79 Springs

79 Springs is a short documentary biopic of Ho Chi Minh.

Now maybe, like me, you know sweet fuck all about Ho Chi Minh. I know that he wrote the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, which directly lifted words straight from the American Declaration of Independence in hopes that it might make the Americans not shit their breeks with fear and overreact, a play which did not land unfortunately. I know roughly how the Vietnam War went. I know that the city where the Americans choppered out at the end of the war, kicking their pals aff the legs of the helicopter, is now known as Ho Chi Minh City. But I didn’t know anything about the man.

His life before politics and war was actually a pretty peaceful one. He was a student and a scholar, learning to speak many languages and writing poetry. Which is just never how I pictured Ho Chi Minh.

The film is broken up into chapters of his life, marking out his age by saying so-many springs. Each chapter opens, then cycles through a descent into struggle and strife, before emerging again at a new ‘spring’.

The footage of the years of the war are absolutely horrific. People here don’t realise just how sanitised our digest of war is, there’s a lot the news simply cannot show. And even as we move away from television broadcast news, those standards still stand in a lot of the online output of British news companies. Even when we do see acts of violence, it’s usually in a still photograph, to protect us against the natural stomach-churning reaction to seeing something horrific and traumatic happen in front of you. That’s why whenever they talk of the horrors of the Vietnam War here, the first thing your mind turns to is photos, the wee lassie running down the road, naked and burnt. In Santiago’s films, those guidelines/censorships or that culture of sanitation was not part of his Cuban experience, so the films don’t show still photos, but videos of napalm victims, some of them children, somehow living, despite their bodies being destroyed. Be warned it’s awful to watch.

Ho Chi Minh died about three-quarters of the way through the Vietnam War. By that time he was 79 years old (hence the film’s title), and he effectively died of old age, in bed at home. The film shows the mourning of his followers, and his body lying in state. But the film frames this as just another winter of hardship, before the certain return of spring. This time it will be a spring for all his people, free from war and imperial rule.

Really beautifully put together film. An uplifting obituary.

Hasta La Victoria Siempre

When Che Guevara died, Fidel Castro himself told Santiago Alvarez to make his obituary film, and he gave him 48 hours in which to do it. What Santiago created was a feat in resourcefulness and ingenuity as well as a moving testament to a man who lived and died for his cause. As I said in my review of LBJ, because of the environment in which Santiago made his films, there is an obvious propaganda element to his work, but it’s also obvious that he took great pride and care in constructing this film on the life of a man revered as a hero the world over. It shows him fighting in Bolivia and giving speeches at the U.N. In the era to come, many leaders would betray their espoused principles and the people they were supposed to protect, but that cannot be said for Che. He lived and died true to his ideals. What Santiago’s film holds up highest is that, with an implicit admonishment to let it be said for all of us.

If you like this…

Now!

Lena Horne’s song Now! was banned from the airwaves in the US, because its call for civil rights and racial equality was deemed in danger of starting a riot. Which, to quote Toni Morrison who had her book banned for the same reason, “How powerful is that!” Lena gave the song to Santiago Alvarez, who set it to some of the most unflinching images of racist violence. The result is a damning indictment of American society, a lesson in history, a music video, a piece of Cuban propaganda, and a moving and powerful call for equality, all rolled into one. Defying the labels of genre, it mixes art and activism in a manner both beautiful and brutal.

LBJ

The retrospective on the work of Santiago Alvarez kicked off with LBJ, an acerbic look at the career of US President Lindon B. Johnson.

Santiago basically made newsreels, like the Pathe News reels we had here. But with the Cuban embargo ensuring a dearth of equipment and, well, everything needed to make a film, Santiago had to get creative. He used still photos, emotive music, and skillful editing to create a signature style of ‘nervous montage’. These are surprisingly effective and still stand up today.

In LBJ, we see a puggy display with spinning icons, which stops to read LBJ. Johnson is painted as almost comically twee, growing up in the lap of luxury, surrounded by his privilege, playing with guns and acting the soldier, the knight, the cowboy. He seems childish and faintly ridiculous. As the slots spin again, we get the single letter J, and the film focuses on JFK, a man who seems to dwarf LBJ in both politics and history. The slots spin again and we get the letter L, and we get footage of Martin Luther King’s anti-racism activism. Combining shots of police brutality towards African-Americans and civil rights protestors, with shots of the Klan, Nazis and white supremacists to show deep divisions of racial injustice. Played over this frenetic cacophony of violence is Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddamn’. As the song reaches the crescendo of its outrage, we get King’s I Have A Dream speech, punctuated the footage of gun shots from a Nazi firing squad, and news of his assassination. The film contrasts his short life of worthy work, with Johnson’s older years of empty politicking and political posturing. The slots spins again and it lands at the letter B, for Bobby Kennedy. RFK’s run against Johnson for the Democratic nomination for president showcases a number of reasons people thought Bobby would be the better man, before he too is gunned down. The film ends on LBJ, a ridiculous knight’s helmet imposed on his face, as we get footage of US violence against Native Americans, African-Americans, and those opposing racism and state oppression.

Now seems a good time to bring up the point of propaganda, which these obviously are, in the same way that Pathe News, with its RP accent narrating how our brave boys were contending with savages to bring civilisation to the colonies, obviously were. The best person to make your propaganda is a true believer, which Santiago was. This is the world as he saw it. He had stayed some time in the US, where he saw racial and social injustices first-hand.

Watching this film in 2022 makes for interesting viewing. We’ve went through a post-ideological age where neither grand theory provided the utopia it promised, but are now moving on past even that, as younger generations cotton on to the fact that while the idealists may have become disillusioned, the machinery of capitalism and the state never did, and their ideology of accruing as much power as possible has continued unimpeded.

The style of his films I found really interesting, that exciting intercutting between still images, stock footage and film, choosing to allow editing to steer your meaning rather than a narrator. Combing that with the use of music, rather than sound or narration, reminded me of music videos, which we think of belonging to a later age. It also reminded me of the frantic, machine-gun barrage of clips from the deluge of popular media in documentaries, like Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares, and in films, like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.

Really interesting as both a view on how the world looked then, and what it shows us about today.