“Two, three, many Vietnams”

Che: Rise and Fall

The documentary “Che: Rise and Fall” was created in 2007 by Argentine filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley. Montes-Bradley is known mainly for his documentaries about Latin American figures The entire film was shot in Cuba and contains photos and video clips from throughout Che’s life. It is based mainly on interviews with people who were close to Che during his lifetime.

“Che: Rise and Fall” most definitely recirculates the dominant narrative by openly portraying Che as a hero. The only people featured in the documentary were people who were on Che’s side – Alberto Granados, the doctor who accompanied Che on his famous motorcycle journey through Latin America; a veteran of the Cuban revolution, and members of Che’s personal guard. Granados stressed Che’s devotion to social justice and the advocacy of the lower class, which he developed while traveling with Granados, while the veteran emphasized Che’s passion for work (he stresses that he is not speaking out of adoration or veneration, but out of plain honesty). The members of the personal guard talked about the value he placed on education and the high moral standards to which he held his followers.

The common thread was loyalty – each person expressed unreserved respect and love for Che, mentioning his flaws only in passing – Granados calls him “militant” and alludes to his “predisposition for armed struggle,” while the others admit to his dogged persistence in an unwanted and ultimately unsuccessful revolution in the Congo.

If the documentary had featured a single interview with a dissenter – a Cuban who suffered at the hands of Castro or a relation of someone who had been executed by Che – it would have been more well rounded, but as it stands the film is extremely one-sided. Still, it invokes a sense of solidarity with Che and admiration for his ideals and his cause. He is portrayed as a martyr, but with a sense of immortality, which makes him easy for us to unite over. This could perhaps be another reason why the image of Che as a hero is dominant – it’s more attractive to glorify him as a revolutionary and a martyr than to condemn him as a terrorist, and it’s easier to love than to hate.

The True Story of Che Guevara

The True Story of Che Guevara is a TV documentary made in 2007 by filmmaker Maria Berry. Berry has considerable experience with making documentaries, but this is her only one that deals with Latin America.

For the first time, I had to think about whether or not this film recirculates the dominant narrative. It was the first one that actually succeeded in portraying Che as neither a hero nor a villain, but rather as a soldier. For this reason, I think that the film successfully resists the tendency to recirculate the dominant narrative; at the same time, it does not promote the alternate narrative, either. A documentary that actually remains neutral? What?!

The True Story of Che Guevara features interviews with biographer Jon Lee Anderson, a childhood friend of Che’s, some Americans who had joined the revolution while living in Cuba, a senior analyst from the National Security Archive, and Sergei Khrushchev (son of Nikita), among others. The documentary effectively conveyed both sides of the story without sounding partial to one. Surprisingly, it was the first documentary I’ve seen that actually talks about the time Che spent as part of Castro’s government, between the revolution and Bolivia, when he was in charge of the La Cabaña prison and of suppressing dissidence. Here, the audience learns of the terror struck by Che in the hearts of the Cuban population as the people began to learn of his ruthlessness. This phenomenon is mirrored by the guerrillas under Che’s command, who feared the harsh punishments he gave in response to minor transgressions. On the other hand, we see how brave Che was in battle, as he lay critically injured on the ground but reached for ammunition instead of the first aid kit. We see how completely devoted he was to spreading revolution, as he traveled to the Congo and to Bolivia to promote revolutions that ultimately failed. Finally, we see how dignified he was as he faced his own death. After being embraced by CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, who had helped captured Che but had an enormous amount of respect for him, Che addressed his executioner with the eternal last words, “Shoot, coward. You are only going to kill a man.” The film addressed Che’s violence and many executions unabashedly, while also recognizing his incredible bravery, honor, and devotion.

An interesting thing that I learned from the film was that all the documented victims of executions that Che authorized or performed were criminals, not innocents. La Cabaña held people convicted of war crimes, and Che only executed those guilty of crimes that legally merited the death penalty – such as rape, treason, or desertion. While a lot of people claim that Che murdered innocents, there is no actual recording of this ever happening. Obviously, that’s not to say that it isn’t true, but it was something I didn’t know regardless.

This is probably the best film I’ve seen so far, in terms of accuracy. It really delved into both sides of the story. If I had to say, I would probably admit that it aired just a bit on the side of glorification as opposed to vilification, but I really think that overall The True Story of Che Guevara did an excellent job of portraying the man that has sparked so much controversy.

Fidel

Fidel is a miniseries created in the early 2000’s by director David Attwood. The only remotely interesting thing I could scrounge up about Attwood is that he was born in the UK in 1952, which means that during the Cuban revolution, he was both very young and on another continent. It doesn’t look like he has any personal interest in the film.

Fidel seemed to stay true to the facts for the most part – for the sake of the film, they occasionally had to consolidate several historical people into a single character, but other than this the film seems accurate.

This is something that the title probably should have tipped me off about, but Fidel was primarily about Fidel Castro. Puzzling, I know. But I assumed that since Gael García Bernal (who played Che) was credited second (after Victor Huggo Martin, who played Fidel) Che would have a role significant enough to warrant use of this film in the project.

I wasn’t exactly right. The film is approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes long. Che didn’t show up until 1 hour and 14 minutes in. Even after that, his appearances were fairly consistent, but rarely prominent. The most I could glean is that the film is generally in his favor – people seem to like Che during the revolution, and he is continuously portrayed as a true revolutionary even after Castro begins his descent into dictatorship, communism, and general lack of favor with the people. Castro continues to admire Che’s devotion to spreading revolution until his death, which is portrayed as heroic and tragic.

Something that keeps coming up in these films that I haven’t talked about before is a parallel between Che Guevara and José Martí. Martí was a Cuban nationalist who opposed North American imperialism of Latin America in the late 19th century. He called for the unity of all of Latin America – not just individual countries – and for the creation of a common culture independent of US influence. The parallel between Martí and Che was overt in this film – it opens with a schoolteacher telling her students that no one can call himself a real Cuban without knowing who José Martí is (Che is a figure of similar fame and cultural significance) and a riot ensues over US soldiers destroying a statue of Martí (similar to the US anti-Che and anti-Fidel activity). The similarities between the two men are clear: Che renounced his Cuban citizenship to go and foment revolution all over Latin America and in the movie he explicitly calls for Latin America to create its own destiny, which is an almost direct reference to Martí’s essay, “Nuestra America.” Meanwhile, Che’s anti-US sentiments are clear, as were Martí’s. I think that this parallel establishes a decidedly pro-Che ideology— since Martí is viewed as such a hero in Latin America, any comparison with him can only be positive.

 

Comments

  1. emrodvien says:

    Hi Sarah! I’ve really enjoyed reading about your research on Che. I’m doing my summer Monroe research on Cuban culture, so your project is really interesting to me!
    I don’t want to make this comment about me, but I have a personal story that’s relevant to your comments about Che and Martí: I actually just got back from a week in Cuba, and everywhere I went, I was surrounded by giant likenesses of both figures. Most homes I visited boasted a porcelain bust of Martí on their porches, and it’s not uncommon to see photos of Che hanging near these sculptures. This really supports your claim that there has been a lot of effort (on behalf of multiple interests, I’m guessing) to associate Che with Martí.
    The figure of Che is so polemic and the famous Korda photo of him elicits such strong reactions from people: I’m wondering, do you think the modern dialogue about Che would be the same if there wasn’t such an iconic, omnipresent representation of him (Korda’s image) that gets recycled everywhere and for every purpose?