It’s impossible to pin down the centro of Austrian documentary filmmaker Hubert Sauper’s recent film about Cuba, Epicentro (2020, 1h 48min), a French-Austrian co-production and winner of the Grand Prize World Documentary at Sundance. By the fourth frame, you sort of feel like you’re playing that choose-your-own-adventure game — you know, the one you play at adult birthday parties?
Sauper’s themes range from the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, to colonialism, to the Cuban War of Independence, to Teddy Roosevelt, tourism, Guantánamo, Fidel, the ethics of photography, the definition of paradise, film, communism, slavery, and the Platt Amendment, to name only the most obvious. He delves deepest into the U.S.S. Maine — collecting a cast of Cuban characters to voice their dismay over U.S. involvement in the War of Independence (1895–1898).
Yes, there is still dismay over the U.S. involvement in the War, circa 1898. Or at least, that is what Sauper presents in the film. Would this cast of Cuban characters spend their free time mulling over the U.S.S. Maine had Sauper not tugged at the thread? Unclear.
Maybe Sauper just wanted to shoot a film in Cuba because when you shoot a film in Cuba, Cuba captures itself.
But what is clear is the Cubans’ understanding of Cuban history. Whether Sauper had the intention to shine the documentary spotlight on the far reaches of a Cuban’s education is unknown but through his chosen tour guides, he unearths the Cubans’ intricate comprehension of their patria. And this intricate comprehension is not limited to the Cubans who went through the Revolution, who came of age watching and listening to Fidel, who are on this side or that side, politically. This intricate comprehension is most apparent in the eyes and voice of a charismatic Cuban girl named Leonelis Arango Salas.
It is always a gift to see the world through a child’s eyes. Children lack the steel defenses built from years and years of experience and thus are open and unfiltered in a way that can completely alter one’s perception of reality. It is the small things that children care about; in Leonelis’s case, she dreams about being an actress, she sings and she dances, she is fascinated by the iPhone camera and delighted at the rare opportunity of swimming in one of Havana’s elite hotel pools. At moments she appears to be a child just like any other child, but then you get her talking about Cuban history in the back of a bicycle cab.
Leonelis cannot be more than ten years old and yet her profound understanding of the Platt Amendment, of U.S. imperialism, slavery, and the Cuban Revolution are astounding. Perhaps the awe is rooted in the ever-American acceptance that not all Americans know their country’s daily news let alone their country’s history, but Leonelis rattles off generals and dates in a manner that sounds more like she’s chronicling what happened last weekend rather than a battle that took place over a hundred years ago. Even if you don’t understand her Spanish, it’s impossible to ignore the sophistication with which she speaks. She has command over her language and total confidence in her knowledge of the country’s history.
It’s easy to see then why Sauper committed to Leonelis more than any of his other Cuban tour guides. Along with her beauty, smarts, and charisma, she’s also skeptical, questioning, and curious. When Sauper takes her to an elite Havana restaurant and gifts her a slice of cake, she tells him that she’d like him to get another piece but when he tells her how much it costs, she tells him not to bother.
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This child said ‘no’ to a slice of cake because of its cost. Does this moment reflect the well-documented Cuban reality of never having enough, or is it a reflection of a young Cuban girl’s ability to discern the monetary value of a single slice of cake?
Whether or not he means to, Sauper plants the thematic trailhead at the latter scenario. Despite her free and open spirit, Leonelis is a skeptical child. She can’t believe how many hours her grandmother would have to work to afford one fountain pen for sale in Havana’s tourist stores, and rolls her eyes at the wonky visiting tango instructor who attempts to lead her refined Cuban dance class in Tango 101. Not much gets past Leonelis and she sure gets past her audience. The most shocking scene of the film is when she has a seemingly abusive encounter with a woman we assume to be her mother, and then moments later discover that the character is not her mother, but Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter acting in the role of Leonelis’s mother in a rehearsal.
Super random and par for the course in Sauper’s completely unstructured documentary.
Sauper’s themes range from the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, to colonialism, to the Cuban War of Independence, to Teddy Roosevelt, tourism, Guantánamo, Fidel, the ethics of photography, the definition of paradise, film, communism, slavery, and the Platt Amendment.
Leonelis aside, the film was difficult to hold. It was easy to see why Sauper was attached to Leonelis and there was such promise in her as the focus of his narrative. Not only did this young Cuban provide a pretty complete picture of many of the various themes Sauper attempted to tackle in his latest go at cinema verite, but she represents the future of Cuba. And through her eyes, that future does not seem bleak, at all. But maybe Sauper wasn’t interested in capturing the future of Cuba in Epicentro. Maybe he just wanted to shoot a film in Cuba because when you shoot a film in Cuba, Cuba captures itself.