Công Binh: The Forgotten Indochinese Workers in France

Who are the “Công Binh” and the “Lính Thợ”? Here in this post, director Lam Lê talks about his most recent documentary that reveals and retells the elided history of these Vietnamese Indochinese workers conscripted to war-time labor in France during World War II. Where French history has erased and forgotten them, Lam Lê writes these men back into history and memory with his Công Binh: La longue nuit Indochinoise.

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French Trailer of Công Binh

Summary

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 Việt Nam, 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 Việt 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 Việt Nam that has shamefully been erased from our collective memory.

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Quotes by the Công Binh 

On the working and living conditions in the camps: 

“We were given capes. We looked like chickens with broken wings. The shoes were too big for us. We were pathetic when we walked. We looked like a row of penguins.

“We had no mosquito nets. We had nothing to eat, however, we were a feast for the mosquitoes! But we planted the rice, our feet in the water. And when I ate a bowl of this rice, the rice we harvested, what joy. It was the first bowl of rice ‘made in France’ I ate since arriving on French soil.”

On why they had never told their story before

“What use to stir up the past? I wanted to first ensure a good future for Juliette, my wife, for my family in this country,” said Nguyên Van Thanh, alias ZAN 3, who stayed on in France after the war.

“I would never have thought someone would be interested in this story. Especially in France! After all, it is not very glorious for the Republic of Human Rights, it would be like self inflicting a whipping, right? But I realized that it was important to pass this memory on to our children. said Nguyên Van Thanh.

Interview with director Lam Lê

Could you explain the title “Công Binh”?

“Công Binh,” in Vietnamese literally means: worker-soldier. This is the exact name to be given to the 20,000 Vietnamese conscripted to go to work in factories in France during the Second World War. I insist on the use of this word because the misunderstanding about their situation is due to the fact that these men were wrongly “named.” In Việt Nam, they were known as “Lính Thợ,” etymologically: soldier-worker. It is a very pejorative term that implies “collaborators of the French Army.” I, like many Vietnamese for a long time, had a very distorted and false image of the Lính Thợ, believing them to be traitors to their native country, or that they had consorted with the French. These unfortunates were clearly forgotten by French history, but also by Vietnamese history that had always considered them traitors, while France had stolen their youth…. They were conscripted in the countryside. Often, they did not know how to read, they did not know what to expect. Families were forced to give up at least one son. My father, luckily, was not enlisted. We lived in the city, he was able to escape through the cracks.

How did you become interested in the history of these men?

I met one of them. Total coincidence. In the early 1980s, I had a difficult time finding an elderly Vietnamese refugee in France to play the role of a resistance fighter in my previous films Rencontres des nuages et du dragon (1980) and Poussière d’Empire (1983). Surprisingly enough, I found an old man who did not mind playing the role. He had settled in France just after the Second World War, and was very secretive about his past. He told me much later that he had been a Lính Thợ. In fact, he was ashamed and was embarrassed that I knew. He knew what the word implied in Việt Nam. Such a shame considering he was a hero to his fellow Công Bình, a staunch supporter of Hồ Chí Minh! When I heard about the book written by the journalist Pierre Daum on the subject (Actes Sud in 2009), I immediately contacted him. He had used a master’s thesis written by a French-Vietnamese student on the subject in the 1990s and delved further in his research. It triggered something. I knew it was time for me to tackle this film. I am not a journalist, nor a historian. I am a director: I wanted to tell this story, but with my Vietnamese subjectivity and vision. Brandishing this identity I wanted to bring my viewpoint, as a Vietnamese, to this story. Ultimately, Công Binh, la longue nuit indochinoise is not just another documentary, but a movie like all my other fiction films. It is one of my most intimate films.

Do you talk about yourself in it?

In a way. These men were twenty years old when they left Việt Nam, oftentimes saying they would never again see their country. At the same age, I too left Saigon, then under U.S. domination in the late 1960s, that is to say, without hope of return. The Communist victory over the entire country was inevitable. I know, in my gut, what it means to be exiled. Like them, I have nothing of my past, no class pictures, no school books, nothing of my Vietnamese childhood. We are Memory’s uprooted. What is at stake here is transmission. I love this quote Pasolini used as an epigraph for his film: “History is the passion of sons seeking to interview their fathers.” As for the men in my film, nobody had interviewed them. They have always hidden their tragic story from their children because what mattered was the future, not the past. I have hours and hours of filmed interviews with these men. They opened up to me utterly. We developed a very strong relationship built on trust, a father-son relationship. They quickly realized they needed to pass along this memory. They are all nonagenarians. I also discovered that I felt invested with this mission. For me, this film is the legacy that I did not receive from my own father whom I left at eighteen, the legacy I want to leave to my son born in France, I who do not have any memories to transmit, no pictures, no family albums.

These men are the last survivors of this past. Their words needed to be collected urgently…

During the editing, five of my witnesses died. So, yes, I felt like I was running against the clock. I have already shown the film to the Công Binh still valid who live in France. This past fall, I organized a special preview showing during a commemorative day in Sorgues, where at the time, there were 5,000 Công Binh living in several camps, with a prison exclusively for the Indochinese. It was important for me to show this film to them, to their children and grandchildren who came from all corners of France. I will also go to Việt Nam as soon as possible to show the film to those I met there.

Since Poussière d’Empire, it seems that you have been grappling with colonial issues.

I was born in 1948 in North Việt Nam. I belong to a generation that experienced colonization directly, a generation of Indochinese “natives.” As a child, I remember being slapped by a colonist child in the street, just like the story told by one of the Công Binh in the film. It was common at the time. In Hà Nội, where I grew up, we did not have the right to go into colonists’ neighborhoods. At the swimming pool, there were segregated time periods. My parents wanted us, the children, to succeed. The only solution was to work hard and pass a competitive examination in kindergarten to earn admission to the “French” school. And then, to stay among the top of the class in hopes of obtaining a passport to study in universities abroad. Our only hope was France, the country that enslaved us. A cruel paradox. I followed the same path as my two elder brothers. One graduated from Ecole Polytechnique and the other Centrale [two of France’s most selective universities]; both required attending preparatory classes for the Grandes Ecoles…. and yet, in our heads, we continued to feel inferior. You remain colonized in your head. In Việt Nam, to say you are going abroad, you said “đi xứ người,” literally “go to the land of men”. Can you imagine that? That means we, the Vietnamese, considered ourselves less than human. We were taught that we were not full citizens, merely natives.

How do you explain that Algerian remembrance is much more “vindicated” with an abundance of books, memoria, and movies. Compared to Algeria, former Indochina seems to have been erased, forgotten.

The Algerian and Indochinese problems are cousins. It should not be forgotten that is was after Điện Biên Phủ that the French colonial empire crumbled and that the Algerian separatist leaders were trained by the Indochinese guerrillas! Of course, Algeria was closer. Indochina was so far away. And then there is also perhaps a cultural factor. Vietnamese mentality, eager for modernity, tends to erase the past. It is a country focused on the future. Many young people I interviewed there do not know for example that France had once colonized the country. I do not know if this is good or bad. As for second-generation Vietnamese immigrants who have settled in the West, their parents were not interested in claims and demands. They chose invisibility, they were desperate to fit in, to be discreet, to erase the past. This was the case for the Công Binh, who never demanded to be paid for their years of quasi-free, hard work, who never spoke of their inglorious past to their children, and whose history is only recognized now, over sixty years later…. It was high time, especially for their children, to learn of this past, to reclaim this memory.

Do you think that France is struggling to cope with its colonial past?

Yes, of course. There are actually very few films on France’s real colonial past. It remains a taboo. When compared with the enormous amount of American movies on the war in Việt Nam, it’s true that there is a problem.

When my film Poussière d’Empire was released in 1983, it was one of the very evocations of colonial Indochina from the point of view of the colonized. And the fact that I killed off Dominique Sanda, the French star of the production, in the middle of the film was quite shocking. For me, it was logical in terms of the historical truth of France in Indochina. After France’s defeat at Điện Biên Phủ (symbolized by the death of Dominique Sanda) at exactly the halfway mark of the film, it was the colonized’s turn to take up their history. I realized I had touched a nerve by metaphorically killing the French Empire. Over the past thirty years, the situation has certainly changed, but not so much in the end. The former president of the French Republic still requested the benefits of colonization be taught in schools.

Isn’t that placing certain cultures higher than others? This shows that nothing has been resolved.

All trailers and images are copyrighted by ADR Productions, 2012.

Lam Lê was born in 1950 in Vietnam and came to France in 1970 to pursue his university degree in mathematics in France’s most elite and competitive institutions. He later studied painting at the Beaux Arts in Paris. He started his professional career as a theater set designer at the Atelier de l’Epée de Bois, which he co-founded at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes. Lâm Lê moved on to cinema, first as an assistant on features with directors such as Jean-Pierre Mocky. He made a name for himself with his storyboard for Garde A Vue (Claude Miller). He has worked with a number of directors, such as Jacques Perrin on Microcosmos.

He has written and directed a number of films; but his first was a mid-length feature that he wrote and directed in 1980. Rencontre Des Nuages Du Dragon (mid-length feature selected for the Cannes Festival in 1981) would be the first work in his Indochinese trilogy. He followed it up with the full length feature, Poussière D’empire, starring Dominique Sanda and Jean-François Stévenin (selected for Venice in 1983 and Berlin in 1984). This poetic movie is the first French feature authorized in Vietnam and opened the doors for other French films on Indochina. In 2005, he directed, 20 Nuits et Un Jour de Pluie, the last film of his trilogy.

His latest effort, Công Binh : La longue nuit Indochinoise, is his first documentary and signals his return to Vietnamese subjects.

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This entry was posted in Film, France, History, Identity, Interviews, Memory, Most Critical April 2013, War and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Công Binh: The Forgotten Indochinese Workers in France

  1. Danh Van says:

    It’s Công Binh, not Công Bình. The director got it right. Diacritics did not.

  2. Anna Nhung Vu says:

    Under the heading: “Since Poussière d’Empire, it seems that you have been grappling with colonial issues” – it’s interesting how the director translate the phrase “đi xứ người, which he says “go to the land of men”. In Vietnamese, I believe that the term “người”often refers to “người ta”(rather than us), and so “xứ người” here can be seen as other people’s country.
    Also, the director said above: “I was born in 1948..”, yet towards the end the article says: “Lâm Lê was born in 1950…” – just wondering about the discrepancy.

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