Credit: Progress Film-Verleih G.m.b.H.
Apocalypse Then: Vietnam Marketing War Films


By Edmond L. Andrews, , May 12, 1999

BERLIN -- The black-and-white images are often blurry and rough, like very old home movies.

One sequence begins with the camera peering through jungle foliage in South Vietnam. A U.S. soldier, unaware he is being watched, briefly pops his head out of a foxhole. Another lays sandbags nearby.

The camera then cuts to a small band of Vietcong guerrillas as they circle the camp and then attack. After a few chaotic moments of running and shooting, they take the soldier out of the foxhole with his hands high. Another American, under fire, tries to drag a wounded buddy to safety but then runs for his life.

Other scenes show guerrillas planting bombs beneath a bridge and blowing up a U.S. truck convoy; Communist soldiers sifting through U.S. warplane wrecks to find identification, family photos and even Kodak cameras, and workers lugging ammunition along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

All of these are scenes from the other side of the world's first "television war." They are part of the Vietnamese government's huge archive of war film from 1960s and 1970s, much of it produced by Vietcong photographers who lived for years in jungles not far from Saigon.

And now, for the first time, the films are going on the market. In an unusual post-Cold War deal, the Vietnamese government has teamed with a German company to market broadcasting and movie rights to foreign companies.

Thousands of hours of film are available, and Vietnam is eager to strike deals with American and European documentary producers. The Discovery Channel, the History Channel and WGBH, Boston's public television station, have all taken a look at a short selection of material.

"We produced many documentaries about the war, while were fighting against the French and then later against the Americans," said Luu Trong Hong, general director of the Vietnam Cinema Department in Hanoi. "These films were seen in Vietnam or other socialist countries, but they were in the other states only very rarely."

The licensing effort grew out of a casual conversation in Hanoi two years ago between a former Vietcong cameraman and an executive at the company that used to produce East Germany's propaganda.

 Credit: Progress Film-Verleih G.m.b.H.

The cameraman was Nyuyen Van Nhiem, who filmed alongside guerrillas in South Vietnam from 1970 to 1976 and who now serves as an occasional translator for German visitors. The German was Alexander van Duelman, an executive at Progress Film-Verleih GmbH in Berlin.

Based in a crumbling old building on the east side of Berlin, Progress is the successor company to East Germany's government-owned media monopoly, known as DEFA. Before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, DEFA produced virtually all of East Germany's television programs and movies. Its output ranged from children's cartoons to Wild West shoot-em-ups ("Native Americans as They Really Were!" according to one brochure) and outright propaganda.

Today, Progress ekes out a small business by marketing DEFA's old movies and programs, mostly as historical material, but partly as entertainment. Last year its sales totaled about 1.4 million marks, or $750,000.

"There is still a very strong link between East Germany and Vietnam," said van Duelmen, 31, who is from the former West Germany and is head of international sales for Progress.

"They know that East German was one of their most important allies during the war," he said. "More than two million Vietnamese worked and studied here, and about 57,000 still live here today."

Van Duelmen was in Hanoi in 1997, trying to market a German movie, when Nhiem urged him to look at some of his old film. A wiry and ebullient man, now 43 years old, Nhiem filmed alongside Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam from 1970 to 1976.

"You cannot imagine what it was like," Nhiem said on a visit to Berlin. "There wasn't one square meter that wasn't exposed to bombing. You couldn't think about life or death in that situation, just the pictures. If you had had fear, you would never have survived."

During most of his years in the jungle, Nhiem used a 16-mm Bell&Howell camera and American film that he bought from smugglers in Saigon.

Van Duelman was immediately intrigued, and soon began discussions with government officials about marketing the entire archive. The two sides reached a deal in Hanoi in January, and Progress has reviewed and sorted about one-fifth of the film so far.

Under the deal, Western companies can negotiate with Progress for rights to sift through everything and then use it in their own documentaries.

Van Dulmen refused to suggest how much money he expects Western companies to pay. He said his first goal is to sign deals with one significant documentary producer in Europe and one in the United States. After giving those producers a head-start of a year or two, he plans to seek out other licensees.

The European producer will probably be Mitteldeutsche Rundfunk, Germany's new public television network, which produces programming for eastern Germany. Several U.S. companies have looked at the short selection of the film but none have made offers yet.

WGBH, which produces the "American Experience" series on public television, has expressed interest. So has Discovery Communications, owner of the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel.

By any measure, the images are likely to be engrossing -- particularly to Americans.

The short reel of selections was drawn from government documentaries, so it includes patriotic music and the voices of official newscasters. But the film is nonetheless authentic and haunting.

One segment shows women feverishly lugging stones to repair bombed-out bridges along the Ho Chi Minh trail, then running for cover as a U.S. warplane flies in for another bombing run. The film shows several B-52s brought down by mortar fire, as well as the charred corpse of a pilot and photos of his wife and children.

 Credit: Progress Film-Verleih G.m.b.H.

Another sequence shows people being bombed at night, with phosphorus bombs lighting up the sky so pilots could spot their targets.

Partly to prove that they had indeed destroyed U.S. planes and tanks, the combat photographers recorded much personal memorabilia. They zoomed in close enough to read the names on ID cards or to clearly see snapshot photos of children at home.

The film also includes numerous images of Vietnamese, including small children, whose bodies are covered with burns from napalm.

For American producers, the most difficult question about the film is whether the Vietnamese government will give foreigners editorial freedom.

Though government officials say they are willing to let foreign producers pore over their entire archive, they also insist on blocking "anti-Vietnam" films.

"We don't expect people to produce Vietnam propaganda, but we don't want them to falsify Vietnam or the Vietnamese Communist Party," said Hong, head of the government's film agency. "We want people to use these selections in the pursuit of truth." Hong left no doubt that he expects to know and approve of the basic idea of a documentary before handing over rights.

By way of example, Hong said the government would be willing to let people use images of the infamous traps that would send bamboo spikes straight through a soldier's body. The traps have often been depicted as the epitome of Viet Cong ruthlessness, and government officials are sensitive about it.

"We're saying that if you show pictures of bamboo traps, then you should explain why they were used," Hong said.

Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations

© 1999 by Neil Mishalov