On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution that saw the overthrowof Cuban President General Fulgencio Batista, a documentary about afamous image, an iconic man and a revolution gains a screening. KylieBoltin reviews the film and speaks with the director, Trisha Ziff.
SBS Film

24 Dec 2008 - 10:17 AM  UPDATED 7 Nov 2012 - 12:30 AM

Chevolution is a fast paced, stylised, high production documentary that charts an image of a man who became synonymous with the 20th Century: Che Guevara.

Eager to engage us from all angles from the get-go, the documentary starts with archival footage of the Cuban Revolution cut to rapidly accelerating, distorted flamenco guitar. It juxtaposes random vox pops and 'informed’ talking head interviews with the likes of Gael García Bernal, who played the role of Che Guevara in the made for TV Fidel (David Attwood, 2002) and Spanish language Diarios de Motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries) (Walter Salles, 2004). Says Bernal: 'Some people don’t even know who he is — have no clue whatsoever but they wear the T-shirt; they have the poster and everything but they have no clue at all."

A dominating soundtrack of incessant drumming doesn’t help us understand what this film is actually about. We’re at once with a man who looks like he’s on Venice Beach and who thinks that Che Guevara is an alcoholic beverage and then we shift to rural Cuba. This has the effect of decontextualising all of the voices into one unidentifiable echo (unless of course the voice belongs to a famous movie star like Bernal or later, Antonio Banderas).

Throughout, we keep seeing that image of Che Guevara. His is  'the most reproduced image in the entire history of photography\", says an as yet unidentified woman who speaks Spanish but clearly someone who is important within the context of this documentary, as she’s a sit down interview rather than a vox pop.

The sound track then stops.  We’re told by a disembodied, calm voice: 'It happened in a fraction of a second. The shutter opened and closed to capture the iconic portrait of an elusive man known to most as Che. Over time, the image has been transformed, gathering different meanings along the way. The photograph had become a graphic, the graphic turned to political statement, the statement appropriated to art then commerce to sell a dizzying array of commerce, many of which strayed from Che’s ideals and yet despite the commercialisation, the image still recalls the life of the iconic revolutionary."

Now we’re cooking with gas.

A biography of Guevara and the historical period surrounding the overthrow of Batista, told through a contemporary prism, remains a fascinating topic – even 50 years after the fact. But despite its repeated dips into this history, Chevolution doesn’t actually want to be about this. Instead it desperately wants to be a 'story about a single image", Guerrillero Heroico, shot by Cuban photographer, Alberto \'Korda\' Díaz and its enduring power. We later find out that the unidentified woman is Korda’s daughter, Diana Díaz and she tells this story, together with Cuban photographer Jose Figueroa and interviews with non-Cuban writers.

The story of the man-behind-the-image is one that intersects with the wider history of the period, never more than the moment the shot was taken in Havana on March 5, 1960 at a memorial service for victims of the La Coubre freighter explosion (75 people were killed and approximately 200 injured at Havana Harbour). The photo emerged seven years later.

First time director Trisha Ziff is a curator who has toured an exhibition of Korda’s image internationally. She speaks as one of the numerous interviewees in the film — although this mix of director and 'expert’ is not made clear.

In a separate interview, Ziff says that both disciplines — curatorial and filmmaking — are storytelling. 'The exhibition was a narrative of a single image — and the question was always, how many images can an audience look at without getting bored?" Ziff admits that the transition from curator to filmmaker was difficult. 'We’re all narrators, all storytellers – whether we are telling a story on the wall or on film — although film is more linear, more passive in a way. I had to learn new skills. So I loaded it with images. Maybe you can tell that it’s made by a curator."

The project was funded in full by the company Netflix with some of the rarer archival material sourced from the Che Guevara Foundation in Italy. Interestingly, considering the uneasy relationship that exists between the heavily reproduced image and the ethos that Che Guevara espoused, Ziff tells me that the production honoured the copyright of the image as owned by the Korda Estate. This is in direct contradiction to the majority of the 'reproducers’ interviewed throughout the documentary. For all the versions of the image shown in this documentary, where is the examination of that?
Shooting in Cuba can be notoriously difficult, but Ziff says the subject matter made it easy. 'The subject of Che in Cuba is very different in Cuba than in other countries. Shooting in Cuba was easy." Which makes perfect sense — this documentary is not a sustained critique of the period or the use and/or abuse of the image. It’s about the superstar, the universal icon for struggle — a documentary in the tradition of popular fairytales.

ACMI First Look presents Chevolution. See www.acmi.net.au for details.

Image caption: Guerrillero Heroico (c) 1960 - courtesy Diana Diaz, Korda estate