Epicentro

The color and chaos that is Havana.

(2020) Documentary (Kino-Lorber) Leonis Arango Salas, Oona Castillo Chaplin. Directed by Hubert Saupier

 

Cuba is an island 90 miles off the Florida coast that has an inescapable pull on the American imagination. Some see it as a tropical paradise that was corrupted by communism and Castro; others see it as an island Utopia stubbornly standing up to the US and capitalism despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, their main trading partner throughout most of the second half of the 20th century.

Austrian documentary filmmaker Saupier has a tendency to go to small countries trying to chart courses in changing times and environments (as seen in such films as Darwin’s Nightmare and We Come as Friends. Here he sets his sights on Cuba, but this is no travel documentary. You won’t find Rick Steves narrating it.

This is cinema verité in its purest form; Saupier spends time with apparently random people he meets, including young schoolchildren (whom he dubs “The New Prophets” and spends the bulk of his time with), apparent sex workers and some European tourists. Through the film, we see the Cuban point of view which is, to be honest, largely shaped by anti-American propaganda (as ours is, if we’re being honest, shaped by anti-communist propaganda). They look on America’s war with Spain in 1898 not as liberation, but an invasion. Only their beloved Fidel Castro would be able to toss the invaders out with jaw firmly set and “never again” on the lips (during filming, Fidel Castro’s passing was announced on television and we see a Cuban family’s reaction).

It’s hard for me to look at Cuba with an objective eye – my father was Cuban and fled that country during the revolution. He had participated in a raid on the Presidential palace with pro-Castro forces and would have been arrested had he stayed. He was sorely, bitterly disappointed when Castro announced that Cuba would be a communist country and never forgave him for it. I look at the images here – of the tides battering the breakwater in Havana harbor with dazzling plums of spray, the crumbling apartments and streets, the color and warmth of its people – perhaps all of these things are cliché images of Cuba but apparently, they are valid.

Saupier opines that Cuba was at the epicenter of three elements of America’s colonial aspirations; the slave trade, colonization and globalization of power. It was the first place in the world that the American flag was raised outside of our nation. We see abandoned sugar processing mills which once supplied Coca-Cola, and Chryslers and Cadillacs from the 1950s that are still running nearly 70 years later despite a lack of access to replacement parts.

Some are going to listen to the children and some adults making extremely anti-American remarks and will think that this is also the viewpoint of the film. I honestly don’t think so; these kids have been indoctrinated. All people are to a certain extent; we see Cuba through a certain lens just as they see us through a certain lens. That lens is rarely reality on both sides; we see things that fit our point of view. One of us sees a communist country falling apart; another sees American imperialism in action. Neither side is completely wrong.

Saupier doesn’t really comment on anything but lets people say their peace. The problem was that is that it doesn’t make for cohesive filmmaking; this is more dream-like, or more to the point, a hyper-reality but not necessarily your own reality.  And still the waves crash into the breakwater, inexorable. All countries are battered by time, even our own, even Cuba. Wax and wane, that is the fate of nations. Cuba is no different, and as we see her at a crossroads – where tourism seems an easy way out but not one necessarily embraced by its people – one wonders what must surely come to the face of this beautiful island that once fancied itself a Utopia – and maybe still does.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some beautiful and powerful images here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some might find it anti-American, although it’s not.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The destruction of the USS Maine which precipitated the 1898 Spanish-American War is still debated today. While most scholars agree the cause of the explosion was a fire in the coal room, there are those who believe it was set deliberately in order to get the United States into a war against Spain.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cuba and the Cameraman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Jazz on a Summer’s Day

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