Sundance 2020: Epicentro marvelous, intriguing portrait of Cuba’s ‘little prophets’

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A report by Les Roka for The Utah Review.

Introducing her 1995 anthology, Bridges to Cuba / Puentes a Cuba, Cuban-American anthropologist and author Ruth Behar wrote that her collection is “a meeting place, an open space, a castle in the sand, an imaginary homeland. It is a space for reconciliation, imaginative speculation and renewal.”

Receiving its Sundance premiere, the documentary Epicentro, directed by award-winning director Hubert Sauper, achieves with equally compelling effect a similar goal in the film, offering its American viewers a more balanced perspective than what international affairs analysts, media and scholars typically achieve in their simplistic assessments.

A still from Epicentro by Hubert Sauper, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute 

With a common sense of history, his passion for the chosen medium of his artistic expression and the pursuit of authentic voices that are the counterpoint to misguided conventional wisdom, Sauper, in Epicentro, illuminates many fresh perspectives about an island nation that is as paradoxical as it is exotic and unique in its sociopolitical place in the global community.

The voices featured are prominently those of young people in Cuba, pragmatic, vivacious dreamers who are the first generation in the country to experience their lives in a post-Castro era. Sauper calls them “little prophets.” They are astute about the historical legacy which continues to shape their formative years: the revolutionary principles that brought the late Fidel Castro to power more than 60 years ago and a complex relationship with the U.S. that started with the events surrounding the 1898 explosion of the USS Maine.

The title Epicentro concisely describes the frame for Sauper’s thematic epiphany. In the Americas, Cuba is the geopolitical nexus of the slave trade, the era of colonialism and imperialism, and the advent of a global community and marketplace. He sets up the counterpoint of Cuba’s own desire for Utopianism. Three pillars of Sauper’s inspiration for shaping Epicentro make sense after viewing the film: Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Johannes Schmidl’s Energie und Utopie (2014) and the development of early cinema along with the acknowledgment of its propaganda power. A prominent example featured in the documentary is George Méliès’ 1902 film A Trip to The Moon.

The young Cubans know their history — and not just the revolution leading to the Castro Era. This includes the sinking of the USS Maine, which precipitated the Spanish-American War with the culminating event as U.S. forces raised the flag on the hills overlooking Guantánamo Bay, an area that since then has remained under American control.

The ‘little prophets,’ for example, know quite a lot about a bit of U.S. history that few Americans could recite immediately or recognize from history. The reference is the Platt Amendment from 1901, which stipulated the conditions for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Cuba and cemented American colonial dominance over the island that would last until the Cuban Revolution.

These ‘little prophets’ are not just smart but they also are rich in song, dance and theater talents. Their hunger to find outlets for creative expression is just as intense as what their American peers experience but these young Cubans also do not have the same tools or access to social media. Their instincts for cinema are innate, and they absorb and process the examples of early cinema to which they are introduced. They are fascinated by Sauper’s iPhone and several of these ‘little prophets’ create miniature videos on the spot, impressing the director with their natural abilities.

Joining Sauper in the film is the Spanish-English actor Oona Castilla Chaplin, the daughter of actor Geraldine Chaplin and the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin. She also is the great-granddaughter of Eugene O’Neill. Chaplin interacts with these ‘little prophets’ so naturally, offering acting tips. She also sings in the film, accenting the outstanding music written by Zsuzsanna Varkonyi and Maximilian ‘Twig’ Turnbull.

Sauper also foreshadows the impending impact of the climate crisis, achieving this without spoken text. Instead, scenes of waves crashing along the Cuban shores with an increasing ferocity appear throughout the film. This is why Schmidl’s book is connected essentially to Sauper’s thematic intentions in Epicentro. As Schmidl writes, “The term of efficiency (‘doing the things right’) needs to be extended to that of effectiveness (‘doing the right thing’) so that we do not remain stuck in doing the wrong things right.”

In the U.S., what we often hear in politics regarding Cuba is influenced heavily by a powerful Cuban-American lobby, based in Miami. This lobby overshadows the voices of those who live in Havana or elsewhere on the island. Of course, tourism in Cuba has grown recently but it still echoes the vestiges of colonialism and imperialism that caused the problems in the first place (a point captured in several scenes in the film). Tourists see but they cannot comprehend fully the roots of the scenes and icons they encounter during their vacations.

Sauper’s loving portrait of these Cuban ‘little prophets’ opens the door to a truly Cuban perspective that offers to dispel the rumors, myths, propaganda and the generally sparse understanding many Americans still have about Cuba.

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