Directed by: Trisha Ziff and Luis Lopez
Distributed by: Madman
1950s Havana. Alberto Korda had the life. A fashion and party photographer in Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba, his work documented the hedonistic charm of Caribbean celebration. Korda wasn’t a mere observer of the Batista years – he drank, smoked and danced with the Havana elite, though not oblivious to the majority rural Cuban population. The peasant class.
Before Che, there was the picture that changed Korda. In 1958, as the Batistas were slowly being strangled by Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement, Korda came a cross a little girl, all dark-eyed and cherubic, notwithstanding the marks of dirt lined across her cheeks. She was cradling what seemed to be a piece of wood, but to her was her doll. The image, La niña con la muñeca de palo, was his transition image, and a catalyst for his growing sympathy toward la revolución.
While Korda’s subject matter would change, the photographer retained his naturalist aesthetic. He followed Castro across Cuba and overseas, and was responsible for the famous image of Fidel gazing over the Lincoln Memorial during the new leader’s visit to Washington in 1959.
To know Fidel Castro was to know Ernesto Guevara – ‘Che’ to the Cubans – the comandante of Castro’s revolutionary forces. “Have you ever cut cane?” Che asked Korda, in response to a request for a picture. An answer in the negative was followed by, “After you have finished cutting cane for a week, then you can take my picture.” Korda duly obliged.
But it wasn’t a choreographed portrait that would elevate Che to the status of myth. Instead it was a moment, a matter of seconds, during the memorial service for the victims of the La Coubre tragedy – the French ship, delivering ordinance from Belgium, suffered a series of horrific explosions whilst being carelessly unloaded in Havana. Korda was taking pictures of Castro addressing the crowd, when Che appeared on the stage to take in the gathered, grieving mass. Korda had time only for two photographs (Version I and Version II), before Che disappeared out of sight.
Trisha Ziff and Luis Lopez’s excellent documentary is the story of this image, cropped from Version II above – a story of its commodification and revered status, its transient symbolism, its use and its misuse. The simple cropping of the man’s profile and the palm tree have since removed from the image any sense of time and place, rendering Guerrillero Heroico probably the most ubiquitous photograph of the 20th century.
Another key player in the story is the American artist Jim Fitzpatrick, the creator of the silk-screen graphic of Che. The removal of the original photograph’s detail and chiaroscuro – along with the lack of any kind of copyright – was the final, key step to its eventual universality. The print was easy to copy and distribute, and it is within this context of the image that the filmmakers are most interested.
The proliferation of the image has as much to do with the perennial idealism of youth as to the amoral nature of capitalism. “Capitalism devours everything, including its worst enemies,” says Ivan de la Nuez, Director of the Palau de la Virreina in Barcelona. Ziff and Lopez travel to UCLA where they find a young Republican student adorned in a red Che Guevara T-shirt, who proudly reveals the writing beneath the image saying, “this shirt brought to you by capitalism”.
It would be easy for Ziff and Lopez to take an ideological position here, to dissect the inherent and obvious contradiction between Che’s politic and the mass consumption of his brand. Instead, they seek admirably to illuminate the propagandistic and opportunistic use of the image, without ever taking to the lectern themselves. Thankfully, they leave it to angry old Tom Morello, guitarist from Rage Against The Machine, to trot out the tired line, “when I wear it, I know what it means”. Providing the necessary counterpoint is one of Guevara’s old friends from Argentina, who ends up uttering words which should be of solace for Guevara’s legions of sympathisers. The old man smiles and says, “Ernesto was a bit sarcastic. I’m sure he would be laughing at it.”
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