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Estela Bravo's Documentary FIDEL (2001) - Reviewed by Joanne Bealy (2001)
Over the course of the last 40 years, the CIA has tried to murder Fidel Castro with such frat boy antics as exploding cigars, poison pens, and arsenic-laced milkshakes.
Jesse Helms, North Carolina’s controversial, right-wing senator and co-sponsor of the Helms-Burton law that codified the U.S. embargo against Cuba, told Congress he didn’t care whether Fidel Castro left Cuba vertically or horizontally. “Let me be clear,” he shouted, “he will leave.”
With Helms retiring early in 2003 and Castro still unvanquished, it seems Jesse spoke prematurely. But what is this psychotic obsession the United States has with Fidel Castro? And why do we insist on demonizing the man hailed elsewhere as hero?
Estela Bravo’s new film puts it all in perspective. Born in New York nearly 70 years ago and resident of Cuba since 1963, Bravo is a self-taught director of 30 documentary films, many about Cuba. Her latest film, Fidel, was commissioned by Channel 4 in Britain, won the Distinguished Achievement for Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking from the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York, and played the Toronto International Film Festival to sold-out crowds despite the fact that it opened three days after the September 11 attack on New York and Washington. It has played in arthouses and repertory cinemas throughout the U.S.
After previewing the film, I have only one piece of advice: see it. Really. It makes no difference whether you’re for or against Castro, Estela Bravo presents us with a piece of history that we owe it to ourselves to see. Fidel is the definitive word to date on Castro.
“I would call this the untold story,” Bravo said in a recent telephone interview from New York. “As a close observer of the revolution and the man, I knew it was necessary to tell the story, especially given what’s being said in the United States.”
Fidel covers 40 years of the Cuban revolution and is unprecedented in providing its viewers with an understanding of Cuba and its leader. Ms. Bravo uses exclusive archival footage and a remarkable mix of interviews with Fidel. She includes such luminaries as Harry Belafonte, Aleida Guevera (Che’s daughter), Alice Walker, Ramsey Clark, Sydney Pollack, Angela Davis and longtime friend of Castro, Nobel Prize-winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. We hear from journalists, both in Miami and Cuba, guerrillas who fought in the revolution, politicians, writers, musicians, scientists, old teachers, family and friends. There are priceless and touching exchanges between Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. Alice Walker, as only Alice Walker can, talks about her great admiration for the man then breaks off, puzzling over the fact that she’s heard he can’t dance.
Philip Agee, former CIA agent, lends credence to the often summarily dismissed assassination stories. They began, according to Agee, with the most renowned of those attempts, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in which President John F. Kennedy sent 1,400 Cuban expatriates onto Cuba’s shores. When Castro squelched the attack within 72 hours, what had been an overt war against the country became a covert war against Fidel.
Nobody seems to know exactly how many attempts have been made on Castro’s life, but they include such ignominies as contaminated regulators in diving suits, shoes filled with thalium salts, exploding conch shells, and the old standby, telescopic rifles.
Castro himself seems to take it all in stride. In response to a reporter’s question about the rumored bulletproof vest he always wears, Fidel unbuttoned his shirt to show nothing but a bare chest underneath. “I have a moral vest,” he proclaimed. “It is that which protects me.”
While Fidel offers an unsurpassed look at Castro and the aftermath of the revolution, you might want to also check out Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba) to really understand what it was like before the revolution and how far Cuba has come since. Directed by Russian filmmaker Mikheil Kalatozishvili, Soy Cuba provides a sense of pre-revolution Cuba under the regime of Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in a brutal 1952 U.S.-backed military coup. Wayne Smith, former head of the U.S. interests section in Cuba, estimates that 20,000 people were murdered during the Batista dictatorship.
Corruption, prostitution, and racism flourished. Large American corporations grew rich off Cuba’s resources, as did Batista himself, while the majority of Cubans remained in abject poverty. Harry Belafonte, who was playing Mafia-run jazz clubs in Havana at the time, told Ms. Bravo, “I knew Cuba before Fidel Castro. I did not see democracy in Cuba. If anything, I saw blatant racism and oppression.”
The Castro-led attack on the Moncada Garrison in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953 was the beginning of a six-year armed struggle against Batista. By the time Fidel and his troops marched victorious into a wildly cheering Havana in January of 1959, Batista and his cohorts had already fled the coop.
The first priority of the revolution became the redistribution of land under the Agrarian Reform Act. Not far behind were universal health care, education, housing, and road building, all of which were against the interests of big U.S. companies. The final straw, as far as the United States was concerned, occurred when Cuba ordered foreign refineries to refine Soviet crude oil. When the United States refused to do so, the Cuban government nationalized the refineries. When the United States retaliated by cutting off the Cuban sugar quota, Cuba retaliated by nationalizing all U.S. properties in Cuba. In October 1960, the United States imposed the now 41-year-old embargo. Tit for tat would seem to be an understatement.
Yet here we are, nearly half a century after the revolution began, and the little country that could, did. Detractors insist that the massive demonstrations of support from the Cuban people are “staged” by Fidel. But as Compay Segundo, of the Buena Vista Social Club, says in Fidel, “The people love him. If they stop caring for him, they’ll topple him. But until they do, he’s in.”
There is clearly a side to Fidel that Americans have not been privy to. Until now at least. The Fidel Cubans know and love is the Fidel who traded captured exiles for baby food and medicine; who “nearly wrecked an important expedition” because he refused to leave one of their men who had fallen overboard; who ignores his security to talk to people on the street; who waited until Elián Gonzales, the boy rescued at sea and held by relatives in Miami against his father’s wishes, had finished the first grade before meeting him so as not to disrupt his return to a normal life.
Besides, it’s hard to imagine that Fidel’s supposed ability to manipulate throngs of support would extend to other countries where he is habitually greeted by vast crowds chanting, drumming, and singing in his honour. Angela Davis aptly notes, “Fidel is the leader of one of the smallest countries in the world, but he has helped to shape the destinies of millions of people across the globe”. Historian Leal Eusebio agrees. “During this time,” he says, “[Fidel] has made Cuba the critical conscience of Latin America.”
African Americans also, by and large, hold Fidel Castro in esteem. Fidel was the first, and probably only, visiting head of state to stay in Harlem. In a story that has now taken on mythic qualities, Castro, while in New York for the 1960 opening session of the United Nations, was turned away from the Hotel Shelburne because of concern about “adverse publicity.” The black owner of Harlem’s Hotel Theresa invited Castro, along with his entire delegation, to lodge with them, free of charge. Castro accepted and the black community has never forgotten him.
The beauty of Estela Bravo’s film is the simplicity in which the history and politics of Cuba are laid out, despite Bravo’s insistence that Fidel is the story of the man, not of his political beliefs. But it is impossible to talk about Castro without engaging in a discussion of politics. He has devoted his life to politics. That is his story.
Is Cuba perfect? No, of course not, though that may not be so obvious in the viewing of Fidel. Homosexuality, for example, was considered counterrevolutionary and therefore subject to imprisonment and forced labor. It wasn’t until 1988 that the Public Ostentation Law, which was enacted in the 1930s explicitly to encourage the harassment of gays, was finally repealed.
While Fidel never mentions the plight of homosexuals in Cuba, there are at least two other films that do. Sonja De Vries’ excellent 1995 film, Gay Cuba, pays tribute to the process that Cuba has undergone in dealing with its societal homophobia. The San Francisco filmmaker interviews lesbians and gay men, government officials, and average citizens to gain a better understanding of the status of gays and lesbians in Cuba today. The 1993 film Strawberries and Chocolate, directed by Tomas Guttierez and based on a short story by Cuban author Senel Paz about the friendship between a gay man and a homophobic young Communist party member, is an excellent document to the bigotry that existed in Cuba. Remarkably, Strawberries and Chocolate is widely credited with changing negative perceptions of gays in Cuba, testament to the esteem in which Cubans hold film, documentaries in particular. Bottom line, while homophobia still exists in Cuba, things are changing. The National Centre for Sex Education, for example, leads workshops around the country to try to eradicate homophobic attitudes.
These days the thorn in Fidel’s side when it comes to human rights is, no doubt, the continuing harassment of Cuba’s dissidents. According to the Human Rights Watch report in 2000, Cuba routinely imprisoned and/or harassed “peaceful opponents of the government.” What they don’t mention is that the United States, thanks in part to Helms-Burton, has channeled millions of dollars in aid to those same dissidents in hopes of destroying the revolution. It is hardly a level playing field when fighting those kinds of odds. While Human Rights Watch played down Cuba’s claim that any curtailing of speech was necessary to protect state security, Estela Bravo, in Fidel, tells a different story.
Luis Ortega, a Cuban writer living in Miami, raises the issue of a tiny country bullied by a much larger one just waiting for the opportunity to oust its leader. “Freedom of speech and having several political parties are tricky things when your country is constantly harassed by a neighbor 90 miles away. The situation is a defense mechanism of the Cuban people and government,” he says. “All the mass media in Miami have for years fed the people a steady diet of lies about Cuba.”
And while Cuba has made huge strides in terms of human rights, Castro will not support anything counter to the revolution. He has already said his life would be a small price to pay for the lifting of the embargo, “but I won’t sacrifice the Revolution, socialism, or our principles.”
Indeed, Fidel Castro has shown the world’s marginalized what is possible. Even in the United States, where the government forbids its citizens to visit Cuba except under the most stringent regulations, a large segment of the population now believes the stance of the American government towards Cuba is wrong. Thanks in part to Elián Gonzalez, the public has begun to see that it is in fact a very small group of Cuban-Americans in Miami who have somehow managed to garner the attention of America’s leaders. And it’s starting to make a difference. Support for the embargo is crumbling in Congress, the sale of agricultural products is now allowed – albeit on a cash only basis – and the first shipment of name-brand food arrived there in late 2002.
It is a difficult line Castro is trying to walk. His is a tiny country with great ideals and an immediate challenge to attract new business without falling prey to capitalism and corruption. His supporters believe that if anybody can do it, Fidel Castro can.
While I would have liked Ms. Bravo to address more directly some of the complaints laid against Castro, I’m not really complaining. She has gone far in bridging what has been seen as an insurmountable swamp of differences between the United States and Cuba. She has artfully woven a portrait of one of the most interesting men alive today. And through her skill as a documentarian, she has rendered one of the most complicated situations of our time accessible. Fidel injects a sense of hope and understanding into its audience, just as Mr. Castro himself has managed to repeatedly inject hope into the people of Cuba. Now a pinhole of light is visible at the end of what has been a very long tunnel of struggle.
[Joanne Bealy lives on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. Her essays and poetry have appeared in various papers and journals including the East Bay Express ("Hollywood, Race, and the State of Denial"), San Francisco Bay Guardian (on Haiku), Pandora, AnteUp, New Works in Review, and New Voices in Poetry and Prose. A chapbook of her poetry, Crooked Love, was published in the spring of 1999. Her latest book, At the Mercy of Gravity, was published in the spring of 2003 by Dancing Crow Press.]
Estela Bravo's Fidel and three other films listed below can all be viewed on YouTube.
Saul Landau's FIDEL! (1971)
A personal portrait of a political phenomenon and a view of the developments since the revolution a mere ten years before, Fidel! gives a rare glimpse into everyday life of the Cuban people and its leader. Whether listening to complaints at a collective farm, playing baseball with the locals, or discussing Marxist revolution, Castro's charisma is present in every frame and lends understanding to why so many call him The Giant. "The great quality of this remarkable film is that it is educational in the best possible sense. It gives you a feeling for what revolution - any revolution - is actually about... I found it completely absorbing from the start to finish. A tapestry for history." - Ralph Gleason, Rolling Stone.
Oliver Stone's Commandante (2003)
Back in 2002, Oliver Stone and his film crew flew to Cuba for three days and visited Fidel Castro for his documentary Comandante. Stone’s doc, partly produced by HBO, premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and was planned for broadcast on the cable network. Unfortunately, two weeks before it was supposed to air, the film was pulled after the execution of three hijackers of a ferry to the US and imprisoned more than 70 political dissidents.
“I was heartbroken,” Stone told the New York Times at the time. Comandante was never theatrically released in the states but Stone created two other documentaries about the Cuban President, “Looking for Fidel” (2003) and “Castro in Winter” (2012), which chronicles Castro’s deteriorating heath and position in Cuba. All these films can be viewed on YouTube.
(Notes on Commandante from Indiewire.)
Dollan Cannell's The 638 Ways to Kill Castro (2007)
638 Ways to Kill Castro is a documentary film which tells the story of some of the numerous attempts to kill Cuba's leader Fidel Castro. The film reveals multiple methods of assassination, from exploding cigars to femme fatales; a radio station rigged with noxious gas to a poison syringe posing as an innocuous ballpoint pen. Fabian Escalante, the former head of Cuban Intelligence, the man who has had the job of protecting Castro for many of the 48 years he has been in power, alleges that there were over 600 plots and conspiracies known to Cuban agents.
See the official trailer for this film on last week's Portside Friday Nite Videos.