The Vietnam War through a writer's eyes

Issue 

The Sorrow of War
SBS
Monday, October 13, 8.30pm (8pm in SA)

Review by Brendan Doyle

"Long ago, at the gates of Hanoi, there was a large drum. Any citizen was allowed to beat the drum and voice his opinion. If the speech pleased the Emperor, he would listen. If not, the speaker was beheaded."

So begins, with the beating of a drum, this beautifully crafted, moving documentary from Swedish Television. The drum motif recurs throughout, symbolising the courage of the one whose speech does not please the Emperor. In this case it is Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese soldier, who wrote The Sorrow of War.

Bao Ninh was drafted in 1969 at the age of 17. Of the five hundred who went to war with the 27th Youth Brigade, he is one of only 10 who survived. A personal depiction of the war in Vietnam, the book, published in 1991, was criticised by government officials as offending the memory of those who died in the war. Bao Ninh's haunted tale of grim war experiences did not conform to the official version.

This documentary is a gentle, thoughtful and melancholy film which does justice to the content and style of the novel. It blends Vietnamese music and Chopin, war newsreels and propaganda films, excerpts from the book, and a rare interview with the reclusive author.

Bao Ninh rejects the propaganda model of literature. He says in the film, "I don't think that literature can be divided into 'peace' and 'war'. Literature chooses as its theme human life under various circumstances. War is one of those circumstances." His purpose, he says, was not to question the necessity of the war, but to talk about the unseen wounds, the wounds to the spirit of the people, that must be acknowledged. "To write about war is to write about compassion", he says.

One of the many memorable moments of the film for me is when an old woman relates the Christmas bombing of Hanoi by US planes in 1972. This segment includes rare footage by Swedish camera people who had been given special permission to film.

Another is when Bao Ninh recalls a night-time school excursion to a beach in 1965, sitting round a fire, and suddenly being told, "No fire on the beach. Official orders. America has entered the war".

The film evokes old Hanoi, the author's "spiritual cradle". He says he wrote the book "in nostalgia for the old Hanoi", where his young hero Kien, now fighting in the jungle, dreams of home, of his childhood sweetheart, of children at school dancing. We also see modern-day Hanoi where new houses are going up and crops being grown where once tunnels were dug and people hid their prized possessions, including pianos, deep underground.

Bao Ninh comes across as philosophical rather than bitter. "We paid whatever price was demanded for independence. But the younger ones must find another way. The country must also be able to live in peace."

A best seller in Vietnam, The Sorrow of War has been translated into English and several European languages. It is published in Australia by Minerva, at $14.95.