British Film Institute
20 October 2013
Trailer. From here.
Visceral examination of the Vietnam war protests in London, examining questions still very relevant today.
So it is hard, on reflection, to distinguish between my feelings about the film and my feelings overall about the experience. Brook was already a controversial, thrilling theatre director when in 1968 at the Royal Shakespeare Company he directed US (or ‘us’, it is an intentional pun), a drama, or perhaps a ‘theatrical happening’ about the Vietnam war. That subsequently became this equally innovative film, a semi-documentary as one character puts it.
That was 45 years ago, and Brook has gone on to increase his theatre guru status through his decades in Paris, pioneering minimalist world theatre and suchlike. So part of the screening experience was religious, an audience devoted to a man and his ideas rather than his actual output.
I’ll try to focus on his output here. The film’s subtitle tells us it is ‘about London’, and this is significant because although it addresses the Vietnam War, it does so through the perspectives of various Londoners, except for a ballad celebrating a US draft objector.
There are several songs in this piece, with Brechtian lyrics by Adrian Mitchell, and the overall style owes something to Brecht, though more, I think, to Brook’s own talent with actors. A small group of actors are present throughout, visiting different events in London (an anti-war poetry reading, marches, a Buddhist teacher, etc).
When they speak, we aren’t sure if they are inhabiting a role or telling us their direct feelings, and this ambiguity is both intentional and enormously powerful. When ‘real’ people, such as Kingsley Amis or Stokely Carmichael are speaking here, their certainty seems affected, and they are trying to win an argument, present forcefully their point of view. When the actors express their doubts and anxieties, they seem more authentic, which isn’t paradoxical, though it seems so.
This matters because the narrative of the film is that of trying to navigate in a world where almost unimaginable horrors are taking place, but these are taking place far away, and any individual’s ability to influence these events seems very small.
At times, the film goes too far in creating a sense of utter confusion. It contrasts our desire for strong heroic action with more practicable but ineffectual efforts. But as the Buddhist teacher says, when asked about monks burning themselves alive, there are more effective ways of helping people than such extreme actions. The film doesn’t really accept this, though in fairness it doesn’t suggest that the accumulation of smaller actions had no effect: and subsequent history is inspiring about this.
This is a work that tries to make us question ourselves, and it seems to me very effective. Yet it also has almost never been seen, so in the end I suppose this makes it a failure. The good news is it hasn’t dated much, so perhaps it will enjoy a potent afterlife when no longer linked to the still-developing myth of its creator.