Oliver Stone is no stranger to controversy, and his latest project, Commandante, a documentary about the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, is unlikely to prove an exception among his films. Edited from thirty hours of conversations with Castro himself, this documentary is the first chance several generations of people born outside Cuba have had of seeing any in-depth footage of Fidel Castro.
Stone has been denounced from some quarters for allowing himself be used by Castro in a bid for positive media attention. Some feel that in the past Stone has been guilty of approaching politically charged subjects in an overly simplistic and naive way. Apparently Harlan Jacobsen, who covered the Sundance Festival for USA Today, expressed his outrage that Stone had not asked various political questions that Jacobson thought important. A documentary maker can but ask the questions he or she thinks are poignant; their subject can but answer. The pleasure of watching documentaries is partly in deciding how much is truth or fiction. To point the finger at Stone for being simplistic, naive, or sycophantic is to miss the point. Commandante is an unprecedented insight into the life and times of one of the great political icons of our age.
Castro was able to say ‘cut’ at any time, but apparently he never did. The reasons are obvious enough: Castro is a famously professional politician and public speaker. He has been known to make six hour speeches, and he has had the opportunity to practise his politics and hone his speeches for the past 44 years. Even his translator of 30 years (who is also his current partner) admits that she knows him so well and has translated his words so often, that she usually knows what he’s going to say next.
Throughout Commandante it is obvious that Castro is supremely secure in his situation and his political beliefs. He looks sprightly and alert, walks upright and proudly, and waves confidently to the crowds and shakes their hands. The only times he seems flustered is when he is asked things that are more personal. His reactions then become more unpredictable. When questioned about his liaisons with women, he smiles shyly and starts to swing his arms like an embarrassed teenager. Stone also tries to find out whether Castro has ever had sessions with a psychiatrist. Castro seems genuinely perplexed, and replies that he has never been asked such a question before.
The film does attempt to address the more unsavoury aspects of Castro’s political career. When asked about the persecution of homosexuals under his regime, or about the fate of the 100,000 prostitutes that worked in Cuba prior to the revolution ( ‘even our prostitutes are university educated’), it soon becomes apparent that Castro’s answers are standard responses to often-asked questions. The more spontaneous and unexpected footage is far more intriguing to watch. In one sequence, Castro is eager to demonstrate how he uses his office as his exercising ‘track and field’: we watch as he measures his pulse and counts his steps while the camera pans down to his Nike-clad feet. Stone ironically compares it to a prison – and Castro agrees. In another part of the film, Castro and Stone sit on the back-seat of a car, and Stone starts joking around about what the dictator keeps in the vehicle. Castro plays along for a while, but suddenly reverts to being quite serious. He does not react at all when Stone points out that Castro never really seems to smile – other than to put on an even more serious expression, that is. Then, in another memorable sequence, the two men collapse in fits of giggles about the merits of Viagra.
What makes some people uncomfortable about this film is that it shows someone who they would like to perceive as all bad to be human. Castro has a family, Castro laughs and jokes and fools around, Castro likes women – and they obviously like him. In fact Castro likes people (especially Cubans), and quite a lot of them seem to like him. Life would be easier to understand if this were otherwise. A dictator who has imprisoned people and had them tortured, exiled and killed is a villain – and a villain cannot be human at the same time. The fact that good and bad are often found in the same place, and the same person, is an uncomfortable fact about humanity; and ultimately, this is what makes Commandante so watchable and so fascinating.