Appellate Judge Tom Becker awaits the last of the series, "Chevolution Number 9."
The man. The myth. The merchandise.
Chevolution gives us "the story of the world's most reproduced photograph," the iconic image of Che Guevara that has graced t-shirts, posters, album covers, and various other products and tchotchkes over the past four or so decades. It is among the coolest of all photographic images, its power a bit diminished, perhaps, by its ubiquitousness.
As the documentary notes early on, many people who recognize the image haven't the slightest idea who Che Guevara was; nor are they particularly well-versed on the history of Cuba. (One guy, wearing a "Che" t-shirt, alleges Guevara is the person who invented the mojito.)
The film uses archival footage and lots of interviews—with people who were in Cuba during the revolution; with people who knew Che; with Che biographers; with photographers and historians; with young people drawn to the icon; and with a few "celebrity" talking heads, including Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, and actors Antonio Banderas and Gael Garcia Bernal, both of whom played Guevara in films (Evita and The Motorcycle Diaries, respectively).
The picture was taken not as a posed or commissioned portrait, but rather a quick snap by Alberto "Korda" Diaz. Korda was a leading fashion photographer in Cuba in the '50s, enjoying the high life. This was the reign of Batista, when Cuba was an island playground for the wealthy and elite, while the majority of Cubans lived in poverty. In the latter part of the decade, as Fidel Castro and Guevara led the revolution that would overthrow Batista, Korda found himself sympathizing with the revolutionaries. His 1959 photo of a peasant girl clutching a piece of wood the way a child would hold a doll, "La Niña," was a haunting and powerful image that helped put a face to the struggle.
Korda's most famous photo, though, was of Che, and it was taken in 1960 after an explosion in a Cuban port that left dozens of people maimed and killed—Korda's daughter, interviewed here, refers to this as the "the first act of terrorism against my country," and it's suggested that the US might have been responsible. Korda snapped off only two frames of Che surveying a crowd of mourners. Those shots were not used in the newspaper articles that appeared the next day, which instead featured photos of Castro in front of the Cuban flag.
How and when the photo was disseminated remains a mystery. The film offers conflicting stories as to when it first appeared, but everyone seems to agree that it was during the Paris student riots of '68 that it gained its first prominence as a symbol of rebellion. The irony, of course, is that the image has been used so often to sell merchandise—thanks to the Cuba's virtually non-existent copyright laws—that it's become a capitalist marketing tool, completely at odds with Guevara's own philosophy.
Directors Luis Lopez and Trisha Ziff (who also appears on camera as a commentator) have done an impressive job assembling a variety of people to talk about Guevara's legacy. While it's always fun to pick out a well-known name like Banderas or Morello, the most interesting input comes from Michael Casey, who wrote a book about the image, and from the people who offer firsthand insights—Korda's assistant, his daughter, and men who knew Che or were part of the revolution. The film's viewpoint is definitely "pro-Che," but there are a few dissenting opinions sprinkled in near the end.
Good as the film is, I do wish they'd put a little more care into identifying the talking heads. Names pop up randomly; some people are identified several times, others, barely at all. Casey—who gets a lot of screen time—isn't named until his third or fourth appearance, and then as, "Michael Casey, Author." Since I had no idea exactly what Casey had authored, I ran a Google search and learned that he wrote Che's Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image, a well-reviewed book that covers the same territory as this film. Why not tell us that right up front, so we understand his authority? Diana Diaz, who is Korda's daughter, identifies herself long before the filmmakers do, and I'm not sure if Gael Garcia Bernal, who played Che in The Motorcycle Diaries, is ever given an onscreen tag until the end credits. It's a little distracting having these people come along to speak and wondering who they are.
The transfer is very good, with the archival footage looking rough but not terrible. There are two audio options—a surround and a stereo mix—and while the stereo was a bit thin, both were serviceable. The only extra is a trailer; I really wish they'd included a "making of," since it's clear that a lot of passion went into this project.
A well-made documentary that gives context to an extraordinary image that's become oddly commonplace, Chevolution is worth checking out.
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