In the mid 70’s the Peter Davis’ documentary on the Vietnam War Hearts and Minds* was being shown at anything vaguely political. I must have been about 21 when I first saw it, a powerful film which made me angry and justified my politics. I watched it again yesterday for probably the first time in 40 years, quite expecting to find it naïve, dated and unshocking. It wasn’t. It felt as powerful as it ever did.
The genius in its making was the editing and the chilling simplicity in allowing people to talk, not questioning their assumptions, but letting their true selves come through. The editing of General Westmorland happily sitting next to a lake at home in the sunshine telling the viewer how Asian people don’t have the same value for life as Americans, mixed with a broken North Vietnamese father telling how his family were all killed by the bombing showing where each had died, and a South Vietnamese family burying their soldier son/father the family totally paralysed with grief.
Hearts and Minds was made within months of the fall of Saigon, the wounds raw. Men recently returned to the USA unable to justify to themselves what they had done, telling how they were just following their training doing their job. Vietnamese wondering what it was all for, their homes and land disintegrated under the fighting, bombing and chemical spraying.
There are many of the iconic images of that terrible war such as the naked children whose skin is falling off after being bombed with napalm running up the road; the shooting in the head of the suspect in the street; the burning of a village by bored young soldiers, all as powerful as they ever were. These are set alongside the justifications by politicians and images of ordinary American life.
A telling statement which I hadn’t remembered was by a man whose farm had been wiped out, he turned to the camera and said “…first you bomb us, then you film us…”, which made being a viewer an uneasy experience.
If you haven’t seen it I would urge people to do so, it is a powerful piece of film-making and still relevant today.
*link to a YouTube posting of film