As Val mentioned in his post, tonight he, Robert and I went to FIU to conduct a peaceful protest of what we thought was going to be an exhibit of photographs by Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez who is better known as “Korda”. Korda is the guy that took the famous picture of ernesto “ché” guevara that adorns everything from t-shirts to baby clothes. But it wasn’t an exhibit, it was a film about Korda called Kordavision by a self-described Chicano named Hector Cruz Sandoval.
We were wearing T-Shirts with these designs on the front:
And this design on the back:
We decided to go in and watch the film. I’m always curious to see how Cuba, fidel and the Revolution are are portrayed in films, even if I suspect that it’s going to be favorable propaganda. Besides if I didn’t see the film, I wouldn’t be able to tell you fine folks about it. As I entered the auditorium I was offered a small bag of popcorn which I gladly accepted since I was famished. Cruz Sandoval was standing at a podium, I guess introducing the film, when I made my way down the center aisle to the front. I’m pretty sure he saw my shirt which was the one with the guy with the gun in his hand standing over the dead man. I was close enough that he could see what it was and what it said. I may have imagined it but he stammered a little when he saw it.
So we sat down and the opening credits hadn’t even finished rolling when Val leaned over to me and said “I gotta go.” I understand his reaction completely. The “slate” at the beginning of the movie said it’s 93 minutes long and I just couldn’t see Val sitting through 93 minutes of ché worship. But Robert and I were still curious enough to want to watch it.
The movie is basically a hagiography of Korda that talks about his photography and “photo-journalism” set to the backdrop of the Cuban Revolution. The problem, as one might expect, from my standpoint, is that it doesn’t explore the realities of that backdrop. The movie makes no attempt to judge the subject of Korda’s photography. In that sense the film is woefully inadequate. I mean what does it mean to create beautiful art in the service of your government if in the end your government is a corrupt murderous dictatorship?
Korda comes across as unexpectedly likeable for a devout follower of fidel castro. The truth is that one can’t help but feel sorry for him. He was either duped into believing the party line, convinced himself to believe it in order to live a slightly better life than his fellow Cubans (the movie shows that he was clearly famous and revered) or was cynnical enough to say the right things about ché, fidel, and the Revolution even if he didn’t believe them. Perhaps a combination of the three. In my business, which is advertising, someone once told me that there’s three reasons to work for a client: 1. Because they can make you rich (they pay well). 2. They can make you famous (you can do high visibility work that gets noticed). or 3. They can make you happy (you really believe in the product). I suspect Korda felt an obligation to the Revolution because it made him famous.
The lowlight of the film is an appearance by “President” fidel castro himself. Cruz Sandoval was able to arrange a meeting between Korda, his photographer friends and castro, all with the cameras rolling. Even though it was filmed years ago, fidel looks really old in the film. His hair and beard were an unnatural blue that screamed “Grecian Formula.” There’s a segment in which he talks about his personal health and the regimen he adheres to for health reasons. He even endorses PPG wholeheartedly as a treatment for high cholesterol. Of course the substance has since been debunked of having any therapeutic qualities. Like most things coming out castro’s Cuba, PPG was nothing more than a fraud.
The movie closes with some melodramatic scenes from Korda’s funeral.
When the Q&A began, I jumped up and went to the microphone. I asked 2 questions:
1. I noticed that you referred to fidel castro as “President” in the film. I was wondering what you think entitles him to be addressed by that title since, to my knowledge, he’s never been democratically elected to any office, not even dog-catcher, in any country?
2. You use a lot of Catholic imagery in the beginning of the film. I am a Catholic, and as you know the Church is against capital punishment. So am I. So my question to you is do you believe in capital punishment because ché guevara, the subject the iconization in your film, was responsible for the executions of the more than 150 people whose names are on the back of my shirt?
Predictably he didn’t address the first question and in response to the second he said that he is a Catholic and doesn’t believe in the death penalty but that guevara wasn’t a Catholic so that the question was not really relevant. This is the kind of non-sequitir answer you often get from castro apologists when you confront them with uncomfortable truths. The question wasn’t whether ché believed what he was doing was immoral, but whether Hector Cruz Sandoval believed what ché did was immoral. To that, he gave a half-hearted reply that any time you have a revolution that blood is shed. I explained that there is a difference between killing in a Revolutionary war and killing once you have assumed power. The uncomfortable truth here is that the castro regime became worse than the regime it replaced in this sense.
There was a lot more Q&A and made some more points which I can’t remember right now but what was really interesting is that one of the audience members was Korda’s grandson. He made a comment that he had seen the film 2 years before and that now watching it a second time he felt that it was a manipulation of the truth. Cruz Sandoval (either purposely or innocently) interpreted the comment as an accusation that the film had been changed in the intervening 2 years. But Korda’s grandson clarified that it was his interpretation that changed.
When I was leaving, Korda’s grandson said to me “I like your shirt. And I’m inclined to agree with it.” This exchange made me glad I stayed. Here’s a guy with every possible motivation to be an apologist for ché, fidel and the Revolution (they made his grandfather famous) and instead he’s rejecting them.
In the end the movie gets a thumbs down from me. It could have been more interesting if it had explored the psychology of Korda and his emotional investment in what Cruz Sandoval admitted in the Q&A is a failed Revolution. If there had been some factual historical context about the events that are the backdrop to Korda’s career. Instead of a balanced documentary about a complicated person living in a complicated time in a complicated country, we get this very favorable impression of an “artist” living in what is basically a painted theater set. A discerning viewer of the film might be able to detect the differences between pre-castro Cuba, as illustrated in archival footage and Korda’s pre-Revolutionary fashion photography and the Cuba in the 21st century with it’s shoeless and shirtless children playing in the street, decaying buildings, etc. but you really have to be looking for it. For his part Cruz Sandoval says that he didn’t attempt to sanitize modern Cuba and I suppose that’s true but as I said, he didn’t specifically point out those differences.