The anxious, discordant strings that accompany the blackness that opens Arts Vietnam: A Protest to Stop the War set up an uneasy relationship between the film and the audience, a tension that remains throughout the 20-minute film. The structure of the work, dominated by cinematic collage, allows the film to operate on a number of levels: as an archival document of political protest; as an examination of the dominant media’s relationship to the Vietnam War; and as a self-reflexive critique of bourgeois Australia’s response to Vietnam – implicating the audience, those who participated in the Arts Vietnam festival, and the filmmakers themselves.

Upon its release Arts Vietnam won an award for experimental film at the Melbourne Film Festival and garnered subsequent interest from a distributor who later retracted their offer for “political reasons”. It was also screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and a print is now held in their archives. It can also be viewed at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Such recognition is well deserved.

As an archival document, Arts Vietnam works well. Through its often-disorienting array of incongruous images and sound there remains a clear sense of a particular moment in 1968 when “152 outstanding poets, painters, sculptors, musicians and actors came together to protest Australia’s role in the Vietnam War” (taken from the opening intertitle). The use of collage emphasises the subjective nature of this film as an historical document by introducing authorial intensions into the coverage of the festival. The film’s collage-free moments, on the other hand, provide islands of stasis that either allow for personal reflection (for example, the long take of the female folk singer) or simply make the scope and themes of the festival themselves easier to read.

Arts Vietnam is based on the assumption that the citizens of the West have only experienced the Vietnam War through the mediation of their newspapers and television screens. As a result, the film focuses more on this mediation than the war itself. The assembly of materials included come from a variety of sources – journalistic photographs, newsreel footage, television commercials, as well as images recorded during the festival. There is barely a moment that is not informed by the tensions between the fragments assembled.

The film’s opening montage, dominated by mass media imagery, begins with footage showing a “production desk” lined with screens and instigates a project that seeks to “watch us watching”. This is followed by a progression of various newspaper photographs of the conflict, close-ups that show the grain of the paper and the ink dots that form the images. Images from television shows and commercials then begin to creep in, as do those of trade and stocks, factory workers and, finally, Vietnamese farmers and workers setting traps for American and allied soldiers. Not only does this sequence communicate the leftist sentiments of the protest by associating capitalistic symbols with images of the war, it also calls attention to the fact that the images we see on screen are actually images of images. The grain on the newspaper, the oscillating vertical hold of a television set, as well as commercials and news footage captured on a filmed TV screen rather than edited directly into the documentary, all work to create a cognitive distance between the footage and the viewer, allowing a reassessment of our habitual absorption of media images and messages.

This examination of media forms incorporates a self-reflexive element that critiques the film and the process of “making history”. It also expands its scope to both the audience of the film and those watching the festival performances and exhibitions, again through the careful collage of conflicting materials. One of the art exhibition’s openings is recorded for the documentary. The assembled images feature only the attending crowd who are shown with wine and price-lists in their hands. In one of many moments featuring the overlay of voices, a male speaker states: “Am I the murderer? Me the craftsmen, the artist, builder, the housewife, the farmer, your neighbour, your friend […] My hands haven’t touched blood, maimed a child.” This voice is accompanied by the same uneasy strings of the film’s opening interspersed with another audio layer of what sounds like sirens signalling an air raid. The insinuations here are fairly clear and illustrate the vast distance between the messy and painful conflict of Vietnam and the relaxed and sparkling environment of the exhibition and its audience. This distance is merely physical, however, as the clearly middle class crowd is symbolically connected to and implicated in the war.

This idea is taken further through the inclusion of moments from a play performed at the festival. The play addresses the spectator’s culpability by asking the audience to take part in the shooting of a captured Vietnamese boy by shouting “one, two, three, fire!” After encouragement from one of the players, the boy drops to the ground with a thud. The moment the boy is “killed” there is a cutaway to a single shot of a badly charred corpse, making even darker the already black comedy before us. We then return to the crowd who applaud enthusiastically. The sound of this applause then bleeds into the next images – newsreel footage of bombs dropping.

Arts Vietnam addresses its subject at the level of both the signifier and the signified. In doing so it encouraged audiences of the time to become actively engaged in the anti-war movement as well as the media systems that delivered the Vietnam War safely into their homes. Riddled with the tensions and anxieties of both the Vietnam War-era and the cultural community of the Australian New Left, the film is a fitting portrait of a vital period of Australian history as well as an elegant exercise in the communicative possibilities of cinematic collage.

Arts Vietnam: A Protest to Stop the War (1968 Australia 20 mins)

Prod, Dir: Sasha Ivanovich Phot: Michael Glasheen, John Rhodes, Clive Rowel, Sasha Ivanovich Ed: Kit Guyatt, Sasha Ivanovich Sound: Jack Jacobson, George Revai, Kit Guyatt

About The Author

Louise Sheedy is the program coordinator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and a PhD candidate in Cinema Studies at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis examines the interplay of politics and aesthetics in critical documentary on the Vietnam War.