[8 June 2008]
PopMatters Features Editor
There is no question that Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was a remarkable man. He is fundamentally fascinating, no matter whether you loathe or adore him and his causes. Indeed, he may be among the most influential and important figures of the past century. No matter where you stand on his contributions to history, it’s hard to disagree with the idea that he was, and continues to be, profoundly important.
Perhaps more significantly, there is also no question that El Che is now more an idea than a human, more a concept than an historical actor. Recent hagiographical films (like The Motorcycle Diaries) notwithstanding, the general knowledge of Che Guevara is widely reduced to that one, iconic image of his cherubic, bearded visage that launched a million t-shirts and dorm room posters.
As is too often the case with icons, little thought is given to the rest of the story. Ask most folks, worldwide, about the man on their t-shirt, and they’ll respond with varying degrees of this comforting story: El Che was a freedom fighter, and an unquestionably great man; he fought and died in a battle for the little guy against the three-headed juggernaut of imperialism, capitalism, and Americanism; he was murdered by the United States government because he was trying to overthrow their control of poor people in Latin America; he was, and always will be, the patron saint of the struggle for socialist revolution.
If you ask the folks on the other side of the fence, of whom there are considerably fewer, you’ll get something along these lines: Guevara was a murderer and a rabble rouser; he had no economic sense and ruined states with his misguided belief in Leninist dogma; his poisonous legacy still afflicts Latin American countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and, of course, Cuba.
This is what makes Che Guevara such a perfect candidate for a documentary film. His life was certainly captivating enough, but his legacy since his murder in 1967 is the real story. How has this man come to represent, in the minds of so many people the world over, the champion of the poor, and the enemy of capitalism? There’s a fantastic, absorbing, and essential film to be made on this man. Alas, not only is Kultur Films’ Che Guevara: Hasta la Victoria Siempre emphatically not a fantastic, absorbing or essential documentary, but it is in fact among the dullest, most deeply inessential pieces of filmmaking that I have seen in some time.
Boasting no artistic approach to speak of, and employing the medium of film in rather precisely the same way as does a slide show or Power Point presentation, all we have here is a 60-minute scripted narrator talking over a photo album. Literally: the film is a series of still photos and archival footage which runs continuously while a man reads a voice script with a commitment to his craft that equals Pete Dougherty’s commitment to staying clean. There is no insight, no interpretation, no angle offered here beyond the most basic of assumptions.
Che Guevara was conflicted about violence? Really? All that teaches us is that he wasn’t a psychopath. Not exactly helpful stuff.
Indeed, the film asks us to remain so passive, so uninvolved in the action, that one finds it terribly easy to not care. We can just sit back and watch the lazy presentation as it rolls along, as this guy talks about stuff that is vaguely connected to what is going on on-screen, and quietly wonder what to make for lunch. Imagine making a tiresome film about a man who is among the most fundamentally interesting figures of the 20th century. In that sense, the fact that this documentary makes Guevara’s story boring is a laudable feat. If there were a Razzie for docs, this would be a ringer.