Although he was neither born there nor died there, Cuba regards Ernesto 'Che' Guevara de la Serna as a founding father of the socialist state. State-sponsored biographies are frequently churned out in Cuba that lionize his memory. One of the better examples in recent years is Manual Perez's Che Guevara: Where You'd Never Imagine Him (2004). Perez makes good use of archival film and photographic materials that provide an interesting overview, but at a mere 55-minutes, it's a cursory examination of one of the 20th century's most iconic figures.
Accompanying the archival images, Perez employs a hyperbolically stilted narration and a heavy-handed score. The narration often portrays Guevara in needlessly larger-than-life terms. For example, about his childhood asthma, the narrator states: "He fights against his asthma with all his strength and will." Later, of his efforts as a guerrilla leader, the narrator exclaims: "The next months allow him to show his organizational skills, his courage and intelligence as a leader and his personal and political closeness with the peasants." A piano and synthesizer soundtrack underscores all this. This narration and soundtrack seem more suited to the 1960s than to 2004, but may merely suggest differing expectations of contemporary Cuban and American viewers.
Perez covers all the major events in Guevara's life though generally without much detail or examination of motivation. For example, we're told that Guevara believed his life had been utterly changed by his motorcycle trip throughout Latin America in 1952, but we're invited to accept this at face value with little time to explore why Guevara took the trip and how it was so transformative. Similarly, we're told that the overthrow of the democratic-leftist government in Guatemala by a CIA-backed coup radicalized Guevara, but the transformation from sympathizer, to rebel physician, to combatant still seems jarringly quick.
The pace of the documentary slows slightly for the period most important to Perez's Cuban audience: Guevara's years as a guerrilla commander in Cuba and as an administrator in Fidel Castro's revolutionary government. Finally, the pace quickens again when covering his decision to leave Cuba to fight in the Congo and his subsequent death in Bolivia.
Perhaps for reasons of time and ideology, Perez glosses over or ignores Guevara's shortcomings, disappointments, and disputes with Castro. We're told that Guevara presided over political trials following the revolution in Cuba, but the scale of the executions is not addressed. We're told that as Minister of Industry, he spent more time in the factories than at his desk, but we're not told that his industrialization plan was ill-suited for Cuba and resulted in the waste of resources on many unsustainable factories that were never completed. We're told that Guevara disappeared from the public eye, reemerging in Congo six months later, but there is no suggestion that Guevara may have left Cuba because of differences with Castro. We're told that he left the Congo in disappointment, but there is little exploration of the basis of his disappointment. Finally, the many misconceptions and miscalculations that caused Guevara to be in a hopeless situation in Bolivia resulting in his capture and execution by US-backed government forces are ignored.
The main feature is constructed entirely of archival black-and-white film of varying qualities. Given the source material, the image quality is good, but could be better. Unfortunately, the disc is non-anamorphically presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. While a non-anamorphic presentation of a 1.66:1 feature used to be the norm because it provides a better image on traditional 4:3 televisions, there's little justification for continuing this tradition at this late date. I hope First Run Features takes note that viewers that care most about image quality have already made the switch to 16:9 televisions.
The main feature is available with English subtitles. The extras can be viewed with English or German subtitles. All subtitles appear clear and accurate, and are appropriately sized, placed, and paced.
The main feature is offered in the original Spanish or in a German Dub, both of which are 1.0 mono. No German dub is available for the extras which are available only as recorded in mixed Spanish and English.
This disc includes four short documentaries, with a collective running time twice as long as the feature documentary. Three were made by state-supported Cuban documentarians in the 1980s and give greater depth to elements of Guevara's story, while the fourth is a documentary by committee about a day in the life of Hanoi, Vietnam, made in 1967 under the auspices of the Organization of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The first extra, A Photo That Travels Around the World (13 min.), explores in greater detail material from the feature doc about how the iconic photograph of Guevara in beret was taken, and its use as a symbol of revolutionary socialism. The beauty of this short is badly marred by an overly dark image that renders whites as dark grays and everything else as black. It is clear that this darkness was not in the original short because intertitles and credits are unreadable.
Among the Legends of the Sierra Maestra (28 min.), and October 1967 (32 min.) use interviews with Guevara's comrades-in-arms to provide extremely fine detail on particular aspects of Guevara's character as a leader in the Cuban revolution and his final days in Bolivia.
The most interesting and frustrating of the shorts is Hanoi, Tuesday 13th (35 min.), a beautifully shot and scored day in the life of Hanoi that is invocative of the masterful 'Symphony of a City' documentaries of the 1920s. Sadly, it is undone by crass satire targeting the American President L.B. Johnson and American prisoners of war in Vietnam. The images of Vietnamese villagers and urbanites as they go about their day of work and play, coupled with scenes of American bombers unleashing wonton destruction is an incredibly moving cinematic experience that is a poignant indictment of America's bombing campaign. Tragically, the effect is undercut by images of American POWs accompanied by Dr. Demento's novelty song "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" If the images of ordinary Vietnamese caught in a horrific situation was not so moving, it would be easy to dismiss this short entirely, but there really is some important art here, beneath the excrement, that deserves to be seen.
This disc is a mixed bag. At 55 minutes, Che Guevara: Where You'd Never Imagine Him presents an incomplete, but interesting biography of the iconic 20th century Latin American revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, worth seeing for the archival footage alone. There are also plenty of extras that shed additional light on select aspects of Guevara's life, and finally, there's the beautiful but frustrating Hanoi, Tuesday 13th that everyone should see. However, the incompleteness and oversimplification of the biography, and the heavy-handed narration and soundtrack, make this disc something that need not be viewed more than once. Rent it.