"What kind of future does tourism mean?" rhetorically wonders about a Cuban character in Epicentro, the latest work in non-fiction film by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Hubert Sauper (Darwin's nightmare, We come as friends). "Nobody! It just devours the future," explains the Havana man. In fact, it devours the "past and culture" and makes everything "superficial". But then comes the real multimillion-dollar question: "How similar the cinema to tourism? "
Epicentro, winner of the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at this year's Sundance, is a visually exhilarating and deeply insightful exploration / survey of Spanish colonialism, US imperialism, and cinema as a myth-making propaganda tool. And all of this against the breathtaking backdrop of today's Cuba, a “paradise” of nostalgia of the 50s, in which American sightseers – or “people in their worst form,” as one character puts it – take photos of kiddie locals as if they were she a human zoo. (No wonder so many indigenous peoples historically viewed photography as soul theft.)
Shortly before the virtual start of the film on August 28th by Kino Marquee, the filmmaker caught up with Sauper – a globetrotting master of sociopolitical documenting who was born in the Austrian Alps and grew up in a population that lived (and served) in Nazi Germany would have. to discuss his amazingly grandiose take on a territorially tiny, globally significant nation.
Filmmakers: How did this project come about? Did the desire to question American imperialism together with the cinema itself make you shoot in Cuba or vice versa?
Sauper: The original idea for Epicentro wasn't based in Cuba and wasn't even about American imperialism. It was a reflection on how we (Europeans) created a strange concept called “Utopia”, taken from a book by Thomas More from 1516, shortly after Europeans “discovered” another world. This other new world was and is the canvas of so many projections and fantasies. In five centuries it has turned into countless branches of thought, including the American dream and the “ideal island world” of the Cuban revolution.
So the exact words of Thomas More seem to have materialized five centuries later in the manifesto of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara – the island of justice, peace, free from personal property, free from gods and emperors. Therefore, very early on in research, Cuba established itself as my “epicentro” for three wonderful years of my life. As is often the case when looking for a particular thread of questions, many more doors open than expected.
It is of course a strange idea to narrow down the "birth" of the USA as a world empire (by reconstructing the fake naval battles) in a bathtub in New York and through the USA's most powerful means of communication, the moving image. When I “discovered” this curiosity, it was one of those “wow” experiences that I tried to translate into an epicentro (another film). Of course, all of this is a playful and somewhat poetic way of thinking about the story. However, it is "real" history – as real as the very technical, statistical, and "factually true" interpretations of academics.
The USS Maine actually exploded in the dark with very few witnesses. Most of them died there and then. But the fake bathtub explosion was and is the "reality" of millions of Americans who have seen it on a flickering screen. Events are "real" in retrospect as soon as they are in a collective memory. The cinema is perhaps the most history-changing and historic invention of all time.
And cinema is prophecy – it creates truth. Just one example that I highlighted a bit in Epicentro: The Apollo 11 mission to the moon took place in 1969. However, in 1902 it was presented and “realized” in a film by the great “Realisateur de Cinema Francais” Georges Méliès. Just look at all the pictures one after the other. In Voyage to the Moon, Méliès shoots the “projectile” into the sky, the spaceship lands on the moon, the scientists open the gate, they take their first step on the moon and then watch the rise of the earth. The explorers finally fly back into the world and land in the ocean with the help of a parachute. Even the big parade to celebrate the brave men from space was planned. Sixty-six years later, all of these images reappeared in blueprints, this time from NASA. Both Thomas More and Méliès and everyone who writes or takes pictures “creates the future”.
Filmmakers: There's a wonderful quote you gave in the press releases: "As a non-fiction filmmaker, my job is not to show reality as it is." It doesn't make sense, it doesn't exist. I create a world – a film – made up of real people in their real environment like themselves. “So can you discuss how you created this world in Havana?
Sauper: Havana is one of the most incredible places in the world where almost every shot a camera takes is automatically amazing. It's lively, it's young. It's old decadent Europe and Africa. It's a revolutionary and communist fantasy and also fits the bullshit "Make America Great Again". Havana is a strange window into the past, but also into the future. All at the same time.
Of course, this beautiful city falls victim to a million tourists who want to catch just that. Old American cars and young Caribbean ladies are a "cocktail" that often puts some elderly US citizens into a trance with a dash of rum.
Filmmakers: In addition to being an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, you're a visiting professor at over a dozen universities around the world. So why not only earn money but also teach? Can you find international topics for your films with it? Shaping future documentary filmmakers?
Sauper: To be honest, teaching is not a lucrative activity, and even less does it "film d’autur" like me. As a "writer" it is important to at least somehow figure out your own brain, and teaching and communicating with young intellectuals or filmmakers is a great exercise for your work. Just like sitting on a French train and answering these questions! You oblige me to organize loose thoughts so that they can be shared. And yes, every thought forms the next. And the next. And therefore all of the rest of life, it seems.
Filmmakers: How did you come up with the idea of including both The Great Dictator and Oona Chaplin in the film? The movie scene at the end with her and the kids is so incredibly powerful.
Sauper: Cinema is much more an experience, a life experience than a discourse. We see the great dictator through the eyes of the children we have come to know and love at this point in the film. We “live the experience” that is doubly powerful. At the time of the screening, I was sitting with my camera under the screen and filming in the other direction. I wanted to watch Oona look at her amazing grandfather. I watched the children look at a strange emperor in black and white.
As for Oona, we've known each other for a while, but I didn't plan for her to come and light up Epicentro. But when the kids at the beginning of the film see Chaplin "appear" like pure magic through a fast forward scene they filmed of themselves, I knew I had to show this to Oona. At that point she was working in LA with James Cameron. But when she saw Leonelis and Annielis in a clip I sent her on WhatsApp, it was. Oona was in love with these brilliant kids even before they met them. It was really a "stroke of luck". I am so grateful to her for giving all of her beauty, talent and intelligence. The times with "my children" and Oona in Havana were an extraordinary experience that I tried to translate into flickering images.
Filmmakers: They premiered this film at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary, which made me wonder how the film was received by the public. As someone who has long been concerned with the violent consequences of imperialism, do you find a stark difference in the audience's reaction to your films depending on whether the audience is a member of a colonized country or one that has historically been the colonizer?
Sauper: Epicentro was still "young". At Sundance it was cheered on by a crowd of educated and cinephile viewers. And since the film is something “about” America's imperial soul and car narrative, it got even more audience response.
I was glad that no one felt they were being "taught a lesson" by a non-American. A film of this kind is an exchange of questions. It is therefore a great pleasure to see how my films are read in an intelligent, complex way and that they are also understood as a work of art. Though "art" is an elitist, somewhat arrogant term for some people in North America when it comes to movies.
Just last week, Epicentro opened in France, in real cinemas on big screens – in 80 cinemas! The press is great and the audience reaction is great. Most Europeans, however, have never heard “Remember the Maine” before and know relatively little about when, how, and why the US became the world empire it is today.
So the European audience sees different things. Just like each of us sees his or her own film anyway. I also premiered Epicentro in Havana with my “young prophets” in the front row (screaming with joy to see themselves “bigger than life”). It was an incomparable celebration.
This morning I received a text message from a writer, Caroline Lamarche. It reminded me of something I hadn't rationally captured in thought about my own movie. She said the scenes of tourists “plowing into old Havana” with their big photo cameras reminded her of the “human zoos” in Europe where the Congolese were “exhibited” in London, Brussels and Paris to watch from to be seen by the public. It's a terrifying and very accurate observation. Incidentally, these human zoos were invented exactly at the time the USS Maine exploded. And it was also the time when Europe “shared the cake of Africa”. It was dark days on our planet – which finally led to the first of the ugly great wars in 1914.