(Austria/France, 109 min.)
Dir. Hubert Sauper
“Cinema is witchcraft,” says one participant in Epicentro. The latest doc from Hubert Sauper (Darwin’s Nightmare, We Come as Friends), Epicentro confronts the power of images—how they lie, how they shape history, and, most significantly, how they cast spells over viewers’ minds. If cinema is indeed witchcraft, then Sauper wears his pointy hat very well. He knows how to blend eye of newt and tail of rat. Epicentro is a complex and boldly realised film that unpacks the curses of imperialist history.
The film sees Havana through the eyes of its residents, as well as the American capitalist dreams through which they interpret the world. The key moment of history that Sauper uses as the base of his inquiry is the 1898 explosion of the USS Maine in Havana. Sauper positions this event as a moment in which Spanish colonial rule yielded to American dominance. That event is part of a larger history of the American war machine at which Cuba has inadvertently been at the centre. Now, as the shadow of Donald Trump hangs over Havana like a dark cloud, Sauper wonders if the fissures in the myth-making machine are revealing themselves or if any hope for an ideal peaceful world is altogether gone. The film reflects on the layers of Havana’s history by exploring the city as well as the cinematic images that influence culture and are themselves historical artifacts. Sauper parallels cinema’s own role as a colonial weapon with the imperialist history of western culture and confronts the elements of ethnography, othering, and narrative-making that are weapons within cinema’s arsenal.
Epicentro, this year’s Grand Jury Prize winner for World Cinema, is an ambitious endeavour. This film is a complex and challenging work that is densely packed with ideas. However, Sauper has the proper ingredients and the right cauldron, as well as a handful of cackling witches eager to help stir the pot. These characters are the young people of Havana, or “little prophets,” as Sauper calls them. Leonelis Arango Salas and Annielys Pelladito Zaldivar, two young girls, are the main characters who join Sauper in his exploration of their city. The girls’ innocence offers a remarkable filter for Sauper’s study of colonial legacy, but they’re shrewdly perceptive and very candid about the way mainstream media portrays young Black women like themselves. If cinema is witchcraft, then Epicentro counters Hollywood’s whitewashing of history with a dose of Black girl magic. These kids are fun and insightful characters who see through the veneer that the Dream Factory creates.
Another of Sauper’s prophets is actress Oona Castilla Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin and daughter of Geraldine Chaplin. She joins the kids for one of the many film screenings featured in Epicentro. Chaplin and the kids watch one of her grandfather’s most acclaimed films, The Great Dictator, and giggle as the comedic icon plays with a globe while dressed as the Fuhrer. Oona remarks to the kids that the guy onscreen is her father, which humorously invites one of the young viewers to assume that she’s a descendant of Hitler. As she teaches the kids that her granddad is not Adolf Hitler, but Charlie Chaplin, the kids engage with the act of cinematic mythmaking and construction. On another level, though, this exercise with The Great Dictator gives them agency over the powers that dictators wield. If they can question images and ideologies from an early age, then their power crumbles.
Havana itself reflects the decaying quality of American empire. Hotel signs bear the name “America” while another building is the former Roosevelt hotel, which remains as a non-descript dwelling with a little confectionary store that sells ice. However, the impact of imperialism is mostly evident in Havana’s characteristic as a place frozen in time. Thanks in part to trade embargos, all the cars are gas-guzzling classics, while many of the downtown buildings reflect the old Spanish colonial style.
As Sauper tours the city, new characters appear by happenstance: a chatty prostitute, some fat Americans, and an Italian ex-pat taxi driver. These characters invite one to see Havana through the vulgar filter of the tourist’s gaze. Sauper likens tourism to an imperialist force comparable to cinema’s effect of “othering” because the hospitality industry fashions the city for the comfort of outsiders, rather than residents. (A point he underscores by taking the kids to a hotel for a swim in the pool and a slice of cake.) Moreover, the film’s drab and dimly lit aesthetic is as anti-Hollywood as a film can be. Sauper sees the city through its available light, avoiding romanticism and exoticism and letting the tackiness of American influence pop up through fluorescent signage.
There is a lot going on here. While myriad characters, storylines, histories, and subtexts make the film somewhat overwhelming, Epicentro chews what it bites off. Sauper’s approach provides more questions than answers, but is especially productive in reframing the gaze of the camera. It sees a world caught in limbo in the time capsule of Havana. Navigating the tensions between communism and capitalism, imperialism and de-colonial thinking, and myth and reality, the film asks if it’s ever possible to reconcile the competing forces of global ideologies into a utopian ideal. If one can’t find utopia on the sunny beaches of Cuba, one might not find it elsewhere.
Epicentro streams at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema beginning Oct. 2.