Home Video Hovel- Fidel, by Chase Beck
A pudgy, yet energetic Castro stands at a makeshift home plate, baseball bat arched, at-the-ready over his head. The pitcher throws a terrific fastball. Castro swings with the invested devotion of a former athlete. “Whump”, the ball impacts in the catcher’s mitt as Castro spins on his heels, the momentum of his ineffectual swing turning him in a complete circle. Later, Castro, the self-appointed president of Cuba, removes his traditional military fatigues and dons a baseball jersey and cap before pitching a few balls himself. Even bare-chested, with his gut exposed and his tighty whities peaking out from above his loose-fitting cargo pants, El Jefe is at ease and in command.
This scene, and many others, was filmed in 1968, by Saul Landau on a 16mm camera. Landau was given permission by the dictator to follow along on a week-long trip into the countryside of Cuba. On this trip, Castro visited small isolated villages and heard the complaints of the people. This took place only nine years after Fidel’s revolution left him President and Commander-in-Chief.. The film itself is an impressive and insightful view into post-revolution era Cuba. It contains fascinating insight into Fidel’s personal philosophy and his plans for the Cuba he was building. Throughout the film, he discusses a wide variety of topics, including livestock breeding, genetics, infrastructure, school and education.
On his trip through the countryside, despite being flanked by uniformed guards armed with assault rifles, locals are quick to voice their complaints with Castro’s implementation of the new regime. Wherever he goes, crowds of villagers form around him, eager to praise or to criticize the new government. The people love him and they want him to know what he’s doing wrong and what he’s doing right. But perhaps the film succeeds the most when the focus shifts away from Fidel Castro and instead makes the people the subject. The soundtrack of traditional folk music rises and we are privileged to a special view of life in Cuba. It is, quite plainly, life among the people. Guantanamera never sounded so good!
Fidel originally aired on public television in 1971. The documentary is 95 minutes long and covers a wide range of topics. This DVD release is a restored and remastered version of the original film. Landau is fairly even-handed, letting the film itself serve as the narrative. He interviews teachers, students, political prisoners and even the man himself, Fidel Castro. For his part, Castro does not suffer from a shortage of opinions or plans. It’s impossible to watch the movie without gaining a grudging respect for the man and his vision. It certainly makes it difficult for anyone to paint him as a monster.
Fidel is mainly in Spanish with English subtitles. It has little to no voiceover and what is supplied serves merely to supplement poor audio quality during the time of original recording. The DVD contains an additional documentary, filmed in 1974, titled Cuba and Fidel. It is approximately 25 minutes long and has audio translation. Fidel has an alternate audio track featuring commentary by director Saul Landau. It was recorded in 2010 and mostly involves Landau’s recollection of the filming of the documentary. Hannah Eaves, a film critic, is also present on the commentary. She mainly serves to draw out Landau’s observations on Castro and the film. Perhaps the best part of the commentary involves Landau’s characterization of Castro, comparing him to both Machiavelli and Don Quixote. Landau remarks, with awe and respect, that Castro could have added three chapter’s to Machiavelli’s The Prince and its rerelease would have been a bestseller.
Fidel provides a seldom seen view of Cuba‘s dictator. It left me impressed with his vision and drive if not his methods and execution. Landau artfully crafts a film that is controversial in its effort to accurately and honestly portray not only Castro’s Cuba but Castro himself. The film itself is a fantastic accomplishment and deserves to be made available today. As a DVD purchase, well, you’d better be a huge fan of Castro or an enthusiastic student of modern history and politics.
But what about that fierce fastball? Fidel’s persistence finally paid off. His refusal to give up is rewarded with the sharp crack of the bat impacting against the taut leather of the ball. The baseball soars into the distance as the man triumphantly rounds the bases, returning to the crowd of onlookers gathered at home plate. On the commentary track, Landau remarks, and I wholeheartedly agree, it is an appropriate metaphor for the way he ran his country.