On June 6, 1972 moments after the South Vietnamese Air force dropped Napalm on a rural village near Saigon, a Vietnamese photographer took a photo that changed the world. As Nick Ut, an Associated Press stringer snapped shots of villagers sprinting from the carnage; the sight of a disorientated naked child screaming “too hot, too hot” puzzled him. “Why isn’t she wearing clothes he thought in a surreal moment before realising that her clothes had been burnt from her body.
Ut stopped shooting and ran for water. He rushed young Thi Kim Phuc to the local hospital. Then using his AP credentials, he then brought her to an American medical facility, a move that likely saved her life.
“The Vietnam Girl” became an iconic image of the Vietnam War, and has been cited as a moment that finally cemented public opinion against the South East Asian conflict. The war ended the following year.
There is no doubt that artistic images have the potential to change minds and soften hearts, even arguably end conflict, but can art stop war from starting in the first place?
American/Australian artist, William Kelly asks this question to more than 30 prominent international artists, activists and thinkers such as: Martin Sheen, Nick Ut, A.C.Grayling and Dr Rama Mani in director Mark Street’s new film “Can Art Stop a Bullet? William Kelly’s Big Picture”
The 90-minute documentary feature was filmed over three years on five continents and features an eclectic variety of voices. Kelly speaks to US high school students, agitating for an end to gun violence, a former IRA volunteer who has found a path to reconciliation through sculpting, Indigenous Australian artists defining their identity in modern Australia, Holocaust and Hiroshima survivors who have found meaning through art and a Hollywood actor’s rebuttal to those who say that actors and artists should stay out of politics.
Given its ambitious premise, the project could have easily lost focus as it delves into a labyrinth of issues, but with focussed directorial choices and skilful editing, the story weaves a coherent narrative that leaves viewers feeling informed and moved.
Bill Kelly is a quiet man who has explored the idea of violence and peace through his art for most of his life. Born into blue collar Buffalo, upstate New York, he found his voice in the tumultuous cultural zeitgeist of 1960s USA, where he drew from the energy of his peers; people like Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda and Father Daniel Berrigan.
He has an aversion to injustice that has only grown over the years, culminating in his monumental work for the Victorian State Library in Melbourne Australia; an enormous tapestry that supports ‘bridge building’ and is comprised of the names of those whose lives and works have influenced him – from Picasso, Kathe Kollwitz, and Kurt Vonnegut to Neil Young and Midnight Oil.
Street’s film follows Kelly’s global odyssey in what feels like both a return to the artist’s youthful quest for justice and a passing of the baton to a new generation of artists and activists asking similar questions.
In a world suffering from protest-fatigue is this really the time for another anti-war activist movie?
Can Art Stop a bullet? is different – it doesn’t lecture us. Kelly’s message is simple; violence is impulsive, whereas art is reflective. Art forces us to contemplate and a contemplative mind rarely chooses violence.
Terry Cantwell 2020
Can art Stop a Bullet is currently screening at selected cinemas across Australia. Check here for venues and dates