Oliver Stone: Looking for Fidel (2004) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Oliver Stone: Looking for Fidel (2004)

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Oliver Stone returns to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro in the wake of the execution of hijackers in Looking for Fidel.To contemplate CastroKyle Commentary BannerLooking for Fidel is a more pointed, focused look at Castro's often controversial control and authority in Cuba—concerning itself with several hijackings in which Cuban citizens commandeered boats and planes to get out of the country and to the U.S.—and as such, it could have been a very different documentary than Comandante. Instead, it plays more like an appendix to that film — even though the interviews here he conducts about a year  later around specific recent events, Stone's cinematic approach is almost exactly the same, and watching it so soon after the earlier movie, we get the feeling that we're jumping in on an extension of the first conversations.

Again, the big difference here is that Stone has gone to interview Castro specifically about these hijackings, one of which the Cuban government declared as an act of terror and resulted in quick closed trials followed almost immediately by executions. Stone's questions this time around bring in evidence from Amnesty International, comparisons to due process as we understand it here in the U.S., and more of a push for Castro to explain how his actions fit within the larger idealized picture he paints of Cuba. He also departs a bit from the form of Comandante by interviewing Cuban citizens separately, though the majority of the screen time is still dominated by Castro. There is a clever sequence in which he and his team are interviewing a group of hijackers awaiting trail, asking them about their motivations, their previous attempts to leave the country, their treatment in jail so far, etc., and the camera eventually pans to show that Fidel is sitting at the head of the table, witness to the entire proceedings.

Scenes like these inject a bit more complexity into the portrayal of the man, because without trying to argue one way or another, they make it difficult for him to exert the full force of his personality on the viewer. When later in this sequence he tells the prisoners almost apologetically that “the state had to take measures” and he hopes they understand this, it's a little harder to see him as the genial old Grandfather Fidel that he's presented (and presents himself as) in Comandante.

With that said, I'm glad this outing limits itself to an hour. There are some interesting scenes here, but even in that short time we eventually start to drift toward some more of Fidel's rambling, philosophical tangents, and too much indulgence there would negate the effectiveness of the new material. I'd have liked to see Stone take a wholly different approach this time around—not necessarily to pull Castro out of the spotlight, but put him on equal footing with the other voices. As much as there is an attempt to get specific insights into what many would view as human rights violations in direct contrast to what he claims to represent, Castro still almost always gets the last word, and that leaves us with a lot of the empty rhetoric of before.A more confrontational CastroAndrewCommentaryBannerI'm glad that you mentioned Looking for Fidel feels like a footnote to Comandante.  There's not much that LoF holds up to on its own.  Yes, it's interesting that Stone tried to take Castro to task, in his own way, regarding the quick trials and other dictatorial decisions he made but there's not much context to the conversation outside the first text blurb.  However, if we place LoF as a companion piece to Comandante it becomes a lot more interesting in those confrontations.

Early on in Comandante, involving a detail both you and I found amusing, Stone instructs his crew to stop if Fidel says stop.  Keeping in mind the confrontational tone that Stone adopts throughout a significant chunk of LoF, which Castro is more than happy to return, it makes the instruction of the earlier film ring even more hollow.  It's true that Stone doesn't dig very deeply into the way Castro arrived at his decisions and why he does what he does.  But given that Stone is clearly not happy with the force of which Castro deals out his punishments there are times when it seems we are one fade to black away from seeing news reports of Stone being detained in Cuba.

I am also pleased that you brought up the interviews with the denizens of Cuba.  More than anything else, I wanted to know the thoughts of the scared looking man clad in pink of Comandante when Castro was glossing over his country's stance on homosexuality in the past.  We get a few of those thoughts here and they are not from fawning Americans but people who genuinely wonder how he is able to say he is looking out for their interests with the tight and quickly violent control he keeps on the population.

Scenes like the hearing for the eight attempted hijackers play more like indictment of Castro instead of praise.  I thought it very suspicious that the cameras caught all of them saying that the government treats them great in prison and that they completely understand whatever punishment is coming their way - lines that seem forced in light of the bullet to the head fate of the hijackers who came before them.  It's this scene more than the others that makes me wish Stone would either dig deeper or at least give us some of his own thoughts once he's retreated to a safe distance from Cuba.  I wonder if he thought the presence of his crew and cameras would spare these men the same fate.

Aside from that Fidel is more of an intellectual curiosity than a good film.  Comandante was very entertaining propaganda at times, but this needed to have more strength in its aim.

Don't give me that shit

So, where's the controversy?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryAny controversy here is inherent in the topic Stone has chosen to interview Castro about. The film is not particularly controversial, because as with Comandante Stone is not presenting his own arguments, but rather letting those in front of the camera present theirs.


Tiny Andrew CommentaryIf there is any it potentially exists in Castro's head as he's not displayed favorably 99% of the time.



I declare myself healthy

How did Stone hit the zeitgeist this time?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryAgain it's got a tie to current events because of the specific incidents being discussed, but nothing about Stone's filmmaking really captures the zeitgeist. There is the potential to have captured the spirit of immigration debate that has come to a head in the 10 years since by delving further into the strange “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which states that Cuban citizens caught in U.S. waters will be sent back, but those who reach land will have a pathway to legal residency. However, Stone more or less glosses over this.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryHitting almost the same topic nearly the same way over some of the material a previous, better documentary already did is not the way to create a cultural high.




That's fine, but is it any good?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryIt's good enough that if you were interested in Comandante and want to get a slightly more pointed representation of Castro's hold on Cuban politics, you'll probably find something of interest here. It doesn't go into any of its subject(s) deeply enough to stand on its own as much more than a quick glimpse at a much more complicated issue than it has time to tackle. Stone has a distinctness to his documentaries in terms of what we've seen so far—doing a wonderful job coaxing natural-seeming conversation and dialogue out during his interviews—but he could benefit from taking more of a hold on the final product and giving us a stronger context within which to situate what we're seeing.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryIf you're watching the film on its own then the experience is not very rewarding.  However, if you watch this and then follow it up with Comandante or do as we did and see Comandante first the film becomes a good intellectual exercise in the way power has to reaffirm itself to stay in motion.  I loved the moment where Stone almost gets Castro to acknowledge there is hypocrisy in saying that he is equal to the people with the measures he uses to keep them in line.  However, without the kindly ol' Castro of Comandante to bounce off of this presentation is unmoored and not good enough to stand alone.

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Stone with text

Posted by Andrew

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