Friday, May 11, 2007

El Che

(Movie Review)

I already knew most of the stuff in this movie, but I’m a sucker for documentaries. It’s a shame there are so few good documentaries out there.

The copyright on this movie is 1997, but it was in the new release section of my local video store here in Japan. Maybe it is just getting released in Japan now because of the recent renewed interest in Che Guevara here.

Like most student radical wannabes, I went through a Che Guevara stage. Initially I started wearing Che Guevara T-shirts just because it got approval from all the right sort of people, and also managed to upset all the people I wanted to upset. However as a history nerd and bookworm, it wasn’t too long before I had spent a couple nights in the library reading up on everything Che related.

There’s a lot to admire about Che Guevara. However the fact that he presided over firing squads is always a bit troubling. The documentary mentions this briefly and (because this was originally a French film) compares Che’s revolutionary zeal to Saint Just.

The more I thought about it, the comparison seems apt on many levels. Perhaps Che Guevara was the Saint Just of the 20th Century. Both were renowned for their good looks and eloquence. Both were famous for being the right hand man of someone else. Both were absolutely convinced of the justice of the justice of their actions and both left a violent legacy which is somewhat at odds with their humanitarian rhetoric. Both were captured, executed, and after their death both became either matyrs to some and demons to others.

The film implies that Che only ordered the execution of Batista’s former torturers, and that he was under tremendous pressure from the population to do so. I’m going to have to double check this, because I was under the impression that some political dissidents were included in those executions as well. (Or can someone out there set me straight?)

Even if the executed were all former torturers, I think the Cuban revolution would have done better to do as Sandinista leader Tomas Borge who, after the revolution in Nicaragua,
walked into the prison and found the national guard soldiers of Somoza who had castrated him, had killed his wife, and had forced him to watch while seventeen men gang raped and then killed his daughter. Borge embraced them and told them he forgave them, and let them go free.

Or follow the advice of Thomas Paine, who once said before the French Revolutionary convention, “[When future historians talk about this revolution] I would rather report 100 errors of mercy than 1 error of vengeance” (unfortunately the French didn’t listen to him either).

But do I feel guilty for wearing Che Guevara shirts? I suppose no more than I feel about wearing Calvin College shirts, even though John Calvin had Michael Servitus burned at the stake. I believe it is possible to embrace the ideals a man stood for without having to defend every low point of his life. (As Saint Just was being lead to the guillotine, he pointed to a copy of “The Rights of Man” on the wall and said, “At least you’ll still have this to thank us for.”)

All this is only 2 minutes of the film, but I wanted to get this discussion out of the way before moving on to the rest of documentary.

As mentioned above, I didn’t learn a lot new from this film. Someone who didn’t know anything about Che Guevara would probably get a lot more out of the film. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable enough 90 minutes. As with any documentary film, the best part is the old documentary footage that you can’t see by reading a book. Unfortunately, like a lot of documentaries, this film relied more on interviews than old video clips, but there was some footage of Che Guevara as a child (apparently his dad was one of the few people back then who had a home video camera). And of course footage of the famous bearded cigar smoking Che triumphant after the revolution. And some footage from the trial of Regis Debray in Bolivia. (Again perhaps because this is a French film, there is an emphasis Regis Debray’s trial).

The part of the movie I found most interesting was about Che’s adventures in the Belgian Congo, brief though that part was, because it was something I knew nothing about.

I would recommend this film, but I suppose recommending a documentary is pointless. If you like documentaries, and if you are interested in the subject matter, than I imagine you’ll seek this out regardless of my recommendation or lack of. And if you don’t like documentaries, then there’s not really much of a point, is there?

Link of the Day
There's a nice little article here on Peace Presence, a group I was involved with during the 8 months or so I was back in the U.S.

Speaking of which, Peace Presence has updated their photosite. If you scroll down a few pictures, you can see a picture of me holding my sign here.

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