Epicentro attempts to cover everything from the nature of cinema to the legacy of globalization on the last communist country, with varying degrees of success.
Everything is influenced by what came before it: individuals are affected by their families, countries by their past victories and failures, and artists by the work they have and hope to make. In Epicentro, Hubert Sauper (Darwin’s Nightmare)’s latest documentary, the past is on everyone’s mind, even if no one acknowledges it. The documentary follows various residents of the city of Havana, Cuba, in 2018, on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the navy ship USS Maine, an event that propelled the United States into the Spanish-American war and changed the course of history for a small island in the Atlantic. It’s a very complex documentary, with a constant rotating cast of characters and enough thematic ideas to fit into another five movies. Whether or not it succeeds at what it was going for will be left up to the viewer, but it’s impossible to deny that Sauper has made the movie he wanted to make.
The film opens with voice-over from an unknown source asking us to consider our world a century ago: most of the technology we take for granted did not exist, and our ancestors lived very differently. Then came cinema, and with it, the new world: the voice-over tells us that cinematography means “to write in the moment”, and that the purpose of cinema is to “capture life as is”, without lies or deception, only the truth. Soon after, we are introduced to the other main event that will occupy the runtime: the sinking of the USS Maine, a United States Navy ship that was sunk off the coast of Cuba, causing a chain reaction that led us to the current state of the island, a nation which is currently the only self-proclaimed communist state on the planet.
From here, Epicentro launches into its most interesting section. The Cuban government’s official stance on the sinking of the USS Maine is that the whole disaster was a hoax created by the United States in order to further their imperialist agenda, despite overwhelming proof to the contrary. We see cinema used as a weapon to promote propaganda and a depiction of the US that, while not wholly inaccurate, choses the examples for which to build its argument poorly.
From a young age, children in Cuba are shown looney tunes style cartoons that depict a gung-ho President Theodore Roosevelt carefully planning the sinking of the Maine and the subsequent intervention on the island. It is here that the voice-over’s argument of cinema as “capturing life as is” is put to the test. The children believe everything being shown on the screen, as they are not able to critically analyze the information they are being presented with; they see the cartoon as a wholly accurate depiction of the event while history has proven otherwise. As a result, they take the false narrative presented and internalize it as truth, allowing the fabrication to become fact in the collective consciousness of Cuban citizens.
The sinking of the Maine and the subsequent propaganda efforts then shift from an exploration to the power of cinema to the very real effects it had on Cuba. Early in the film, the voice-over states that Cuba and, more specifically, Havana were meant as a utopia, or as a “place for angels”. After the sinking, the United States became increasingly active in Cuban affairs, which was only heightened by its status as a satellite state during the Cold War and the ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis which nearly caused nuclear war. With this context, we see that the propaganda efforts undertaken by the government to spin the sinking as a hoax have a clear purpose, to place blame on another country for the misfortunes Cuba encountered in its aftermath. The past Havana, the one described as heaven and a potential utopia, has been replaced by crumbling streets and dilapidated buildings, now a shell of what could have been.
From here, Epicentro takes a confusing turn that only becomes clear as the film nears its end. The very direct exploration of the nature of cinema as a tool to convince and the questions raised about national identity are replaced by Sauper following certain people as they live their life in present day Havana. A German tango dancer, a middle-aged woman and a child occupy the rest of the runtime, seemingly doing little other than enjoying themselves. This section isn’t bad per se: Sauper captures the city in an almost intoxicating way that beckons you to stay longer, and the three subjects hold your attention fine. But, against the laser sharp focus of the first act, it seems confused about where to head next, instead opting to let the story figure itself out.
Epicentro manages to give the story more focus in its last act. Current politics are brought up, including the death of Fidel Castro and the election of Donald Trump. This gives the three subjects an opportunity to express their personal views, ranging from refined critiques on the current state of world politics to simple explanations heavily influenced by the state’s official story. When the credits begin rolling, one feels content yet longing for a more focused feature. Sauper obviously had enough material for an engaging piece of cinema, but one can’t help but wonder if it would have been better suited as a series of films that would have allowed for more complete coverage of the topics he cared about. Yet, he chose to make a single film, and the final result is a documentary held together by the strength of its ideas, and nearly torn apart by the aimlessness of its narrative.
Epicentro is now available to watch on digital and on demand.