Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Aug 31, 2020 6:20 am 
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"Oona! Where are we now?" "We are in Paradise."

This is a teaser of a new documentary film about, not Africa this time, but Cuba, from Hubert Sauper, famous for the controversial, Oscar-nominated Darwin's Nightmare. It has a a poetic, dreamy quality about it that is deeply appealing and one sees in it the easy hand of a master. One can't altogether defend it, though, against the Variety reviewer Dennis Harvey's claim that it's "frustratingly obtuse, unfocused and unstructured." But we must remember Sauper's last documentary film We Come As Friends (ND/NF 2014) approached its South Sudan subject crabwise, half-humorously, to make chilling, eye-opening points.

Only that was critique and warning: this is elegy and eulogy. The meandering, soft-voiced narration that opens the film, presumably the filmmaker's, sets the tone and introduces a main focus: shabby but cozy settings, poor but vibrant citizens, and, first, and last, framing the piece, poor people puffing hungrily on expensive Cuban cigars. Kids are an abiding interest here, the young Cuban generation who will benefit or suffer from the big changes that may be coming as the old communism seems about the give way to an influx of new capitalism - though Trump's closing-off, reversing the opening-up trend of the Obama administration, has slowed that down.

This generation like earlier ones is indoctrinated - there's a film and a lecture about "Remember the Maine" - the initiation of the Spanish-American war in the explosion of the US battleship Maine - a way of pointing to American lies. This catastrophe was attributed falsely by America to Spain: the boat just blew up. But Cubans are taught that the whole event was staged in a bathtub and filmed to look real. A focus of the film: how cinema can not just enchant, but also deceive. (Speaking of classic cinema, we repeatedly glimpse people watching Charlie Chaplin, and we remember, he was a communist too. The Little Tramp was a Friend. We see his daughter Oona, in Cuba making a film.)

Sauper is interested in the political views of Cuban children, particularly girls, who know what "colonialism" and "imperialism" mean - perhaps "indoctrinated" but nonetheless "strikingly articulate and informed for their age" (as Variety says). We visit a strange show put on by a man in a high hat speaking Spanish with a heavy American accent showing old films to a large group of schoolchildren, who listen raptly wearing red scarves like the ones the pupils in Soviet schools wore. The man in the top hat and a portly cartoonist talk about how movies can be a deception. The man in a high hat starts to tout the US (to tease them?), and the scarved kids shout "No! It's a lie!" Somebody quotes Mark Twain: "It is easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled" (He didn't really say this, by the way.) Older Cubans tell us that Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders were a lie, that "they stayed in hotels."

Children explain ideas to the filmmaker: the US came and intervened (and the little girl uses the Spanish word for "intervened") in their country with the pretext (she uses the Spanish for "pretext") of wanting to liberate us from the dominion of Spain."

Sauper does not resist the temptation to glance longingly, as do some of his impoverished friends, at the beautifully maintained old American cars that roam the Havana streets, preserved as monuments to the brave survival of a place cut off by the United States since the fall of communism in 1989 - thirty years of poverty! There are especially convertibles, used to ferry tourists around the island. Beyond the streets are decaying walls of old buildings, half beautiful, half depressing.

The film offers random surprises. Suddenly there is, apparently, a lesson in tango in a strange long hallway, a tall, chubby man with a dark woman. (Later it emerges that he is a German visitor on a tour, who is an instructor in tango.) Then there are buskers, who offer their two cents, and a prostitute, who comes back later, with much to say. And then there is the death of Castro announced formally on television, followed by scenes of the crowds of mourners.

All that could be considered one movement. The next comes with the arrival of a group of German tourists. And with the tourists, we begin to see the show side of the island, which is big, bright, glamorous, clean, and expensive. The poor kids, who are still around - it's an island; nobody's going anywhere - peer at night into a fancy shop window where a pen is shown that's priced at twenty-five hundred dollars. The girls' mother makes four dollars a day. "How much would she work to buy that?" Sauper asks. She shoots her hand to show dozens and dozen and dozens of fives.

Some of the tourists with big heavy expensive cameras photograph a shabby one-chair barber shop. The little boy getting a haircut looks uncomfortable. A man in a straw hat with a ginger beard says tourism "devours the past and culture." He is, apparently, a Spanish-speaking photographer for this film. "How much does cinema resemble tourism?" he says they are asked.

There is a heavy rain, another nice punctuation of this observational cinematic poem. A scene of the sisters with their mother talking about telling stories that ends with her singing to the guitar as they dance with balletic arm motions is a lovely, magical moment, another "darling" that Sauper simply could not "kill."

Words from the street alternate with media captures. The prostitute talks now at night, in the street, smiling, about economics and life. She begins the long monologue by saying that "imperialism" has ruined her life. She also hints, half jokingly, that it may be bad to be seen talking so much to the foreign photographers. Later, a TV program is glimpsed that describes Trump's hatred of immigrants and Spanish-speakers.

A weathered-looking driver in a convertible, speaking in English, who reveals he came to Cuba long ago from Italy, says "People want to see the last communist country." (Again and again the word "Utopia" is evoked in the film and one person defines it as something that never exists in the present.) The driver identifies a luxury seaside hotel with a wide, sweeping entrance driveway and a doorman as "made by the mafia." It's called the Habana Riviera. He says Lucky Luciano came to Havana and met with "500 mafioso."

This segues into a sequence where the director invades the world of luxury tourism. He gets some kids, including a little boy in a jaunty ghetto fedora, into another fancy place, probably the Hotel Parque Central, which they say has a fabulous pool they'd like to swim in but would never be allowed to. He tells them he can get them in, just to say nothing but "Okay" and he will do the talking to the doorman in English. He appears to get by, and we see the kids swimming - in their clothes - in a truly vast swimming pool - at night. It's all a lark, this boundary-jumping. In a way Sauper skirts around things everywhere here, playing the game of intimacy and trust. We may remember how in We Come As Friends he got into off-limits military zones by flying around in a little tin-pot airplane.

Though don't think for a moment that any ordinary filmmaker could have made this film, certainly none of this footage reps a "piercing indictment." It's too sympathetic for that. Like any good documentary, perhaps to a fault, it goes with what it finds, leaving much for the viewer to think about and analyze later. "As aromatic as a fine cohiba cigar," metaphor-izes Hollywood Reporter's Leslie Felperin; and cigars are featured here, and children (but not in the same frame).

Yes, this is "a leisurely, somewhat hazy travelogue" when contrasted with the "piercing political indictments" of Hubert Sauper's earlier docs, as Variety asserted. Nonetheless for some viewers, including myself, this Epicentro, this meandering, intentionally confusing documentary about Havana, which bears its maker's distinctive mark throughout, is a lingering enchantment.

Epicentro, 108 mins., debuted at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize in World Documentary, even better than Sauper's 2014 We Come As Friends which received the Special Jury Prize in the same field. It opens theatrically Aug. 19, 2020 in France. It opens in virtual cinemas in the US through Kino Lorber Aug. 28, 2020. Metascore 70% (88% from, 80% from Leslie Felperin of Hollywood Reporter).

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