OP-ED: Arts As Resistance Against the Looming Spectre of Totalitarianism

Still from Taste (2021). Life is a football match!

What is happening in/to Vietnam cinema? Why do we keep talking about censorship when we talk about Vietnamese cinema? Is it because Vietnamese filmmakers—us/them​​—are so untalented that we have to cry about censorship to draw some attention? Is it true, as hundreds of audiences and cinema-goers claim, that we are acting poorly, just like what Shakespeare wrote: "much ado about nothing"?

As we are on the threshold of a new law for cinema next month, a military general and so many officials from so many different sectors and regions in Vietnam have argued that in order to make society better, new laws must be implemented, alongside a number of stricter and harsher articles involving the production and distribution of films in/from/with Vietnam. This means the government wants to control the production of art from every level—from input to output. For example, a film co-produced by the foreign production houses must first present the screenplay to the Ministry of Culture and Sports for censorship before any step towards production. Once this law is introduced, it cannot be reversed until the next time when this cinema law is reviewed—in another decade. This  will affect an entire generation of cinema, and the ones to come.

This is why three generations of Vietnamese filmmakers (Yes, three generations already) had a Zoom meeting from both inside and outside the country to speak collectively two days ago. This is the first time in the history of the Vietnamese film industry, when filmmakers sat together and presented in their own voices, their own situations of making films in Vietnam. This is a panorama of meticulous exposition about the state of Vietnamese filmmaking for the last thirty years.

If you watch it, you will see that they—these Vietnamese filmmakers—are not at all scarce, scattered, or untalented. On the contrary, they are so diverse and talented but what the audience gets to see becomes so boring because they have all been filtered by censorship. When talent  is halted, banned, sabotaged from creating, it is not so strange that the majority of Vietnamese cinematic outputs are so politely boring and stupid.

To understand this situation better, I recommend you to watch two films: the Vietnamese film Taste (2021) and an old Hungarian film The Round-Up (1966) by Miklós Jancsó. Yes, not only a contemporary Vietnamese production, but also an ancient movie made half a century ago in another half of the earth speaks so precisely and clearly about the state of Vietnamese art-making in Vietnamese society nowadays. And why is this film so relevant to Vietnamese art now? To sum it up in one line: let's tie them up and beat them! That is the content of The Round-Up.

Still from The Round-Up (1966).

The Round-Up was made in 1966, in the hay days of the communist regime in Hungary. While Vietnam is, still is, and will still be a communist country. In theory, communism is beautiful—its ideology is utopian as no other. And yet, those who turn this ideology into totalitarianism make the society suffocating and miserable. When I studied in Hungary, my identity and culture professor wrote that people living in totalitarianism and dictatorship are always  afraid of someone higher than them. Eventually, the entire system operates through an oppressive fear of someone top-notch above.

The actions of the general and the Censorship Board at the VN Cinema Department trying to control more of what common citizens and what artists can or cannot do are not because they are ignorant. They act in fear.

Let's come back to Taste and The Round-Up. For me, both of these films are political through similar aesthetic choices. They reflect two societies which share one common thread: a certain political regime. Certainly the communism of Vietnam now is different from the communism of Hungary in the old times. It is mixed with neoliberalism, among others. And still, because both  films apply similar political choices to reflect societies, they were and are banned by both governments even over two different points in history. History is not a linear line; it repeats itself in just another corner of the world.

I first watched Taste during Berlinale 2021. At the time and even now, I understand what I liked and disliked about this film. To be precise, I do not agree with the aesthetic choice of the 20th century cinema that Taste applies. I know the producer of Taste—she is my best friend, a person I consider sister, and I did tell her clearly the points where I did not agree with the film. Regardless of this however, I will always say that Taste is a film that needs to be shown and watched.

Taste is set in the slums of Southeast Asia. The exterior scenes portray the brutal, impoverished, and miserable realism of the urban poor. The interior scenes portray a group of marginalised people who live in the nude, cooking, eating, and having intercourse together inside a concrete mansion. This concrete mansion, which has a strong presence in every shot and scene, is a system that presses down and oppresses the life of the characters. And the only choice of resistance the characters could take is to go nude and make love. This is where I argue that this film is political. The nudity and love-making is a political aesthetic choice. I agree with and like it.

At the same time, I do not agree with the gaze of the camera in this film that chose to look down at the characters. This gaze is derived from the methodology of filmmaking which considers the camera as an invisible third perspective gaze. And this way of making film is the aesthetic choice of the cinema of the 20th century. It puts the characters up as something to be seen. The characters do not hold the camera but are looked at— whilst being fully nude. And because the characters are stripped, it makes their vulnerability double. This way of gazing from that third-person perspective colonises the characters in just the same way as the totalitarian regime does with citizens in real life. To put it in another sense, in order to reflect society, the filmmaker acts in exactly the same dominant manner as how the system does it in reality.

This is the same gaze  as The Round-Up. All the characters were stripped, beaten up, and killed one by one. Still, this film will shock you and make you tremble in awe of its beauty. Even though the film applies the aesthetic decision of the third-person, it is a product of its time in how it used the methodology of art of the 20th century. The Round-Up has become a timeless classic because it understood and celebrated the beauty of the arts of its time. 

Memento Park: The statue of Lenin sat next to so many soldiers lying dying.
Image courtesy of Việt Vũ.

Finally, in the suburb of Budapest, there is this Memento Park. This park is in fact the cemetery of the statues that were made during the communist period in Hungary—a time named by history as an era of  dictatorship. They leave all of the statues here as a testimony to the understanding  that even though communism in Hungary was over a long time ago, people will still need to remember the tragedies of dictatorship and the totalitarian regime: that we do not repeat it

Yes, political regimes come and go, art will stay—beautiful art always stays. Here, the questions left unanswered are: what about the artists? What will you do?

- Việt Vũ

Việt Vũ is a Vietnamese filmmaker currently based in Europe. Active as a film critic before he began making films, his debut short film The Ant Man won the Purin Award at SeaShorts Film Festival 2018. So far, he has made a series of short films on the memories of various marginalized communities in the age of globalisation in Vietnam, Portugal, Hungary and Belgium. His works have been shown at film festivals such as Locarno, Rotterdam, Tampere, and Singapore amongst others. Việt obtained his Master Degree in Documentary Film Directing at Doc Nomads in 2021 and participated in Berlinale Talents 2021 as a director.

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