A personal portrait of a political phenomenon and a view of the developments since the revolution a mere ten years before, Fidel! gives a rare glimpse into everyday life of the Cuban people and its leader. Whether listening to a complaints at a collective farm, playing baseball with the locals, or discussing Marxist revolution, Castro's charisma is present in every frame and, like him or not, lends understanding to why so many call him “The Giant.”
"The great quality of this remarkable film is that it is educational in the best possible sense. It gives you a feeling for what revolution - any revolution - is actually about… I found it completely absorbing from the start to finish. A tapestry for history." - Ralph Gleason, Rolling Stone Further Information:
Short Subject, Saul Landau’s 1974 “Fidel + Cuba”
Interview with Saul Landau
Catalog Number: MC-928
Length: 95 minutes
DVD Region: 0
TV System: NTSC
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Interview with Saul Landau on "Fidel"
Director's Commentary with Saul Landau
Short Subject, Saul Landau's 1974 short subject "Fidel and Cuba"
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2009-06-23Metro Times By Jason Ferguson
To cut right to the chase, Fidel! is a fantastic documentary. Made in 1969 by director Saul Landau, the filmmakers had unprecedented — and unseen again — access to Fidel Castro, just a decade after the Cuban Revolution, during a period when the bloom was still on Cuba's socialist rose. Castro, expansively articulate, ruthlessly cocky and youthfully handsome, had yet to turn into the toothless, aging agitator most Americans now know, and the film shows him in a variety of personal and professional settings, rounding out the one-dimensional caricature he's so often cast as. Landau captured the man at the height of his powers, when the privation of the American embargo was countered by a robust trade with the Soviet Union and the dream of a communal Caribbean paradise seemed tantalizingly close to fruition. At least that's what the charismatic leader wanted Landau and his crew to believe. Instead, the fruited plains and productive factories that Castro boasts of so proudly are contrasted with breadlines and scenes of devastating poverty. It's truly amazing that Castro and his propaganda team allowed such images to leave the island, but by balancing the truth with Fidel's engaging fantasies, Landau's doc manages to be more accurate than a film on either of those things would have been on its own.
2009-06-03paeditorsblog.blogspot.com By Ernesto Aguilar
As military columns led by Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and others took over Cuba in 1959, Fidel Castro went from a larger-than-life revolutionary figure to a leader who would galvanize allies and opponents alike for the next 50 years. Indeed the architect of the Cuban Revolution is today as much a figure of many imaginations as he is part of Latin America's and revolutionary socialism's reality.
Since the moment those insurgent forces marched into Havana, heralding the flight of the United States-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista from power, many writers and scholars have sought to convey the story of Fidel Castro as both an instigator and theorist. His sense of history and sheer charisma make Castro ripe for book and film, and scores of works have portrayed that intensity, for good and ill. Author and acclaimed documentary filmmaker Saul Landau's entry into this history is an admirable addition.
Now out on DVD, Landau's documentary Fidel! is penetrating in several ways. First, Fidel! features many one-on-one interviews with Castro himself. Whether he captures Castro discussing how he tries to spend virtually all his time out of "the office" and among the people to demonstrating why Castro blessedly did not make baseball his second career choice, Landau get the kind of access many world leaders would never allow today. Second, filmed in 1969, just ten years after revolutionaries ascended to the zenith in Cuba, hope and radical fervor burn prominently.
Early in the film, a street musician sings, "We paid a heavy price/20,000 dead/But once the imperialist system was overthrown/the socialist government won 1,000 battles." During the Cuban Revolution's early years, people in the cities and countryside are presented here as optimistic about what Castro's leadership means for education, social services and the end of inequity. Fidel! is dotted with scenes of Cubans talking about the everyday business of living life after the revolution. It is clear they accept sacrifice as part of their obligation to ensuring the massive changes they have seen in their lifetimes will continue. For North Americans, for whom sacrifices like rationing might seem like ancient history, the steadfastness of Cubans may be shocking. But, at least from Landau's lens 40 years ago, seeing really is believing.
Further still, Fidel! is remarkable for how close one gets to the day-to-day experience of the Cuban people. From community meetings with Castro, into the sometimes sketchy business of seeing a revolution take root, Fidel! offers an unprecedented look at the people and their relationship with the Cuban leader. One man recounts during one of Castro's village stops how some people in the town will shirk jobs for the day to get a higher place in the food line. Others express dissatisfaction with municipal services and the pace of reform. Later, Castro candidly discusses how hearing citizen complaints and wish lists are simply part of what he does in a post-upheaval period. Yet once people have food and hospitals, a bemused Castro notes, they soon want movie theaters and more. Balancing out necessities versus daydreams while striving for the socialist ideal of a world without classes (in a country that had a deeply divided class system in not-so-distant memory) makes Fidel! intriguing for its portrayal of Cuba as a real-time experiment of socialism in practice.
Fidel! also presents the story of those opposed to the Cuban Revolution. Landau takes us into the prisons for counterrevolutionaries, where inmates talk about why they feel as they do. In the film, Castro argues penal sanction is not seen as punishment, but as a necessary defense of the revolution, with the goal of rehabilitating opponents. However, those waiting to leave the country seem to make it clear they are uninterested in rehabilitation or making peace with socialism. The demands for luxuries Castro hears about among the people are seen by some critics as the leader's willingness to let Cubans suffer in poverty. They allege Castro's offer to let them leave is deceptive due to the slow pace of fulfillment. However, other Cubans hint the same critics can't be booted fast enough from the country.
Fidel! only lightly addresses domestic topics that have since gained a foothold in the progressive conscience: freedom of dissent, race relations and what ongoing international tensions even back then might mean for Cuba in a generation. The documentary's strength, however, is in telling Castro's story with an intimacy few have offered. Add in some of this DVD's bonus features, such as Landau's 1974 short subject film Fidel + Cuba and a discussion with the filmmaker about the experience of creating Fidel! and impressions of post-revolution Cuba, and the package presents the conviction of Fidel Castro that is unique and inspiring.
2009-05-21Short and Sweet NYC By Kenneth Joachim
Filmed ten years after the Cuban Revolution, Landau’s landmark documentary is still as interesting, powerful, and relevant in our contemporary world as it was then. Following Fidel Castro, exploring his politics, person and philosophies, this film is for those with an interest in getting a glimpse at what made and perhaps makes the larger than life historical figure tick.
Fidel is shown realistically; his dirty fingernails, penchant for professorial lecturing, and joyfully mischievous eyes all come through quite starkly thanks to Landau’s engagement with his subject. Remarking that he must always be “in constant relation with events, problems, and people,” the Cuban leader is followed from village to village, event to event, as he makes an effort to imbibe the concerns of every day Cubans. The leader is also very revealing, speaking on how at that time, Cuba lacked artistic creation, trained scientists and capable technicians. While both Fidel the man as well as Fidel the leader are represented, many times it’s plain to see the private and public personas are one and the same.
Observing that “politics had to be developed” after the initial revolution, Fidel makes it clear that for the movement to continue to succeed, it must be made from a position of governmental power. Reflecting on how Havana gave the illusion of development, like all capitals of underdeveloped countries, Fidel observes, “underdevelopment is also a psychological problem” as well as an economic, technical, and cultural challenge.
Landau portrays Fidel’s efforts to change this, by modernizing the country with collective farms, roads built, and hydroelectric dams installed to harness the power of Cuba. These actions are meant to destroy the inhibitors by creating confidence in the then new economic reorganization of the country.
This crisis of confidence in economic organization, this psychological problem of underdevelopment, rings true once again 40 years later but perhaps now in a North American context. Severing diplomatic ties in 1961, invading later that year, and finally placing a crippling economic embargo upon Cuba in 1962, the United States now finds itself on the precipice of normalizing relations with Cuba, making Landau’s film even more poignant today.
2009-03-23DVD Reviews and More By Eric Gonzalez
Some of us never get tired of Fidel Castro. This applies to those who love him and those who loathe him. The fascination is never ending. For this reason, there have been many books and films that have documented some aspects of his life and his historic legacy. Many, if no most, of these films take side in regards to how he has ruled his country since the early days of the revolution. Very few present the facts without any partisan opinion. “Fidel!” belongs to the second group, and in this very informative and fascinating documentary, we see Fidel during a crucial time of the revolution.
Directed by Saul Landau, “Fidel!” is straightforward filmmaking. Landau was apparently given full access to Castro, with restrictions applied when necessary, which allowed him to follow the famous revolutionary leader to many locations and events. Landau joins Fidel in his Jeep caravan throughout the Oriente province countryside on July, 1968. Thus, we witness Castro meeting with country people, who tell him about their problems and expectations. We see folks enthusiastically working in sugar cane plantations, cigar factories, cattle ranches, and the like. We also hear Fidel share his ideas and ideals about the revolution, and how he connects with the people. There is also a moment in which the caravan stops at Biran, the town in which Castro was born in 1927, and he takes us to the elementary school that he attended. Furthermore, Landau also features some of the high-commanding military officers that were accompanying Castro in his trip, like Mayors René Vallejo, Laite, Faustino Pérez, and others. The filmmakers also interview some dissident Cubans that are anxious to leave to Miami. On occasion, archival film from the triumph of the revolution is injected between the scenes shot by Landau.
“Fidel!” is a time capsule, if you will, that captures a man in command and in his everyday decision-making moments. It captures a revolution in progress, where the Cubans as a whole were learning how to run a country that was increasingly being isolated by the world. This is definitely a historic visual document of our times. The DVD also includes printed excerpts of Landau’s production diary, as well as director’s commentary, Landau’s 1974 short film “Fidel + Cuba”, and an interview with the director. (USA, 1969, color and B & W, 95 min plus additional material)
2009-03-19love-online-video.com By Jamigo Speaks
Just saw the HBO film “Comadante”(2003), which I ordered through the Amazon UK Marketplace, by noted director Oliver Stone, and found it an excellent recent profile of the “Old Fidel” Castro. It seems like such a perfect “Bookend” to Saul Landau’s excellent portrait of a “Young Fidel” Castro in his Prime, shot 36 years before, beautifully filmed in color, as he made his rounds all over Cuba and gave his “Progress Report” on Cuban Socialism, after it’s first 10 years. Finally, after 30 years, it will soon be available on American Home Video, on February 24, 2009, for Americans to judge for themselves.
It has now been 50 years since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. The fact that both of these excellent films by American directors have been virtually BANNED from U.S audiences since they were made, shows that the Dark Forces of Demonization and Fear have been blocking average Americans from the opportunity to look objectively at Castro, and yes, perhaps even becoming charmed by him, as Barbara Walters was when she spent many hours of personal dialog with Fidel in preparation for her 2 Prime Time ABC interviews with the Cuban leader, spaced 25 years apart.
Fidel is the same bluntly frank, charismatic individual in 2003 as he was in 1969 in “Fidel!”. His sense of humor is, as always, ready to burst forth. In the absence of these these two films, Americans have had to depend on the Miami Hate Lobby and the likes of Dick Cheney and Fox News for information about Cuba!
Fidel is a man who has a World View and a concern for Humanity and the Enviornment. He has been “Thinking Globally and acting Locally” for the past 60 years. It is his Corporate Enemies who have Poisoned the Enviornment and brought down the World’s economies through their Boundless Greed! Viva Fidel!
…This review is NOT an invitation to all the Die-Hard Cold Warriors to come “Out of the Woodwork” to repeat their Nauseous 50-year-old Whining about Fidel Castro. The rest of the world can accept the fact that Cuba won it’s independence & has paid a very high price by angering the world’s “Fattest Cats” and enduring a crippling economic US Embargo. The Cold War has now been over almost 20 years, and the Corporate Monopolies, have Won! We are now starting to see the type of world that they prefer…
The Right Wing Idealogs should now contemplate their Victory and spend some time thinking about how their Ultimate Hero, George W. Bush, has made such a Mess out of BOTH America & the World and how the Human Race faces Extinction from the Industrial Pollution of the Entire Planet… The main question Today is Very Basic…
2009-03-13dvdcorner.net By Bob Ham
Fidel Castro has, even in recent years when he was forced to cede control of Cuba to his younger brother, always cut a larger than life figure. The barrel chest, ever-present beard, grandiose hand gestures, and more often than night a cigar plugged into his mouth. And while we have many stories and films that have attempted to humanize such a polarizing political figure as him, there haven't been many that have gotten close to bringing him down from the pedestal he is often placed upon.
The first film that came close to deflating the Castro mythos was this 1969 documentary by Saul Landau. With unprecedented access, Landau and his crew were able to follow the then Prime Minister on his route through Cuba, holding rallies, stopping to hear the concerns of the people he is representing and speaking about his upbringing on the island country.
While there is the humanizing element to this film - watching Castro strike out during a pick up baseball game and seeing him looking slightly shy and bewildered in an old classroom he attended as a child - what is boldly apparent in this film is how much the mythos crept into Landau's direction. In the accompanying commentary track, the director refers to Castro following a lineage of feudal lords in South America and without fail that is often the impression that you get. He is a charismatic leader, able to speak easily with old peasant women as he is with his policymakers, but no matter where he goes, everyone knows where they stand with him. And from the beatific look that he carries on his face throughout the entire film, you can tell that he loves the power, even when he is speaking of how much he wants to help the lower classes.
It is a fascinating historical document as much as it is a document of late '60s filmmaking, when the influence of the French New Wave directors was being felt most prominently in American cinemas. Landau is no exception, using a dizzying amount of jump cuts and quick edits to historical footage that is free of context or any narration to guide you through the story.
2009-03-11Educational Media Reviews Online By Reviewed by Holly Ackerman, Duke University
Just when the steady decline of Fidel Castro’s vitality has become painful to watch, the young Fidel has been resurrected in a reissue of Saul Landau’s documentary. Shot with hand-held cameras in 1968 and originally issued in 1969, the film is essentially a jeep tour with Fidel going from town to town, visiting various development projects and speaking to groups large and small. The excursion is interspersed with pre- and post-revolutionary footage selected from the Cuban Film Archive.
In his distinctively personal exchanges with rural residents we see a robust Fidel bursting with plans and confidence. The inclusion of both mass political speeches and small group conversation shows the range of charismatic styles that have kept Castro’s audiences engaged for a good portion of his fifty year rule. The film is neither an endorsement nor a criticism but a fascinating series of encounters with an extraordinary individual – what Landau has called “a personal portrait of a political phenomenon.” The piece would make a good accompaniment to presentations on post-revolutionary domestic policy or to general studies on political leadership.
The film was shot “in the field” but its technical quality is good and the raw feel of it adds to its appeal. Extra features include a printed excerpt from Landau’s 1968 diary; two interviews with the producer that round out and contextualizes the piece giving biographical information on Fidel along with a 2007 update and a twenty four minute documentary that Landau subsequently taped in 1974. The extras are a bit repetitious but worth the effort especially for those who are unfamiliar with Cuban history.
2009-03-03PopMatters By Bill Gibron
He remains a symbol of defiance and revolution in a world that’s (supposedly) moved on from his type of gung-ho, guerilla tactics. He’s a hero to some, a demagogue to others, and a thorn in the side of every US administration since Eisenhower. For filmmaker Saul Landau, however, Fidel Castro is a man of many nuances. He’s a powerbroker connected to the people, a liberator looking beyond the basics of Communism to a larger, utopian ideal. After dropping out of graduate school to experience the Cuban revolution first hand, Landau was let back into the country to chronicle the event’s 15 year anniversary. With unprecedented access to his subject and sources, he’s managed to make one of the most intriguing films ever about a would-be world leader.
Part portrait, part propaganda, Fidel! is filled with memorable images: Castro relaxing with pick-up game of baseball; the leader eating in a communal tent with his many military-styled advisers; a group of star struck villagers demanding the man come in for a cup of coffee; a group of school teachers swarming their beloved Fidel, proclaiming his vision for their underdeveloped nation. With newsreel footage of the factual basis for Castro’s rise to power, and the opportunity to witness the country in all its growing pains glory, Landau’s film is a remarkable achievement. It will also definitely chafe those who feel that Castro is a cancer in Latin America, a man who’s mangled Marxism has led an entire people to poverty and almost virtual international isolation.
But this is Landau’s story and he’s sticking with it. As part of the delightful DVD package presented by Provocateur Pictures and Microcinema International, the director is on hand to give a thorough and quite rousing commentary track, and in it, he more or less sets up Castro as one of the key figures of the 20th Century. He points out that, as an idealist, he is one of the few revolutionaries who completely and totally fulfilled the promise of his take-over. Castro wanted Cuba to be its own sovereign nation, unfettered by influence from America (and its corporate clout) and the historical harness of Spain. Landau makes it abundantly clear that Castro did indeed achieve his goals. And since the film finds the country prospering after the entire Bay of Pigs/Missile Crisis debacles of the earlier part of the decade, it appears that victory is sweet indeed.
Taken as a simple statement of Castro circa 1969, Fidel! is a fine effort. It applies a cinema verite approach to the narrative, listening in on the leader and his inner circle as they discuss administrative philosophy, the order of power, and the current goals for the Cuba people. Education (and some would say, indoctrination) are the mandates of the day, with Landau visiting schools to show how the new regime guarantees the ability to learn for all. A great deal of Fidel! focuses on the citizenry and its reaction to their enigmatic chief. Castro never panders. Instead, there is a genuineness about his promises that seem sincere, especially in light of today’s “say anything” political ploys.
But one can’t help feel that a really rosy set of lens were used to manufacture this movie. Political prisoners are shown in a kind of photo-op phoniness that, while possibly true, seems unusually lenient for actual enemies of the state. They even sound sorry for being opposed to Castro. Then we see some dissidents waiting to leave the country. They too seem less angry and more apologetic than we expect. Perhaps times have indeed changed. Maybe the rising tensions in South Florida over US policy toward Cuba and sour memories of the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 taint our opinion of the man and his manner. Whatever it is, there are indeed times when Fidel! feels forced, like jingoism instead of honest social sentiment.
Still, Landau deserves more than credit for compiling such an intimate look. Castro comes off as smart, savvy, creative, undaunted, and very, very passionate. His speeches combine the best kind of conversational persuasion, and his advisors stands as a loyal group of actual thinkers. Some time is spent on absent Friend of the Revolution Ché Guevara and it is clear that Castro still has uncomfortable feelings over the radical’s death (he died a year before this movie was made). Large landscape portraits of Ché are seen all around Cuba, and his name brings the kind of hushed reverence reserved for saints. Yet this section feels incomplete, as if Landau didn’t want to stray too far from the subject at hand (besides, Guevara is a massive subject to undertake).
As part of this exceptional DVD package, we do get the aforementioned director’s commentary, and it may be hard for some Conservative, anti-Communist Republican types to hear. Landau is virtually in love with Fidel Castro, both as a man and as a symbol of American hubris. He points out the sordid CIA attempts to assassinate the leader, and mocks the presumption that Cuba wanted warmer relations with the Soviets. He sets the record straight about some of the scenes, and even offers us a chance to see a short film he made in 1974 - Fidel + Cuba. It’s an eye opener as well. Along with an old interview that repeats some of the concepts from his commentary, and a look at his production diary, Landau is just as important a part of Fidel! as the iconic ideologue himself.
In 2008, it seems almost silly that the US maintains a staunch and sometimes confusing embargo on an island a mere 90 miles from its shores. Certainly there are reasons both politically and morally for such a stand (at least in the eyes of those harboring hatred for the man who dismantled the Batista regime) and history is never helped by only knowing one side of the story. In Fidel! , Saul Landau does us the honorable service of seeing things from the everyday Cuban’s point of view. This is not the story of the upper class or the rich. This is not the tale of the empowered or the embittered. It’s just a look at one man, his sense of national duty, and the foundation for holding onto his newfound power. Five decades later, it remains a remarkable achievement - albeit a controversial and incomplete one.
2009-03-03DVD Talk By Ian Jane
Saul Landau's 1971 documentary, Fidel!, covers, not surprisingly, Fidel Castro's day to day life and how he interacted with the basic populace of Cuba a few years after the revolution. Shot with a small crew using 16mm cameras in 1969, it provides a rare and intimate glimpse into one of history's most confounding figures and allows him, in his own words, to discuss politics and socialism with the common people he was touring around the country meeting with.
Landau had been to Cuba before - in fact he mentions that he dropped out of graduate school a decade or so before making this film specifically so that he could travel to Cuba and watch the revolution unfold. It was during this time that he met a man named Rene Vallejo, who became, in Landau's words 'Castro's doctor and confidante.' It was Vallejo who called Landau in 1969 and told him to bring his crew to Cuba as Castro was ready to allow a documentary to be made about him. The crew arrived, and was then put on hold, waiting seven weeks before being granted and audience with the man. That said, once Castro and Landau's team did connect, they were allowed unprecedented access to them as they accompanied him around the country. Along the way, Castro discusses his childhood, talks about politics and social injustice and about the glory of the revolution. Landau contrasts some of this optimism with footage of impoverish Cuban's standing in line for much needed food. Interviews with school children show some hope but you can't help but wonder if these kids were simply performing for the cameras and delivering a well rehearsed speech rather than offering free and open thoughts of their own.
There is some truly remarkable footage captured here. Not only do we get the chance to see Castro meet with simple farmers and the like but we also see him delivering some incredibly enthusiastic speeches, we see him talking about the importance of Marxist theory and we see him unwinding with a game of baseball. Throughout all of this, regardless of the formality or informality of the event, you can't help but fall for the man's natural charisma. He demonstrates personal warmth and a genuine sense of humor here that many of us would likely never think to associate with a man of his stature and you definitely get the impression that he cares very deeply for the Cuban people. In fact, Castro spends much of the film talking about how important it is that the government improve roadways and the overall standard of living for the population of Cuba's remote rural areas (though we don't actually ever see anything being done about this).
In between the bits of footage that he and his crew shot, Landau integrates a wealth of black and white stock footage from the Cuban Film Archives that interjects some interesting pre-revolutionary war footage that helps to depict the differences between the Cuba of the fifties versus the Cuba of the late sixties. It's interesting to see Castro's bravado in full swing here knowing full well that the two years he'd been in charge at this point in history hadn't really seen any massive improvements. He notes that hospitals have been built but the Cuban economy and infrastructure seemingly remained very similar to the pre-revolutionary times, leading you to wonder just how much of a difference this interesting and charming man had really made.
While there's very little attention paid to the outside forces that were at play during this time, both Soviet and American, Fidel! is never the less a fascinating portrait of a fascinating man. Say what you will about Castro and his politics, it's pretty hard to deny that he had a huge impact on world politics and Landau's film does a fine job of documenting an important time in his country's history.
The 1.33.1 fullframe image presents the film in its original aspect ratio. This was originally shot on 16mm film stock under less than perfect conditions so there are times when the film looks a little bit on the rough side, but for the most part it's never less than watchable. Unfortunately the image is interlaced, which is an annoyance, but color reproduction isn't bad, even if at times it's a bit faded, and there aren't any obvious problems with edge enhancement or mpeg compression artifacts. Some scenes are a little bit on the soft side but this can be attributed to the source material rather than the encoding job. All in all, the movie is a bit on the rough side, visually speaking, but it's perfectly watchable here.
The Dolby Digital Mono sound mix is on par with the video quality in that there are some spots that are a bit rough. Minor background hiss and the occasional pop can be heard on the soundtrack but aside from that there's little to complain about. The levels are properly balanced and the forced English subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors.
The extra features start off with a commentary track from the film's director, Saul Landau. This is a pretty interesting track that allows Landau to talk about what it was like making this film on location in Cuba during a pretty tumultuous time in that country's history. He speaks about his subject with quite a bit of authority, detailing Castro's biographical history as the film plays out and doing a fine job of putting everything into a welcome context. A female moderator keeps Landau talking more often than not, though there are a few spots where he goes quiet leading to some silent bits. That said, this is definitely a track worth listening to, if only for Landau's stories about being in Cuba and some of his experiences there with the locals and with hallucinogenic substances! Landau also talks about what footage was used with permission from the Cuban Film Archives and what footage is his own. All in all, this is very interesting stuff and it compliments the feature very nicely.
From there, be sure to check out Landua's 1974 short film, Fidel + Cuba (24:00). Taken from a tape source, it's not in the best of shape but it's a nice follow up to Fidel and while it covers some of the same ground, it contains some really impressive footage of the country and its leader at work. Also included as an Interview With Saul Landau (11:36) which was originally produced by Link TV in 2007. Here Landau discusses making the film, his motives and how he feels about its subject. The commentary covers a lot of this as well but Landau's an interesting man and his discussion he's well worth listening to.
Rounding out the extras are excerpts from Landau's production diary (provided as an insert booklet inside the keepcase), trailers for a couple of other Provocateur DVDs, menus and chapter selection.
While the transfer and audio show their age and source limitations, Fidel! is never the less a fascinating portrait of an enigmatic historical figure. The commentary and extras offer further insight and help to round out this package nicely. History buffs and political documentary fans will want to check this one out. Recommended.
2009-02-25Movie Habit By John Adams
...This is not a great documentary or even great filmmaking but I can recommend it as a rewarding film to watch, particularly while listening to Landau’s 2008 commentary. Modern viewers will be also interested in seeing the young Che Guevera who seems to be back in ironic and iconic fashion.
Fidel!is still history, and it is history in the making.
There is an excellent director’s commentary, recorded in 2008. There is also a short documentary from 1974 by Landau, Fidel + Cuba. There is also an on-camera 2008 interview with Landau.
Sound quality is very good, but the picture is often blown out. Of course, the amazing thing is not that the film was overexposed but that it was shot at all.
2009-02-11DVD Savant By Glenn Erickson
It's perhaps an appropriate time for the 1971 documentary Fidel! to be released; the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. probably may not rank high in the list of gnawing problems faced by the new administration, but it's important nonetheless. Fidel Castro has been the subject of docus pro and con, including plenty of films from other countries that have never understood America's decades-long economic blockade. Fidel! simply follows Fidel on a tour through his country's eastern provinces. Interrupted from time to time by B&W footage from before the revolution, Fidel speaks at length about his country, his childhood, and the guerrilla war.
Filmmaker Saul Landau left college in 1960 and hitchhiked through Cuba to find out what a revolution was like. One of the cars giving him a ride belonged to Fidel's doctor, revolutionary leader Rene Vallejo. The doctor answered Landau's questions and formed a friendship; in 1968 Landau was invited back to make his documentary.
Shot in rough 16mm color, Fidel! accompanies the revolutionary leader over rough roads as he makes personal contact with the Cuban campesinos. The bearded, cigar-smoking leader gets a warm reception at every stop. Fidel talks to his people one-on-one in relaxed conversations laced with jokes: "Your cows only give five liters of milk? Those are really underdeveloped cows, man!"
Castro's main speaking topic is a road under construction, although we see no work in progress. The vast majority of rural Cubans must use mud paths and unreliable bus transportation; people sometimes have no way of getting medical aid. Fidel's motorcade consists of 4-wheel drive vehicles that have difficulty crossing creeks and climbing hills. He tells us that there are really two Cubas. Havana is a fully developed international city while the rest of the country is at least a century behind. His revolution is the first 20th century government to give anything to the people or improve their standard of living.
The film was made in the summer of 1968, two years after the Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia. Fidel's Cuba is already in fiscal trouble. His campaigns to increase agricultural production haven't reached their goals and there simply aren't enough resources to improve conditions in the country. Just the same, literacy is climbing and his country's health care system is just beginning to pay off. We are told that "new hospitals are already scattered through the mountains".
Fidel's popularity and charisma are obvious. He stops off to eat, chat, and even play baseball. The size of his entourage is not shown and not much is visible in the way of security. Nobody seems concerned by the possibility of assassination. Castro's speeches burst with slogans and optimism, but Landau's interviews bring out a more thoughtful man. This isn't the sarcastic Castro of 60 Minutes interviews, making fun of Dan Rather's simplistic questions. Fidel's stories of his childhood tell of gross inequities both economic and racial.
Landau's cameras also show another side of Cuba. We see citizens forming up for long food lines. A song tries to put a positive spin on the food shortages but the people look unhappy just the same. Another group of Cubans waits nervously on line to apply for visas to leave the country. One face seems upset to be filmed, and we wonder if these applicants will suffer any harassment from the government authorities.
The kids in the schools are clean, bright and motivated, but some of what they say raises our suspicions. The students chosen for interviews offer statements that seem memorized from Communist teachings. Fidel talks about The Revolution needing a population with a new kind of consciousness, and the state seems to be actively instilling a specific set of values. The cultural-political indoctrination isn't much different than the messages that bombard young Americans, except that under Castro dissent is officially discouraged. The camera records one set of parents complaining about a school curriculum too concerned with revolutionary dogma.
Landau also conducts several interviews in a camp for political prisoners. Fidel doesn't know any other way to handle men arrested for counterrevolutionary crimes. The early years of the revolution were wracked with subversion, sabotage, assassination attempts and invasions by Cuban exiles and the U.S. government. What we don't see in the movie are any Russians, although a Soviet ship is present in Havana harbor and Fidel sometimes travels in a Russian helicopter.
Provocateur and Microcinema's DVD of Fidel! is a fine encoding of a movie filmed in 16mm and probably transferred from a print. The images are grainy and contrasty, and the color can be rough as well. But the camerawork and editing are excellent; it's a thorough historical document of an important piece of 20th century history. Most of the audio is in clearly recorded Spanish, with accurate subtitles. The Cuban source music heard on the journey adds to the entertainment value.
The disc is generous with its extras: a new commentary & interview with Saul Landau and a short follow-up film he made in 1974, Fidel + Cuba. A folded insert contains an excerpt from Saul Landau's filming diary, where we learn that his crew was made to wait for weeks before Fidel was ready to begin his inspection tour of the island.
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