Tuesday, January 4, 2011

VIVA LA REVOLUTION! PART II: ERNESTO ‘CHE’ GUEVARA



Well, this is the second day of the VIVA LA REVOLUTION! collaboration between two bloggers, my good friend Neil Fulwood of The Agitation of the Mind and myself, Francisco Gonzalez a.k.a. The Film Connoisseur. We decided to join forces to celebrate revolution on film. This three day event is focused towards real life revolutionaries, those that stood up against the tyranny and the evil. So go on over to The Agitation of the Mind whenever you get a chance, his articles are deliciously revolutionary as well. On this our second day Neil explores English films that have addressed the issue of revolution.

 Just to let you guys know, I don’t care about politics. To me its as dividing as religion is. But, I am an observer of human behavior, and a humanitarian, and through these articles, I’m simply yet honestly commenting on what I’m living through and what I see. What I have experienced. So I will be mixing my film commnents with some real life stuff I’ve been seeing, in my own country. So if you dont like talk of revolution, and oppression and all that, your welcome to tune out. But it is my hope that you will read this article, and at the very least, find it informative. Plus, I'll be talking about various films that have a revolutionary vibe to them.

Forgive me if this article turns a little too personal, but the truth is that I and many Puerto Ricans are going through an extremely difficult time in our history. We are currently being governed by a government with no love for its people. It gives a happy face to tourists and the media, but when it comes to its people, the masses, the poor, the middle class, well, then you see an entirely different face emerge. A violent, cold face, with no love or respect for those that put them in power. Kind of like those robot cops from George Lucas's THX 1138. Every step that our government is taking is to make their powerful grip on the country stronger. The police force is getting bigger, the national guard recruits fresh meat every day, all for the sole purpose of inflicting fear on the people, which I must say they have successfully done. I am not lying when I say that many Puerto Ricans walk in fear when they venture out into the streets. So, this is my personal reason for doing a special blog post about films dealing with revolution. It’s something I needed to do, to vent out all my thoughts and worries on this matter. Today I’ll be commenting on both of Steven Soderberg’s CHE films, on Oliver Stone's JFK and also on The Motorcycle Diaries, because it just feels appropriate, all things considered.

Parents want to pass food and water to the students who are striking inside the University of Puerto Rico, but the police doesnt allow food to go into the University. They'd rather have the  students who are striking starve!

This parent got hit by the police force for wanting to pass food to his son, who was striking inside of the University of Puerto Rico

This cinematic exploration of revolutionary films comes as a direct result of the suffering and oppression I have myself witnessed in Puerto Rico, the land I was born in. Currently, we are under the rule of a government that is taking violent steps towards oppressing its people, steal as much money as it can from them and keep its poor dumb by making the prices of higher education skyrocket. All the while they smile at the media, and put on a façade, lying through their teeth every step of the way. To my surprise, this type of thing isn’t just happening in Puerto Rico, similar stories are heard from countries like France, Greece and England. Do yourself a favor and make a throrough research on revolutions across these countries, this is a world wide phenomenon. Though students in those countries have reacted in a much more violent manner then they have here in Puerto Rico. Here, students have taken a more artistic approach towards expressing their anger at whats happening. Though little by little, things are turning more violent everyday.

 A student gives her public outcry against oppression in front of the University of Puerto Rico while an army of cops stands at the gates of the university behind her.

I see the revolution on the streets everyday because I live in the town of Rio Piedras, the epicenter of the revolution and home to the University of Puerto Rico. Thing is that for the longest time, higher education in Puerto Rico was extremely cheap, and the masses, the poor, were getting too smart for their own good. The powers that be have taken notice and now they want to make it difficult for the poor or medium class to get themselves educated. So they’ve raised tuition prices. Of course, the students are going to protest, this means that their lives will get more difficult, some won’t be able to pay the new higher tuition. So the students have started strikes that paralyze the whole university. In retaliation, the government has sent the police force to take over the university, and naturally, tensions are escalating. Day by day I wonder if things will eventually blow up in an ugly way, with possible blood shed. Cops are taking students that are speaking up against the violence and putting them in black vans and taking them away.

The words on the skull read: "A nation without education is a dead nation"

This is an issue that has divided people. The rich side with the government, while the poor side with the revolutionaries. I really hate how politics and money divides people, you see the rich throwing their hate at the students who are striking, leaving any sense of empathy outside of their points of view. I’ve personally heard people say that the police should shoot down all the rebellious students. Government officials themselves have said that if they had things their way, they would kick all those long hair hippies out of the campus. The government has done a good job of turning the peoples favor against the students by generalizing and calling the students terrorists and drug addicts through the media. As a result, a lot of people think the students are getting what they deserve.

Thousands hit the streets to protest agains the oppression

And things don’t just stop there! Last year, the government fired more than 30,000 of its employees! This means that 30,000 people (many with families to feed) were suddenly left job less. Simply because the government wants to keep as much cash as they can to themselves. They say they will use this money to square out the governments’ debt, but we all know that isn’t so. The money is being used for hiring more police men, buying more guns, and pepper spray, for new police cars with dark windows, so we can’t see who is driving them. The money is being used to fund the ever growing militia.

In front of 'El Capitolio' Puerto Rico's own house of laws

Hatred for our governor has escalated to the point where someone threw and egg at him while he was giving a speech. The man who did it, was taken away screaming “look! Your cops are going to kill me!” In all honesty, a huge part of the country was happy that that guy did that. It was an action that was representative of how the majority of the country felt for the government. After that day, the governor isn’t seen in public that often anymore; and anyone who even tries to get close to the governor of Puerto Rico gets a big warm hello from the clubs, pepper spray and tear gas courtesy of the Puerto Rican police force! The police have violently hit people that simply want to express their concern for what is going on.

This is how the people are welcomed when they go visit the house of laws in Puerto Rico, notice the cop spraying the person right in the face

A couple of months ago a group of protesters went to the house of laws of Puerto Rico, they were there peacefully. They wanted to go and offer some solutions to what is going on in Puerto Rico, they wanted to read a manifest that would state how the country felt about the way things have been going. How were they received? They were violently kicked out of the building by force! The police force hit civilians indiscriminately, they didn’t care who they were hitting, these drones didn’t see a country crying out in pain, they saw something less then them. It was a horribly dark day in our history as far as I’m concerned. It was the day the government decided to do a show of force and scare its people. This is the kind of Puerto Rico I am living in. And this is why I need to see films like CHE and Romero. They let me see that I am not wrong in hating this kind of behavior from our government. When I see films that depict revolutionary leaders like Malcom X, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, JFK, Martin Luther King, or even Ron Kovic (who’s story was brought to life in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July) the question inevitably arises: where are our current revolutionary leaders? Can such a thing exist in today’s modern world? Or are people today so docile that no one is willing to stand up for what is right?


What makes up a true revolutionary? After seeing Romero (1989), The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) and both of Steven Soderberg’s CHE movies I come to the conclusion that many things make up a true revolutionary leader, but one of the most important attributes of a revolutionary is their love for humanity. Their willingness to fight to the death so that everyone gets treated with dignity and respect. Revolutionary leaders stand up against governments who treat their people (usually the poor) as less then human. The Motorcycle Diaries is a film that shows how Che Guevara was a person who cared for the people very early on in his life. He recognized abuse, he saw the suffering first hand. It was a film based on Che’s own diary. A diary he wrote as he went on a cross country motorcycle ride with is best friend. But there’s a moment on the film in which Che sees the overworked and underpaid mine workers, and he starts working right next to them, when he sees people desperately in need of medical attention and we see the compassion in his eyes, these are moments that let us see that even during his young formative years he was always concerned about the well being of the people. On The Motorcycle Diaries, we see Che during his early twenties, and we see how even then, he had the heart and compassion of a man who cared about the less fortunate, and would do anything to help them. We see the seeds of who would later become one of the truest revolutionary leaders to ever walk the face of the earth.

Gael Garcia Bernal portrays a 23 year old Che in The Motorcycle Diaries

There is one key sequence in Soderberg’s first CHE film (The Argentine) that I really enjoyed in which Che goes to the United Nations representing Cuba and stands on the podium because it’s his turn to speak. What’s a revolutionary leader like Che going to tell the nations of the world? Political babble? Nope, not Che! He told them the truth right in their faces! An awesome moment in deed, and it was a moment that Soderberg himself fought to include in the film. What made this moment so great? Well, for one, Che wasn’t talking political bull crap like so many politicians do. When he got up there on that podium, he spoke the truth. I truly despise how you ask a politician a question, and they use a thousand words to answer something entirely different, avoiding the question you have just asked. Che wasn’t like that. When he spoke in the United Nations, he went straight to the point and spoke the truth. He called out various countries and told them how they were oppressing and abusing their people.


That is another thing that defines a true revolutionary: speaking up without fear. Despotic governments use fear tactics to keep the masses quiet, to make them afraid of speaking up. But revolutionaries do not fear these tactics. They become the voice of the people and speak up for them. They organize the people, make them see that things shouldn’t be this way, and that we don’t have to sit and let the chips fall where they may. You can actually stand up and do something about the whole thing! Problem is that this type of talk can lead to the governments making your life a living hell. They don’t like it when you speak up against them and tell them the truth in their faces, especially when said truth cannot be denied. That’s one thing I love about modern technology. Everyone has a camera on their phone; anyone can take a video of abusive government behavior and put it on You Tube or facebook and show the world how things are being conducted in their country and you know what they say “a picture speaks louder than a thousands words”


In The Argentine we see Che arrive in Cuba meeting and uniting forces with Fidel Castro in a fight against the oppressive and corrupt government. Said government was under the power of one Fulgencio Batista, one of the most evil governments that Cuba has ever had. This guy was a dirty politician who had ties with the mob! He (like many politicians of our own time) only cared about making money, or rather, stealing as much money as he could from the people. Worst part is that Batista’s reign of terror was backed up by the U.S. government which at the time had President Eisenhower in command. John F. Kennedy himself (another revolutionary who got shot down for not playing the game) spoke up against this horrifying fact:

“Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years, and he turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state, destroying every individual liberty. Yet our aid to his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled Batista to invoke the name of the U.S. in support of his reign of terror. Administration spokesmen publicly praised Batista - hailed him as a staunch ally and a good friend - at a time when Batista was murdering thousands, destroying the last vestiges of freedom and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people”

5,000 of these flyers were handed out in Dallas, Texas accusing Kennedy of being a traitor

John F. Kennedy saw the evil being committed, and even agreed with Castro and Che in their revolution. I’m sure this was one of the many reasons why JFK was eventually killed, he wasn’t doing what he was being told, he actually wanted to be truthful, and humanitarian, and sincere. Whenever JFK spoke, you heard a sincere desire to truly change things, make things right. He was well on his way towards becoming a real revolutionary leader, and in many ways, he was. Unfortunately people with such a mentality aren’t appreciated in this greedy world. So he was assassinated and replaced with someone that could be manipulated easier. Some one who would play along. It’s funny how those that want to change things and call out the wrongs of humanity get wiped out. Martin Luther King, Malcom X, JFK...the list goes on and on. Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) is also a heartbreaking film, if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and do so. In my opinion, the death of JFK was one of the darkest days America has ever lived through. Not just because of his death, but because of what it represented.


Castro and Che where doing their own part in rising up against this great evil that was being committed against the Cuban nation. Can’t say I blame them for wanting something different for their country. The qestion of weather this revolution and its outcome was for the best or not, one thing was clear: it was needed at the time. I mean, who wants a government that’s killing its people and stealing from them? Nobody. Problem is that you take out one evil government and another one will replace it, with equal amounts of opportunities to turn every bit as evil as the last one, even if they start out with good intentions. One famous Che quote says: “Cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders turn cruel!” You know how the saying goes: “Absolute power, corrupts absolutely”

Ernesto 'Che' Guevara most famous picture

Ernesto Che Guevara is a historical figure that is [polarizing. He is seen as a hero by some and as a violent subversive by others. Its view of him will most likely depend on who you side with politically speaking. Im one of the ones who cant see him as something evil at all. He was standing up for humanity!  In Soderberg’s first CHE film, we see Che becoming that revolutionary leader, slowly accepting his role in the grand scheme of things, taking the steps to make it happen. We see him organizing his army, amassing his guns, training the new soldiers, who by the way where mostly made up of farmers. But Che taught them to hate the evil. He taught them to hate those that took their freedom and humanity from them. When you read Che’s books, those written by himself during those years of the revolution, you can see that Che’s motivations for revolution were always based in love of humanity, love for true righteousness, he taught his soldiers to hate those who were taking their basic human rights from them. After all, their enemy was being equally barbaric with them. In fact, more so. This is the only reason why CHE believed in using force and violence to make the change. He taught that when governments use guns and violence to oppress and kill its people, then that gives the people the right to protect themselves in the same way. It’s the same principles of self defense. When it’s your own life that is in danger, you have a right to protect yourself.


How evil was Fulgencio Batista’s rule over Cuba? Well, his government had its bases on pure fear. He used murder as his prime way of inflicting it on the masses! He sent out his soldiers to kill people who were rising up and then he hung their dead bodies from the streets lamps for everyone to see, just to let the people know what could happen to them should they decide to join the revolt. That my friends is the face of true evil in my book! It had to be stopped!


Eventually, as we see in the film, the Cuban revolution was won. Che and Castro achieved their goal, for better or for worse. Cuba was no longer under the rule of Batista. After this, Che disappears from Cuba. This is where the second CHE film (called Guerrilla) begins. On this second film we see Che going to Bolivia to organize a similar revolution against a government that was also abusing its people, and that was also aided by U.S. military. Problem is that this revolution had a very different outcome, the film shows how the Bolivian people didn’t really support Che because the government had a hate and fear campaign on the media saying all sorts of lies about Che, in this way scaring the people from wanting to join his guerrilla. Still, this campaign of lies did not stop his movement. He took it as far as he could. Che going to Bolivia like that proved one thing, he went were ever the people were being abused and oppressed, no matter what country. This is why he considered himself a “citizen of the world”, he would go where ever he was needed, where ever people where being stepped on.

Fulgencio Batista, the face of dictatorship

On more then one occasion he was accused of being a murderer. And of course, they were right. He had to kill his enemy, this after all was war. But the difference between this war and other wars, were the reasons behind it. It was a rebellion fueled by a desire to make things right and stop the abusive behavior of the government. Let’s face it; there are times when this simply has to be done. The evil is simply too great to stand around doing nothing. One famous Che quote says: “Let me say, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love” Che killed, but we have to remember that this was simply a counter measure to the slaughter of innocent civilians by the government. Were people simply supposed to stand around and be slaughtered? The answer to that question is a resounding “HELL NO!”
When governments forget that they are there for the people, then they have to be reminded that they are there not to oppress and fill their pockets with the peoples money, they are there to serve the masses. It’s what any true government should do. Sadly, it seldom happens. Sometimes they go in the complete opposite direction, masquerading their true intentions and blatantly lying and manipulating the masses. This was an interesting aspect of the film, how we see the governments lying to the people through the radio waves and news paper articles. This is something that in my own personal opinion goes on to this day. Newspapers, websites, radio shows and news channels are controlled to bend the masses opinions on any given subject matter, especially when it comes to politics. Sadly, most people take what they read on newspapers and see on TV as the truth. As Che says in the film, moments before his execution: “Maybe they believed your lies”

Another dead revolutionary, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara's dead body, moments after his execution

I must admit that this second film is a much sadder affair, especially when we come to the last moments of the film, when Che is about to be executed. Soderberg’s direction was awesome in these moments, for when they shoot Che, we see everything from his own point of view. When they shot Che in Soderberg’s film, I felt like they had shot that gun at me, simply because I was so into the movie and because of the way that scene was shot and directed. I did shed a tear for this ultimate revolutionary; and his earnest desire to stand up for humanity and what is right. When asked what he believes in he answered “I believe in humanity”. I was moved by this film probably because of what is going on in my own country of Puerto Rico, where the government is earning its stars, little by little, club hit, by club hit towards becoming an oppressive government. Hell, I’ll say its well on its way to becoming one of the most violent governments in Puerto Rican history. But don’t ask our governor, he’ll smile at you, shake your hand and invite you to enjoy the beautiful beaches and hotels in the tourist area of our island.

The governor of Puerto Rico or he who shall not be named

But Che’s fighting spirit seen in Soderberg’s film is with every poor person that is being oppressed around the world. It’s with every student that is fighting for their rights to public and affordable higher education. It’s with them when police forces invaded college campuses and the streets, making everyone feel like we are living in a police state. Will any more Che Guevara’s ever rise up in this revolution? Who knows, revolution nowadays is seen under a different light. A violent revolt is seen as something evil. Marching and striking seems to be the way to ‘revolt’ nowadays. Will all the marching and striking ever achieve anything? Or will the governments let us do our marching and complaining and then simply do what they wanted to do all along? When is the time to truly rise up and do something against the oppression? When is too much, too much? I leave the answer to that question to you my dear readers. Dont forget to come back tomorrow for part three of VIVA LA REVOLUTION! where I will suggest 20 movies where revolutionaries actually got to beat the system! Be there or be square.  

“I am not a liberator. Liberators do not exist. The people liberate themselves” - Ernesto Che Guevara

Cover of the 'El Nuevo Dia', Puerto Rico's main newspaper. On it, a cop is threatening a mother and a daughter who are crying on the floor, pleading for justice.


Che (The Criterion Collection)Che (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]The True Story of Che GuevaraDiarios de Motocicleta: Notas de Viaje (Film Tie-in Edition) (Che Guevara Publishing Project / Ocean Sur) (Spanish Edition)

8 comments:

J.D. said...

Another fantastic, passionate article! CHE and JFK are definitely among my fave political films of all time - hell, JFK is right up there as one of my all-time fave films! I always find it fascinating that Stone cites Costa-Gavras Z as an important influence on his film and you can certainly see elements of it in there. Whether you agree with Stone's politics/theories or not, you can't deny that it is a powerful film, complex by design with truly astounding cinematography and editing.

CHE is another impressive film. I felt as if Soderbergh was channeling Terrence Malick - esp. in the first film with long takes and stunning cinematography. Of course, Malick was originally going to direct so maybe some of his influence seeped in. Some find CHE too slow of a film but the pacing is certainly deliberate and I think Soderbergh is trying to convey the tough slog it was for Che, Fideo and their group to make their way to the capital and seize control. It didn't happen over night and Soderbergh's film is really a nuts and bolts examination of what it takes to stage a revolution - both successfully and unsuccessfully.

The Film Connoisseur said...

True about JFK, its a well made film no matter what you think really happened. Stone tries to keep things ambiguous most of the time with his films. He doesnt side with the rebels and throw hate on Americans. In HEAVEN AND EARTH, SALVADOR for example, both films about Vietnam we see both sides of the tale, and Stone doesnt side with neither, leaving it up to the viewer to decide what to think.

But with JFK I think he had a one sided view of things, he was saying that JFK was assassinated by his own government. Bold statement, but its kind of hard to deny that this is what really happened.

As for CHE, I loved both films, though they did feel kind of distant. We never get to close to CHE and he never speaks above a whisper. I read somewhere that Soderbergh never got too close to CHE in order to show the basics of communism, which was what CHE believed in. In the film we rarely see CHE alone, he is always with his troupe of soldiers, always thinking as a group.

Most people thought they were going to get this CHE movie with CHE screaming and shooting, what we got was a quiet film focusing on how to lead and organize a revolution, and the troubles and difficult situations they had to deal with while hiding in the forests.

I liked how both films are very different, one from the point of view of successful revolution, and the other one showing us a failed one. You could definetly feel the difference in attitude from the men CHE gathered on both camps. Cubans were ready to chop heads off, while the Bolivians were not so sure about joining CHE and his guerilla.

These movies got me to thinking that the type of revolution displayed on these films could probably never happen today. Che gathered his army in the mountains and forests to hide...with todays satellite technology, this could never be done.

J.D. said...

Well, with JFK, Stone has said that we wanted to create a counter-myth to what he saw as the fabricated myth of the Warren Commission Report. Basically, I see his film as visual compilation of some of the biggest theories pertaining to the JFK assassination and really the film should be a jumping off point for one to do their own research and reading about what happened. Alas, we will probably never know what *really* happened.

As for CHE, I couldn't agree more with your sentiments. It was a much more reflective Che that Soderbergh presented, except for the New York City/U.N. stuff which showed his more fiery side.

And you're right about that type of revolution not being possible nowadays. I think someone now would have to be way more technologically savvy to pull something off.

Neil Fulwood said...

Another very impassioned and personal article here, Franco. I’m so glad we collaborated on this project; you’ve delivered some of the best and most in-depth writing I’ve seen on The Film Connoisseur.

It’s been good for me, too. After two months of wading through cheap, cheesy and sometimes outright awful exploitation movies during my Winter of Discontent season, I lost sight of how political, socially conscious, provocative and reactionary cinema can be. Watching ‘Brazil’ recently – the first time I’d seen it in ages – it blew me away that a film of that budget (about $15 million – back in the mid-eighties) and with a plethora of established actors in the cast could be so scathingly satirical and anti-establishment. Likewise ‘Network’ – a studio production with some heavy-weight names, and it pulls no punches. These are films worth celebrating. And this has been a project worth joining forces for!

The Film Connoisseur said...

@JD: Its true, I guess we'll never really know. But when you look at Kennedy's story, the way he was running things and his speeches as president, you can definetly see how he would rub certain people the wrong way. Wrong enough to have him wiped out.

@Neil: Thanks for the kind words Neil. I tried putting a better effort in my writing, because its such a serious subject matter. But Im sure a mispell or two made their way into the articles. They ended up being such lenghty articles! I just couldnt help myself, I wanted to really let people know whats going on over here in respect to the abusive behavior.

It is amazing that Gilliam managed to make BRAZIL with a mere 15 million dollars. That isnt really a lot when it comes to hollywood, but I guess back in those days it was enough to get such a complex film off the ground.

I celebrate any film that adresses these themes because it shows we can still say something, we can still voice our opinions in the media. Im glad films like these can still be made, at least there is some freedom there I guess. I mean, governments try to control everything, and movies are controlled in many ways, but every once in a while films like BRAZIL or V for VENDETTA, thats when I know theres still some rebels out there willing to sticking to the establishment whenever needed. Judging by how many movies play with these themes, it is something that is affecting us on a global scale.

Thanks for commenting guys!

venoms5 said...

Nicely compiled, Fran! All three are exhaustive in their information. Well done.

Jack Thursby said...

Great article. Love the amount of detail you've gone into. I still haven't gotten around to watching JFK but caught both the Che movies last year. Thought Soderbergh did a superb job on them - he's showed who Che was rather than told everyone who he was. I like that he avoiding having an agenda which is some Oliver Stone often gets accused of.

Thought both Che films made brilliant counter points. One is Che's birth as a revolution, the other is his death. The first part is slick and shot on REDOne, lots of wide shots. The second part is 16mm, gritty and shot almost entirely in close-ups.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Watching Oliver Stone's JFK is a grueling, sad, desperate experience, and a real eye opener. An awesome movie experience and a very important film in my book, hope you get a chance to see it soon Jack. Oliver Stone was the best filmmaker I could have thought of to direct that film.

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