WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES
79 Primaveras (1969) by Santiago Alvarez
Santiago Alvarez draws upon his unique cinematic vision to craft an elegiac tribute to Ho Chi Minh, the controversial leader of Vietnam’s independence movement who defeated the French in the first Indo-China War of 1946-1954 and the Americans in the second Indo-China War (Vietnam War) of 1954-1975 (Halsall). He weaves images of the wars alongside scenes of Minh’s life and the reactions of mourners at his funeral. He skillfully assembles a film that provides unparalleled insight into the life of an enigmatic statesman and revolutionary icon.
The title 79 Primaveras refers to how many years Minh lived. The film’s opening echoes this poetic description of his life through a series of stop motion film scenes of dandelions blooming, closing and going to seed. As the scene continues, those flowers gradually fade out to become images of the nuclear bombs dropped by American soldiers on the Vietnam’s rural landscape. Through this impressively edited sequence Alvarez turned the pastoral image of flowers into a concise depiction of Vietnam’s struggle for independence. After the opening credits, Ho Chi Minh’s presence is firmly established. A photograph of him as a young man is presented. As the negative print of this black and white photograph develops, the image then fades in and out three times. With each appearance viewers gain a closer view of Minh’s face until his eyes only appear. It finally fades to an image of a much older Ho Chi Minh. This signals that we will be viewing a film that is told through Minh’s eyes.
Ho Chi Minh dreamed of seeing a peaceful, free, and independent Vietnam. His commitment to this vision led him as a young man to travel to Africa, Europe, and the United States to learn about political thought and organizing before returning to Vietnam over 30 years later to lead the defeat of the French at the Battle of Dien-Bien-Phu. This ended the Indochina War but resulted in the division of Vietnam along the 17th parallel which created a North and South Vietnam. The cease-fire accord stipulated that an election would be held to unify the country. If it had occurred, Ho Chi Minh would have assuredly been elected. But the South Vietnamese government refused to participate and had garnered support from the United States, who had an interest in eradicating Communism from the region. According to Alden Whitman, “In 1964, thousands of American troops were poured into South Vietnam to battle the Vietcong and then to bomb North Vietnam” (New York Times).
Alvarez repeatedly uses counterpoint to communicate the extremes of war and peace and of sovereignty and tyranny. The victory at Dien-Bien-Phu is noted in the 64 Primaveras section of the film. A clip of a Cuban singer is used to illustrate the nation’s hopes and expectations for independence at that point in history. She sings, “This era is giving birth to a new heart. It can’t take anymore pain and we have to act fast because the future is in jeopardy.” Footage of Ho Chi Minh visiting a kindergarten and interacting amid joyful children is a poignant accompaniment to the song. But the lyrics also express the instability of that historical moment because the scene is then interrupted by apocalyptic images of the Second Indo-China War. The previous scene with children becomes particularly heartrending when a harrowing series of images of children disfigured by chemical warfare follows it. The sense of horror is exacerbated further by repeated footage of an American soldier beating a Vietnamese man. This infamous footage is accompanied by title cards that declare, “THEY BEGAN TO KILL IN ORDER TO WIN” which is then followed by “AND NOW THEY KILL BECAUSE THEY CANNOT WIN” (Chanan 244). By presenting to viewers the most sublime and atrocious acts that Ho Chi Minh witnessed, Alvarez creates a powerful visual experience that exemplifies Minh’s famous quote, "Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.”
Chanan, Michael. Cuban Cinema (Cultural Studies of the Americas, 14). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
Halsall, Paul. "Modern History Sourcebook: Vietnam Declaration of Independence, 1945." Fordham University. 10 July 2009 <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1945vietnam.html>.
Whitman, Alden. "Ho Chi Minh Obituary." The New York Times. 4 Sep. 1969. 28 May 2009 <http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0519.html>.