A large, middle-aged African man appears to be wandering through what looks like a city in Southeast Asia. The man seems to be looking for something specific: he gazes at people going about their life, at buildings and orphanage signs, but seems not to find what he wants. As we slowly learn more about this man, we understand that he is part of a very special and damaged group of children who grew up in West Africa during the 1950s and 60s. It is this generation of children and their parents who are the subjects of Idrissou Mora Kpai’s gripping documentary film, Indochina, Traces of a Mother (2010), which was shown at Cornell Cinema last week and followed by a discussion. A well-regarded documentary filmmaker, Kpai was born in Benin, West Africa. He lives and works in Cologne and Paris and founded his own production company in 2002. He is currently a visiting artist at Cornell’s Institute of Comparative Modernities.
Indochina is a bold look at the legacy of French colonial wars in Southeast Asia. Between 1946 and 1954, the French enlisted over 60,000 African soldiers to fight the Viet Minh. Since the 19th century, much of Southeast Asia was part of the French colonial empire, called “French Indochina.” After the end of WWII, nationalist and anticolonial movements in Vietnam resulted in the Indochina Wars, where the Viet Minh, a nationalist communist group, fought against the French. The French failed to subdue the Viet Minh, and Vietnam was divided in 1954. It is only after the French defeat that the U.S. took up the cause of anticommunism in earnest, and which also ended in disaster, with the fall of Saigon in 1975. While the devastating involvement of the U.S. in Vietnam has been the subject of countless films, many of them now considered to be among the greatest in cinema history (see: Apocalypse Now), the French involvement is less known, and its African chapter is almost always overlooked. Indochina is a groundbreaking film in this respect.
The film primarily focuses on the memories of the West African soldiers, who were coerced by the French into serving as cannon fodder in Vietnam. While in Vietnam, these soldiers fathered children from local women, but when the time came for the soldiers to return to Africa, the mothers were strongly discouraged from traveling to Africa. As a result, an entire of generation of infants and toddlers were brought to West Africa without their mothers, and in most cases were adopted by completely new families. Kpai has interviewed numerous ex-soldiers — who are now very aged — and they recount their time in Vietnam in colorful, yet fragmentary and broken narratives. He also interviewed some of the key military leaders of the Viet Minh, who clearly understood that their enmity was not was the Africans, who were colonized by the French just like the Vietnamese were. The Viet Minh thus treated the African prisoners of war in a better fashion that the French soldiers, as the French were simply using one colonized group against another. Completely missing in the film are the voices of the mothers in Vietnam. Understandably, they probably do not wish to be identified, but their memories must be even more agonizing.
The most poignant character in Indochina is Christophe, the 58-year-old, wandering Afro-Vietnamese man. His random stroll serves a greater purpose, as he recounts his sense of yearning and loss for a mother he never had, not in a photo or single memory. The film tracks him scattering the ashes of his sister in the Mekong River, per her wishes, and after journeying through Vietnam, Christophe feels some sense of temporary peace. His wanderings are interspersed with interviews with Viet Minh leaders and the old African soldiers in West Africa, and lyrical shots of piers, beaches and water. Indochina is a documentary film but completely avoids narrating the overt facts and figures of the African presence in Vietnam. Instead, the film unfolds slowly, in a manner in which one might pick up shards of a broken mirror, each bladed yet mesmerizing sliver symbolizing the transformative experience of the soldiers and their legacy in Southeast Asia and West Africa.