Che (2008)

Kate Devlin
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Benicio Del Toro as Che

Map of Cuba from the opening

This film covers the career of the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. This film is not directed in a standard chronological style but , in the words of Wikipedia, “an oblique series of interspersed moments along the overall timeline”. The film is somewhat impressionistic and although anyone can enjoy this film as a “revolutionary action film” it does require at least some knowledge of the life of Che Guevara and the events of the Cuban Revolution to fully understand what is going on.

The film has its origins in a screenplay written by the film maker Terence Malik about Che’s attempt to start a revolution in Bolivia. Due to financing problem’s Mali’s proposed film fell though and Soderbergh agreed to take over the project. In taking on the making of a film about Che Soderbergh felt that it was important to provide the context of the Cuban Revolution and the events leading up to Che’s eventual departure from Cuba. Steven Soderbergh has been known as a film maker with leftist sympathies but he has not been regarded as a leftist or highly political film maker. He has been more commonly known as the director films such as the Ocean’s Eleven remake and Erin Brokovich although he has also directed more unconventional films such as Sex, Lies, and Videotapes. According a review in to Rajesh Ginraajan’s blog “Scorp Says So” the film could be seen as a complex collaboration between Malik, the actor Dell Toro (who was heavily influenced by Jon Lee Anderson’s 1997 Che biography “Che Guevara, A Revolutionary Life” but who is said to have read “every possible book on Che”), Soderbergh, and the screenwriter Peter Buchman, who has had a longtime interest in historical biography.

The film is four and a half hours long. It is deeply engrossing, even without an extensive knowledge of the historic subject, and is definitely worth the the greater investment of time.

Che has two parts. The first part, “The Argentine”, covers Fidel and Che’s early friendship and the events of the Cuban Revolution. We see Che and Fidel meeting at in Mexico City in 1955 and their discussions within the international Latin American leftist mileu. Che joins the July 26th Movement to liberate Cuba and we see him aboard the Gramna in his guerilla invasion of Cuba in 1956.

There is an extended section with Che fighting and in the jungle region of the Sierra Maestra Mountains.  He has periodic meetings with Fidel Castro and there seems to be increasing tension between the two men. This isn’t made apparent in the film but this was the period when their was increasing tension between the middle class oriented July 26th movement and allied movements, which merely wanted to overthrow Batista, and Che and other radicals who saw the need for a deeper anti-capitalist and nationalist revolution. Che is shown as a very able and well liked commander but a somewhat harsh disciplinarian. There is a scene where he personally execution executes a guerilla army guide who admits to betraying the guerilla’s position for a large financial reward. Che is also shown as a voracious reader, devouring texts on history and political theory. He teaches literature and history to his troops and works to raise their cultural level.

Che instructing fighters

Later in the first half of the film as the Cuban rebels enter the cities there are dramatic but very realistic scenes of Che and a female friend fighting urban guerilla warfare in  the Battle of Santa Clara.

A leading commanders of Batista’s army, turns against Batista offers to surrender his army to the rebels in return for allowing his army to remain intact. This offer is turned down by the rebels.

The second part of the film is “The Guerilla”. The film technique of the second half is much different than that of the first. The music score is different and the film ratio is much smaller, leading to a more tense, “claustrophobic” feeling. The second part  covers Che’s role in early revolutionary Cuba and subsequent career as a revolutionary outside of Cuba. Che  holds trials of the most hated and repressive members of the former Batista regime. Che becomes one of leaders of Cuba’s economic transition from capitalism to socialism and is appointed director of the Bank of Cuba. Amid greatly escalating tensions between Cuba and the US Che looks forward to meeting the visiting Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev but this is nixed by Castro. Che appears to become increasingly frustrated at his role in Cuba although the background to this is not explored in the film.

An early highpoint in this second section of the film is Che’s famous “Address to The Tricontinental” speech in 1966 before the UN in New York. This speech blasts Western and US imperialism,and the internal oppression and hypocracy of the US, to the wild applause of many delegates. This is the speech where Che publicly explained his “focii” theory of revolution for the first time and predicted “one, two, many Vietnams” to oppose imperialism. This scene is interspersed with interviews Che gave, including the one where he famously said, “At the risk of sounding ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of love.”

Around this time Che became increasingly critical of both what he saw the Soviet Union and the “Eastern Bloc’s failure to aid and solidarize with Third World struggles and increasingly upset about the bureaucratization of the Cuban Revolution. This is strongly hinted at in the film but does not seem to be fully explored. In a 1966 speech in Algeria Che called for Third world solidarity and criticized the Soviet Union. In critizing Cuba’s major ally, and growing bureaucratic tendencies within the Cuban Revolution, Che’s position was in Cuba was made untenable and  some Marxist historians today feel Che reached a political point point where his departure from Cuba was almost inevitable.

In 1966 Che leaves Cuba. There is a moving but again very realistic farewell scene with his second wife. Che and some assistants are able to expertly disguise Che as his father, whom with makeup he strongly resembled.

Che spends some time in Congo. After the assassination of that country’s leftist leader, Patrice Lumumba the country had fallen into civil war and anarchy. Che and one hundred men come to fight with Laurent-Desire Kabila, the leader of the ousted Lumumbuist forces.. Che is quickly disgusted by Kabila,  whom he sees as “not the man of the hour” and a person more concerned with drinking and sex instead of revolutionary warfare  and whose forces lack  any  discipline and are pervaded with  corruption. Che briefly returns to Cuba in secret.

Che and other J26M revolutionaries

Che next goes to Bolivia. His Bolivian period covers much of the second part of the film. He leads a small group of mostly Cuban revolutionaries, hoping to spark a peasant uprising. His movement gets little support from the largely apathetic peasantry. There is some support from a peasant family and others when Che and his band are able to proof they “are for real”. They provide medical care for family’s sick daughter and provide some hope of the possibility of a better future. Oppression, intimidation, and tradition mistrust of outsiders inhibit any significant collaboration among the Bolivian peasantry however. There is a scene where an attempt at urban guerilla warfare in a medium sized of indigenous people fails because of the lack of support from the local population. There is another interesting scene in Cuba where Fidel Castro is worried over the amount of aid  the Bolivian Communists are ready to provide his friend.

The film follows the inevitable grinding down of Che’s guerrilla movement. There is an interesting scene where the French journalist Regis Debray, then a leftist hero and friend of Che and a participant in Che’s attempt to foster a Bolivian revolution, and other sympathetic foreigners, take their leave and return home. Che, an asthmatic, loses his asthma medication and is increasingly handicapped by severe asthma attacks. There are vivid scenes where the CIA laison officer Felix Rodriguez is literally telling his Bolivian army allies how to contain Che’s revolution and how to capture him.

The guerilla army is split in two. One group, with the German-Argentine revolutionary Tamara Bunke, “Tania” is pursued into a trap by Bolivian Army pursuers.

After a shootout, Che himself is captured. He expects to be killed right away. Instead hos Bolivian captors chain him to a wall and brutally interrogate him. Despite this continues to try to discuss Bolivia’s political situation and seems to be attempting to gain the friendship of one of his guards.

Finally Che is shot by a guard Mario Teran,who appears to be a brutal sociopath. He appears to have won the opportunity to kill Che after picking strawsand is promised an extra alcohol ration in return.

This film is quite memorable and is well recommended. While it can better be enjoyed with a knowledge and understanding of the historical contexts of the periods in Che’s life, the film can also elicit such an interest. Almost every scene in the film can be a starting point for  much discussion and debate among those interested in alternative’s to capitalism today. Where Che’s tactics correct for their situation? What is the nature of the Cuban Revolution and where is it going? This film provides the important role of acting as a springboard for people today looking for alternatives to savage neo-liberal austerity.
The realistic film style, a welcome antidote to most current Hollywood productions, creates a feeling of credibility. Che Guevara is shown as fully human and his goals and motives are understandable. The role of the CIA in tracking and killing Che elicits outrage. His killing, by  (interestingly) creates a feeling of “open ended closure”, telling us, in effect, that Che’s life in definitively over but his overall project, the goal of liberating humanity, is now up to us, a new generation.

In an ironic afterward the man who killed Che, Mario Teran, was treated fore a disease causing blindness by Cuban doctors in 2007, forty years later.

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Maestra (2010)

The Cuban literacy campaign began 51 years ago this month.  This was an important moment for the Cuban revolution that would help set Cuba apart from the rest of the Caribbean.  This is a review of a documentary about that campaign.

The following is re-posted with the permission from the author and originally appeared here

Freedom Through a Pencil: The 1961 Literacy Campaign in Cuba

by Sujatha Fernandes

The high rate of literacy in Cuba is one of the proud and much touted accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution. Beginning half a century ago, in 1961, the literacy campaign mobilized more than 1 million Cubans as teachers or students. In that same year, 707,000 Cubans learned how to read or write. Maestra tells the story of that inspiring campaign through the memories of the women who served as literacy teachers—the maestras themselves.

The filmmaker, Catherine Murphy, lived in Cuba in the 1990s and earned a master’s degree at the University of Havana. She is the founder and director of a multimedia project known as the Literacy Project, which focuses on gathering oral histories of volunteer teachers from the literacy campaign. For Maestra, the first documentary to arise from the project, she interviewed more than 50 women and 13 men who were involved in the campaign. Many of them are now in their seventies. She also carried out five years of research in the Cuban national film archives.

Documentary footage shows the energy and enthusiasm of the young women who traveled on trains into the small towns and countryside of Cuba to live among the people and teach them how to read and write. But the challenges they faced were extreme. These women often faced opposition from their families, and many left against their parents’ wishes. They lived with poor rural families, sleeping in hammocks at night. During the day they would work in the fields alongside the peasants, and in the few hours they had in the evening, they would prepare lessons and conduct classes.

The hardships and poverty they encountered were not always conducive to learning how to read and write. Literacy teacher Diana Balboa recounts the story of a 47-year-old palm tree cutter: “His hands were swollen and deformed by such a violent job. He was unable to hold a pencil. I helped him hold the pencil but it fell out of his hands.” The man learned to read a bit, but he was never able to write.

In the midst of the literacy campaign, Cuban exiles launched the CIA-supported Bay of Pigs invasion. Although it was discovered and thwarted by the Cuban armed forces, escaped mercenaries combed the countryside, harassing the peasants and their literacy teachers.

In a country where the urban and rural poor had long been denied access to education, literacy was empowerment. For the counter-revolutionaries who wanted to see Cuba return to the status quo, teaching literacy to the poor was an affront to the class order. One teacher recounts the threats to her host family from gunmen who pounded on their door, demanding, “Bring out the literacy teachers!” But this family, like others across the country, put their lives on the line to protect the teachers. Sadly, they were not always able to escape these threats, and one teacher, Manuel Ascunce, was killed by insurgents.

As the literacy teachers recount, the campaign broke taboos, particularly around gender. Young women in general were subject to the norms of patriarchy. They were not expected to excel at their studies. They were confined to the house, and their futures were limited to what their parents decided for them. Being part of the literacy campaign helped these young women break away from parental constraints. For Norma Guillard, going on the campaign at the age of 15 was an adventure. It was her first time away from home, and it gave her a feeling of freedom and independence.

The film shows how the literacy campaign not only promoted literacy, but also profoundly changed the lives of the maestras themselves. Upon returning from the campaign, they were given scholarships to continue their studies. Guillard signed up immediately. As she recounts, “I had become used to moving around and being independent.” She eventually trained as a psychologist. Another maestra became a mathematics teacher. These professions were rare for women in the pre-revolutionary order.

In the documentary, we are reminded of the major milestone that Cuba achieved in such a short time. One of the most touching moments is the footage of a man who writes his name on a blackboard in slow, deliberate cursive strokes while a teacher watches from the side. When he finishes he stands in front of his completed name: Pablo Benitez. He has a quiet, proud smile on his face.

The literacy campaign is vitally important to revisit today, given the global challenges of illiteracy. We often think of illiteracy, particularly in Western nations, as a problem eradicated years ago, along with smallpox. But according to UNESCO, about 1 billion people—or 26% of the world’s adult population—remain non-literate. While developing countries have the highest rates of illiteracy, Western developed nations also have surprisingly high rates. A study carried out in 1998 by the National Institute for Literacy estimated that 47% of adults in Detroit and 36% in New York City were Level 1 readers and writers, meaning that they “could perform many tasks involving simple texts and documents,” such as signing their names or totaling a bank deposit entry, but could not read well enough to, “fill out an application, read a food label, or read a simple story to a child.”

Maestra is a compelling and beautifully filmed reconstruction of one of the most significant campaigns in Cuba’s history. Fifty years on, the film clearly demonstrates the impact that it had on the lives of all those who took part.

¡Vampiros en La Habana! (1985)

Director: Juan Padrón
English Title: Vampires in Havana

Vampires in Havana is an animated film released in Cuba in the mid 1980s. The film is about a vampire (related to Count Dracula himself) who invented a potion that can allow vampires to walk around in the daytime. It takes place in Havana, Cuba in the environment of a growing rebel movement against the dictator “General Machado” (who clearly represents Batista in the film). The main character is part of this revolutionary movement when he later discovers that he is a vampire, and then becomes caught up in a struggle between Chicago “Mobster vampires” and wealthy European vampires.

European Vampire

The plot beings to focus on the formula and the battle to get the formula by the different vampire sects. Von Dracula in the film wanted the formula to be given for free to the world, while the Chicago “mobsters” wanted it destroyed (because it would harm their real estate plans) and the Europeans wanted to make a profit. The idea of giving it to the world for free could be seen as an analogy for how medicine ought to be from a Cuban perspective in this film: instead of major companies trying to make a profit off of drugs that people need, health should be socialized. And in this film, those who want to make that profit are essentially portrayed as mob bosses. (Granted that portrayal is just as much a commentary on pre-revolutionary Cuba, but the analogy to medicine should be seen as a valid one as well).

The end of the film reveals that the main character (the son of the nephew of Dracula) does not even like blood.  Thus after a lifetime of using the formula, he essentially ceases to be a vampire or at least a long time of taking that formula makes him significantly less of a vampire.  Karl Marx often compared capitalists to vampires, and it’s certainly possible that the write of this film was also trying to make a statement that linked vampires to a regressive force in society.  Whether the writer intended that or not, the film does have certain messages that are not seen in the average animated film in a country like the United States.

Documentary a Day: Chevolution (2008)

Directors: Luis Lopez, Trisha Ziff

Chevolution is a documentary about the most reproduced image in the history of photography: the Guerrillero Heroico image taken by Korda (and is one of three about the image)  The film is an in depth look at the origins of the iconic  photo and of Che himself.  The image is contextualized from the event that it was taken all the way to the broader discourse on its subsequent commercialization (for example there are a republican and a libertarian wearing Che shirts to “demonstrate how the shirts are made possible by capitalism).

The image was not initially even printed in Cuban news papers, but was first widely circulated by Feltrinelli and later made into a more pop-art style by Fitzpatrick.  Its mass appearance coincided with events like May 68′ amongst other uprisings that were going on in the time around the world.

There are some problems with the documentary, for example there is a long segment about how people don’t realize the “violent nature” of Che, or how his ideas lead to a “totalitarian dogmatic state” without an adequate counter-argument by people who appear in the documentary who clearly sympathize with Che.  Those more sympathetic with the potential of Che are more portrayed as idealists instead of Marxists, although perhaps that is implied by their sympathies.

The co-optation of rebellion, a popular topic amongst the more cultural Leftist theory, is dealt with throughout the film (even with a reference to Marcuse).  The interesting thing here is that the “culture industry” theories of the Frankfurt school seem to apply even to the Leftist reproduction of Che’s image.  What I mean by that is that the original mass production of the famous image were almost the reverse of the co-optation  that we subsequently saw with the commercialization of Che’s image.

The film does an excellent job at examining the origins and meaning of the image from various different perspectives, and takes it very seriously.

Documentary a Day: Cuba! Africa! Revolution! (2007)

Director: Jihan El Tahri’

Also known as “Cuba, an African Odyssey”

This documentary offers an excellent account of Cuban involvement in Africa.  The documentary accounts for a long period in this “Chapter of Cold War history” (thus is too much to sum up in one post here).  The documentary is in two parts and covers the time from when Che first went to Africa to help with the conflict in the Congo all the way until the fall of Apartheid.

(Image from Wikipedia)

The documentary also does an excellent job at contextualizing Cuba’s involvement as an anti-imperialist endeavor.  It is very sympathetic and honest about the fact that Cuba was instrumental in ending colonialism in Africa (especially via Cuba’s invovlement in Angola) .  It’s hard to explore this topic and not come to the conclusion that Cuba’s involvement in Africa was anything but liberating to the people of Africa.

The most interesting thing about the documentary is its account for the relationship between the USSR and Cuba in the context of involvement in Africa.  The documentary portrays the USSR as not really wanting to get too involved in Africa for various diplomatic reasons, yet Cuba was the driving force here.  Cuba was acting independently and even trying to use its relationship with the USSR to help liberate Africa from colonialism by playing cold war politics very intelligently.  This certainly dispells the myth of “all allies of the USSR just took dictates from Moscow” as Cuba, in this case, was the real driving force.

I highly recommend this documentary to those interested in Cuba and anti-imperialist struggles in general.

Further Reading:

Africans call for BBC to screen “Cuba! Africa! Revolution!”

(Edit: the original publishing of this I was under the impression that this was a BBC documentary, which it is not.  I have edited the post to reflect this)