Credit: Kino Lorber
by Morris Yang Featured Film Horizon Line

Epicentro | Hubert Sauper

September 5, 2020

Modern-day Cuba, as documented in Hubert Sauper’s latest foray into political ethnography, is a third-world island marked distinctly by the stamp of first-world capitalism. Co-existing in an unquiet reality with the locals and their dilapidated, dirty housing are pockets of gratuitous wealth — convenient outposts for the many suburban travellers from abroad that flock in during the weekend for either a quick getaway or an opportunity to traverse the exoticized fantasy of poverty porn. “For 14 days, escape your shitty life at home,” muses one German-speaking tourist thoughtfully as he and his entourage wander the sunny streets. “Paradise is simply a myth, it’s an alternative: break out of the professional, social, and family prison.” To the rest of the world, this rueful thought conforms neatly to ideological impressions of this unconquerable bastion of Old World communism, as well as to material expressions (through a thriving tourism industry) that have contributed to its nascent economic uplift. To the majority of Cubans, however, the adage remains as elusive as the invisible barriers separating the shiny megaplexes of consumerism from a rustic, indigenous poverty. Epicentro, whose title promises a reckoning of this geopolitical dichotomy, does foreground Cuba as a liminal space caught between its communist legacy and the encroaching presence of American imperialism, but much of the film’s analytical focus is lost to its meandering and haphazard structuring.

Opening Epicentro is a lo-fi image of an old man staring out to sea, a cigar in his mouth. Pondering the fates of lands beyond his, perhaps? Then a voiceover, Sauper’s, narrates the prologue: “Imagine yourself over a hundred years back, when most of the things that define our modern life were invented” — cinema, for one. That Sauper suddenly brings to focus the historic explosion onboard the USS Maine in the Havana harbour in 1898, which effectively precipitated the Spanish-American war two months later, seems tangential to the moving image; that is, until he settles on a thesis that binds them inextricably together. To the scores of Americans who were the first to hear of the explosion, its message was not conveyed by word alone but via the camera, yet no camera would have been able to capture the Maine sinking with such cinematic precision; the images had to be staged, and would be remembered as one of the pioneering instances of film propaganda. In keeping with this thematic framework, Epicentro proceeds to interview a number of its Cuban denizens, from a local cartoonist who animated precisely these sequences as anti-American propaganda for schools, to the schoolchildren themselves, who sit in awe at a screening of historical footage charting the country’s independence, vehemently objecting to the presenter’s claims of a “banner of freedom” rising where the Spaniards’ fell. Two of the schoolgirls, whom Sauper collectively dubs his “young prophets,” acquaint the viewer with an overview of Cuban history, covering among other things America’s 1903 Platt Amendment (curtailing much of the country’s independence by intervening extensively in economic matters) and the latest embargo by the Trump administration after a hopeful but brief detente under Obama. They understand the deeply inequitable system of capitalism and its dystopian manifestations over the centuries: the slave trade in the 19th century, colonization during the 20th, and globalization in the 21st.

But this proves to be part of the problem with Epicentro: Sauper’s prologue, while somewhat didactic, appears to promise a critically-nuanced portrait of the country’s citizenry, but it soon becomes evident that the director instead intends an expressly laudatory portrait of the embittered Cuba’s tenacity. The narrative quickly wanders off into a series of loose vignettes that, while effectively capturing an atmosphere of uncertain limbo between worlds old and new, also verge on the breezy and cartoonish. Some of the vignettes prove revealing — in one, an American photographer shoots the local kids without paying them (“an honour,” to be photographed by him) — yet others resemble quaint travelogues for an outsider audience. It is also the consensus that imperialism is the enemy, but Castro, Cuba’s long-standing dictator, hardly gets any credit for his steadily receding leadership in the decades after 1959’s revolution. The young prophets passionately decry the many dystopias their land has endured, but — all condescension aside — being teenagers, where better to look than the school textbooks that churn out patriotic narratives en masse? To his credit, Sauper does explore the effects of America’s continued economic hegemony over Cuba with verve and empathy, especially in his late-night streetscapes and daytime panoramas which feature the voices of tourists, taxi drivers, and prostitutes. And there is later a brief but powerful musing on the word “utopia,” which has often been used to characterise Cuba, as both a “good place” (of contentment, peace and justice, lack of scarcity etc.) and a “no place,” an unachievable ideal. The camera follows Sauper as he and two of his teenage accomplices daringly infiltrate a luxury hotel, posing as Gringos, where they luxuriate in the swimming pool and enjoy cake costing “only ten dollars.” The appalling reality of the scene forms the film’s imagined crux, but it’s the sporadic and occasionally whimsical moments of ordinary life that define much of this documentary curio, for better or worse, including an extended cameo by none other than the granddaughter of cinema icon Charles Chaplin. As the waves crash by the shore near the film’s end, it’s not clear if Epicentro’s first twenty minutes or so, wholly fixated on the birth and propagation of cinema in relation to the politics of imperialism, have had much impact beyond expository convenience.