Interview with director of Che films

Campaign News | Thursday, 4 December 2008

By Jorge Garrido and Luis Notario for Cuba Now

Ché Guevara: Neither a saint nor a devil, Just a man, says Steven Soderbergh, director of the two films on the emblematic guerrilla man.

Which was the Ché Guevara that Steven Soderbergh portrayed on the screen? "I had no interest in showing Ché any other way," said the famous US director of Traffic, in an exclusive interview for Cubanow about how he depicts Commander Guevara in the two movies made on his life: The Argentine and Guerrilla. Both films, as part of the same motion picture project, will debut in Cuba this week at the 30th Havana International Festival of New Latin American Filmmaking. US actor Benicio del Toro plays the leading role in the movie. The film will also premiere in the United States in the next few days.

The dangers of Ché Guevara walking into the Hollywood machinery or just being filmed by famous US artists, albeit elsewhere in the world, arouses many suspicions. The greatest risk is to fabricate a man who does not exist. Hollywood, most certainly, would have turned him into a semi-god, into an adventurer without a cause or into an anti-hero.

Ché is not just a poster and a legendary photograph still traveling around the world.

He is a real myth and, at the same time, a flesh-and-blood man because of his controversial ideas and the rebellious image he portrays. A contemporary man turned into a legend at an early time. He was assassinated in 1967 in the dense jungles of Bolivia, after being apprehended alive, injured and surrounded by soldiers. Although only 41 years have elapsed since his death, he has become a symbol for those who love him and even for those who hate him. Ché is not an invention or a romantic image, but a man who can also be read; a man who provokes thoughts and controversies.

When the announcement was made that US film director Steven Soderbergh would shoot a movie on Ché Guevara, and that actor Benicio del Toro would play the role of the Argentinean-Cuban guerrilla man, many people thought that his real essence would be disrupted, disguised or that he would, perhaps, die uselessly in the film. Legend and mysticism would override the truth about his life. Ché would be an anti-hero on the screen.

Doubts have been dispelled as the movie (the two films that wrapped up the project), which debuted at the last Cannes Film Festival and subsequently in Spain, has gained promotion.

However, all suspicions and concerns remain. Which is the Ché Guevara portrayed by Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro? As the film is about to debut with the Cuban public, which worships the guerrilla man because of the profound imprint he left on the Island, we turn the floor over to the film director:

The movie on Ché Guevara is about to premiere in Cuba at the 30th Havana Film Festival. You're aware that the character is a much-loved figure in Cuba. What are your expectations and apprehensions on this event? How do you expect your movies to be received by the Cuban cinemagoers and Ché's comrades in the Cuban and Bolivian guerrillas?

I'm very curious about the response to the film(s) in Cuba because it's difficult to reconstruct someone from research. Fortunately, we had access to a number of very articulate and insightful people who gave us first-hand impressions of Ché. Also, Ché's writings were extremely helpful; his voice is very distinct.

It has been explained that you did a thorough study of Ché's personality. Did he leave any imprint in you as an artist and human being? What kind of imprint, if any? Did you manage to delve into his internal characteristics as a person? What personality traits of his most impressed you? Weren't there any shadows? Do you feel you could really portray Ché on the screen? Turn him into an artistic character?

The aspects of Ché's character that I found compelling were the strength of his will and the depth of his self-sacrifice. It's very unusual to see such a combination of intellect and physical bravery, especially given his upbringing and educational background. The "darker" side of his personality is to me an expression of his extreme pragmatism and refusal to indulge in sentimentality. In any case, the Ché portrayed in our film understands that killing is unavoidable in an armed struggle, and that his own death might be a violent one.

What were the greatest difficulties to making the film?

At one point, I said to Benicio that it was impossible to make a movie about Ché but we had to try anyway. The biggest difficulty was deciding, after doing all the research, what to use and what to discard. I wonder now if we should have made a ten-hour miniseries. Certainly, I would have liked to show Ché's experience in the Congo.

There are several Ché Guevara. That of his enemies, that of those who were close to him, that of those who admire him from afar without having really come close to his work and known his life. Which is yours? Which is your Ché Guevara?

It's true that everyone has a very personal feeling about Ché (both for and against), and it's interesting that forty years after his death he still provokes such strong emotions. What I would like people to ask themselves after watching the film is: do I have something in my life that I feel passionately about, passionate enough to sacrifice myself for?

Do you think this film will be remembered within 20 years? Will it have any staying power?

I think the film will hold up because it doesn't contain any manufactured emotions or fabricated drama, and it has no interest in making him a saint or a devil; it simply shows him as a man.

Are you completely sure that the plot of the movie was rigorously truthful? Where does reality and fiction take over?

Other than some compression and combining of characters, every scene in the film(s) actually happened in some form. There was so much fascinating material we really didn't need to invent anything.

Nine years ago, Sidney Pollack traveled to Cuba to show his film Havana at the movie festival. He then felt the weight of both critics and cinemagoers who rejected the film. That was neither Havana nor the right history. Are you afraid you may go through it too? How do you expect your movies to be received by the Cuban cinemagoers and Ché's fellow combatants in the Cuban and Bolivian guerrillas?

Overall, I feel pretty confident about the film's veracity. At the very least, I think people will sense that it is a serious attempt to portray a complex series of events, and assumes the audience is intelligent and attentive.

Have you seen any Cuban cinema? What do you think of it? Are you planning any other similar project?

Cuban cinema was very helpful in showing me the Cuban approach to life. This was important because Ché, despite adopting Cuba as his home, had a distant quality that resulted initially from his feeling like an outsider but was also a component of becoming a leader with significant responsibilities.

Will the US public see your movies? What reaction are you expecting from them?

The movie(s) will open in New York and Los Angeles on December 12th. I have no idea what the response will be. I am going to Miami to show the film and I know that protesters are already planning to attend the screening. Should be interesting!

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