Fidel: The Untold Story is a documentary by American film-maker Estela Bravo, well described by this Bright Lights Film Review.
As Ms Bravo’s own website describes it,
Director, Estela Bravo, has obtained original and unusual interviews with Castro and exclusive footage from Cuban State archives. For the first time on film, we see Fidel Castro in a more intimate light, swimming with his bodyguards, visiting his childhood home and school, joking with his friend Nelson Mandela, meeting with Elian Gonzalez, and celebrating his birthday with the Buena Vista Social Club.
Bravo allows the story to unfold through the words of Alice Walker, Sydney Pollack, Ted Turner, Muhammed Ali, Harry Belafonte, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Congressman Charles Rangel, Ramsey Clark, Wayne Smith, and others. Family and close friends, such as the Nobel Prize winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, also offer a window into the largely unknown private life of Fidel Castro.
It’s a sympathetic and affectionate portrayal of Cuba and of Castro, which in the rabid anti-Castro atmosphere of American media makes it a rare and fascinating document — an inverse portrait of US disinformation and censorship. It’s a conventional biopic of Castro’s life — starting with the usual old photographs and an account of his schooling, continuing with his involvement in student politics at the University of Havana (during a period of intense repression by the Batista government), and finally following his career as armed insurgent, successful revolutionary, and popular leader. What makes it highly unconventional — almost breath-taking at times — is that it covers the life of a socialist revolution as well as of a famous man, and that it treats a much-maligned and demonised country and character with respect and affection. This in turn illuminates for the American viewer how pervasive and complete is the anti-Cuba propaganda campaign in the US.
I’ve watched this film (it’s available on DVD through mainstream US outlets) twice, and was struck both times by the quality of the interviews. Estela Bravo is a capable and talented social documentarist with a long track record (30 films and counting). An American who in 1963 immigrated to Cuba, she has received several accolades and awards from Canadian and European film institutions but been largely ignored (no surprises here) in her country of origin.
I have long been interested in Cuba’s stubborn success [it is perhaps the only functional socialist country in the world] — especially the solidarity of its vibrant polyracial culture and its remarkable strategic and tactical achievement in responding to its localised peak oil crisis [collapse of the Communist Bloc plus the vindictive US embargo shut off Cuba's supply of fossil fuels, necessitating a complete retooling of its agricultural economy -- see the short documentary "The Power of Community" for one, rather sketchy, account of the Cuban agricultural renaissance]. Compared to the the average ignorant Yanqui I know a fair amount about Cuba — but that’s not saying much, so this film presented me with quite a lot of new information.
The most important new information in the film was both revelation and reminder, a concise and vivid review of things I barely remembered or never knew: Cuba’s bold and steadfast support of anticolonialist and labour movements worldwide. All over S America, in Africa, in Viet Nam, the new Cuban state offered support to both people’s war against Anglo/Euro colonial forces, and worker/peasant struggles against local comprador elites. Everyone (I hope) remembers that Che and Castro were friends and that El Che fought in the Cuban revolutionary war; and most of us recall that Cuba sent troops to Angola (but I didn’t remember that as many as 300,000 Cubans served in Angola in medical, military, and support capacities, and over 2000 died there). What I had forgotten or never knew about was the warm friendship between Castro and Nelson Mandela, and the pivotal role that the Angolan victory (over S African forces) played in weakening the Apartheid regime in S Africa. Bravo’s documentary makes connections — treating Cuba not as an isolated phenomenon, a freak of history, but as an integral part of a dynamic transnational resistance struggle that took place over decades.
Cuba’s involvement in Angola was often described by the US establishment and its tame press as “inappropriate” — what was a South American country doing in Africa? But for many, perhaps a majority, of Cubans, Africa is the mother country — so says more than one person interviewed in the documentary. Africa’s struggle against white supremacy and colonialism was Cuba’s struggle. The rainbow of faces interviewed tells its own story: unlike America — which has an official public identity of Whiteness — “a Cuban” (whether peasant, doctor, musician or administrator) comes in all colours, and neither in the English subtitles nor in the Spanish dialogue did I ever hear the phrase “Black Cuban”.
Cuba’s support of African nationalists struggling for liberation from colonial systems helped to win Castro friends in the American Black community. Another new piece of information for me was an incident from 1960: the Hotel Teresa in Harlem welcomed Castro and his entourage (on a state visit to the UN) with accommodation free of charge, after the swanky (white-owned) Hotel Shelburne turned them away “for fear of bad publicity.” To see the historical footage of crowds of Black Americans cheering and chanting for Fidel is to understand a little of the terror his success generated in the hearts of America’s white aristocracy.
And gibbering terror it surely is; a CIA analyst who used to head the Cuba desk marvels at the persistence and vindictiveness of official US hatred of Cuba. He describes it as being like a mental illness, a psychotic obsession. It transcends party lines — under Democratic or Republican regimes, year in and year out, the relentless drumbeat of anti-Castro propaganda and grim insistence on maintaining the embargo continue. One interviewee muses that we (the US) now trade with Communist China, with whom we were in a shooting war in N Korea; we trade with Viet Nam; we trade with Germany and Italy; but tiny Cuba remains the bête noire of American foreign policy, the Great Satan of our ruling class’ nightmares.
And I use the term advisedly. For I suspect that the reason for the personal, vindictive, obsessive rage of the white American ruling class against Castro is that he was a race traitor. Castro, and the Cuba he helped to build, cast their lot with the poor people and the brown people of the earth. Batista’s Cuba was white supremacist, openly racist, a playground for wealthy Anglos, corporate honchos and Mafia capos. Pale-skinned Cubans of Hispanic descent were the overlords of Batista’s Cuba; the brown and black masses counted for nothing. It may be coincidence, but footage of the “Miami Mafia” of upper-class and bourgeois exiles from the old Cuba shows pale faces; the old ruling class seems to have been an elite almost as white as that of Harvard and Yale. Castro changed all that; and it seems hardly coincidental that one of the most tenacious and obsessive enemies of Cuba in the US political apparatus is Sen. Jesse Helms, the well-known racist. Castro — himself relatively pale — went over to the Other Side. And that the whiteboys cannot forgive.
The roll call of well-known names who granted interviews to Bravo is impressive and underscores the interconnectedness of the liberation struggles of the 60′s and 70′s. Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Harry Belafonte, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Philip Agee; all speak with feeling and insight about the meaning of Cuba’s successful revolution in their own lives and in world politics. Not directly interviewed but appearing in historical footage are more celebrated names in friendly visits with Castro: Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere as well as several other African anticolonial leaders; Muhammed Ali; even (to my surprise) US media bigwigs Ted Turner and Jack Nicholson. But another roll call accrues as the film unfolds: the assassinated leaders of popular movements, the CIA’s victims, from Che to Allende and forward to our own time… and the legions of ordinary people “disappeared”, tortured, murdered by rightwing juntas and dictators installed and supported by the US. It is hard at times to watch a film that carries us back through so much grief and loss, to look at South America today and think what might have been, if not for the wicked, calculated meddling of the US at the behest of its “business community,” protecting profits and ensuring the flow of cheap raw materials into the industrial hoppers of the North.
The film has been criticised as “one-sided” in its open affection and admiration for Castro and for socialist Cuba. It has been called a “propaganda piece” and castigated for not interviewing Cuban dissidents, for not raising issues of free speech in Cuba, gay rights in Cuba, etc. Some of these criticisms ring a bit more hollow in today’s America than they did when the film was released in 2001; America can hardly call itself a beacon of free speech and gay rights at this vexed juncture in its political history. I would describe the film as more counter-propaganda than propaganda; if it is one-sided, it’s trying to compensate for the anti-Cuba propaganda blitz that saturates the US media. (The Bright Lights review linked to above addresses these issues also, including Cuba’s belated but sincere attempts to combat homophobia..)
One thing that struck a jarring note for me was Castro’s evident belief in the fossil-based “development” paradigm which has suckered so many third world countries into debt and disaster. Had the USSR not collapsed, leaving Cuba fuel-poor, it seems that he would have pursued the industrial farming model subscribed to by Soviet as well as capitalist planners. The result for Cuba might well have been disaster in the long term. As it is, the tiny island nation seems well positioned to weather global oil shocks; even if its balance of trade in world currencies is shaky at times, it has what vanishingly few nations can any longer claim: food security. Since this is a particular obsession of mine, I wish the film had dwelt more on the Special Period and the reform of Cuban agriculture; but to be fair, the film is called Fidel, not Cuban Farming Past and Present, and my dissatisfactions with it reflect the dearth of real information about Cuba available to US residents, more than a defect of the film itself.
“Fidel” is imho the ideal movie to share with friends who have uncritically swallowed the anti-Cuba propaganda of the Miami Mafia and the US State Department. It presents Castro as a human being rather than a cardboard cutout, and sets the Cuban revolution in historical perspective. This historical contextualising is important, as the Batista regime’s atrocities and the desperate state of Cuba’s pre-revolutionary economy and society are unknown to most Americans. It makes the revolution more comprehensible by setting it in the context of a life story (a “Great Man” narrative which is more familiar and easily comprehended by most people than an objective historical account) — and what a remarkable life story it is! full of distinguished characters and astonishing events, drama, heroism, suspense, and struggle. Bravo does a very good job of making the connections between Cuba and other causes which most Americans generally support — Nelson Mandela and the struggle against Apartheid being the most popular of all liberation struggles and their spokespeople among average Americans. She also clarifies Castro’s troubled relationship with the USSR and how Cuba was driven by the American embargo into a difficult position as a Soviet client state. Without becoming an unrelieved anti-US polemic, the movie does not conceal or erase the record of criminal US interference in S American and African affairs; and despite its sometimes grim or sad subject matter a vein of good humour and warmth runs through it.
But more than any strictly factual or educational content, I think there’s a subliminal message in this film that makes it important; its talking heads are more likely to be Black or “foreign” than White, its centre of gravity is outside the enclaves of the DC political elite and the national media elite. It is a film from that other world that wants to be possible: a film in which American imperial power and white racism are seen from the outside and clearly named as problems, not invisibly accepted or tacitly applauded or flailingly defended or excused. It is cinéma altermondialiste and even without the narration or subtitles its images and voices and music would offer their own subliminal, heartening message of hope and resistance.
Bravo is said to be working on a documentary about “Operation Peter Pan,” an airlift which “rescued” 14,000 Cuban children and resettled them in the US. Their parents apparently sent them away voluntarily due to fears about the future of Cuba under the Castro government. After watching “Fidel” I am interested in seeing more of her work and looking forward to her account of this bizarre episode.