Taken by itself, "79 Springtimes", by Santiago Alvarez, is a brilliant film. Dynamic and clear in it's intentions, it is a concise biography/eulogy of Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam, who had recently died. The film paints a different picture of Ho Chi Minh than the one I had been used to seeing. When I was a child, I, always interested in learning what we weren't taught in schools, would spend hours looking through the World Book Encyclopedia, reading whatever I could. I read about the Vietnam War and Ho Chi Minh, and from what was implied, he was a tyrannical dictator who oppressed his people and made them miserable. Seeing 79 Springtimes for the first time a few years ago helped me understand just how much of what I read were lies, although I had already begun to realize that a few years before. Recently however, I've become disturbed, not by the film, but by some issues surrounding it.
The film itself, as I mentioned before, is great. It takes a radical, experimental format, but uses the experimentation in ways that do not confuse us. The first image we see is a time lapse shot of a flower blooming. This dissolves in to a special effects shot of bombs dropping on the Vietnamese countryside. With this we are launched into Ho Chi Minh's life story. In 25 minutes, we learn more about Ho Chi Minh than we could ever learn in any American published history book. Among many events, we see Ho Chi Minh as a young member of the French Communist Party, we see him fighting off the Japanese during World War II, and most hauntingly, we see his funeral, attended by thousands. Aside from the events of Ho Chi Minh's life, we also see events from an/or related to the Vietnam War. We see student protests in the States, footage of battle, and horrifying imagery of Vietnamese being tortured and/or killed by American troops.
Alvarez keeps the film going at a hypnotic pace. There is no voice over, only the occasional title to show us what events in Ho Chi Minh's life we are being shown. The student demonstrations and war footage however, need no explanation. As I mentioned before, the style is experimental. Scenes like the student demonstrations are told primarily through still photographs. Towards the end, when we see battle footage, it is distorted not only visually (the image is made to look as if it is breaking, burning, and flickering), but aurally as well. The sound is an almost deafening collage of gunfire, explosions, and general noise. The music as well is used in a radical fashion. During the footage of Ho Chi Minh's funeral, we hear a brief section of Iron Butterfly's 17-minute song, "Inna Gadda Da Vida." This lends the funeral a surreal quality as we watch people look at Ho Chi Minh's corpse, while a dissonant organ blares on the soundtrack.
Alvarez doesn't use these techniques just to be fancy, however. He wisely believes that films on revolutionary subject matters should themselves' revolutionize the way films are seen and experienced. He doesn't want us to passively sit back and relax as the film plays, but become actively involved in the film. So, the still photos of the students help us see more clearly the contents of the frame. We can concentrate on the students' faces, seeing their anguish, pain, and hope. We can also see better how the police oppress them. Without camera movement, we are not distracted. However, with the war footage, we are meant to be distracted. Alvarez wants us to feel the confusion and chaos of battle, and he is successful in doing so. Likewise, he is successful in making us feel a bizarre sense of confusion during Ho Chi Minh's funeral. Were we to simply see footage of the funeral, with a dry commentary explaining what the people felt, we wouldn't be able to truly feel the confusion and angst they must have felt upon losing their beloved leader. The Iron Butterfly music gives us that feeling of disorientation.
All this helps to make 79 Springtimes not only a successful biography of Ho Chi Minh, but a good historical document of the feverish atmosphere of the time. But there was one thing that was left out of the film that has only recently begun to bother me. I've always known that the V.C. subjected the captured American troops to unspeakable torture. However in more recent years, I came to believe, through more left-wing sources, that Ho Chi Minh was not involved in ordering the tortures; that the V.C. acted independently of Ho Chi Minh's knowledge. A few weeks before re-seeing this film however, I saw a documentary on PBS that interviewed former Vietnam P.O.W's. The documentary itself was blindly patriotic and sentimental, and clearly stated that Ho Chi Minh ordered the tortures. Normally I would have dismissed this as propaganda, but one thing one of the soldiers said disturbed me.
The former soldier said that the tortures were only committed before Ho Chi Minh died. After his death, the treatment of the soldiers got much better. Was it simply a coincidence? Was the man lying? Or did Ho Chi Minh really order these disgusting tortures? Don't get me wrong, I will always feel that the war in Vietnam was not a "just" war. But no one deserves that kind of torture. It's hard to find a source of information that I can fully trust. The American sources say that Ho Chi Minh ordered the tortures, but they also say the war was fought for a good cause. The left wing and Communist sources only seems to focus on the evil deeds of the Americans and never mention the V.C. tortures. How do I find out what really happened? Am I doomed to never really know the full truth? This really bothers me.
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