Colonial Film Controls


by Dean Wilson

Film Controls in Colonial Vietnam, 1896 to 1926


During the 1968 Tet Offensive, the imperial citadel of Hué was almost completely destroyed. Today, as millions of tourists flock to WTO-member nation Vietnam to view the tombs of 19th century monarchs and the remnants of the once-magnificent palace, few know that colonial-era films reveal the original grounds and interiors of Hué and many are available for viewing. While it was part of French Indochina, Vietnam was one of many locations where the French colonial government commissioned thematic film content for propaganda; and Vietnamese spectators at that time were subjected to the conventions of French cinema. Although the recorded history of early cinema often overlooks film culture details in colonial territories, archival prints and documents represent an alternative history that demands exploration.

As recent studies further integrate marginalized territories and populations into the world historical narrative, film historians are compelled to ask: How and when did motion pictures arrive in this place? How and when did local people start to make their own films? What films did they make? What did local people see on screen? To a large extent the early film history in former colonies is poorly understood because locating colonial records was unfeasible in the past. Toward improving knowledge of this kind, the government of Vietnam published an official history of the national cinema in 2003 that begins with a chapter on the colonial era. The text inspires many questions and serves as a point of entry, a discursive structure where none previously existed.

My research supplements the official historical record, as others have done, with archival documentation. The official Vietnamese film history claims, for example, that in 1926 the first films produced and directed by a Vietnamese person succeeded with local audiences in movie theaters. French archival documents, however, suggest that rather than being an exemplar of Vietnamese identity and self-determination the work was most likely commissioned by the colonial authorities and distributed in France as propaganda first. (IND GGI 64381) It can now be viewed, in fact, on the Gaumont Pathé archives website. The essay below contains highlights of my research on the colonial film culture in Vietnam beginning with the introduction of the medium in 1896 and ending with this paradoxical start of indigenous production in 1926.

The archival material falls generally into two categories that illustrate some of the questions arising from research. One group of documents concerns efforts to control the motion picture phenomenon in the colonial territory. This category includes official policies and actions which were often reactions to events, but it also introduces the more general context of public exhibition. The other group of documents contains the film titles and prints that were produced in what is now Vietnam. Although my research presents new information in both areas, many questions require further inquiry, and for the purpose of this essay I will limit my observations to aspects of control.

It should be clear from the outset, however, that a country called Vietnam was not on the map until after WWII. The name itself is a vestige of an ancient Chinese tributary system that applied to the people of the northern Red River valley when they were subjected to Chinese domination, reinterpreted through the discourse of 20th century revolutionary politics. Throughout the 19th century, monarchs of the Nguyen Dynasty, established in 1802 on the central coast after centuries of conquest and civil war, had changed the name of their state several times before the French began the colonial occupation in stages, beginning in 1857. (Woodside 120) Not until 1887 were the five major territories of French Indochina consolidated and General Government offices established in Hanoi. Three of the territories, Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina, and their inhabitants correspond to contemporary Vietnam and appear in colonial documents and films. These were French constructs that combined political and economic domination with ethnographic research. Colonial-era filmmakers produced a body of work coinciding with the movie business there but functioning outside of its more widely known history.

The method of extracting records of colonial-era film production and reception that took place within currently recognized borders is a legitimate method of configuring a national cinema narrative when applied to postcolonial geography. Once it is assembled chronologically, the material evidence becomes an historical object, and the Vietnamese government initiated this task in the 1950s, compiling available references according to its own ideological norms. Several texts in Vietnamese, English, French and Japanese, with information on the colonial period, restate facts that first appeared in colonial and Vietnamese journals before being assembled in 1983’s Lich Su Dien Anh Cach Mang Viet Nam – So Thao (History of Vietnamese Revolutionary Cinema – A Rough Sketch). Little more was done to extend the scope of those few pages until the Lich Su Dien Anh Viet Nam Quyen 1 (History of Vietnamese Cinema Volume One) arrived in 2003, with more than 20 pages of new information on the colonial period. More recently, Panivong Norindr’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Early Cinema edited by Richard Abel (2007), and the research of Peter Bloom on the interwar film policies of colonial France have contributed additional insights. My own research, obtained from archives in France and Vietnam, comprises a catalogue raisonné of 243 films and a detailed commentary on the 2003 official government history of Vietnamese cinema. When combined with documents on the local distribution and reception of movies in the territory, an autonomous discourse of colonial cinema emerges. I suggest that this discourse and its constituent parts resist interpretation until further research articulates their contours more reliably.

Controls and Contours

Although censorship and permits first appeared near the outbreak of WWI even in France, the Vietnamese territory was subjected to film controls a priori by virtue of French political, economic and military authority. Beyond these factors the problems of availability, cost and scientific knowledge of the cinematic apparatus imposed further controls on potential Vietnamese production. Every aspect of film culture was essentially under French control until after WWII. There was no government film policy specifically banishing Vietnamese people from making films in late 1896 when Constant Girel shot his short film Coolies in Saigon, the first image of colonial Vietnam on film; but the General Government began commissioning films to propagate the colonial endeavor in 1899, thereby controlling what appeared on screens and initiating the practice of exporting images of the colonies to France. Within 12 years, trends of the growing industry in Europe would trigger enough public concern over crime movies that municipal censorship boards emerged as a new instrument of control which found its way to Vietnam through the French colonial authority. Incremental steps in legislation eventually led to restrictions on content while simultaneously upholding protections for the French corporate franchises in Vietnam. (IND GGI 60025)

Three names have been documented as film impresarios at the end of the 19th century. The first, a man named D’Arc, left no traces other than the colonial-era journals cited by the official government history published in 2003. The second, Léopold Bernard, promoted public exhibitions starting at least as early as 1898 and later became a prominent theater owner in Saigon. The third was the celebrated Lumière operator Gabriel Veyre, whose films commissioned by the colonial authorities appeared in the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. These were the people who brought cinema to Vietnam, and their ranks were joined by other French operators over the next 15 years, e.g. Rigal, Efira, Messner and others. Permission was granted for an itinerant Vietnamese projectionist named Le Van Thanh in 1921, but others may have preceded him before controls were legislated. (Hoang 8 and IND GGI 64382)

The three principal names, however, represent fields of inquiry. Archival collections of colonial journals published in French, Vietnamese quoc ngu, and Chinese contain information that will eventually illuminate much of the early cinema discourse, and the best location to find these is at the two main archives in Vietnam housing the government portions of the colonial archives that were divided among the two countries in 1954. Mr. D’Arc’s story may be joined to others for a fuller contextual picture once these sources are mined. The Lumière catalogue contains only 38 films by Gabriel Veyre, though in his journal he notes that the colonial Governor General Paul Doumer commissioned him in 1899 to shoot 500 scenes for the 1900 Paris Expo. (Jaquier 195)  Researchers claim the remaining films by Veyre, shot with two Lumière cinématographes, have been lost; but the French National Center for Cinematography (CNC) holds more than two hundred prints by Gabiel Veyre set in French Indochina. (Aubert 314 and CNC Fonds) Most of these are from Vietnam and not yet restored, although they have titles and reference data in the CNC database. In my catalogue of films, 120 entries are attributed to Veyre, and most were shot in 1900. In an indirect form of control, the vast majority of Veyre’s short films have been removed from the public record. The images selected for the Paris Expo, and those preserved for the Lumière catalogue represent a small portion of the films currently held in the national archives.

Finally, Léopold Bernard’s name appears in a police report from early 1919 composed by an inspector in Saigon with the surname Robert. Along with names Messner, Pommeraye, Jusserand, Morin, and others who were established cinema entrepreneurs at the time, Bernard had been in Saigon since the first recorded projections in 1898. There is no evidence that he knew or encountered Gabriel Veyre, although the two were active at the same time before Veyre’s departure in March 1900. Bernard, in 1919 was the Gaumont franchise owner, and Messner was an independent distributor who was his partner in a theater chain and distribution company, according to inspector Robert. Charles de la Pommeraye was their Pathé franchise competitor who orchestrated the film censorship campaign as a vehicle for his eventual collusion with the colonial government in 1923. The extent of their activities mentioned in the report indicates that the film business in Vietnam had been lucrative least ten years prior to 1919, and the report itself is an interesting form of material evidence which contributed to the government narrative on film culture in the colonial territories. Outgoing Governor General Albert Sarraut specifically requested the report to document the existing controls in Vietnam before assuming his post has Minister of the Colonies in Paris the same year. (IND GGI 64382)

Reports from every police department in Indochina documented venues of importation, distribution and exhibition, forming the basis for centralized film commissions that were instituted by law in 1921. Each investigator was advised to look for signs of political dissent and immorality when specifying the exact means and venues of film importers. The eventual censorship law for French Indochina, revised in 1922 after Pommeraye’s tenacious intervention, included a 20 percent tax on all non-French films, which essentially penalized Bernard, Messner and other distributors of diverse international content in favor of Pathé. (IND GGI 64381)

These measures coincided with Sarraut’s Mission cinématographique, celebrated in his books and speeches as a shining example of the French colonial mission civilatrice. The mission captured French Indochina on film, Vietnam in particular, to stimulate economic investment, ethnological research, and exotic tourism from France. Simultaneously, it brought the grandeur of France to movie screens in Vietnam. The cinema, in Sarraut’s rhetoric, was the greatest tool of education and indoctrination ever invented. These lofty terms notwithstanding, the mission’s direct priority in 1918, was to sell war bonds to collaborating Vietnamese mandarins and colonials. (Touzet 10) It had the advantage of shocking rural inhabitants with large-screen film projections of explicit war footage, amplified Vietnamese narration, audio effects, music, and scenes of Vietnamese boys in military barracks and trenches; thereby inspiring volunteers for the armed forces and raising an impressive 144 million French francs in bond sales. (8)

An attorney in Hanoi named André Touzet published a booklet he authored on this endeavor a few months after the Robert report, and it offers detailed information on the activities of René Tétard and Gaston Brun, the two men charged with fulfilling the mission starting in 1917. Most of the mission’s accomplishments took place in late 1918, near the war’s end. Among them were Brun’s formidable collection of films for export that he shot, processed and edited in Vietnam, and Tétard’s outdoor cinema tour through the Red River Delta and provinces near the imperial capital of Hué. (Touzet 17) The projection tour didn’t reach Saigon in the south, where cinema was born in Vietnam and where it was most vital and lucrative, as it is today.

While police inspections supported new censorship procedures, the mission controlled images of colonial Vietnam on film, establishing its aesthetics, themes, and uses as Gaumont distributed Brun’s films in edited newsreel sequences. The exportation of colonial Vietnam  on film was already a common practice since Governor General Paul Doumer commissioned Gabriel Veyre to show le Tonkin tel qu’il est in 1899; and this “fundamental principal of colonial publicity,” Touzet reminds us, would be “enforced” in other parts of the French colonial empire. (3) Rather than teaching the Vietnamese to make cameras, projectors and films, as Lumière, Pathé and Gaumont had done in Japan; the French government exported the artificial construct of Indochina and used film exhibitions to extract human and financial resources from colonial inhabitants. In this way the film culture of colonial Vietnam was characterized by control through military intervention and an elitist segregation of film content. Ironically, Government controls seeking to diminish the “nefarious” influence of cinema among the expanding Vietnamese clientele in local theaters was a fearful response to Bolshevism, nationalism and the intelligentsia at the same time it protected French business interests.

The latter was most impressively displayed in the collusion between the colonial government and Charles de la Pommeraye in 1923, when the two sides reached an agreement that eliminated risk from film production that was aimed at Vietnamese viewers. A feature film based on the Vietnamese literary treasure Truyen Kieu, for which no prints have been located, is the most notable example. The official history of Vietnamese cinema claims that Pommeraye’s company, Indochine Films et Cinémas (ICF), abandoned film production by 1927 because this and other films failed at the local box office; but reviewing the agreement itself contradicts this notion. Pommeraye most probably enjoyed a windfall when he took over the work started by Brun and Tétard because of the exorbitant rates for materials and fees that were allocated without the need for repayment. (IND GGI 60025) In addition, archival records like the Robert report indicate that ICF had competition as a film distributor, especially in the Saigon area where Chinese theaters and hotels thrived on diverse content; thus the government contract was a clear advantage to ICF and its Pathé franchise.

The 2003 official history claims that ICF monopolized all aspects of film production and exhibition in Vietnam and that no film was processed locally. Again, the ICF contract explicitly allocated funding for a complete processing laboratory and editing facility, while the first indigenous filmmaker, Nguyen Lan Huong, the owner of a photography shop, was able to purchase his own camera, film stock, chemicals and lighting equipment in 1925. The francophone intelligentsia was an embattled, heterogeneous minority at the time of ICF’s reputed monopoly. Did he make his investment as a free individual or as, perhaps, a collaborator? In any case, his camera was a 16mm Paillard Bolex, his teacher was French and his first film was reportedly a five-minute adaptation of a La Fontaine fable. French authorities granted Nguyen Lan Huong, also known as Huong Ky, unprecedented access to the shoot inside the Hué citadel for his films released in 1926. (IND GGI 64382) The elaborate funeral ceremony of the unpopular puppet monarch Khai Dinh and the coronation of his 10 year-old son Bao Dai were allegedly screened for the first time in Ha Noi in May 1926. (Hoang 21) But the ceremonies took place five months earlier, in January, and the films were screened in Paris as parts of Pathé and Gaumont newsreels that same month. (IND GGI 60021) Although none of the information on this event from the 2003 official history of Vietnamese cinema cites sources, it nonetheless reaffirms the economic, technological and linguistic controls that were interwoven into the early cinema culture of colonial territories.

A grand theme of the censorship process in Vietnam was inherited from Paris and revolved around two major points that intertwined: the “school of crime” model of detective stories that of corrupted the Vietnamese youth or converted them to Communism, and the inability of natives to distinguish between “real and fictional” characters on the screen, most importantly in the depiction of western women. These themes devolved in the mid 1920s into official correspondence that conflated race, Metropolitan female sexuality and political ideology in harsh criticisms of the “malady of cinema.” (IND GGI 64381) Meanwhile, colonials would still be able see “sensational” romantic and crime serials popularized by American Pathé’s star Pearl White and Gaumont director Louis Feuillade, among other, mostly American producers, while the number of theaters, some Vietnamese-owned, grew rapidly. Few controls of any kind, however, were exacted on Chinese theaters, until after Sun Yat Sen began co-operating with the Communists in 1924, and the film-viewing population expanded with the French promotion of clerical and military classes among the Vietnamese. The paradoxical and symbolic events surrounding the first Vietnamese productions of 1926 demonstrate the quandaries inherent in interpreting the colonial film discourse of Vietnam. (IND GGI 60024)

A Rough Sketch

The current record of film production and exhibition in Vietnam from 1896 to 1926 lacks examples of traveling projections, screening programs, the names of film distributors in the mid 1920s, Chinese film interests in Vietnam, and details on colonial government coordination with Parisian film policies. Although Gabriel Veyre had a Vietnamese assistant who helped him to shoot, process and project films, there is no record of him after Veyre’s departure. (Jaquier 214) After the Mission cinématographique was completed and Gaston Brun departed in 1919, Tétard continued to work as the leader of the newly formed Cinematography Service of the Indochinese Government. (CNC Fonds) His team members are unknown, and their activities are unclear since many of the films distributed or released in the1920s had the same titles as earlier works by Brun. (Gaumont Pathé archives)

Although the French government contract with ICF stipulates that Vietnamese filmmakers would be hired, no names appear in the contracts or official correspondence until 1926. Moreover, the collection of the Economic Agency, a body created by Albert Sarraut as a distribution brokerage and  repository for colonial propaganda films was allegedly transferred to the Fench military archives during WWII. (Boudet 44) This collection may eventually become the best articulation of the thematic, ideological and aesthetic discourse of colonial Vietnam on film, but the constant recycling and re-editing of imagery by distributors confuses the discourse further. (Nguyen 285 and Gaumont Pathé Archives)  Finally, the French film industry cooperated with Parisian authorities in developing colonial propaganda, but we know little of their specific objectives other than a puzzling array of themes, anonymous works, and controls. (Le Roy 56)

Projections, on the other hand, required visas approved by local film commissions after 1921, and many of these lists now exist in archives. There is very little documentation now available, generally, on the early years before centralized controls were enforced. Documentation of municipal film commissions in existence since 1912, however, has yet to be found, although later General Government correspondence references their actions. Though detailed reports appeared later, in the 1930s when government authorities were facing widespread rebellion, researchers have little concrete evidence of what Vietnamese spectators enjoyed seeing on movie screens during the silent era. Colonial press clichés and government correspondence claiming the natives responded mostly to cowboys, action and displays of military force should be observed with skepticism, given the conventions of the French film industry and the emerging vitality of the Shanghai producers of the 1920s. At least one Governor General expressed his desire, in 1922, to ban detective films altogether in Vietnam; demonstrating again the variance between official rhetoric and practices on the ground, since the genre grew increasingly popular in every international film market, most importantly in France. (IND GGI 60025)

The sketch provided by existing records insufficiently explains what the rapidly expanding audiences for cinema wanted in 1920s Vietnam. Granted, this was a much smaller film culture than the one concentrated in Paris, but the colonial system was hybrid: it was unified by international corporations and the French state, at the same time it was geographically, ethnically and linguistically diverse. French authorities were eager to control images of colonial Vietnam on film in France, and in the colonies; but how did local spectators react to French government films of the imperial family, which had been historically one of the most insular and hermetic monarchies in Asia, first appearing on screens, according to the official film history, in 1924? Nationalist emperors had twice been kidnapped and exiled by colonial authorities since 1902. Instances of Vietnam appearing on screens in Vietnam, vaguely cited by the 2003 official history of Vietnamese cinema, beg for clearer evidence. Did the royal family itself not own cameras since the first demonstrations of the cinematographe in 1898?

The production of Truyen Kieu, given the title Kim Van Kieu by its French producers, was patently dismissed in reviews cited by the official Vietnamese government film history from 2003, while the colonial press, even in Paris, praised the film as high cinematic art. (Hoang 14 and GGI 68423) Why would prints of such a controversial and remarkable production completely disappear from the public record?  Even CNC and the Vietnam Film Institute have no information on the film. And yet, a feature film produced by the Indochinese Government and ICF for which no Vietnamese record and no government correspondence in the colonial archives has yet been found, suddenly appeared in 2004, fully restored by CNC. (Fonds)  Sous l’œil de Boudha (Under the Eye of Buddha, 1923) has a Vietnamese hero, a Cambodian cast, and most of it takes place in Angkor Wat. Future researches would benefit from looking closely at colonial-era journals published in Vietnam, now held in Hanoi and HCM, to find clues to these and other questions. Omissions and gaps that may be the result of premeditated controls, as well as the secretive policies that brought films into existence, characterize the early film culture in Vietnam and other former colonial territories.

Selected Sources


Centre des Archives d’Outre Mer (Center of Overseas Archives, CAOM)

Fonds Locaux

Fonds du Gouvernement général de l’Indochine

IND GGI 60024

IND GGI 60025

IND GGI 60026

IND GGI 60027

IND GGI 60028

IND GGI 64381

IND GGI 64382

IND GGI 64383

Centre National de la Cinématographie. Catalogue de films restaurés par les

Archives françaises du film (CNC) sur le Vietnam, en dépôt au Vietnam

Film Institute. 2004.

______. Fonds confidentiels sur l’Indochine. 17 Mai 2004.


Aubert, Michelle et al. La production cinématographique des Frères Lumière.

Paris: CNC et al, 1995.

Banh Bao and Huu Ngoc. L’Itinéraire du film de fiction Vietnamien. Ha Noi:

Editions en langues étrangères, 1983.

______. Lich Su Dien Anh Cach Mang Viet Nam – So Thao. Eds. Pham Ngoc

Truong, Vu Quang Chinh, Ngo Manh Lan. Ha Noi: Vietnam Cinema

Department, 1983.

Bloom, Peter. “Mapping French Colonial Documentary: Mythologies, Archive,

Humanitarianism.” Unpublished manuscript. 24 May 2006.

Boudet, Paul . Bibliographie de l’Indochine francaise. Ha Noi, Imprimerie

d’Extreme-Orient, 1967.

Hoang Thanh. “Thoi so khai cua Dien anh Viet Nam.” Lich Su Dien Anh Viet

Nam Quyen 1: Tu cuoi the ky 19 den giua nam 1975. Ed. Nguyen Thi Hong Ngat, Luu Trong Hong, Le Ngoc Minh, Dinh Tiep. Ha Noi: Cuc Dien Anh Xuat Ban, 2003. 2-45.

______. “Tu Doi Co,  Mot Phan Ba The Ky.” 45 Nam:  Fafim Vietnam & Hoat

Dong Pho Bien Phim. Hanoi: Fafim, 1998.

______. “Tim nhung kien giai ve mot so van de trong lich su dien anh Vietnam.”

Tap chi dien anh ngay nay 10 (1994): 27.

Jaquier, Philippe et Marion Pranal. Gabriel Veyre, opératuer Lumière: Autour du

monde avec le Cinématographe, Correspondance (1896-1900). Arles: Institut Lumière/Actes Sud, 1996.

Koga, Futoshi. “L’introduction du Cinématographe au Japon.” L’aventure du

Cinèmatographe. 97-108.

Le Roy, Eric. “Le Fonds cinématographique colonial aux Archives du film et du

depot legal du CNC (France).” Journal of Film Preservation. 63 (2001):


Marr, David G. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial 1920-1945. Los Angeles: UCLA,


Musée Albert Kahn – Department des Hauts-de-Seine. “Vietnam .” Archives de la

Planète. 14 June 2004.

Nguyen Van Ky. La Société Vietnam ienne face à la modernité: Le Tonkin de la fin

du XIXème siècle à la seconde guerre mondiale. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1995.

Norindr, Panivong. “Representing Indochina: The French Colonial Phantasmatic

and the Exposition Internationale Coloniale de Paris.” French Cultural

Studies 6:16 (1995): 35-60.

______. “La Trace Lumière: Early Cinema and Colonial Propaganda in French

Indochina.” Le Cinématographe, nuovelle technologie du XXe siècle. Ed.

André Gaudreault, Catherine Russell and Pierre Véronneau. Lausanne:

Payot, 2004. 329 – 339.

Pelley, Patricia. Postcolonial Vietnam : New Histories of the National Past.

Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Sarraut, Albert. La Mise en Valeur des Colonies francaises. Paris: Payot, 1923.

Touzet, André. Une Œuvre de Guerre et d’Après-Guerre: La Mission

Cinématographique du Gouvernement général de l’Indochine. Hà Nội:

Imprimerie d’Extrême-Orient, 1919.

Woodside, Alexander Barton. Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative

Study of Vietnamese and Chinese Government in the First Half of the 19th

Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

~ by maximumeskimo on November 17, 2007.

One Response to “Colonial Film Controls”

  1. I am a film maker producing a feature documentary about the first cruise aboard the SS Malolo in 1929. We are in possession of four hours of vintage film taken by passengers throughout the Pacific during this historic first. We are searching for vintage film depicting an opium den and also for a house of prostitution that will correspond with a story in a passenger’s diary describing a night in Cholon while the ship was in port at Saigon. Does anyone know where I can go to find such footage? So far, the Vietnamese Consulate has not been able to help me. Is there a film archive in France that specializes in vintage films shot in colonial territory?

    Rick Helin in California, USA

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