“The true revolutionary is guided by feelings of love.”

The Lost City

This movie actually had less to do with Che than I thought. Che was a supporting character who really only made a few appearances. Still, the film is a commentary on the movement and the methods that Che stood for so I think it is still appropriate.

The Lost City follows Fico, a nightclub owner in Havana, and his family as Fulgencio Batista’s government is replaced by Fidel Castro’s. Fico and his father believe in freedom, but their approach is democratic, unlike Che’s. “If we are to change the status quo, we must go about it in a democratic way,” Fico’s father says. This immediately alerts the audience to the film’s anti-Che stance. Fico’s brothers, however, join the revolution – one dies in the aftermath of a failed attempt on Batista’s life, and the other survives to become a member of Che’s army only to ultimately commit suicide.

In one of Che’s first scenes, he states his MO: “In an insurrection, the end justifies the means.” Throughout the film, he follows this mantra as he kills without discretion. When Fico learns that his friend has been shot by Che’s forces, Che is remorseless and unapologetic. The image of Che as a revolutionary is only perpetuated by Fico’s brother Ricardo, who is himself portrayed as misguided and immature. Otherwise, Che is portrayed by the film as a ruthless killer.

By condemning Che, the film resists the tendency to recirculate the dominant narrative. Why does The Lost City choose this perspective? One possible reason is that director and star Andy García lived in Cuba under Castro until the age of five, when his family moved to the US after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. García and his family felt the negative effects of the Castro regime directly, so it makes sense that García would be less sympathetic to the idealistic, abstract vision of Che as a revolutionary than to the more concrete and immediate vision of him as a killer.

So why didn’t this alternate narrative effectively challenge the dominant one? Why didn’t Che supporters see this film and change their minds? There are several possibilities. The first is that, despite the obvious commentary being made, Che is not the focus of the film. The point of the movie is that Fidel Castro’s government is oppressive and violent, which we all already know. We get the point, so why read further into it? Another possible reason is that the movie was, for lack of a better word, a flop. It received generally poor reviews from critics and never became a blockbuster hit. Because it wasn’t considered a great film, it didn’t reach a wide enough audience to have any real impact.

 

Chevolution

The documentary Chevolution explores the iconography of the famous photograph of Che taken by photographer Alberto Korda in 1960, the most reproduced photograph in history. It traces Guevara’s life and consults several sources – people who knew him, actors who have portrayed him, and experts who have studied him – as to his history, his ideals, and his legacy.

When I looked up director/writer/producer Trisha Ziff, I was surprised to see that she had been highly involved with a display at the International Center of Photography of recently discovered photos from the Spanish Civil War, called the Mexican Suitcase. I visited this exhibit about a year and a half ago and I remember being moved by it. I also remember seeing the photos of Che Guevara’s assassination that day, though as part of a different exhibit. This connection made me excited to watch the documentary.

Chevolution, without a doubt, recirculates the dominant narrative by promoting the image of Che as a hero rather than a villain. But wouldn’t you think that a documentary would be unbiased? Chevolution is actually as unbiased as it can be, but there is an inherent bias in the subject of the film: Chevolution is not about Che’s life and his politics, but rather the photo of him that became a worldwide symbol of revolution. The film does not assert that Che is a revolutionary; rather, it accepts that he is given the effect that the image had on the world.

Korda’s photo did not become famous until after Che’s assassination in 1967. The newspapers did not publish it when it was first taken, but Korda liked the image so he held onto it. Later, it appeared on a poster and soon it was being used all over the world. Chevolution explains how the image began as a photograph then evolved into a graphic, a political statement, a work of art, and finally, a commercial good. Young people all over were able to relate to the rebellious tone of the photo, which became a rallying point for the youth of the 60s and also the Black Panthers.

To me, the most interesting aspect of this iconic image of Che is the irony. Revolutionary icon, heroic symbol or not, Che Guevara was a communist. He was the enemy of capitalism. The image originally had no copyright because Castro did not recognize intellectual property and because Korda wanted people to be able to use his photo. Meanwhile, all over the rest of the world, people are making money off of t-shirts and posters with his face on them and companies are using the photo in their advertisements. This kind of behavior was the absolute antithesis of Che’s beliefs. And to the people who use Che’s image in protests for peace or against capital punishment? Che would not have been on your side. Whether he was a hero or a villain is subjective, but it can’t be argued that he was peaceful.

The film acknowledges and emphasizes this irony, but the main idea seems to be the parallel between the photo and Che in real life. Until recently, the photo had no copyright. This meant that the photo — like Che — did not belong to one person, or one group. It (and he) belonged to everyone. Similarly, the photo has outlived its photographer and continues to exist throughout the decades following its inception. Similarly, Che has lived beyond his death. His last words famously translate to, “Shoot, coward. You are only going to kill a man.” Like his photo, Che has survived through the ages and continues to be a famous symbol.

Chevolution effectively recirculates the dominant narrative of Che as a hero, but it does so while acknowledging the alternate narrative. Mainly, it explores how the photo has shaped his image. This film was monumental for me in terms of my project because this iconic photo seems to be one of the main reasons why Che is now perceived as a heroic revolutionary rather than a violent terrorist. This suggests that the real winner of the struggle for interpretive power was Alberto Korda, whose photo defined Che Guevara more powerfully than his actions or his beliefs ever did.

 

Che (The Argentine + Guerrilla)

The Argentine and Guerrilla together form a two-part series called Che. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film begins with Che meeting Fidel Castro in Mexico and follows the revolutionary war through the defeat of Batista’s forces.

The research and preparation that went into the creation of the film was incredible. Benicio Del Toro, the actor who portrays Che, did an unbelievable amount of research into Che’s life. Del Toro started the project thinking of Che as a “bad guy,” but after traveling around Latin America and speaking to people that knew Che – his wife, fellow revolutionaries, even Castro himself – he saw how many people still loved Che fiercely, and he gained respect for him.

In The Argentine, Che is portrayed as a driven, valiant warrior. His dedication to the cause is fiery and constant, and the other revolutionaries seem to look up to him. Many of the Cuban civilians as well glorified Che and showed absolute support for him. It’s clear that the film recirculates the dominant narrative that Che was a hero because he is portrayed as such a noble, dedicated warrior. Unlike in The Lost City, where Che was a villain who was meant to repel the audience, I found myself on Che’s side while watching The Argentine. While Che is always engaged in the fight, he acknowledges that fighting is only part of a revolution – it is no more important than, say, finding food or caring for the wounded.

Che also says, “At the risk of sounding ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of love.” This quote contrasts interestingly with another famous quote of Che’s, where he wrote, Hatred as an element of the struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective and cold killing machine.” These two opposing quotes tell me that there really are two legitimate sides to Che Guevara, and further convince me that both the dominant and the alternate narratives are only valid when brought together.

At the New York premiere of Che, Soderbergh said in a Q&A session following the film, “It doesn’t matter whether I agree with him or not — I was interested in Che as a warrior, Che as a guy who had an ideology, who picked up a gun and this was the result.” This tells me that Soderbergh was not trying to glorify Che or convince people that he was a hero, even though this is the effect that the film seemed to have. An important thing to remember is that intention is not as important as effect in the struggle for interpretive power. Although Soderbergh did not mean to pick a side, he ended up recirculating the dominant narrative through the way he portrayed Che. This does not mean that he’s biased, and it does not mean that the movie is not credible; it just shows that the facts lent themselves to this positive portrayal.

Guerrilla also seems to recirculate the dominant narrative; again, Che is not portrayed as a murderer but rather a brave revolutionary. The film begins with Che’s departure from Cuba and his arrival in Bolivia, where he is trying to start another revolution against the oppressive government of anti-communist President Barrientos. It never covers with any depth the murders of civilians that Che committed.

Most of Guerrilla shows Che’s army of rebels struggling to survive in the woods. Che is becoming weaker, but he is still revered as the leader of the forces and still comes across as powerful and driven by his cause. Even when he is captured by the Bolivian army, one soldier is friendly toward him and even considers letting him go free. More resistance is revealed, however, as some of the rebels betray Che and it becomes clear that the Bolivians do not want violent, foreign revolutionaries interfering in their lives. While held captive, Che meets a Cuban man whom he calls a traitor, until he finds out that the man is the nephew of someone he executed. Despite this resistance, though, Che’s integrity is never compromised. People continue to look to him as a leader, while President Barrientos is afraid to let the Bolivian people know that Che is the head of the rebellion against him. Even his assassination is diginified; he looks his executioner straight in the eye and tells him to shoot, maintaining a sense of control until the very end.

The most interesting thing that Guerrilla and The Argentine both seem to say is that Che and Fidel’s forces gained support not because people were in favor of an armed struggle, but because they seemed most likely to succeed. The people who joined or supported them never claimed to like what the rebel forces were doing; they merely conceded that they were the movement most likely to succeed. This is an important point because it acknowledges that, while Che was seen as a hero and a leader, many people did not agree with his methods — this seems to me like the most accurate characterization of Che that I have seen so far.

Comments

  1. It seems to me that perhaps part of the reason that The Lost City was a flop was in fact an effect that you identified. You said that perhaps Che supporters’ opinions were not changed by the movie because it was not successful. Is it possible that instead the movie was not successful simply because it ran against the dominant theme of Che movies and the overall image of him in history? I am not sure how large of a demographic these movies have, but it would seem that the people who seek them out would be looking for a movie more in the style of Chevolution or Guerilla rather than The Lost City. Thoughts?

  2. serdunham says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and definitely mean to check out some of these films when I have time. It seems like every movie or documentary made about someone this influential is going to have to take some point of view, even if the opinion’s formed after the filmmaker finishes his or her research. How possible do you think it is to make a truly unbiased film about Che Guevara? And which of the films comes closest to this overall?