A filmmaker working to document the Vietnam war would have been equipped with a handheld 16mm camera, likely either a Bolex or an Aaton. These were reasonably lightweight, had good battery power, and were capable of 10 minute loads of film. Shooting was done by a range of contracted and freelance filmmakers, working for television or as independents. As accredited journalists, they had the freedom to travel around the country in American military transport, which gave them up-close access to most facets of the war.
Film stock was sourced internationally, either from Japan, France, or the US. Exposed celluloid was shipped by cargo plane to either Tokyo or Hong Kong, where it could be processed and printed. If intended for television, the print would be transmitted electronically via satellite to the BBC, NBC, etc., where it could be edited on tape and then broadcast. This meant that material shot out in the field in Vietnam could be seen on television within 24-48 hours. At the time, this was incredibly quick, and represented a significant technical achievement.
It also demonstrated the fundamental logic of the modern image, which embraced both proximity and distance as its main constitutive elements. The invention and development of the Bolex, first released commercially in 1927, was crucial to this notion of proximity. By the 1950s, the cinema camera had grown rapidly into a large, cumbersome object that required a small crew to operate. Documentaries in the early part of the 20th century, such as Night Mail or Nanook of the North, contain large amounts of staged material; this was in part because of the inflexibility of the camera. The wide availability of the Bolex in the 1950s and 1960s meant that a filmmaker could travel to distant, difficult, or intimate spaces in a way that was not possible with a conventional camera. Thus, the local, intimate event captured directly on to film negative could be transported, developed, printed, and screened anywhere in the world. An event could be brought back, like a specimen in a jar, and put on display. The space between the filmed thing and the projected thing could be eliminated.
For documentaries in the 1960s, proximity was key, and it meant that the person with the camera needed to be as close as possible to the event. In the case of Vietnam, this meant travelling with American troops via helicopter in order to be present at the moment of battle. This obsession with proximity and intimacy came to define images from Vietnam. The film and photographs we remember from the war are suffused with this quality. Nick Ut’s photograph of a young girl named Kim Phuc running nude down a road after an American napalm attack is such an image, but the photographs and film made widely visible from the war all possessed this quality of closeness. Equally important in understanding these images, however, is the paradoxical quality of distance. Photographers and filmmakers in Vietnam would often speak of the strange psychic experience of remaining outside these events, by standing on that road and photographing the naked girl rather than helping her. It was felt that in order to document the war in the ‘correct’, professional way, the filmmaker needed to remain apart from the proceedings. This quality is self-evident in the pictures. The shots feel composed, controlled, often beautiful in spite of their subject matter. They are almost always the work of professionals, who stand outside the trauma and catastrophe experienced by the people within the image. As potent and visceral as they are, these films and photos are firmly rooted in an intentional remove from their subjects. The filmmaker is there and not there at the same time.
This distance is also understood in the reception of the images. Americans watching the war on TV in the 1960s and 70s were seeing film from a place that was geographically extremely remote. Prior to this, radio offered the only comparable means of reporting world events with such speed. Although generally speaking people would not have been overly familiar with the nuts and bolts of film production, most would be aware of the basics. Film was expensive, complicated to use, resistant to being copied or transmitted. To see events from the war brought so quickly and seemingly so easily to television would have been somewhat unsettling. The geographical and technical distance between two spaces had suddenly been shrunk to nearly nothing. The film image had been freed from its material substrate and turned into weightless code. It now wanted to move. This was its purpose.
Compare it, for example, to handheld video and cell phone footage taken from the current conflict in Syria. The material has been generated by Syrians caught up in various aspects of the war, including rebel fighters, civilians, and government troops. You can find any and every political or polemical account of the war on the internet, to the point where any potential meaning to be gathered from the videos entirely slips away. What lingers most are the means of production: small cameras used by the rebels during tank battles; civilians filming air raids on their phones; a government tank with a GoPro digital camera mounted on the turret, a device usually used by skiers or surfers to record their exploits. Almost all the video is HD, good quality, and immediately destined for a life online. The videos are almost pure incident: bomb strikes, shooting, explosions, ruined streets. There is little outside material, even less context. Some are highly partisan but most have the matter-of-fact mode of presentation common to video on the internet. Long shots are simply cut together as the camera lingers on a street, a tank, a man loading a rocket launcher. They are extremely vivid but also repetitive and redundant. One suspects that part of the reason that the videos are so free of extraneous information is that they are intended for an audience that is already initiated in the details of the events. They are meant to be seen by other Syrians.
They are also, of course, intended by the Syrians to be seen by others in the international community, so that the terrors and atrocities of the conflict can be made visible. They accomplish this, but not by working to make sense of things, as a journalist would normally do. Instead, they preserve the confusion, shock, and fear of the combatant or civilian involved directly in the fighting. Film and photographs made in Vietnam function just as much as symbolic or metaphorical images of war as they do specific accounts of the conflict. By comparison, video made by rebel fighters in Syria is so specific and close that it refuses to be translated into any larger image or statement. A video called “Men Vs. Tanks”, made by rebels sniping at government tanks in the city of Daraya is typical of many of the Syrian combat videos on Youtube. The footage alternates between the jagged frenzy of fighting, and strangely serene, beautiful pauses when the rebels are waiting for the tanks to move or fire. It is often possible to see the soldiers running while they are filming, or stumbling from a shell impact. Some of it is made by a man operating a camera and a gun simultaneously. Government tanks are viewed as they enter a street, followed by exchanges of gunfire, artillery, bombs, and smoke. There is no commentary and little information other than the city where the clips were shot. Making video in these instances is no longer a separate activity, with its own type of thinking. It seems unlikely to me that these Syrians would consider themselves ‘filmmakers’ in any sense that the word is usually used. What comes across in these clips is that video has simply become an instant fact, a means of collecting what is happening around the fighters. These images are made with the full intention and expectation that they will be uploaded and broadcast in some form.
The potential for the image to leave one space and enter another is no longer a question. The technological support for its movement is now complete, and immediate. The image wants and needs to go somewhere. It always moves, from camera to hard drive, to phone, to web site, to download. It is for others to receive, to use, and to create meaning from. There is no longer a physical space for the video to traverse. Its journey is frictionless and immaterial, its audience potentially without limit. What we are left with is a picture of complete proximity. The event, its recording, and its subsequent transmission have become nearly the same act. The videos in Syria are travelling around the world as well as right back on to the phone that made them.