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DVD SAVANT


Fidel
First Run Films
2001 / color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 91 min. / / Street Date July 22, 2003 / 29.95
Starring Fidel Castro, Muhammad Ali, Harry Belafonte, Angela Davis, Elián Gonzalez, Nelson Mandela, Ted Turner, Vlasta Vrana, Alice Walker
Cinematography Roberto Chile, Kevin Keating
Edited by Davey Frankel, Fermín González, Monica Henriquez, Felipe Lacerda
Original music Frank Fernandez
Produced by Ernesto Bravo, Alan Fountain, David Frankel, Silvia Steven
Directed by Estela Bravo

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The kind of docu to send conservatives into a rage, Fidel uses scrupulously chosen newsreel footage and a surprisingly well-rounded set of interviews to present a picture of the Cuban dictator removed from the U.S. government's 40-year-old smear machine. Family members, fellow revolutionaries, famous writers and a fair number of ex-CIA spies and State Department diplomats weigh in with points of view not heard much in our anti-Castro media din. The docu doesn't pretend to 'show both sides', but neither does it need to work hard to present its case for Castro as the lone holdout survivor of the Cold War on the socialist side. Along the way, there's plenty of good-quality, uncut footage of Fidel to ponder.

Synopsis:

Fidel Castro's life and career - as a young lawyer, political aspirant, revolutionary and lifelong dictator of Cuba - are covered with key-source photos and footage, and key witnesses. The stress is definitely pro-Fidel, accenting the improvements his rule brought to Cuba, and, by example, other countries.

Before the screaming starts, it needs to be said that Fidel doesn't bring up many of the constant charges leveled at him by American critics and detractors - not the fact that some of his original revolutionary comrades were later pushed aside or imprisoned, or that he's periodically imprisoned dissidents. Cuba is a dictatorship by one man, and opposed to the American values of free discourse and free trade. As seen from our side of Key West, Fidel Castro is a despotic ruler.

What Fidel does communicate, without making an argument out of it, is that everything Castro is, is a reaction to his experience with the United States. He took back his nation from sellout gangsters and Fulgencio Battista, but really reclaimed from the U.S.A. - its criminals, business predators, and CIA creeps. He's the only Latin American leader to successfully counter American domination, an economic oppression (yep) that has kept most of the rest of the Western hemisphere from properly developing on its own.

As any plain reading of the facts will bear out, the problems between Cuba and the US stemmed from a basic incompatibility of goals - American interests wanted to retain their control and ownership of the country, and Castro wanted Cuba for Cubans. After a brief, bright beginning, Castro showed his intention to nationalize foreign holdings, and the die was set. Blockaded by America, Fidel turned to the Soviet Union (where else could he go?) and the US spent 40 years trying to overthrow the island nation. Invasions, assassination attempts,  1 and crippling economic restraints have inadvertently made a dictator look like the savior of the Western Hemisphere.

Enough politics ... Fidel is not anti-Castro, which by definition will make it instant trash for vast numbers of Americans. It openly admires the man for his accomplishments and demonstrable dedication to his people. The Cuban exile community in Florida is marginalized in the docu's view of the Elián Gonzalez episode. Instead we're given the viewpoints of visitors and supporters of Castro, especially noted writers like Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Alice Walker. Also on view showing visible support, or at least positive interest in Castro are Muhammed Ali, Harry Belafonte, Ted Turner, Jack Lemmon, and other notables. Professor Angela Davis underscores the roots of black American approval of Castro.

The most compelling endorsement of the dictator comes from Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Castro supported anti-Apartheid forces in Africa by sending troops to help Angola ward off invasion; and in the aftermath, the Apartheid government fell and Mandela was freed. It sounds like something the US should have been doing instead of paying lip-service to the problem while supporting the white supremacist government.

Too gentle to be propaganda, Fidel refuses to get into a shouting match and simply presents the Castro side of the argument. If the opposite side used something more than lies, Cold War rhetoric and hypocritical shouting about Freedom and Civil Rights in their documentaries, I'd like to see their docus too. In other words, Fidel is legit to this viewer, because much of it is consistent with the facts as known to me personally. I certainly don't expect that others should agree: but real Freedom doesn't mean having to present only the dominant opinion.


First Run's DVD of Fidel is a nicely-mounted video presentation. The encoding is fine, and only the occasional inferior source makes a few shots unsteady or blurry - the usual docu limitations. Audio is very good, and because it's subtitled (non-removable) we get to hear Castro and other speakers in their native Spanish rather than overdubbed with translated dialogue.  2

A few docu excerpts, trims, really, are offered in an outtakes menu choice. Other special extras are mostly promos for other First Run docu shows.

Fidel is an excellent non-critical look at Cuba's popular dictator - dictator is still the only word that fits him, liberator though he may be - and a good indicator of how the World outside the US feels about him and his lifelong resistance against America.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Fidel rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Outtake pieces of Fidel speeches, appearances
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 5, 2003


Footnotes:

1. Can you imagine the gall of last week's big news story about Stalin trying to kill John Wayne in the late 40s and early 50s? One author starts a rumor, and now it's hard fact in print. I surely believe that if anybody even thought agents were after Wayne in Hollywood, our government would have surely let us know about it, in capital letters.
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2. We did catch one mis-translated moment, in an extra, not in the film itself. Castro is asked what his biggest mistake was. The subtitles say it was not predicting the downfall of the Soviet system (thus showing Castro admitting an error like a gentleman). His actual Spanish words imply that the collapse of the USSR was un-divinable - thus, he made no error. Is this bias indicative of more distortions in the show?
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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