Travelling With Che Guevara is a documentary not only about the making of The Motorcycle Diaries by Walter Salles, but also about the ‘making of’ Che Guevara. The action centres around the 82 year old Alberto Granado, who as a young man accompanied Che on the six month journey through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Columbia and Venezuela. The incidental music used to embellish this documentary sounds like it has been lifted from a 50s documentary – if you can, try to block it out early and just listen to the story.
Alberto is treated like a star on set. The actors playing Che and Alberto (Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna) chat to the real Alberto, ask him questions and take him for a ride on the Norton 500, a replica of the 1952 bike used by the two friends on their original tour of Latin America. Prior to the shooting of one scene in The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles fusses about where Che and Alberto had slept in a market hall. He asks for guidance from Alberto who tells him not to worry about the details, but to concentrate on the story, adding that Selles was telling this very well. The actors don’t seem to mind being given advice by Alberto and neither does the director. At one point he even tells Selles which cut to use – if egos were present on set, director Gianni Minà chose not to show them.
Alberto Granado now lives in Cuba where he has worked as a scientist until his recent retirement. It was Che who called Alberto to work at the medical school in Santiago de Cuba, and it was through Alberto’s concern about the treatment of leprosy victims that Che became interested in them. 50 years before, when they travelled to the leper colony in San Pablo together, they shook hands with the leprosy sufferers and didn’t use masks, which halted a lot of the prevailing prejudices. When Alberto returns to the colony with the camera team the current inhabitants of the leprosarium in San Pablo cheer and clap. Some still remember him.
The majority of the film is based on the two travellers’ diaries, but using the real Alberto to follow the shoot gives this ‘making of’ film another dimension. As an onlooker the thought constantly crosses your mind how peculiar it must be for Alberto to see two young actors re-enacting his own story. It is also easy to follow the changes that Che goes through on this trip. He starts out as a happy-go-lucky (though politically aware) middle class student, but as they are exposed to more poverty and misery he becomes increasingly angry.
At the screening I attended at this year’s Berlinale, Alberto Grenado and Che Guevara’s son were both special guests. Grenado pointed out that Che kept ‘growing out of his roles…first he was a medic, then a revolutionary, then a Cuban, then the world was almost too small for him.’ When Che’s son was asked how he could stand to be living with the burden of having such a legend for a father, he answered: ‘How can I stand it? I stand on my own two feet, I’m his biological son, but he has many ideological sons who are much more important.’
The end impression is that people around Che are more than happy to heap accolades on him, even when they deserve credit too. Grenado comes across as a very kind and upright man, a man who has lost none of his ideals. In his book Travelling with Che he points out that as a result of their trip 50 years ago this film was made. A section of the San Pablo leprosarium was rebuilt near Santa María by the crew. This included the installation of running water, pathways, lighting and generators that will now make the life of the inhabitants easier, prompting Alberto’s assertion that ‘history once again proves that one should be true to one’s principles and beliefs.’ I suspect that Alberto with his quiet, self-effacing manner was a great deal more important as Che’s mentor than he admits.
This documentary shows a man of whom we may never have heard if he hadn’t been connected to Che Guevara; but would Guevara ever have been heard of if he hadn’t met Grenado? Perhaps not. Grenado may not have his likeness emblazoned on T-shirts around the world (ironic that the face of a communist is cranking up capitalist retail sales), but his personality will remain in your heart long after your T-shirt has faded.