By Melanie Sjoberg
As The Mirror Burns
A film by Christina Pozzan and Di Bretherton
Exclusive season Aug 23 to Sept 1 at the State Film Theatre, Melbourne
Sept 6-21, AFI Cinema, Paddington
Reviewed by Melanie Sjoberg
"I was deeply shocked by my experiences of Vietnam. The level of poverty and hardship I found did not correspond with the idea that the war was over and in the past. I found that the Vietnamese women still spoke of 'soon winning this war'." Dr Di Bretherton, a long-time peace activist and lecturer at Melbourne University, expresses her motivation for developing this haunting portrayal of the lives of women in Vietnam since the revolution.
"Many war films that show Vietnam as an ugly place of dark jungles and muddy battlefields are often not in fact filmed there. To represent Vietnam as a hostile and threatening backdrop for battle scenes rationalises its destruction. This portrayal belies the fact that Vietnam is a beautiful and fertile country", says Bretherton.
The film opens to scenes of lush tropical forests, contrasted with fishing boats and aerial views of paddy fields. Traditional Vietnamese music provides an evocative background throughout.
The title of the film is used to symbolise Bretherton's own feelings about her visit to Vietnam. "Travelling in the land of the enemy is like looking in a mirror. The image I see of myself and my own culture is not always comfortable."
Bretherton attempts to capture another side of Vietnam, to counteract the more common visions of war and destruction. Yet she reminds us that these women are very much reconstructing their lives following the devastation of that war.
The central role that women played throughout that struggle is highlighted. The Women's Museum in Ho Chi Minh City estimates that more than 70% of the National Liberation Front guerillas were women; they were known as the "troop of the long hair". An interview with a former commander of the revolutionary army, and now president of the Women's Union, Nguyen Ti Dinh, testifies to their strength as she relates stories of the abilities of the women to remain invisible yet highly effective. Tran Thi Nho, also a former leader of a guerilla troop, demonstrates how they lived for up to eight years in underground tunnels (picture).
We are not allowed, however, to forget the horrors of the war. Kim Phuc, centre of a famous photograph in which she is seen covered in burns running naked down the street following a napalm attack, is
interviewed along with her mother. The camera occasionally travels to scenes of defoliated landscape and discarded military equipment, providing more sharp reminders of the effects and legacy of the war.
One of the most serious consequences of the war has been ongoing medical problems from the use of chemical warfare. Women apparently in the advanced stages of pregnancy are evident in large numbers at a major hospital. The director explains that this is a form of cancer of the womb, a direct result of Agent Orange. In conjunction with this, she explains that there is a very high incidence of birth defects. The camera pans along rows of shelves containing some grotesque tumours and deformed foetuses.
Bretherton has dealt sensitively with the struggle of the women of Vietnam to rebuild their lives and their country. She has tried to revitalise interest in a country that has been largely forgotten by the Australian media since the troops withdrew. Released so closely after the war in the Middle East, the film provides a sharp reminder that people are the real losers in any military confrontation.