THE 17TH PARALLEL: THE PEOPLE’S WAR (Joris Ivens, Marceline Loridan et al., 1968)

[The U.S.] destroyed everything. The rice was so beautiful. The tanks crushed everything.

A somewhat more formal on-the-spot documentary than his phenomenal The Spanish Earth (1937), Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan’s black-and-white Le 17e parallèle: La guerre du peuple is the best movie ever about the Vietnam War. During the two months of its making, Ivens and Loridan lived with Vietnamese peasants under frightening U.S. bombardment; the U.S., you will recall, had militarily intervened in a civil war that had come about because South Vietnam, under Ngo Dinh Diem, refused to permit democratic elections in the country in 1956 as indicated in the 1954 Geneva Accords, which had temporarily split Indochina into two halves along the 17th parallel, with a demilitarized zone (DMZ) in between.
     “Ngoc’s home was bombed again.” For the third time.
     Looking into the camera, a man speaks: “Some villages were hit by 5,000 shells in three days. Others received 70 to 80 bombs per inhabitant. . . . The Americans pushed the war to the edge of the Ben Hai River. They violated the demilitarized zone. . . . Our anger and our hatred for them are deeper than the river.”
     Farmers at work in the rice paddies are fully armed. The winding tunnels of the subterranean shelter include a hospital. A panning shot in sunlight surveys the bodies of dead children. Boys play at war as preparation for the real thing.
     The peasants persevere. “We prepare to greet the Americans,” someone says, sardonically meaning with “thunderclaps”—firepower.
     A nine-year-old child’s into-the-camera monologue haunts. Inside the tunnels, defying the B52s overhead, a group exits away from the camera to attend a performance of political theater. What visual irony! We can see “the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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