So close to being done. Two more films, and then a final analysis.
El Che: Investigating a Legend
There is very little background information available about the documentary El Che: Investigating a Legend. Directed by less-than-prolific French filmmaker Maurice Dugowson, the film is pretty generic in that it definitely recirculates the dominant narrative by portraying Che as a hero. Immediately, the narrator uses language that connotes a favorable opinion of Che, and throughout the film Che’s dark side is barely acknowledged. The pro-Che people who are interviewed wax rhapsodic while the anti-Che people featured (such as Che’s Bolivian captor) speak very objectively. As usual, his death is glorified and Che is portrayed as something of a Christ figure.
Something unique that the film does, though, is justify Che’s harsh behavior by glorifying it in kind of a strange way: the documentary is talking about how Che battled asthma throughout his life but continued to fight with gunpowder and smoke cigars, saying that life was a struggle for survival. The narrator then says, “Pitiless for himself, he becomes harsh with others.” Oh, I get it now. Che executed people because he had asthma. Well, what’s everyone on his case for? The guy had a rough life. A few outbursts here and there are to be expected, no? It’s also difficult to reconcile the idea of Che as this compassionate humanist who rode his motorcycle up the coast and was moved to revolution by the abject conditions people were living in with the harsh coldness of his asthma-hardened heart. Nobody denies that either one is true, but then how can you pick a side? To me, this just further asserts the idea that Che is a mix of good and bad, not wholly one or the other.
Most importantly, the only thing funnier than hearing Che’s name butchered by an American guy is hearing Che’s name butchered by a British guy.
With the DVD comes a special feature called Tracing Che, a documentary by a Canadian guy, which also glorifies Che by emphasizing his sense of adventure and the passion and humanity driving his cause. Right away, Che is described as “a revolutionary, a world leader, a guerilla fighter, a leprosy and allergy doctor, and a father.” The documentary as a whole is pretty much unabashedly biased. The narrator – young, long-haired, pretty much what you’d expect from someone who idolizes Che – says that he has been fascinated by Che since he read The Motorcycle Diaries when he was young and compares him to beatniks Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. It focuses on the road trip he took as a young man through Latin America – when he was affected by all of the poverty and inequality, before he started killing people. This guy actually buys the same kind of motorcycle that Che drove and rides it along the coast, stopping at all of the places that Che stopped. He also makes Che out to be a saint for handling his asthma. I guess back then it was a bigger deal?? Also, one of Che’s cousins who is interviewed in the documentary again tries to justify Che’s apparent flaws by saying that his confrontational tendencies were really a reflection of his absolute sincerity.
The Motorcycle Diaries
The Motorcycle Diaries is a biopic based on the book of the same title, which Ernesto Guevara wrote on his motorcycle voyage up the South American coast with Alberto Granado.
The film stars Gael García Bernal as Ernesto (he has also appeared as Che in Fidel and as himself in Chevolution) and was written by José Rivera and directed by Walter Salles. Rodrigo de la Serna joins García Bernal as Alberto Granado.
It’s hard to determine whether or not this movie recirculates the dominant narrative, because it is not about Che – it is about Ernesto. In the film, Ernesto is 23 years old and he is exploring the continent with his friend on the back of a motorcycle. This trip is famous for being the inspiration for the rest of Che’s political work because it opened his eyes to the poverty and inequality that so many people suffered. However, it is before Ernesto became obsessed by revolution, before he met Fidel, and before he became controversial. Screenwriter Rivera said, “We weren’t going to bow to the deification of Che – we just weren’t going to do it. This is a movie about Ernesto Guevara, long before Che Guevara ever existed.”
Therefore, the film focuses on the events that laid the foundation for Che’s later ideology. It feels extremely authentic; García Bernal, Rivera, and Salles did an extraordinary amount of research before and during the film, which involved reading biographies, speaking with people from Che’s life (including the real Alberto Granado, who was 83 at the time), and – on the part of García Bernal – reading the work of José Martí. They filmed in the same places that Ernesto and Granado actually visited, and they were loyal to the events in the book. As far as authenticity goes, the real Granado applauded the film’s effort to “dig beneath the mythical Che,” and “to reveal the flawed, flesh-and-blood Ernesto beneath.”
As for García Bernal, he seems to glorify Che, as he did in Fidel and Chevolution. Approaching the role, he said, “I feel a lot of responsibility. I want to do it well because of what Che represents to the world. He is a romantic. He had a political consciousness that changed Latin America.” The parallel between Ernesto and Martí is strongest at one point in the film where Ernesto is giving a speech on his birthday to a group of people. He says that Latin America is full of illusory, fictitious “nations,” and that, in reality, all of Latin America is one nation. Then he swims across the Amazon River. Not even joking. Did I mention he’s severely asthmatic?
While the film does seem to portray Ernesto as generous, pure of heart, and earnest, I don’t necessarily think that this is biased. This was before Ernesto had ever dreamed of the Cuban revolution and before the controversy surrounding him had arisen, so there is really no dispute as to the kindness of his intentions. The film is about a kid seeing the world and being affected by injustice, and no one really denies this. Therefore, the film does recirculate the dominant narrative, but without disputing any alternate narrative.
Che, originally titled Che Guevara, was made in 2005 by actor and filmmaker Josh Evans, starring Eduardo Noriega as the title character. The film begins in the Bolivian prison where Ernesto Guevara died, and Che tells his story in a letter before being executed.
I wish I could say that Che was not just more of the same. A StrategyPage.com review described Che as reverent, “a wretched piece of Left wing agitprop, dishonest, artless, amateurish, and boring.” Now that I’ve looked up “agitprop” (it means something like communist propaganda), I can see where the reviewer was coming from (although I wouldn’t necessarily use such charged language to describe it). Ernesto Guevara was portrayed as a noble hero who fights for his ideals and is unwavering in his pursuit of social justice. It completely ignores the period when Castro first came to power and put Che in charge of La Cabaña, the prison where he executed so many people. It ignores the fear he inspired in the hearts of so many people, and instead focuses on the Cuban people’s support of his goal and vilifies the Guatemalans who arrest him and the Bolivians who execute him. For example, when Che is arrested in Guatemala, his captors shout “communist” in his face and threaten to kill his family, while Che just stares defiantly and heroically back at them.
Throughout the film, we see Che’s noble intentions, which I think is true of most of the films I’m studying. I don’t think it’s disputed that Che was trying to help, that he was really driven by motives of social justice and equality; it is his methods that are questioned. This film definitely does not skim over the harshness of Che as a soldier; he screams at a man for falling asleep and at others for complaining of hunger, and he kills one of his own soldiers when the man supposed to execute the soldier for giving away their position hesitates to do so. However, there is never a point where the audience doubts Che’s nobility, or thinks that he has gone too far.
This film recirculates the dominant narrative, but does so poorly, in my opinion. Factually, it leaves much to be desired. It skips over huge parts of Che’s journey, ignoring his failures and indiscretions and putting a magnifying glass up to only the most flattering parts of the story. I wish that I were able to find out more about how the film was made, because I don’t know if these gaps exist because Evans was uninformed or because he picked and chose the parts of Che’s life to show. Without more information, I can’t really figure out why the film came out the way it did.