American patrol near the demilitarized zone during the Vietnam war

Joris Ivens and European views on the Vietnam War

By Hans Schoots -
Many Western Europeans who were active in the Vietnam movement knew veteran Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens's films on Vietnam and Laos, albeit sometimes without knowing that Ivens was their director. His films were an almost ritual part of numerous Vietnam meetings and seminars in France, Italy, West Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. I am referring to THE THREATENING SKY (1966), 17TH PARALLEL (1968) and the Laos film THE PEOPLE AND THEIR GUNS (1970). For these last two documentaries, Ivens collaborated with his wife Marceline Loridan. The couple lived in Paris and were also involved in the collective French Vietnam film project FAR FROM VIETNAM (1967), with directors Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda among the other participants.

Ivens himself traveled Europe to accompany his films, visiting Oslo in the north, the occupied Coca Cola factory in Rome in the south, and many places in between. In France he belonged to the hard core of so called 'petitioneurs', well known people like Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Sartre and Costa-Gavras, who signed political declarations on a daily basis. Signoret was present at the intimate first preview of one of Ivens's Vietnam-films. 17TH PARALLEL belonged to the main program of the big meeting of Intellectuals for Vietnam in Paris in March 1968 and traveled widely throughout France. In its first week in Paris, showings in two cinema's were broken off prematurely after bomb-warnings, presumably from the extreme right. In Italy Ivens was an almost yearly guest of honor at the Festival dei Populi in Florence, one of the many cultural manifestations connected with the Italian Communist Party, where his films were shown to large audiences.

Ivens's films on Indochina were mainly shown in the film circuit that catered to radical youth, students, activists and the labor movement. They were hardly meant for distribution in regular movie theaters. In the meantime Ivens and Loridan had considerable success in their efforts to find a large audience via television. In several Western European countries one or more of their Indochinese films were shown on TV. The same went for Eastern Europe. In Moscow in 1968 Ivens received the Lenin Prize for his work in Vietnam. THE PEOPLE AND THEIR GUNS, however, did not make it to the East, on account of its radicalism. Ironically, this extremely dogmatic film, with screenwide Maoist texts between the images, was produced with a financial contribution of three thousand dollars by filmstar Elisabeth Taylor.

It is impossible to measure the exact influence of Ivens's documentaries. The number of people that attended the filmshows is unknown and one can only estimate that millions of people in several European countries must have seen one of the films on television. It is fair to assume that the Ivens-films made their mark on the views of a considerable number of Europeans. Especially if one considers that Ivens and his work were very well known among leftist opinion makers in at least France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands and thus had an indirect influence on public opinion too.
The question I will try to answer here is what the intended message of these films was and - taking the films themselves as the main source - how audiences actually must have interpreted them. In an attempt to answer these questions I will concentrate on the best-known and most important of Ivens's Indochinese films, 17TH PARALLEL. Another possible question would concern the significance of the films in the (esthetic) history of cinema. I will not address this issue here, as it is not relevant to the theme of this congress.


The origins of and the preparations for 17TH PARALLEL are a story in themselves. In the spring of 1967 Joris Ivens went to Hanoi on the invitation of the North Vietnamese government to teach at the film school there. Once in Hanoi, the authorities asked him to make a new film on the Vietnam War. He had already made the 30 minute short THE THREATENING SKY, and they now suggested he make a bigger film, something like THE SPANISH EARTH, the legendary film that Ivens had made in the thirties during the Spanish Civil War, assisted by American writer Ernest Hemingway. To make their new film, Ivens and Loridan proposed to go to the seventeenth parallel, the demarcation line where North and South Vietnam were separated by a demilitarized zone (DMZ).

The story is that the North Vietnamese found this plan too dangerous at first, but that the European guests managed to convince President Ho Chi Minh personally over dinner. Now they needed material and a crew. The Vietnamese bought a camera and a sound recorder from an American journalist for them, and placed a Vietnamese crew at their disposal. The subsequent journey to the 17th parallel was a dangerous and adventurous enterprise, with truck drives by night down one of the heavily-bombed main supply routes to the south. The crew members had orders to protect Ivens's life at all cost and hurled themselves on top of him when they decided things were getting too dangerous. Ivens, 69 years of age at the time, would throw his protectors off in anger.

To see the film 17TH PARALLEL in the right perspective, it is necessary to look into the situation on the battlefield at that time - May and June 1967 - at the location where it was shot: the district of Vinh Linh, directly to the north of the DMZ.

About two months earlier, at the end of February of that year, the North Vietnamese army and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF) had started an offensive in the area to the south of the DMZ. This offensive was still underway when Ivens and Loridan arrived on the scene, and would, with some ups and downs, continue until late that year. American and South Vietnamese towns and military bases like Con Thien, Camp Carroll, Khe Sanh and Dong Ha were under almost constant attack. In these attacks both guerilla units and well equipped ground troops were used, supported by heavy 155 and 175 mm artillery located on the northern border of the DMZ.

The American Marine base Con Thien, opposite the Vinh Linh district where Ivens and Loridan worked, was shelled and cut off from the outside world for several months and could only be supplied by air. Between 5 and 14 July a new climax was reached. Con Thien and the nearby strongpoint Gio Linh 'were subjected to the largest communist rocket and artillery bombardment of the war to that date'. The circumstances in Con Thien, with its soldiers living in underground shelters, were the subject of an incisive reportage in Times Magazine, that in a way mirrored the film that Ivens was shooting on the other side. The guns shelling Con Thien from Vinh Linh included the latest models that had just arrived from the Soviet Union. No wonder that, after his return to Paris, Ivens was visited by some American representatives of CBS, accompanied by 'a somewhat suspect' third gentleman, who offered to pay him a lot of money for his shots of just these guns. In vain, of course.

The North Vietnamese/NLF-offensive was followed by a large-scale American/South Vietnamese response. In the southern part of the DMZ pamphlets were dropped from American planes summoning the population to leave. Afterwards the area was turned into a black desert by bombing, and pacified by new American troops that landed on the coast.
In other words: the district of Vinh Linh, where Ivens en Loridan shot 17TH PARALLEL, was located in a combat zone, where a well-prepared North Vietnamese/NLF-offensive had been underway for months in a way that was no longer limited to guerilla tactics and had much in common with a regular ground war.

From this perspective, it is - to put it mildly - remarkable that the North Vietnamese government had failed to evacuate the civilian population and was exposing it to the large-scale American/South Vietnamese reprisals it cannot have failed to expect. This of course fitted into the theory of people's war, in which every civilian was forced by its own government to participate in the fighting. In fact the theory really did not recognize 'civilian population' as a category at all. In this particular case the population of Vinh Linh was placed in a position in which it could not escape active participation in the war. At the same time, propaganda aimed at Western public opinion would stress that civilians fell victim to brutal American violence.

These were the circumstances under which the film 17TH PARALLEL was made. It is hard to say if Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan were fully aware of what was going on. What we can say, is that they don't seem to have asked themselves any questions. In their book 17e Parallele. La guerre du peuple they give a more or less accurate description of the military situation at that moment, but without the history of the previous months and thus without the essential fact that the district they were filming in had been turned into a battlefield by a decision of the North Vietnamese army itself. In 17TH PARALLEL one gets the impression of a more or less coincidental series of battle scenes, albeit with one regularly recurring phrase: 'The Americans destroy everything'. The bombing that the inhabitants of Vinh Linh are subject to seems to come out of thin air.

I will now summarize the contents of 17TH PARALLEL, a film with a length of about two hours.

In the introduction we see smoking ruins and burned earth in the DMZ. Several Vietnamese explain why they refuse to let the Americans drive them away from their homes in the Zone. The rice needs to be harvested, one of them says, emphasizing the unexpectedness of what is happening.
Now follows footage of a meeting of the Party Central Committee of Vinh Linh, held in an underground shelter. The tendency of the deliberations is that the struggle is progressing and the rice harvest is good. All this thanks to the farmers' cooperatives and the party, that plays a decisive role in everything.

Images of village life then alternate with a speech by the chairwoman of the Executive Committee of the village and the female second-in-command of the local peoples' militia writing a letter to her next of kin about the struggle against the Americans.

The next part shows several aspects of daily life in a largely underground village suffering under American bombs. Life goes on in the underground shelters and houses; between raids the villagers work the land. Now a woman journalist from Hanoi (actually it is Xuan Phuong, Ivens's translator and doctor) interviews the village chairman shown earlier about the situation in the village, which counts some 4000 inhabitants. Most of the men are away for service in the army, the village is mainly led by women.

Roughly the second half of the film gives an overview of all kinds of military activities in defense of the Vinh Linh district: exercises by the militia, the army firing heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns, the shooting down of an American plane, the capture of an American pilot, cultural activities in support of the war effort, children acting out the capture of an American pilot… Duc, a boy of about eight or nine years old, tells the foreign filmmakers how he gathers information south of the DMZ for the uncles of the North Vietnamese army. After a quotation from President Ho Chi Minh on the invincibility of the people and the reunification of Vietnam, the film ends in a classroom where children learn how to say 'Hands up!' in case an American bandit pilot should fall into their hands.

Throughout the film we see bombardments, or rather, we hear them on the soundtrack, and we see the ruins, for instance in the town of Ho Xa. All this juxtaposed with details of daily life in Vinh Linh. A remarkable fact is that most of the people who have their say in 17TH PARALLEL are officials of the party, the army or local government.

Summarizing the whole film, I think we may call it a strongly ideological piece of work. The information it gives is used to paint an image of Vinh Linh as a model society, that fits fully into the theoretical model of people's war, as thought out in China by Mao Zedong and developed further in Vietnam by General Vo Nguyen Giap and others. As Joris Ivens declared at the time: someone who wants to make a film on the Vietnam war not only has to be a filmmaker, but also has to study Vo Nguyen Giap's book People's War, People's Army.

Joris Ivens was guided by a deep belief in the revolution, and when he showed people's war in his films, it was the people's war as it should be according to his convictions, not necessarily as it was in reality. He wanted to make films 'that clearly show the invincibility of the people's war,' he said. 17TH PARALLEL is thus an illustration of the following set of beliefs:

1. The imperialists terrorize and bomb a peaceful civilian population.
2. The people resist as one man by means of people's war.
3. Society is fully politicized, the whole population is united in political     organizations.
4. The party leads everything.
5. In this way the people are invincible.
6. The struggle has a strategic political aim, which is the reunification     of Vietnam under party leadership.

In press statements and articles at the time, Ivens was quite clear about the cause he and Loridan were fighting for: 'We had to defeat our common enemy, and here [in Vietnam] they were busy defeating him'. For them, Vietnam was just one focus in a worldwide struggle for socialism and communism and against the common enemy, imperialism - primarily American imperialism.

As activist filmmakers their duty was of course to convey this message to the Western public. The seriousness with which they approached this task is clear from the detailed reports about their activities they wrote for the North Vietnamese government. For instance a piece entitled 'Report on the Work in the Area of Political Propaganda by Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan from August 1967 to March 1968 in Europe' , in which they gave an account of the articles they had published on Vietnam, the interviews and press conferences they had held, the book they had published in Paris on their work in Vietnam, and Loridan's testimony before the Russell Tribunal in Copenhagen.


How did the audience interprete 17TH PARALLEL? I think the film could be seen on two levels, both of which contained their own propaganda message. For an attentive and susceptible audience, the message was the communist one summarized above. I call this the 'maximum message', comprising of, so to say, point 1 to 6. It asked for concentration during the screening of the film and a readiness to listen seriously to the not always exciting texts that accompanied the images. It was the message that the radical wing of the European Vietnam movement liked to hear, as Ivens himself had noted in France. Ivens had been living in Paris since the middle of the fifties and although he continued to more or less support the French Communist Party (PCF) until about 1970, he rejected the PCF slogan 'Peace in Vietnam' as early as the mid-sixties and took sides with the radical student movement, organized in the Union Nationale des Etudiants de France (UNEF), who propagated 'Victory in people's war'. As French activist and Ivens-collaborator Robert Destanque once said of the director's relationship to French radical students: 'Joris Ivens sings the song of communism the way the youngsters like to hear it'.

However, the bigger audience was the television audience. Here, most of the viewers must have seen the film on the other level I referred to. I call this the 'minimum message'. Apart from the film itself I have looked into a large number of reviews of 17TH PARALLEL that appeared in newspapers and magazines in several European countries. Even in moderate publications, the reactions were generally favorable. This seems surprising, considering the fact that most of the reviewers certainly did not share the ideological views that were expressed in the film. Most of the reviewers evaded the ideological side of the matter. I think the reviewer of the Dutch daily De Tijd summoned the feeling of most of his colleagues very well: 'Even if the opinions and intentions of Ivens are not ours, we can accept his film as a warning that things [in Vietnam] cannot go on like this.'

Of course in the famous year 1968, when the film came out, uneasiness over the Vietnam war was already widespread, and the images suggesting an attack on a civilian population out of thin air, certainly had more impact on a general television audience than the rather ponderous texts on how society should be organised. An effect that I believe was reinforced by the length of almost two hours, the slow pace and sections that several reviewers understandably considered dull. Unintended, it all stimulated the television audience to looking with only half an eye. And obviously, the image of a hard-working peaceful population, suffering under American bombs, would stay in their minds that way. In other words, the 'minimum message', consisting of point 1 only.

Thus, while Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan made a film in support of the party and people's war, I think the majority of its audience took 17TH PARALLEL for a call for 'Peace in Vietnam!'

© Hans Schoots. Talk at the Congress 'Europe and the Vietnam War' at Utrecht University, the Netherlands, december 2000. Notes available at request.