Kordavision in Puke-O-Rama

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:

Che Killed small.jpg

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.

16 thoughts on “Kordavision in Puke-O-Rama”

  1. I’m sure it’s been said before in this blog, but Korda is Cuba’s Leni Riefenstahl. However competent in his profession, he was a propagandist. Nothing more.

  2. JSB,

    During the Q&A I actually made that point. I said “when I was in 10th grade they showed us a film called triumph of the will…” he then interrupted the question and said “yes by Leni Riefenstahl” and I continued “well, she was a very gifted filmmaker but she was a propagandist for a terrible government, what’s the difference between her and Korda?”

    The guy actually said that there is a huge difference because she was commissioned to make a propaganda film and he was merely a “photo-journalist” at the time the famous ché picture was taken, it was only later that the picture became a tool of propagandists. I responded by saying that at the time of che picture he was working for “Revolucion” the official newspaper of the government. That in effect all of his work was propaganda. I said “talk about a conflict of interest…” and I was thinking of the Marti Moonlighters who were accused of being propagandists on much flimsier grounds.

    I then told him that in my opinion Korda was in fact a very talented artist but like LR was a propagandist. The pictures of he took of che cutting sugar cane, the pictures of fidel hunting at a Russian dacha with Kruschev were not merely “pure moments” happening randomly in front of Korda’s lens, they were staged events created to send a specific message that the government wanted to send. Korda was a willing accomplice.

  3. Even if Korda were a genius (and espicially if he was), the fact that he put his art at the service of tyranny makes him a moral rebrobate and a coward. Of course, we have no right to expect all men to be heroes, but shouldn’t celebrate those who clearly were not.

    If art is truth (and what else could art be?), then the pictures of the executed men that you wore on your tee-shirts were of an higher artistic order than any photograph Korda ever snapped.

    One of the most terrible punishments that can befall men such as Korda is to beget children or grandchildren who actually possess a moral compass.

  4. “What is art if not the quickest way to arrive at the triumph of truth and simultaneously to express it in a way that will endure and sparkle in the minds and hearts of men.” — José Martí.

  5. “Every tyranny has at hand one of those learned men to think and write, to justify, to extenuate and to disguise. Sometimes it has many of them, because literature is often coupled with an appetite for luxury, and with the latter comes a willingness to sell oneself to anyone who can satisfy it.” — José Martí

  6. Korda’s grandson said to me “I like your shirt. And I’m inclined to agree with it.”

    Reading that has made my day. The truth is on our side, and we will win.

  7. I won’t add anything to Henry’s excellent account of the film and the Q & A afterwards. I unfortunately had to leave in the middle of the
    Q & A session as the whole event dragged on a lot longer than I thought it would, and I heard it from the wife when I got home.

    I really wanted to back Henry up with some comments of my own, but I didn’t want to turn the event into a talk radio style debate. Besides, Henry did a great job and there’s only so much you can argue with those who fail to understand your side.

    I sympathize with Val…it was tough to sit through that garbage. However, I’m glad I did and in the end, it’s always good to take an occasional peak at what the other side is thinking and saying.

  8. Look at the expressions on the faces of Castro’s henchmen in the picture where the prisoner kneels to give his last confession to the priest.

    [Left to right] The smirking barbudo has an expression of pure sadism on his face. The rebel with the rifle that’s almost bigger than he is wears sunglasses to conceal his glee; but you can be sure that he was the first to fire his weapon as he is foremost among the killers. In back of him is a rebel with a blank face, who seems to be bored by the whole proceedings. Next to him is a rebel with a stupid look on his face, which no doubt served him in good stead. The leader, with the full beard and determined expression, has obviously presided over such scenes a 1000 times and is impatient to get this done, for he knows that others are waiting their turn in the gallery. They are all indifferent to what is about to happen, so indifferent in fact that the photographer almost goes unnoticed.

    Then, of course, there is the prisoner and the priest. Some day the duo will be cast in bronze in a monument honoring the victims of Castro’s 1959 festival of blood.

  9. Manuel,

    I too examined the photo closely when I prepared the slogan for the Iron-on for the shirts. What I noticed was how the photographer (far right) is trying to get one of the executioners to move out of the way so he can get the picture. Here was a man documenting this tragedy but not doing anything to prevent it. I guess we should thank his colleague that took the picture that we see so that there is evidence of what happened on that day.

  10. Henry:

    There were at least two photographers present, the one who took the photo (who, of course, is invisible) and the other one who was captured on the photo as he prepared to shoot his own picture.

    I don’t think that there’s anything the photographers could have done: the rebels were holding guns and they were holding cameras.

    The photographer did perform an important service to the prisoner and our country by taking this picture: he captured for all time our shame.

    It is well that we should all study this picture and others like it. Lest we forget.

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