To start at the end: After the credits rolled, Homi Bhaba asked us to stand and take a moment of silence not only for the victims and veterans of the Vietnam War, but also for the act of re-witnessing the violence of the war. The audience rustled to its feet, putting programs on the ground and jackets on seats, and after the shuddering of retracting theater seats died away, there was silence.
The silence was in stark contrast to the preceding 112 minutes of alternately gut-wrenching and glamorous noise and images that we had seen in the Academy Award-winning film Hearts and Minds (1974) by Peter Davis ’57. Bhaba, a professor and the director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, was host for the Oct. 27 event, which was part of the Carpenter Center Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Seminar on Violence and Non-Violence. Forty years on, the screening drew a full house, and the audience laughed, shifted nervously and often simply didn’t know how to react to the collection of clips.
Sequences in the film jump, for instance, from a Washington banquet to welcome home prisoners of war, their silhouettes standing and applauding as President Richard Nixon thanks the pilots who flew the B-52s to bomb Vietnam, to aerial views of the bombs landing in smoky, fiery splashes on forests, fields and villages. Then, a distressed Vietnamese father whose daughter has been bombed to death while feeding the pigs on their farm in Vietnam asks Nixon, through the camera, whether her death was worth it; then, a moaning woman being pulled away from a coffin as men refill the grave with earth. Finally, General William Westmoreland in a pinstriped suit, sitting serenely in front of a rippling lake, saying calmly, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”
Professor Robb Moss of the Visual and Environmental Studies department, explained that if documentary films such as Hearts and Minds have “courage to move associatively as well as analytically,” they are able to create a story out of the collage of images rather than depending on one character’s storyline. “We’re told bit by bit by bit, by fragments and moments, the attitudes and aftermath,” he said. “It’s impossible to predict what the next shot will be, and it moves by a sort of visceral logic.” Read more…