By Gerald Peary
Politics is not the filmmaker’s interest in this lovely, affecting documentation of nonbureaucratic, everyday life in Havana.
As a lifetime anti-Stalinist and Democratic Socialist, I’ve had a tough time embracing the regime of Fidel Castro, even while detesting the crippling US blockade and acknowledging Cuba’s worthy universal health care and education. When I went to the first Havana International Film Festival in 1979, I was a far more skeptical attendee than many of my fellow American guests, gung-ho revolutionists. I couldn’t forget that homosexuals then were routinely imprisoned. I remember being unnerved when we were shown proud documentaries of Cuban soldiers battling in Ethiopia against an army of Eritrean separatists, in support of the authoritarian Marxist government. Quietly in Cuba, I was on the side of the Eritreans.
But what I did love in Havana was meeting random people on the street: so eager to engage with foreigners. Best of all were the children. I was complimented and humbled when I and an American friend were invited into a private home, though this was forbidden by the government. The gracious man who hosted us had several wonderful children. We gave them presents of coveted ballpoint pens, and one of the boys asked me with the deepest sincerity and longing: “Do you know George Harrison?” “Lo siento. No.” Unfortunately, I knew not one of the Beatles.
I’m not sure if Hubert Sauper, the acclaimed Austrian documentarian of Darwin’s Nightmare (2004), feels the same as I do about the government of Cuba. In his new Cuba-shot film, Epicentro, he’s noncommittal about Castro and company. When he photographs the mourning in the streets following Fidel’s death, he refrains from commenting on what he’s witnessed in his accompanying voice-over. I don’t think he’s being evasive: official politics is not the filmmaker’s interest in this lovely, affecting documentation of nonbureaucratic, everyday life in Havana. Like me three decades ago, he thirsts to meet regular people and hang out with them. As I was, he is especially taken with the kids. Unlike my nine tourist days, Sauper lingers in Cuba, surely for several months. He reaches the crucial point where, speaking fluid Spanish, he is more than an inquisitive, sympathetic outsider. He has a stake in Cuba. He can separate himself from the type of person he correctly despises: an imperialist stealing colonialist images with a camera.
There are several scenes of these encroachers, people from wealthy countries with their still cameras and phones, slumming in Old Havana for cool visual images to take home of Cuba’s colorful, exotic poor. A creepy Brit films a dotty old woman and then a boy, who correctly demands money for his photograph. A whole crowd of foreigners snap pictures of another boy getting a haircut. They pay him nothing, idiotically unaware that he’s resentful of the intrusion on his space.
Sauper in an interview: “It’s unthinkable for us to be in our home, and someone just opens the door and starts taking pictures.”
Acting as his own cinematographer in Havana, Sauper ventures off the tourist track with his camera. He talks to an old man in front of an abandoned sugar factory from Batista days. He attends a dance school on a day that a seedy, suspect German comes to teach the children the steps of tango. He befriends a saucy, sensual, outspoken woman, probably a prostitute, and drives her for her pleasure around Havana in a shiny ’50s convertible. She longs to visit Disneyland. He meets with an aging animator, who is involved in drawing Teddy Roosevelt for a propaganda short on America’s 1906 occupation of Cuba. He films the shiny faces of Cuban youngsters enraptured by an evening of silent cinema, from A Trip to the Moon to Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. And he brings from Spain his beguiling actress friend Oona Chaplin, Charlie’s granddaughter, to act with and sing with Cuban children.
Always children. They might be citing the official ideological line. Still it’s impressive to watch Cuban school kids who not only can recite the facts of their country’s imposed-on history but seem to understand conceptually what has occurred. It’s not memorization for a good grade or to get into a proper college: it’s informed citizenry at a precocious age. These kids conceive of the malevolence of Donald Trump in a sophisticated way, mentioning to Sauper his racism and his meanness. But they also know the details of his anti-immigration policies. A girl tells Sauper of her disdain for our president because of his maltreatment of Guatemalans at the Mexican border.
One of these children especially flourishes before the camera: Lioneli, maybe 10 years old. She’s from an impoverished single-mother household, this charismatic little movie star. She boldly requests, “Hubert, take me to your home for dinner.” The filmmaker does her better, sneaking her and a male buddy past security at a five-star tourist hotel, up the elevator to the Olympic-sized rooftop swimming pool. Top of the world! That’s the most moving scene of Epicentro: seeing these kids tasting privilege as they swim about under the Havana stars. They aren’t intimidated a bit. As she climbs out of the water, Lioneli brashly declares to Sauper, “I peed in the pool!”
Lioneli lives in a Cuban slum but dreams of an elevated life. With their mother’s permission, Sauper supplies Lioneli and her sister with beautiful gowns. They take pictures of each other, gorgeously decked out like mini–prom queens; and Lioneli proclaims her desire, “I want to go to Paris one day. “ Interviewed, Sauper said he’d have made that happen for the French premiere of the film except for COVID. When Epicentro opened in the French capital, she was “literally all over Paris on posters.” Everywhere on the metro, you’d see lovely Lioneli.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.