The Sundance Film Festival is one of the world’s premier film festivals, drawing thousands of people from all over the world to jam into theaters ranging in size from school gymnasiums to quaint and cozy theaters in downtown Park City with a few dozen seats. Standing in tightly packed lines and jamming into theaters seems a distant memory and incredibly unsafe nowadays, but 2 months ago, it just seemed like exactly what I wanted to do on my vacation. Snowboarding all day, movies and partying with festival goers all night. The festival draws this crowd due to its selection criteria and quality selections of new, innovative, and interesting films from a huge diversity of filmmakers from all corners of the world.
Ticket prices, along with membership fees, make these films kind of pricy, but the fact that you can typically hang out in the theater afterwards to hear an intimate and raw conversation with the filmmakers makes most film buffs feel the price of admission is worth it.
Among the films I really wanted to see and anxiously signed up for was Epicentro, a film about modern day Cuba and its existence alongside ultra-modern day neighbor countries. Cuba has moved at a much different developmental pace than most countries. I was particularly drawn to this film because it featured propaganda, a favorite topic of mine, and because Cuba was the showcase of The Power of Community, one of the most inspiring films I’ve ever seen. The Power of Community detailed Cuba’s “special period”, a time after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviets had been subsidizing Cuba’s energy ecosystem, and as a result, the Cuban economy was built on cheap oil. Renewables or efficiency were unimportant, because oil was cheap and plentiful. That all changed when the Soviet Union collapsed, and Cuba was forced to shift its economy, and do so quickly. I happen to believe this may be a harbinger of things to come around the world, as one country after another presses forward with its clean tech revolution and shift away from polluting fuels to clean renewable ones. Cuba’s revolution happened without much fanfare. It was pretty closed off from the rest of the world, but the Special Period saw an initial tightening of the belt. People had to give up their usual life, participate in broader social agreements, and scramble to adjust to a whole new reality. Sound familiar? As CleanTechnica contributor Mike Barnard has pointed out, COVID-19 is a potentially world changing opportunity for us to wake the F**k up and see the much larger pandemic of climate change right around the corner. The long and short of Cuba’s Special Period is that they changed – their entire economy shifted to local agriculture, alternative forms of energy, transportation, infrastructure, and economic models. And in some way, while the methods were distinctly Cuban, the overall takeaways lessons can help other countries adjust to the coming realities of climate change….or hopefully, get ahead of it while there’s still time.
So it was that I went into Epicentro expecting to see a beautiful narrative centered around life in Cuba nowadays – with some elements of sustainability pervading the storyline. The film was directed by Hubert Sauper and starred Oona Castillo Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie. That the granddaughter of perhaps the world’s best known silent film era star was the star of the show somehow gave it the mystical air of a time gone by. Castillo Chaplin engages a number of Cuban youth throughout the film, at one point teaching them some dance moves her grandfather used onceuponatime.
Propaganda largely focused around the USS Maine, the U.S. vessel whose 19th century destruction set off a chain of events that saw Spanish colonial dominance of the island ground to a halt, and yielded space for more American presence there. Old cinema features played out during Epicentro – showing the early days of colonialistic propaganda. There is no way to tell if the film reels were real, but they appeared to show very crudely crafted model ships “documenting” the naval wars supposedly being fought on behalf of Cuba by the American Navy to free Cuba from the Spanish
Inquisition dominance (sorry couldn’t resist). External reels were later showed during Epicentro that had a number of giddy dudes standing around the model of warfare, smoking cigars and blowing their smoke over the models to show just how explosive the naval battles were.
America faking an attack by a foreign power in order to sway the hearts and minds and seize control? Unthinkablllle….?
Propaganda aside, the film meandered widely – seemingly without plot or direction – for two hours…and then just…. ended. I’ve been to Sundance Film Fest a number of times (cheating – I used to live in Salt Lake City…this was the first time it was a destination). In all the films I’ve seen, I’ve hardly ever seen anyone leave before the directors had talked to the audience. Epicentro’s audience was standing up and moving down the aisles before the lights even came on. Even my significant other, perhaps one of the nicest humans on the planet, leaned over and politely asked if we could leave (tbh, I was quite relieved, as I was trying to figure out, for the previous 1.9 hours, how to ask her if we could leave early).
Besides the confusing storyline, the seemingly random assemblage of characters (some of whom came and went throughout but hardly with a cohesive life story), and the lack of any ah-ha moments, the film made people run for the exits by seeming to want to prove (and further, reinforce) that the divide between the rich and poor was insurmountable. The kids Castillo Chaplin plays with throughout the movie are not part of Cuba’s rich, and I guess Sauper was trying to showcase just how different their lives are. But at one point, a security guard at one of Cuba’s upscale hotels (one of Sauper’s targets of note) lets Castillo Chaplin “sneak” onto the hotel grounds. They did so by pretending to be clients. Their attire and so many other things probably screamed to the security guard that they didn’t belong, and my guess is that he was probably being nice waving them through. So they head to the pool, hop in without showering first, and the little girl swims to the side and says, excitedly, that she just peed in the pool, which Castillo Chaplin rewards her for with a conspiratorial smile.
Way to remind rich people why they don’t like the poor. Nicely done Castillo Chaplin and Sauper. You’ve set society back another few inches on the arc of justice.
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