The Jan Myrdal Society’s big prize – The Lenin Award has been awarded the film director Maj Wechselmann this year. It is gratifying. A more worthy recipient of this fine award is hard to find.
The Swedish film life is basically multifaceted, rich and dynamic. However, a large part of the works created in this area do not receive the attention they deserve. The harmless, what is not offensive, difficult and above all not urgent but easily digested and easily sold has for a long time completely occupied the public space.
I often get the question from the media which Swedish film I think has been the best of the year or even the decade. I have then answered that I do not want to name any film as the best but that I can say which film I consider to be the most important and most urgent. It’s the thirty-minute documentary “Agent Orange” by filmmaker Maj Wechselmann. Not once has it happened that the medium that asked the question, TV, radio, or newspaper, has reproduced my choice and my justification.
“Agent Orange” is a horrible film, or more accurately a film about something horrible. And this horror is not caused by overpowering natural forces such as earthquakes and tsunamis. This horror is the result of human hand.
In some Vietnamese farmers’ kitchens, we face something that should be worse than hell itself. Children with terrible, incurable eczema, children without eyes, children with all possible physical malformations and children with severe mental retardation. They are children of parents sprayed from American aircrafts with the defoliant “Agent Orange” which causes genetic damage to future generations.
What makes the film almost unbearable to watch is the lack of outrage in both Maj Wechselmann’s speaker voice and in the parents’ low-key, laconic stories. We get to meet people who have walked to hell and back past the pain. The silence has followed. And we spectators are left alone with the chilling shame.
Just as Nazi Germany did before the attack on Poland, the United States staged a fraud, in the Tonkin Bay, to get an excuse to drop over 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, fire thousands of tons of 12 cm projectiles from offshore ships, burn off 557 kilograms of ammunition per Vietnamese, torture, violate and murder between 2 and 3 million people and spray 72,354 million litres of plant poison over the Vietnamese soil. (Numbers from the Memorial War Museum, Hanoi).
After witnessing the trial of SS officer Adolf Eichman, one of the chiefs responsible for the deportations of Jews to extermination camps, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote the book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”. In it she claims that Eichman was no eviller than any other man. That he was only a dutiful bureaucrat who did what was imposed on him. Her thesis is that evil is simply banal.
It may be that evil is banal, but in my opinion it is shameless. I want to say that it is shamelessness that paves the way for the banal evil. With the help of shamelessness, the colonial powers’ plundering of the natural resources and labour of the colonies has not been and is no moral problem. Nor is inflicting genetic damage to future generations.
To forge an excuse in the Tonkin Bay for bombing and poisoning a poor country of farmers that did not want to be colonized is a shameful act. But not for the shameless, at first. He understands it only when he realizes that the shameful act became an infamous act.
Not only “Agent Orange” but virtually the whole of Maj Wechselmann’s production, I see as a tireless fight against shamelessness. Her truth-seeking and revelations in a number of areas have made many shameless people deservedly infamous. That is a honourable act if anything is!