Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar
As military columns led by Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and others took over Cuba in 1959, Fidel Castro went from a larger-than-life revolutionary figure to a leader who would galvanize allies and opponents alike for the next 50 years. Indeed the architect of the Cuban Revolution is today as much a figure of many imaginations as he is part of Latin America's and revolutionary socialism's reality.
Since the moment those insurgent forces marched into Havana, heralding the flight of the United States-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista from power, many writers and scholars have sought to convey the story of Fidel Castro as both an instigator and theorist. His sense of history and sheer charisma make Castro ripe for book and film, and scores of works have portrayed that intensity, for good and ill. Author and acclaimed documentary filmmaker Saul Landau's entry into this history is an admirable addition.
Now out on DVD, Landau's documentary Fidel! is penetrating in several ways. First, Fidel! features many one-on-one interviews with Castro himself. Whether he captures Castro discussing how he tries to spend virtually all his time out of "the office" and among the people to demonstrating why Castro blessedly did not make baseball his second career choice, Landau get the kind of access many world leaders would never allow today. Second, filmed in 1969, just ten years after revolutionaries ascended to the zenith in Cuba, hope and radical fervor burn prominently.
Early in the film, a street musician sings, "We paid a heavy price/20,000 dead/But once the imperialist system was overthrown/the socialist government won 1,000 battles." During the Cuban Revolution's early years, people in the cities and countryside are presented here as optimistic about what Castro's leadership means for education, social services and the end of inequity. Fidel! is dotted with scenes of Cubans talking about the everyday business of living life after the revolution. It is clear they accept sacrifice as part of their obligation to ensuring the massive changes they have seen in their lifetimes will continue. For North Americans, for whom sacrifices like rationing might seem like ancient history, the steadfastness of Cubans may be shocking. But, at least from Landau's lens 40 years ago, seeing really is believing.
Further still, Fidel! is remarkable for how close one gets to the day-to-day experience of the Cuban people. From community meetings with Castro, into the sometimes sketchy business of seeing a revolution take root, Fidel! offers an unprecedented look at the people and their relationship with the Cuban leader. One man recounts during one of Castro's village stops how some people in the town will shirk jobs for the day to get a higher place in the food line. Others express dissatisfaction with municipal services and the pace of reform. Later, Castro candidly discusses how hearing citizen complaints and wish lists are simply part of what he does in a post-upheaval period. Yet once people have food and hospitals, a bemused Castro notes, they soon want movie theaters and more. Balancing out necessities versus daydreams while striving for the socialist ideal of a world without classes (in a country that had a deeply divided class system in not-so-distant memory) makes Fidel! intriguing for its portrayal of Cuba as a real-time experiment of socialism in practice.
Fidel! also presents the story of those opposed to the Cuban Revolution. Landau takes us into the prisons for counterrevolutionaries, where inmates talk about why they feel as they do. In the film, Castro argues penal sanction is not seen as punishment, but as a necessary defense of the revolution, with the goal of rehabilitating opponents. However, those waiting to leave the country seem to make it clear they are uninterested in rehabilitation or making peace with socialism. The demands for luxuries Castro hears about among the people are seen by some critics as the leader's willingness to let Cubans suffer in poverty. They allege Castro's offer to let them leave is deceptive due to the slow pace of fulfillment. However, other Cubans hint the same critics can't be booted fast enough from the country.
Fidel! only lightly addresses domestic topics that have since gained a foothold in the progressive conscience: freedom of dissent, race relations and what ongoing international tensions even back then might mean for Cuba in a generation. The documentary's strength, however, is in telling Castro's story with an intimacy few have offered. Add in some of this DVD's bonus features, such as Landau's 1974 short subject film Fidel + Cuba and a discussion with the filmmaker about the experience of creating Fidel! and impressions of post-revolution Cuba, and the package presents the conviction of Fidel Castro that is unique and inspiring.