CUBA / After ushering in the American Empire and its eventual revolt against it, Hubert Sauper takes an immersive look at Cuba and its people.

Would Cuba’s communist revolution have turned the Caribbean island into a veritable utopia, were it not for the chains of foreign imperialism? It’s a question that’s been fiercely debated since Fidel Castro’s movement overthrew the military dictatorship in the ‘50s. And it’s one that Austrian documentarian Hubert Sauper, who also directed examinations of colonialism Darwin’s Nightmare (2005) and We Come As Friends (2015), circles around in his idiosyncratic and impressionistic collection of musings on the country and its origin stories, Epicentro, which won the World Documentary jury prize at Sundance and is screening at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival. The title refers to the position of Cuba on the receiving end of abuses enacted through the slave trade, colonisation, and the globalisation of power — dystopian trends of history, and the ingredients of modern empire.

Stories

Cuba is where the American flag was first planted overseas. The myth perpetuated by the United States that it arrived with benevolent intent to liberate the Cuban people from the Spanish colonial tyrants that had dominated, rather than to exploit them further on a false pretext, is squarely pulled apart. The director is very present in the frame, but he provides much space for locals to voice their views, in particular school children like budding actress Lioneli, whose textbooks tell a decidedly different, anti-imperialist version of Cuba’s past. The notion that history, and indeed reality, is created by whoever is able to convince people of their stories — stories that at times are fabricated to conveniently serve certain interests, coerce and oppress — is central to a film that suggests nations are formed by acts of the collective imagination as much as by the events and wars that determine power structures. That Sauper’s own film may be just as subjective, biased, and manipulative in its own way as the propaganda reels that faked an execution by Spanish colonisers is a quandary the director does not shy away from. Rather, through voice-over narration, he is eager to prompt us to reflect on the ideological nature of all storytelling; to be aware always of who we serve, when we create narratives or images.

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Epicentro, a film by Hubert Sauper

Tourism

While the film paints a very critical view of the impact on Cuba of the attitudes and policies of the United States, which produced a lot of the sugar for Coca Cola but was later unable to import it due to a punishing trade embargo. Current-day Cuba is presented as no closer to a utopia than it ever was — in large part because of the decimating effect of tourism. Sauper doesn’t hold back from portraying tourists in their most parasitic incarnations; as «humanity in its worst possible form,» devourers of the past and culture, and with it the future as well, as all is reduced to superficiality. A New York photographer opines on the «tragic circumstances» of those he is snapping shots of, but he is unwilling to pay them any money as the subjects who are making his poverty porn possible. «To be photographed by me is an honour,» he says with gross arrogance, congratulating himself on gifting one local a mere pen for their time. More foreigners clutching cameras crowd a barbershop doorway as they snap a kid getting his hair cut, a large Che Guevara portrait in the background. Their fetishistic desperation to capture some kind of soul of one of the last communist nations on Earth trumps any recognition within them that they are regarding the beings in this establishment like creatures in a zoo there for their entertainment or service.

Current-day Cuba is presented as no closer to a utopia than it ever was

Many tourists are on a quest to escape their familiar lives and responsibilities at home by chasing a sense of the exotic — and spending their time in hotels with prostitutes is hardly unheard of. The vast inequality rampant in the double economy occasioned by tourism means a Cuban girl’s mother can earn just $20 a month in salary working at a hospital, while flash hotels cost hundreds of dollars a night. Sauper visits one of them with two of the children and in order for them to make use of the luxury pool, he must sneak them in, by having them speak English and pretend to be wealthy tourists. What kind of nation is it, if its best facilities are off-limits for its own inhabitants to use? Cuba’s history as a meeting place for the Americans mafia to conduct business sums up its fate as a playground for foreigners’ most corrupt impulses. The current president is low in Lioneli’s estimation, for not only failing to lift the embargo but also for shutting out migrants. «Trump cares about nobody; he has no feelings,» she says. The United States historically painted Cuba in its propaganda as a child in need — but Epicentro suggests the clear-eyed wisdom of Cuba’s children holds the promise of its robust future health.

Epicentro screens as part of Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival «Constellations» & IDFA «Masters» programmes.