Epicentro opens on a face lined with age and sun, a loosely rolled cigar hanging from his mouth. It looks like this man is standing at the end of the world, waves whipping over where Havana’s proud Malecón should be. It’s a romantic shot that conjures up an image of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. However, this figure is just one of many who will pass by documentarian Hubert Sauper’s lens in his limited exploration of Cuba, its history and its people.
I say limited because although Sauper does an admirable job examining the role of faked newsreels about the U.S.S. Maine’s explosion and how they fired up Americans to take on Spain and occupy the island for themselves, his line of questioning conveniently stops short of anything after 1959. The film loses interest in reexamining the official story and instead turns its attention to Afro Cuban children and their families living in Centro Havana’s crumbling buildings, now a source of wonder and awe for passing tourists. The kids are undeniably cute, and their responses to Sauper’s questions about Cuban history are thoughtful. But I couldn’t help but feel he was simplifying Cuban history to fit his narrative. I felt like I was being talked down to and emotionally manipulated, forced to stifle questions from the first half of the film in light of its adorable second.
At first, the movie waxes philosophically about utopia and Cuba’s tenuous connection to paradise. These are labels outsiders have stamped across the island’s shores for generations. Only Sauper doesn’t quite unpack what it means to have your home labeled a tourist destination because he doesn’t stick to any one line of thought long enough to do so. The best example of this is a chilling scene of an American tourist traipsing into Cubans’ homes and businesses and asking that they pose for his fancy camera for free. It’s a galling moment of American exceptionalism, but then the movie moves on and does nothing more to process why or how a tourist from the U.S. would do such a thing. There’s only the faintest connection between his privileged behavior and the way Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders stampeded onto the island more than a century before.
To Sauper, Cuba functions more like a muse than an actual place. He instead keeps Epicentro’s scope limited and its approach theoretical. The film is not a cross-section of the country or society. Although his camera stares longingly at some of the oldest parts of Havana, no issues about housing or supply shortages are ever mentioned. The closest Sauper ever gets to including criticism of the government is when he’s interviewing a woman on the street and a passerby tells her not to criticize the country. She wasn’t, but she turns to Sauper again shaking her head with an incredulous laugh saying she’s going to get in trouble for talking to him. “They’re going to kill me,” she says. Sauper asks why but doesn’t press further when she doesn’t answer. It’s just accepted that these are just things Cubans say. It is an entire way of life left unexamined.
— SundanceFilmFestival (@sundancefest) February 2, 2020
I’ve been trying to figure out why Epicentro won Sundance’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary award since it was announced. I can only conclude that the kids really had an effect on the audience. That Sauper’s tendency to pick up and drop topics made him appear deep and that those missives about utopia resonated with others who don’t mind seeing the label applied and reapplied to the island.
To Sauper, Cuba functions more like a muse than an actual place.
Normally, I don’t write about post-screening Q&As in a review, but it’s relevant to how I’ve come to see the film. I went with my cousin, who only recently immigrated from the island a few years ago, and we were both left with questions. She was worried that Epicentro doubled down on the world’s perception of the island as a third world country and asked Sauper why he didn’t expand his scope on Havana. Sauper defensively explained that he was an auteur and that this was his vision; he didn’t want to mimic the bourgeoisie filmmakers in Cuba who show only the island’s upper echelons. Later in the lobby, he went on to tell her that if she wanted to tell her own story of Cuba, that she should make her own movie. He wasn’t interested in hearing what other Cubans, especially less so Cuban Americans who he dismissed outright, thought of his film. He was speaking for Cubans, over Cubans.
Epicentro may not have an imperialist lens, but it still feels like a colonizing one. Perhaps less forcefully than the selfish American tourist, the director nevertheless shaped the narrative to better suit his needs. The movie’s portrait of Cuba is a simplistic one that only scratches the surface of its complexities. Figures like legendary Cuban animator Juan Padrón and actress Oona Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter, talk about various ideas relating to Cuba, but few interviews overlap on the same topics. Sauper makes ample use of pathos, alternating between the raw emotions of a little girl crying and the bubbly laughter of playing kids, and includes some insight from a few candid interviews where subjects air grievances against President Trump and talk about what they think of the U.S. as both an oppressor and a neighbor. This is when the movie is at its strongest; when it allows its subjects to talk.
At best, Epicentro is too ambitious, bringing up too many topics but not without looking deeper or providing context outside the history of film. In this way, Epicentro shares a spirit with Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba, using the romantic imagery of a lost utopia to send a message — but who is that message for?