Cameron Speller reviews Epicentro
Hubert Sauper’s documentary Epicentro, explores the realities, the lies and the people that live in Havana, Cuba. Metaphorically, Sauper captures Cuba’s culture, politics, and its history as it exists today within the definition of the word ‘utopia’; an ideal place that does not exist. The film was released in 2020 and covers Sauper’s time spent visiting Havana. Sauper’s portrait of Cuba takes place after the death of communist leader Fidel Castro and before the anti-government protests in 2021.
To Sauper, Cuba is a window to the future, a future where the global structures that created the Cuba we currently see are broken down. By choosing to focus more on the people of Cuba and not the revolutionary icons of the past, Sauper allows the island to open itself up without being tied to ideals, but to material realities instead. The unique relationship between history and cinema, myth and truth are juxtaposed to reveal a contradictory image of Cuba. The myths and realities that are under Sauper’s focus are inspected by the people of Havana instead of imperialist Americans or Castro and Che worshipers.
Epicentro follows a group of young children, whom Sauper collectively refers to as “prophets.” The youth are black poor Cubans who have dreams of becoming actors. The children go to school, dance, and discuss with Sauper and his camera about the history of Spanish colonization and imperialism in Cuba. In return, Sauper shows them and the audience the manipulative nature of cinema, its role as propaganda, and how it started US intervention in Cuba. In an interview, Sauper admits that he created a fictional scene where he had a school kids watch old films by Charlie Chaplin, Voyage Dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902) by Georges Méliès, a film showing the 1898 explosion of the USS Maine in Cuba, as well as footage of Cubans helping Americans fight against the Spanish.
What is not scripted is the children's reaction to the foreign propagandist hosting the screenings. The kids shout “Boo! No, that's a lie!” after the propagandist says the Americans liberated Cuba from Spain. In this scene Sauper brilliantly creates a scenario where Cubans, even in the face of outright influence, can express their own opinions regarding their politics and their history.
The foreign screening host shows the children an old film depicting Cubans lowering the Spanish flag and raising the American flag at what is now known as Guantanamo Bay, a US prison on the island of Cuba.
Mass tourism is rightfully accosted by the young prophets of Havana towards the middle of the film. To most Cubans, tourism is a foreign invasion. They see a white man, American or European come in with cameras, shooting and exploiting everything in sight. In a lot of ways, the camera is another colonizer. The prophetic children are aware of this, and they see the class differences between locals and tourists, the superficial influences on Cuban culture, and the widening gap between foreign luxury and native poverty. For the tourists, they are temporarily living an alternative that is unlike their usual existence. Their alternative is “a breakout of the professional, social, and family prison.”
Life in Cuba is just vacation, a paradise to them, whereas the average Cuban does not have the means to live an alternative life, or to chase after paradise. The island’s very existence: its culture, past and potential future is consumed by cliché images, false impressions, and foreign tourism. For now, the only thing the locals can do is roll their eyes and laugh at the vacationing bourgeoisie as they photograph themselves leaning on 20th century Cadillacs and portraits of Che Guevara.
A poster that parodies the utopian theory that a new man will come from revolution, popularized by Che Guevara. The joke is that the man that emerged out of revolution has turned into a superficial image of himself, a selfie.
American photographer finds a Che Guevara portrait in a barber shop.
“Stories which are lies, have a reality.”
A quote from one of the young prophets, is ironically the foundation that Epicentro is built on. Reality in Cuba is shaped by the lies that imperialists and authoritarians have been pushing for decades. These myths are a part of what makes up the culture of this “utopia.” Examining the history of cinematic exploitation on the island, revealed that both myth and truth can be carried within the same story; and that Cuba’s story is both a lie and reality. A reality of Cuba is that in between truth and fiction, a silent and organic space exists. Epicentro fills that space with cinema, letting the prophets and the island tell its own story.
There are moments in Sauper’s film that allow viewers to see the reality that lies between truth and fiction. For example, Sauper follows a sex worker into the streets and while she is expressing her political opinions she says, “Every president has his madness-,” she is quickly interrupted by a passerby. “Señora'', an older man says, holding his hand in the air, as if to officially object to a woman expressing dissent towards their government. The woman looks at the camera and smiles, “They will kill me.” She laughs it off and continues to speak her piece. Before voicing her opinions on presidents, she said that unlike Americans, Cubans don’t have freedom of speech.
The truth in this situation is that Cubans who are not pro-America or pro-communist are rarely heard from. And those who dare to protest their government, even if they too are in opposition to US intervention, are often met with reactionary hostilities from both the communist authorities as well as government supporters. This reality is not shown in its full entirety in the US coverage of Cuba or even in Cuba’s mainstream media. It is interesting to imagine observing another Cuban walking by during the scene mentioned earlier. If they saw a Cuban woman bad mouth their nation's leaders while a Anglo foreigner films; what would their thoughts be? Would they agree with her? Would they call the police on them? I wonder if the observing Cuban would think they are watching American propaganda in action.
The reality of the marginalized is obscured by the partial truths of both foreign propaganda and the state communists. Regarding the Cuban anti-government protests in July 2021, we can see how the demonstrations of those struggling in Cuba have been written off as being funded by right wing Cubans in Miami, or as the presence of locals who are expressing pride for their government. There is truth to these claims, but they only put more assurance in propaganda and fiction instead of reality, thus creating another myth about Cuba.
Erasing the experience of locals
Watching Epicentro for the first time during Cuba's most recent political stirrings put the myth/truth juxtaposition into perfect context. During the height of the protests in Cuba, many different ideological milieus spoke up for Cubans about the situation on the island. The problem is that between the Miami Cubans, American conservatives, and state communists (Cuban and abroad), the actual truth of what the protests were about and who started them was washed over by competing narratives. The irony is that all those narratives that came from outside of Cuba are erasing the actual experiences of the locals, furthering the lies that Cuba needs the US to intervene to help them and that there is no one on the island who is expressing dissent towards the Cuban government. These conflicting narratives come from the same historical contradictions that are explored by Sauper and the prophets in his film, giving Epicentro relevancy.
Aside from coinciding cinema with real time events, another success from Epicentro is that it shows its audience that the Cuban youth are smart enough to grapple with the contradicting myths and truths that precede them. By giving the young and the marginalized a chance to express Cuba’s sociological issues the way it affects them, Epicentro presents the world with the reality that the Cuban people can shape their own future by themselves. There is a beautiful scene where a few of the prophets are playing with Sauper’s iPhone. They are making edited videos of them walking and dancing in both slow motion and fast speed. One of the children says that the sped-up movements reminded him of pioneer filmmaker Charlie Chaplain. And it is there, within that 23 second scene where we can see Epicentro’s brilliance of tying the magic of cinema to the roots of Cuba’s social and political issues.
From the beginning the audience, along with the prophets, are learning a lesson about cinema and its propagandist beginnings. We see the influence that 19th century war films depicting the Spanish-American war had on political relations between America and Cuba. Following the legacy of US imperialism and market expansion, Hollywood began to make films about the Mafia coming to Cuba to establish enterprises on the island, forever solidifying the colonialist tendencies in tourism and cinema.
The utopian paradise that Cuba is known as may only exist in cinema and in the imagination of those who see Cuba as a place to live out their exploitative dreams, but the reality of the island is secure in the hands of the prophets and those who are currently struggling in Cuba. At the end of the film, we are left wondering what will become of the children that Sauper features. Will they stay in Cuba, passing histories to tourists? Will they go abroad? Will they follow their dreams and become actors? One day, those young prophets will make a film, addressing the complexities of their country from their own perspective.
Cubans living in Havana and elsewhere on the island have communiques expressing ongoing difficulties, struggles and experiences that they are presently facing. To read more on this check out these links below:
Original Text:http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:lmyntNAePfwJ:www.polemicacubana.fr/%3Fp%3D15774+&cd=1 Translation:https://twitter.com/TotalDistro504/status/1416045782638239748?s=20