Lam Lê Presents His New Film CÔNG BINH

September 3, 2013 | By FRENCH CULTURE FILM
Lam Lê at Amiens Festival, October 2012

On the occasion of a panel discussion on Memories of Indochina, the French and Vietnamese director Lam Lê (biography) will be at NYU Institute of French Studies on September 27 to present his new Film "CÔNG BINH".

In an interview with Frédéric Viguier, researcher at NYU Institute of French Studies, he responded to a few questions.

Frédéric Viguier: …Your film focuses on a very dark page of history between France and Viet Nam. Just before World War II, the French Third Republic requisitioned Vietnamese young men to work in French weapon factories to stand in for French workers sent to fight the Germans. 20,000 were shipped off to France before the defeat against Germany in June 1940. These workers-soldiers ("Công Binh") remained stuck in France; they lived through forced labor, humiliation and terrible living conditions imposed on them by Vichy and the Germans. Despite its magnitude, this episode of brutal colonialism and warfare has never been acknowledged. How and why has the experience of the Công Binh been erased from public memory in France, both during the colonial and post-colonial eras?

Lam Lê: For the French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, history is made from memory. In any society of communication, memory could not exist without history because remembrance is included in the knowledge of the past and progresses with the evolution of the mentality and the generational expectations of society [[[these two sentences seem contradictory, i think they were translated incorrectly. i think the beginning of the second sentence should read 'In any literate society, history cannot exist without memory...'. In 1983, Benjamin Stora, a historian and specialist on the Algerian War was the first to mention the existence of 20,000 Công Binh locked up in French camps. His 40 page study, published by a political magazine, is not a scholarly work. Later in 1988, a memoir on the subject of the Indochinese workers of 1939-52 was presented by Tran Nu Liem Khe, a French-Vietnamese history student. Never published, those two studies were unknown to the larger public until they were posted on the Internet in the 2000’s.

It is often said that it takes at least 50 years for an event to become a historical fact, this is perhaps one of the reasons that the tragedy of the Công Binh has been forgotten.

But I would also argue that those 20,000 young Indochinese were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Before, during and after World War II, in the face of Nazism with its Holocaust, Stalinism with its Soviet gulags and the awakening of colonized peoples against the Western colonial empires, the question of colonialism became insignificant at this moment in History with a capital H, from 1937 to 1962 (from the fall of the young Spanish Republic to the Independence of Algeria).

Amnesia, this "art of forgetting," as the philosopher Paul Ricœur once called it, is a practice used wisely by all French governments, left and right-wing, from the Third Republic to the current Fifth Republic. Let’s remember the general outcry in France against the law of February 23, 2005, in particular the demand for the abolition of the Fourth article, which calls for the teaching of the positive contributions of colonization. The French colonial past remains a truly taboo subject in France.

FV: What has been the public memory of the Công Binh in their native Viet Nam?

LL: In Viêt Nam, from 1939 to the present, the Công Binh have been considered either as traitors or as undesirable in their homeland.

When they left Indochina for France on the eve of World War II, they were recruited by the ministry of the Colonies and the War. Dressed as French colonial soldiers, trained and locked up for months in French military camps before being shipped to Marseille, they looked like perfect collaborators of the colonialist power in the eyes of their compatriots who actually called them “linh-tho” (soldier-workers). This appellation, semantically full of meanings, is still used in Viêt Nam today. This misunderstanding has persisted in the Vietnamese mentality, because of a lack of historical knowledge in both France and Viêt Nam. Hence the need to produce this film with the few surviving witnesses of the time, to repair this historical injustice.

Nevertheless, as the majority of the Công Binh were either sympathizers or activist Trotskyists, they are doubly undesirable: traitors to the homeland as former collaborators of the colonialists or traitors to the actual Socialist Republic of Viêt Nam, where any study or practice of Trotskyism is still prohibited and illegal.

So they are simply ignored both in Viêt Nam and in France.

FV: Your film follows around two dozen survivors, the youngest ones of whom are now in their early 90s. How did these men cope with their memories throughout seventy years of being ignored, and how did they react to your project?

LL: Half of my witnesses died during and after the editing of my film. The youngest, 91 years old, died last winter. They all were conscious that at the end of their life it was time to say once and for all what they had in their heart. Despite the potential for reprisals for those who are living in Viêt Nam or for the relatives of those living in France, they all fully cooperated in the making of the film.  Generally with more complicity, sincerity and confidence when they could talk in Vietnamese with a compatriot like me. Because they know that our native language is full of nuances, insinuations, concepts that I can understand beyond what they say explicitly. They also were conscious that a film shot by a Viêt Kiêu (Vietnamese living abroad) would be done in complete freedom and would be an exceptional opportunity for them to be listened to, to be understood and to be watched by a very large audience over the world. So they all tried to tell their tragedy with the maximum truth, trying not to forget any tiny details. I recorded and filmed 150 hours of footage. My first edit of the film was four hours and thirty minutes long. Despite myself, I was forced to work as a historian with my camera.

About Công Binh, la longue nuit indochinoise
Công Binh is a feature documentary that reveals the elided history of Vietnamese Indochinese workers conscripted to war-time labor in France during World War II.
Directed by Lam Le
116 min., France, 2012

On the eve of the Second World War, twenty thousand Vietnamese people were forcibly recruited in French Indochina and shipped to France to work in weapons factories, replacing workers sent to the front. Mistaken for soldiers, they were stuck in France after the defeat in 1940. During the Occupation, these workers – called “Công Binh” – were left at the mercy of the Wehrmacht and lived like pariahs.  They pioneered rice cultivation in the Camargue. Wrongly accused of betraying their native Vietnam, they were all actually strongly committed to Hồ Chí Minh, rooting for the Independence in 1945.

The film interviews roughly two dozen survivors, both in Viet Nam and in France. Five died during the editing of the movie. They talk of their day-to-day life in a colonial situation. The film portrays a page of the history between France and Viet Nam that has shamefully been erased from our collective memory.

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