Fidel Castro’s Legacy on Film

 12/09/2016 11:34 pm ET

Adrian Margaret Brune New York-based contributor to The Guardian and international correspondent for CapeTalk Radio

The opening montage begins with flashes of Cuba’s Amerindian and Spanish colonial history – prints of enslavement and destruction, followed by the Spanish-American War, independence and the decadence of dictatorship Fulgencio Batista. Next appears the footage of Fidel Castro: Castro pointing the way to battle; Castro riding in a military parade; Castro inciting the people of Cuba into la Revolución cubana.

However, Olatz López Garmendia’s documentary, Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death – officially released by HBO Films three days after the death of Castro – in no pays homage to the Marxist-Leninist leader. Rather, Patria O Muerte – filmed over several years with Garmendia clandestinely holding her camera to land remarkably candid interviews – provides a visceral look at the current state of Cuba through the lives of its citizens, including writers, musicians and artists who have lived amidst political and economic instability their entire lives. In the first three minutes of the film alone, viewers meet Ilana, a prostitute who lives “to hustle for my daughters, nothing else”; Alexander, a food stand worker who has “no aspirations”; and Julio who looks straight into the camera and says “Am I happy? No I am not happy. What am I missing? Everything.”

Since Fidel Castro died on 25 November after more than 50 years in power, ex-pats and politicians of the world have remembered him as a “singular figure”, as did President Obama, or “a legendary revolutionary and orator,” who made “significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation,” according to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The real eulogy to Castro, however, has not come from any statesperson or Party member. In effect, Castro’s epitaph lies in the frames of Garmendia’s film. Utilizing vibrant images of street scenes and crumbling buildings set to the voice of Castro proclaiming, “Despite the great economic difficulties… the vices that we see every day in capitalist societies don’t exist here,” Patria O Muerte chronicles the radical, yet subversive effort to unseat half a century of El Comandante’s communist policies.

The documentary’s – and Cuba’s – lifeblood emerges, however, with short segments on the artists, writers and creators silenced in their rebellion. Gorki Aguila, the leader of the band Porno para Ricardo, describes the restrictions on his band and the cameras outside his studio to monitor his every move. “We are not allowed to play in this country, but we are not going to stop trying,” he says. The artist Danilo Maldonado, also known as El Sexto, recounts the arrests he endured for his exhibitions. “The proof of (his art’s relevance) is that they are always persecuting you, as if you were a delinquent when I am simply an artist. But I choose freedom and freedom has a price.”

Finally, the expatriate writer Antonio José Ponte, whom Castro expelled, puts international confusion over the dictator’s legacy best in perspective. “Fidel’s greatest advantage has been to operate against Washington; the sympathy for Cuba originates from this antagonism,” he says. “Fidel Castro has been the king of imagery – he and his his court… and the the propaganda hides the true reality of the moment. It disguises military and political occupations, with a humanist veneer of doctors and professors.”

Patria O Muerte finishes with Obama’s December 2014 announcement of the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba. “We will end an outdated approach that has failed to address our interests… We hope to make the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit better, more free, more prosperous,” Obama says. Cut to tourists dancing, driving in beautifully restored 1950s cars, watching sparkly costumed dancers and parades, and smoking cigars. Cut to the ordinary people of the film’s beginning: Julio who takes care of his elderly mother on 20 dollars per month; Alexander who still works at this food stand; Ileana who still sells her body for money.

Finally, cut to Obama’s first arrival in Cuba and the protests filmed on surrounding streets. Cut to dissidents, including El Sexto and Gorki Aguila, thrown in a police wagon. End film.

On 28 November, El Sexto was scheduled to attend the premiere of Patria O Muerte after a stop at Art Basel Miami, where he has an exhibition. But Cuban authorities detained him the day before he was scheduled to depart, after he posted a video on Facebook mocking Fidel Castro’s death.

The end of the nine-day official mourning period of Castro’s death has returned most Cubans’ lives back to normal, but El Sexto remains held without charges at a police station in Guanabacoa. This last incident – seemingly Castro’s last command from the grave – could have been included in Patria O Muerte. But until something is done to erase Castro’s legacy, chances are there will be another chance to capture it again.