails during the war. The rest deals with the immediate aftermath of the war and Thủy’s subsequent interactions with the cultural czars of the Vietnamese state, who, convinced of their own importance, deny him the freedom to make films as well as to screen those he subsequently gets involved in. But this is also where the writing seems to run out of steam. No doubt Thủy’s struggle with film censorship is an important aspect of postwar Vietnam and needs to be documented, but the writing here seems to lack the urgency and passion of his writing on the war. Granted that it is important for a filmmaker to question the entire process that gives rise to his/her work, there is nevertheless too much self-importance—too much naivety in the way he frames the entire confrontation with the censorship regime for it to lie next to the excellent chronicling he did of the war. There is a bit too much faith in the “free world,” too much idolizing of the world that he feels his people need to aspire after. It is also far too detailed, with every little step that came in the way of his films being screened being elaborated. No doubt it offers a kind of window into postwar Vietnam but it does become a bit tiresome at times. The book was written in Vietnamese by Thủy’s friend Lê Thanh Dũng as narrated to him by Trần Văn Thủy, and the translated version was edited and adapted for English by Wayne Karlin, the American helicopter gunner mentioned above. This is quite a circuitous route for a memoir to travel and maybe having too many cooks is the reason for the book losing steam, and maybe even structure somewhere in the middle. At one stage Karlin admits, “In adapting this book from its original Vietnamese edition ... I shifted the orders of chapters and excerpts from chapters in order to shape the narrative into one more coherent to an American audience” (p. 163). Possibly this desire to make the author “acceptable” to an American audience is what led to a diffusion of the kind of energy the book has in the first part.

However, a gem of a story dots the second half of the book and that is the narrating of the making of the film Sound of a Violin at Mỹ Lai. In the late nineties, around the time of the thirtieth anniversary of the Mỹ Lai massacre, Trần Văn Thủy wanted to make a film about the massacre but did not have any idea of how to go about it. A chance meeting with an American, Mike Boehm, led him to the discovery that Boehm had been so impacted by the massacre that he had been coming back regularly to stand at the site of the massacre and play the violin. So, Thủy combined this with the shooting of a scene in which two women who had been rescued by three American soldiers in 1968 at Mỹ Lai now meet two of their saviors thirty years later. Interspersed with this meeting is footage of Boehm poignantly playing his violin at the site of the massacre. The juxtaposing of two diverse ideas to bring alive one of the most painful memories of the war is a tribute to Thủy’s art. And it is in these moments that he is at is best—both in conceiving such moments and in bringing them alive through his writing.


The above article from H-Asia is reproduced here for educational and non-commercial use