Yesterday I had the great pleasure of seeing the film Công Binh: La longue nuit Indochinoise. Created by French director Lam Lê (Lê Lâm), this is a documentary film about the 20,000 Vietnamese laborers who were sent to France to work in weapons factories during World War II.

The film is based on interviews with 20 of these former laborers; ten in France and 10 in Vietnam. Through their stories viewers are exposed to the complexities of a turbulent period of history.

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Some of the workers were forced, through quota systems, to go to France, while others went willingly. Not long after they arrived, France was occupied by Nazi Germany and their situation worsened. Ultimately they ended up pioneering the growth of rice in southern France.

When the war ended, the workers did not immediately return to Vietnam. Instead, they continued to work in France and learned from a distance about the efforts of the Việt Minh to gain independence from France. Many were happy about this and were extremely moved when Hồ Chí Minh arrived in France for negotiations in 1946.

However the complexities of that time period soon caught up with these men. They witnessed deadly conflicts between Vietnamese Trotskyites and Stalinists in France, and some workers found that they were arrested when they arrived back in Việt Minh controlled territory as they were seen as having been tainted by their “collaboration” with the French.

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I saw this film at L’Espace in Hanoi. It was followed by an absolutely fascinating discussion of the movie by director Lam Lê and historian Dương Trung Quốc, followed by questions from the audience, some of which were extremely moving.

While many topics were covered in that discussion, one that I found particularly interesting was the topic of “history.” Lam Lê did not present his documentary as “history.” Instead, he argued that it was more of an artistic expression in which he sought to express empathy for (thương) the people in his film.

Dương Trung Quốc, meanwhile, also did not seem to view the documentary entirely as history. He did seem to see the value in focusing on individuals, as Lam Lê did in his documentary, and he noted that the writing of history in Vietnam had generally not done that.

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As an historian, it was fascinating to listen to these two men try to find a way to describe something that dealt with the past but which they did not label as “history.”

In actuality, Công Binh: La longue nuit Indochinoise is a perfect example of a type of history known as microhistory. The point of microhistory is to show the complexity of the past by looking at something small, like an event or a community, and revealing how the history of that event or community does not always match the generalizations that historians have made about that time and place.

So in the case of Công Binh: La longue nuit Indochinoise, Lam Lê shows that some workers were forced to go to France (“colonialism is bad”) while others went willingly, and some stayed in France and married French women, while others returned to Vietnam (“colonialism is complex”).

He also shows that many of the workers supported the Việt Minh (“revolution is good”), but that some of them were treated badly by the Việt Minh when they returned even though they supported the revolution (“revolution is complex”).

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In other words, microhistories show us the “grey” in the past, whereas some other forms of history, such as politicized history, show the past in “black and white.”

Công Binh: La longue nuit Indochinoise is a moving documentary and a great example of microhistory.