February 5, 2021 – This film is like an insider's view of Cuba, and it consists mainly of street scenes in and around Havana, loosely strung along a theme relating to the Cuban War of Independence and the Spanish-American War.
Without getting into details about these two related wars, suffice it to say the Cubans have a very different take on them than Americans do. In this documentary film, some Cubans seem to think that the genesis of the Spanish-American War, the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898 was faked, or staged.
The actual cause of the explosion is still the subject of debate. One investigation determined the explosion, which killed three-quarters of the crew by the way, was caused by a mine. An investigation many years later determined the explosion was caused by bituminous coal, used for fuel on the heavy cruiser. This type of coal emits methane gas, known for causing spontaneous fires and explosions.
Newspaper propaganda (“yellow journalism”) in America was a key factor in getting the United States into a war with Spain and the sinking of the USS Maine was a key factor. A reporter in Cuba reportedly told newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst prior to the war that nothing much was happening, and Hearst reportedly replied, “You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war.” In the movie, “Citizen Kane,” a similar line is heard. A large number of American black “buffalo soldiers” fought against the Spanish forces in Cuba, by the way.
This documentary movie doesn't mention print journalism, but does mention newsreels (Thomas Edison's company filmed some of those) a lot, suggesting that fake newsreels got the United States into the Spanish-American War. My own research indicates the expertise to make convincing fakes, and a mass audience to see them, were both virtually non-existant in 1898.
This film is also a meditation on the nature of film itself. Because this film greatly emphasizes film propaganda, it is an argument that cuts both ways — it makes me wonder if this film is pushing its own propaganda. At any rate, this seems like a bogus argument. “Yellow journalism” in American newspapers is the far better documented source of propaganda regarding this war.
The only thing more ubiquitous in the film than mentions of the USS Maine are the posters and paintings of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Other than Guevara, Fidel Castro (who died during filming) and Earnest Hemingway's statue, the most famous person in the film is Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of film legend Charlie Chaplin, and great-granddaughter of the great playwright Eugene O’Neill.
Oona Chaplin (who appeared in “Game of Thrones”) born in Spain, speaks fluent Spanish and she appears in several scenes, talking about her grandfather, among other things. She also sings and plays a guitar. One impression I got from this film is that all the Cubans seem to be able to sing, or dance, or both, better than most Americans.
A number of Cubans are interviewed in the film, in addition to talking about Cuban history, they talk about life in Cuba and how it changed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Their opinion of President Donald Trump is very negative. Their impression of American tourists, and tourists in general is mostly negative. However, since the decline of tourism during the pandemic, news reports indicate that Cubans are worse off and food is scarce.
In one scene, the camera follows Cuban children into a modern shopping area catering to tourists. They note the cost of a jewel-encrusted pen in a window display is more money than most Cubans would make in their entire lives. The camera crew gets the Cuban children past hotel security so they can swim in a fancy hotel pool. The hotel was built by the Mafia, the locals say. The locals are careful about what they say, apparently because of possible punishment.
Cubans feelings toward America are ambivalent in the movie. Young girls would like to be actresses and they would like to go to Disneyland. The wealth of America is clearly a draw, but American imperialism makes Cubans cautious about being drawn into the U.S. sphere of influence. Everywhere are the signs of decay and of former industry and jobs that left long ago, like a sugar refinery, now abandoned, that once provided a lot of the sugar in Coca-Cola.
As a street level view of Cuba and its people, this film is instructive, but it is not well organized. To me, it seemed to spend too much time on lame historical newsreel conspiracy theories, and not enough on a cohesive portrait of the people of Cuba. This film rates a B.
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