The problem with reviewing a film like Hubert Sauper’s Epicentro, currently on the promotional circuit, is that many of the things shown in the film are true. The devil, as always, is in the details and how they are presented.
I happened to see Epicentro in Utah last January at the Sundance film festival. The audience was the typical Sundance group, liberal, mostly affluent, well-educated. I’m guessing that if you took a poll, a fair amount would have brought their personal impressions of Cuba to the screening, having visited during the Obama thaw. They may or may not have witnessed the ugly tourists shown by Sauper – those who photograph Cubans living in what Variety called the “ruin porn” location of Centro Habana, as though they were artfully photographing animals at the zoo. It is certainly true that Cuba, like other underdeveloped countries, is not immune to the phenomenon but it would be an error to assume that it is the rule rather than the exception.
Sauper’s film is a tiny slice of a tiny subset of Cuban reality. He set up shop for three years in Centro’s crumbling environment in order to make Epicentro and says that he was driven there by thoughts of utopia and its Cuban intersections. In presenting his thesis, he is not relentlessly negative. He demonstrates the utopia achieved in Cuba’s remarkable educational system by showing a pre-teen Cuban girl who, when asked about the contents of the Platt Amendment, offers a precise, articulate off-the-cuff summary. Passed by the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century to give itself unlimited intervention powers in the country, the Platt Amendment is something about which Americans are overwhelmingly ignorant, but considering the suffering it provoked in Cuba, it’s no surprise that Cubans are a little better informed.
But what Sauper gives on the one hand, he takes away on the other. He skillfully selects and edits some nighttime shots of children singing a patriotic anthem, translating and arranging them to read: “We are the vanguard of the revolution! Down with imperialism! Up with freedom! Cuba! Cuba! Studies! Labor! Guns!” The arrangement functions as a dog whistle for Western audiences, meant to confirm their ingrained fear of the communist boogeyman. The implication is that Cuban children may be well educated but communism has also trained them to mindlessly chant militaristic slogans. It’s a soothing liberal comfort zone: the audience and filmmaker operate on a shared belief that the truth is always somewhere in the middle.
Sometimes though, there is more truth on one side than the other. Sometimes even, the truth is solely on one side. The real context surrounding the anthem, of which Sauper may not have been aware, is quite a bit more interesting. Composed to honor the young volunteer teachers who traveled throughout rural Cuba to eradicate illiteracy after their armed Revolution, it is one that every Cuban child knows by heart. It honors Conrado Benítez, a young teacher who was lynched by CIA armed mercenaries in the Escambray mountains in 1961:
We are the Conrado Benítez [literacy] brigades
We are the vanguard of the Revolution,
with a book held high we are meeting a goal:
bringing literacy to all of Cuba.
through the mountains and the plains
the brigadier goes
supporting the homeland
fighting for peace.
Down with imperialism!
Up with freedom!
We bring letters
and the light of truth
Studies! Work! Rifle!
Pencil! Notebook! Textbook!
We shall be victorious!
Epicentro has been legitimately criticized for its wandering attention span – Sauper seems to have had trouble deciding what kind of film he really wanted to make, which may explain why it took him three years and also why it feels at times like an assortment of unrelated clips under a Cuban umbrella. To the extent that Epicentro focuses on anything however, it is evidently the Cuban children he came to know in his dilapidated Centro neighborhood.
An inordinate amount of time is dedicated to a perplexing set of footage narrated by a top-hatted magician with a painful American accent, demonstrating how cinema trickery serves the purposes of propaganda. I won’t elaborate on the details; other reviews explain it thoroughly. In any case we are presented with the jarring spectacle of Cuban children attending the screening, awestruck by the magician and his black and white reels, almost like remote indigenous children presented with a “moving picture” for the very first time.
They didn’t resemble any Cuban children I know. Cuban kids are far too streetwise and sarcastic to sit still for such nonsense. Maybe they were just being polite. Or maybe they were acting, because they were being filmed? The scene is repeated later when Oona Castilla Chaplin screens her grandfather’s The Great Dictator for the children; another anachronism the average Cuban child would find puzzling in the age of YouTube video gamers. (And by the way, why not The Gold Rush, or Modern Times, or The Immigrant? Well, you know why.)
Two girls are the undisputable stars. They are given an iPhone and they set off with it to film themselves as, predictably, fashion models. Later Sauper takes them to the luxury Grand Packard hotel for a nighttime swim in the pool. I squirmed in my seat as Sauper told them not to speak while they entered; he explained that he could sneak them in because as a white European he wouldn’t be questioned. Just like a pedophile sex tourist.
Cuba has a zero-tolerance policy for the sex trafficking of minors, and Cuban doormen are well trained. As he tries to surreptitiously film their entrance the footage is suddenly scrambled as he loses his grip on the hidden camera. Suddenly without further explanation, the girls are in the pool, in the street clothes (not swimsuits) that mark them as impoverished Cubans.
What kind of explanation did Sauper offer to get them there? The audience is never told. The implication appears to be that he offered someone a bribe. The girls were filmed at night after all, in a somewhat illicit manner. Sauper certainly had plenty of time to gain people’s confidence and calculate his chances. The least offensive way of interpreting the event is that as a filmmaker with an official license, he asked the hotel management for permission while concealing his true intentions. In any case, we shall never know.
He treats the girls to chocolate cake. One of them asks for seconds but instead of simply providing it without comment, same as the first serving, he decides to tell her the cake’s exorbitant price so he can film the reaction he knows is coming. She is naturally and visibly shocked and says never mind. She is adorable. The audience laughs. But are the laughs at her expense? Are we supposed to be shocked that Cuba has luxury hotels priced beyond reach? To wonder what happened to Cuban utopia?
I’ve seen this attitude very many times, including from people close to me who’ve come to visit Cuba. They tend to see it as an enchanted time capsule; an underdeveloped socialist island, lured and corrupted by capitalist longings. They frown at “Studies, labor, guns” but are equally revolted by luxury hotels, golf courses, cruise ships: ugly tourism expressed in corporate form. Cuba is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Surely, they believe, there’s a third way? The problem is that the “we know better” point of view is a colonialist one. Post-modern colonialism perhaps but patronizing nonetheless.
Cubans are not unsophisticated, nor are they exotic creatures trapped in amber. They live in the modern world and they’re not unaware of sustainable development; it’s baked into their economic planning. They are confronted however, with the challenge of attracting a revenue stream that funds the education that teaches a child to express herself articulately. The same that gives her every opportunity to become the engineer or economist who will draft the future market studies that, given investment, will bring Cuba to the promised land of development. The land where in addition to universal social security, every Cuban has a chance to exercise their chosen profession at a decent wage. Is there a better definition of utopia? How is Cuba to achieve it when, sixty-one years after its Revolution, it remains an international economic pariah? Why should these not be Cuba’s choices to make?
Centro Habana has never escaped the curse of being Wim Wenders’ wonderland and Sauper is not the first, nor I suspect, will he be the last filmmaker to find it hypnotic. The ruins he films, along with their colorful residents, certainly have their own beauty. It would be a mistake however, to view them as definitive, much less “paradise” as expressed by Sauper and Chaplin.
The title of the New York Times review of the film, “They Are Cuba,” encapsulates the problem. The bright, sophisticated young Cuban technocrats working to transform their country are also Cuba. They just don’t fit Sauper’s or the New York Times’ picturesque profile. Audiences may come away from Epicentro thinking they have learned something about the country but in reality, the film brings nothing new to the table. One of the film’s young stars actually says as much: “Whoever makes up the stories tells them at their own convenience.”