During the past couple of years, the documentary has become one of the most exciting forms of new cinema. Beginning, roughly, with Michael Moore’s contentious, deeply partisan but fascinating Bowling For Columbine, a series of provocative and brilliantly conceived documentaries have revived a form which was rapidly becoming merged into television and away from the big screen. Highlights of the documentary revival include Errol Morris’ remarkable study of Robert McNamara The Fog of War; the spectacularly powerful document about gay Hassidic Jews Trembling Before G-D; the humorous and very touching piece of Americana Spellbound; and the controversial and emotionally turbulent Capturing the Friedmans. But none of these is quite as baffling and unwittingly revealing as Oliver Stone’s Comandante. An extended interview with the aged Fidel Castro, absolutist Communist leader of Cuba, taken from 30 hours of conversation held in February 2002, it’s hagiographic to a degree which Stone would be the first to criticise if this were another filmmaker dealing with what Stone would consider a less politically agreeable subject.
Fidel Castro took power in Cuba during January 1959 when his revolutionary forces overthrew the corrupt Batista government. Over the past 45 years, he’s survived counter-coups, attempted assassinations, American sanctions and a degree of international unpopularity greater even than that of any of his old-Soviet counterparts. His clashes with the United States have passed into myth – ‘Bay Of Pigs’, the abortive invasion of Cuba by Free Cuban Forces, has been used by some (including Stone) as a code word for everything which is rotten in recent American history, from the Kennedy assassination to Watergate. Cuba has survived recession after recession and a degree of political and social repression which brings to mind the worst days of the USSR. Despite claiming to personify “representative democracy and social justice”, Castro’s government allows free elections but limits the choice of the electorate to one party. The alleged miracles of the welfare and health systems have long been revealed as an inefficient sham and the contributions of Castro’s leadership to the country include not only the expected number of political prisoners and political killings but also – uniquely – work camps for homosexuals. However, it’s also important to recognise that Castro has outlasted far more powerful enemies – Kennedy, Nixon, Thatcher and Reagan to name but four – and his country has maintained a revolutionary fervour which is quite astonishing in a world which is now very much post-Berlin Wall. Some of his achievements are impressive, notably some reasonably enlightened social and educational reforms. But the repression of human rights remains a real problem, enshrined in Article 61 of the 1976 Cuban Constitution which states that a person’s rights will only be recognised if said person “adheres to the objectives set forth by the government in its purpose to build a socialist state”. Why, in a country with such admirable aims and dogged insistence on ignoring the hegemony of the Western powers, have roughly a million people fled by legal means and many thousands more left illegally ?
In short, Castro should be a fascinating subject. There is an immense gap between the way he represents Cuba as a socialist haven for everyone embittered by capitalism and the facts of repression and economic collapse – the withdrawal of Soviet economic support being a huge blow to the Castro regime. Yet Oliver Stone – whose work has repeatedly shown a tenacious, awkward intelligence that most other American directors cannot hope to match – doesn’t engage with this at all. Instead, he asks Castro some of the softest, most straightforward questions imaginable and ensures that his subject knows he holds all the cards by agreeing to turn off the tape at any time if Castro wishes to re-phrase or withdraw something. The opening title card informs us that Castro never exercised this prerogative. Well, neither would you if someone was being as nice to you as Stone is here. Castro is constantly allowed to get away with vast generalisations, evasive answers and blatantly propagandistic statements and nothing is done by his interviewer to even suggest that this might be the case. It could be suggested that Stone is simply allowing his subject to express himself and asking us to be the judge. But if this is the case, why all the cutaways to Stone – sporting a very natty moustache – nodding thoughtfully and looking adoringly at his hero ? At one point, Castro questions whether it’s bad to be a dictator. This should be a key point at which Stone could bring up the subject of political repression and human rights but instead, Stone keeps schtum and goes back to a more personal line of questioning. We find out more about Castro’s chaotic love life than we do about his time as the leader of his country.
You only have to look at the probing and difficult questions asked of McNamara by Errol Morris in The Fog of War to see the kind of approach which might have worked. Morris frequently reduces his subject to silent reflection and manages to get at an objective view simply by countering McNamara’s points with film footage. Eventually, this approach – including some awkward questions which McNamara clearly doesn’t appreciate – elicits a truly revealing portrait of a remarkable – and rather terrifying – man. Stone seems in awe of his subject and the result is a mess. Stone has said, “We should look to Castro as one of the earth’s wisest people”. Shortly afterwards, this alleged sage rounded up 75 ‘dissidents’ and locked them up while still finding time to execute three more for trying to leave the country illegally.
However, for all its total lack of bite, this is a fascinating piece of work. For one thing, it’s brilliantly well made. As you’d expect, the composition and use of editing and montage are things of beauty and the use of old film footage is generally more interesting than the interview we’re meant to be listening to. Strictly as a filmmaker, Stone has now reached a point where he seems to have complete command of the medium. But what he lacks here is common sense. This is the other way in which the film is fascinating; it reveals a lot about Oliver Stone. The man who has managed to demonise Lyndon Johnson - to a point where admirers of LBJ’s domestic and civil rights reforms (which vastly outnumber those by the more popular Kennedy) might be wondering if the dead can sue for slander – and turn Richard Nixon into a flawed tragic hero worthy of the darkest film noir, has rolled over and had his tummy tickled by a dictator who has done more damage to the human rights of his citizens than the most rabidly Republican presidents of America. Our knowledge of Stone’s intelligence and political savvy in other circumstances dictates that we must greet Comandante with the overwhelming lack of admiration that it deserves. It tells us virtually nothing about Castro’s Cuba and the man who created it and it’s only purpose might be as a Party Political Broadcast for Fidel in the event that during the next elections he actually allows someone else to stand.
Optimum’s presentation of Comandante is impressive and contains a couple of extra features which are extremely valuable. The film is presented in its original 4:3 TV format. It was made for HBO, whose reluctance to show it on TV following international criticism of Castro’s human rights abuses in 2003 led to the indefinite postponement of its American release. The transfer is extremely good and copes very well indeed with the vast variations in the quality of the original material. The recent video footage is very sharp indeed while the old film footage looks about as good as unrestored black and white film is likely to look. The only available soundtrack is a perfectly fine Dolby Stereo track which keeps the talk eminently crisp and clear and doesn’t allow the music and song score to be overbearing.
Since one of the key questions while watching the film is “What on earth does Stone think he’s doing?”, the inclusion of a commentary and documentary footage from the 2003 Edinburgh Film Festival is very welcome. The Festival material is fascinating with Stone explaining the background to the film and his reaction to the postponing of the film’s American release. He still seems completely in awe of Castro – apparently he was “upset” about all the accusations of human rights abuses and this led to a second documentary which might, theoretically, be more critical. Eventually, this piece turns into the excuse for some very entertaining conspiracy theorising about George Bush and the forthcoming elections which suggests that any documentary made by Stone about Dubya and his ilk is likely to be considerably more interesting than this one. The commentary track is similarly self-exculpatory and isn’t as revealing as you might hope. Stone does discuss his interviewing methods and implies that his sycophancy was the only way he could possibly get Castro to talk for so long. He also makes the comment “get off your ideological high horse” about people who criticise Cuba, suggesting that the other countries in the area are much worse. Quite apart from the amusing irony in Mr Stone making this statement, to what extent it makes sense is a moot point – the fact that Nicaragua, for example, is in complete chaos doesn’t make the repression of Cuban citizens who go against the party line any more justifiable does it ?
The 90 minute film has been broken down into 16 chapter stops. There are no English subtitles except to translate some of Castro’s Spanish.
Watching Comandante as someone who is politically in sympathy with Stone, I was desperately disappointed that he took Castro at his own estimation and never attempts to probe any deeper. However, it’s still fascinating to see real footage of a man who is, like it or not, a piece of living history. The DVD is, however, very good and recommended to anyone who has an active interest in world politics or recent history.