Ok, I have to confess it, I spend way too much time looking at Facebook when more important chores need to be done. But one day last week Facebook did me a favour, albeit a programmed, automated one, when a small ad for the 5th Sydney Latin American Film Festival popped up in the side box. Looking through the list of films, I wanted to see nearly all of them, but practicality forced settling for less. The one that seemed most interesting was Dar Radepayeh Che, or Chasing Che, a documentary made by an Iranian with dialogues in Farsi, Spanish, English and even a few words of French. The sole Sydney screening was at the Dendy at Circular Quay. Curiosity awakened, I bought a ticket on the net and asked about a half a dozen of my friends to come along. In the end none of them could make it, probably due to the screening time of 5.15pm on a Friday night, when most people with jobs are still at work, or rushing home. It might also explain why only about a half the cinema seats were filled, mainly by a mature audience that appeared to include a lot of foreign faces.
Very quickly it becomes evident the 78 minute film is low budget, in fact some parts would be lucky to survive a home movie edit. When Alireza Rofougaran, the film's director/ narrator/ producer begins with some of his own school photos, and how his life was changed after reading Jon Lee Anderson's biography of Che, I started to wonder just what kind of fan-film this will be. After Rofougaran compares himself to Che, and his Irani girlfriend to Chichina Ferreyra, and declares he and Che share the same zodiac sign, the fan-status suspicion seems confirmed. But wait! This film was runner up in a major Seattle film fest, and is slated to screen at many more. As it progresses, the film improves, and later it becomes apparent Rofougaran has a subtle motive for including his personal life.
Most people are aware an industry has sprung up around Che Guevara and his bearded, beret-capped image. New Che books and films are churning out steadily to join the ubiquitous Che T-shirts and posters that have been popular since the 1960s. This Che Industry's apex was the release a couple of years back of the big budget feature film The Motorcycle Diaries. But Rofougaran's film is of an entirely different genre. It resembles another, more polished Canadian documentary I recently watched on DVD, Lawrence Elmen's Tracing Che, which similarly followed Che's life, interviewing people who knew him, trying to construct a picture of the polemic Che persona. A persona known only obliquely - and usually out of context - in English speaking countries. Yet, despite Rofougaran's film's technical shortcomings, its lack of screen finesse is also its strength. The film is a good, if rough example of independent film-making and citizen reporting. Based in Tehran, he travels to places as far flung as Cuba, Sweden, Bolivia and England to gain interviews, in a project that spanned several years. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he doesn't. Many he seeks out are reluctant to be interviewed. On one occasion he conducts an interview on a busy Paris street with a suspicious former Cuban guerilla who is openly critical in front of the camera of the Castro regime. But even when Rofougaran fails to clinch an interview, he salvages something. We hear Chinchina and Regis Debray politely but emphatically decline to be interviewed (I wonder if they knew he was recording their phone conversation?) After he has flown to Havana he discovers Cuban citizens can't give interviews to unaccredited journalists like himself. But he doesn't give up. He captures on film an amusing informal discussion between Carlos Figueroa and Calica Ferrer, two of Che's childhood friends, in a casual meeting in Buenos Aires. He gains surreptitious entry to parliament building in La Paz to interview former comrades in arms, one now a Bolivian politician, the other a human rights activist. Rofougaran talks to Che's childhood nanny, at her hospital bedside, several ex-guerrillas, and a Bolivian army captain who captured Che. The latter gives an interesting testimony of Che's final hours. Jon Lee Anderson grants him a day-long interview at his home in the UK; Rofougaran gains his trust and translates his book into Farsi for the Iranian market.
While his interviewees' testimonies will contain few surprises for knowledgeable Guevara scholars, Rofougaran succeeds in condensing Che's life story for a general audience while simultaneously gathering new footage of what may be the last words of his aging contemporaries. Indeed, two died of old age even before the film was finished. Less successful cinematic devices he employed include the comparisons Rofougaran draws between ancient Iranian stonework and Machu Picchu's Inca masonry; while his 'revelation' - delivered via Che's mother's biographer and astrologer - that Che's mother altered the date of Che's birth certificate to protect the family reputation, is presented as something new, which suggests he hasn't researched his topic as deeply as he might have. Also, Rofougaran implies that the Bolivian army officer he interviewed was trying to distance himself from Che's execution, putting himself back in the field of operations following Che's capture. The battle raged for a few days after Che's capture, soldiers like him wouldn't have simply stopped fighting as soon as they had Che. So even though Che was only held for one night before he was shot, the Bolivian officer could be telling the truth.
Running parallel to actual footage of the Cuban revolution and Bolivian guerrilla war is the narrative of Rofougaran's upbringing in Iran during the Iranian Revolution. It appears Che is quite well known in Iran. One might expect that Rofougaran is a Cuban sympathizer, or anti-American. It is hard to tell, but on the surface, this does not seem to be the case, as he recounts how his well-to-do family were split by the Iranian revolution, his childhood spent in boarding schools in the UK and the US, his mother denied an American visa. Rofougaran didn't see her for many years, just like Che didn't see his. He hammers this home this parallel with old black and white footage of Che and his mother embracing at Havana airport following Fidel's victory. Having been denied an interview with Aleida March in Cuba, Rofougaran engages her in question time at a Tehran conference that ends in abrupt disagreement over Che's religious views. I was left with the impression that Rofougaran was on thin ice here, but he succeeded in showing how 43 years after his death, Che has become a commercial commodity, with intellectual speculators arguing over the crumbs of Che's tiniest quotes.
At this point in the film one begins to see there is relevance to including Rofougaran's biography alongside Che's. It is as much about Che as about how the film project had become part Rofougaran's labour of love, part research for his own quest to know more about Che, and meet those who still alive who knew him. Few can deny we all have some bias when interpreting history. We bring our cultural pre-conceptions to the table, even if we try to leave them behind. Often it is not our fault, because almost everything we see, read or hear in the media has some sort of political flavouring added, subconciously or not. Some people enjoy savouring new flavours, others prefer the same fare dished up time after time. I think you can only gain from sampling new and varied offerings like this film. Only rarely do we hear why the film-maker made the film, who financed it, how the producer misses out on interviews, how he is viewed with suspicion by those whose opinions he wants to voice. I know from living in Colombia for several years, that discussing Che, especially by a foreigner, invites controversy. Che is a difficult subject to broach. Colombians, besieged by their own rebels and pro-Guevara propaganda from neighbouring countries, have valid reasons to despise Che's elevated status in international pop culture. The last thing they want to hear is what a gringo has to say about him. But Rofougaran is not a gringo, and he too suffered under a revolution. Although he lived in the West, Rofougaran was born and now resides in the middle east. One unexpected aspect of the film is Rofougara's exploration of Che's apparent appreciation of a 13th century Iranian poet called Rumi, a topic best handled by an Iranian such as himself.
In a democracy, all opinions should be heard. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to separate fact and fiction. These days, its getting harder and harder to sift through Che truth and Che propaganda. As I left the cinema, a woman handed me a pamphlet promoting a Cuban volunteer work brigade program. On one page it boasted Cuba's 'free and comprehensive health care'; on the facing page it reminds work volunteers that the $1100 fee included all meals, accommodation, entrances to museums, cultural and social events, but excludes airfares and... health insurance.
While Chasing Che will not tell you precisely what is and isn't propaganda, or give you a deep understanding of Che's political ideals, it will help you understand Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the common man, and the people and institutions who still profit, both monetarily and ideaologically, from their associations with him.
© Glen David Short - 4 Sept 2010