Film sparked by iconic photo

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"Chevolution" conversation: Movies are typically inspired by stories, books, plays, magazine articles and real-life news events that filmmakers translate to the screen.

The inspiration, however, for the documentary "Chevolution," premiering Friday at the Tribeca Film Festival, came from none of these traditional media. What prompted producer and co-writer-director Trisha Ziff to make the film was a world famous photograph of Cuban revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara taken in 1960 by Alberto Korda Diaz. The photo, which conveys the kind of powerful image we associate with movie stars, was shot at a mass funeral for victims of an explosion in Havana harbor.

It was published only once at the time and for the next seven years remained pinned to a wall in Korda's studio. But in 1968 it suddenly surfaced as a symbol of protest and dissent, achieving global fame, in particular, as an image on tee-shirts worn by protesters and revolutionaries everywhere. It is, in fact, now said to be the most reproduced image in the history of photography.

Korda's photo of Che is the subject of "Chevolution," a Red Envelope Entertainment presentation of a 212Berlin Film and Faction Films production in association with About Time Prods. Directed by Trisha Ziff and Luis Lopez, it was produced by Ziff, who co-wrote it with Sylvia Stevens. It was executive produced by Bahman Naraghi, Albert Berger & Ron Yerxa and Wouter Barendrecht & Michael J. Werner. Besides Friday's premiere, the film will have press and industry screenings at Tribeca April 26 & 29 and public screenings April 27, 28 & 30.

"While I'm a curator of photography, this is my first film that I directed," Ziff told me when she called recently from her home in Mexico City. "I come from a history of working within photography. As curators we hang still images on walls, but we're storytellers. We just tell stories in a different form while people physically walk through the space of the narrative that we're telling. I always think of myself from the perspective of a curator as a storyteller and I loved the idea of seeing if I could make an exhibition about the single image. It was a challenge. I'd become interested in the Korda image because I knew Alberto Korda when he was alive.

"I met him in Mexico City and when he died (in 2001) I had dinner one night with his representative in L.A. and we were just speculating about what it must have been like to have had such a full life as an artist and a photographer and yet essentially be remembered for one image. Google him and (his) entire life is reduced to a 60th of a second. What does that mean -- not only for how we represent other people's lives through their work, but for him? He was always interviewed about 'Tell us the story about the making of that photograph.'"

Originally, she explained, she'd thought of writing "a short story about this photographer who's haunted by this one image all his life. It didn't work out. It's not what I do. So I decided, well, why don't I begin to gather lots of different versions of the image and put together an exhibition? I have a long history of working with the California Museum of Photography and the director Jonathan Green said, 'Go for it. It's a great idea.' So we spent over a year gathering together photographs and objects and posters from all over the world -- (including) a lot of original posters from Cuba from the '60s --and slowly this collection began to materialize.

"One of my executive producers saw the exhibition when it first opened in California -- it's subsequently been touring -- and we were speaking about it and he thought it was a great idea to turn it into a documentary. And I began to work and write on that with Sylvia Stevens, who is a filmmaker in London. We began to develop the project together with the idea of the challenge in a new form -- can an audience sit and watch a story of a photograph for 90 minutes?"

For many years, Ziff noted, Korda's photograph was unknown and wasn't even credited to him: "There's a whole mystique around that that the film goes into. The Italian intellectual and publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli who had gone to Cuba and was aware that Che was in Bolivia (at the time) and that his days were numbered. Korda gave him a couple of prints and he made posters from those prints. When the news came through that Che was dead, Feltrinelli printed all these images up. There were demonstrations in Milan and the first time the image was seen in that way was in Milan in '67. Then in '68 with (demonstrations in) Paris the image just exploded around the globe, especially in Europe originally. And then it came to America -- Berkeley, Chicago -- and no one knew who took it for a long time. As things changed in Cuba and Cuba also began to adopt copyright law, Korda had the first possibility to make known that he was the author of that image."

Work began on "Chevolution" in 2006 with Ziff and Lopez co-directing: "He came to me highly recommended by my executive producers. He's made several other films (including) 'King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.' We didn't know each other, but we have this Mexican connection that came out while we were editing. I live in Mexico City and he's from Tijuana. We met a few times and he came into the film after we'd developed it. I think it was the perfect match. I'm a curator and not a filmmaker and he's a filmmaker. I come to this from more of an intellectual space, much more of a photography space, and he sees things cinematically. He's 20 years younger than me. He has a lot of humor. So we were like this kind of oddball match but it needed it because it needed that energy. He brought a whole new vision to it that I didn't have. He edited the film with me and he did all the graphics and they're extraordinary, I think. He shaped it in many ways. He made it much more youth oriented. He gave that flavor to it."

About two years of work went into making the film, but additional time went into gathering materials. "It was these exquisite older Cuban photographers reminiscing about photographing the revolution, photographing Che, himself, and for me that was very hard to cut down. You just wanted more. I understood that we couldn't because (of time limitations). Luis had his finger on that button. He's a tight editor. He's very sharp in that way and I respected it."

The film includes interviews with an impressive list of people who are experts about Che and Cuba in various ways -- such as the controversial Northern Ireland political leader Gerry Adams, Che biographer Jon Lee Anderson, Antonio Banderas, who played Che in "Evita," Korda's daughter Diana Diaz and Cuban photographers Liborio Noval and Roberto Salas, who were friends of Korda and also photographed Che.

How did they get Adams to participate? "I have a history of working with Gerry," Ziff replied. "I lived in the north of Ireland for five years during the Troubles and ran a film and photographic workshop. So he's someone that I have had a collegial working relationship with (for) a long time. He's someone very, very interested in popular visual culture. The streets of Belfast are lined with murals going back to the early '80s. Many of them are Che images. So I thought that was interesting. Che's grandmother was Irish and there's a whole culture of Che in Ireland."

Asked why she thinks Korda's photo of Che proved to be so powerful an image around the world, Ziff told me, "Korda was a fashion photographer and I think he saw through the lens with a very specific kind of aesthetic. The picture's taken from below looking up in this kind of socialist realist heroism. Che was a very good looking charismatic guy with great eyes. I think Korda because of his history photographing beautiful people saw that moment whether consciously or not and he got it. I think part of the allure of Che is that he is an attractive man. The image has that (movie star) quality. He also was a very uncompromising man and he did something that a lot of people don't do -- he lived by what he said and he died for it.

"I think it's about timing, apart from anything else. I think he just coincided with a moment in Europe where people were saying, 'We've had enough repression by the Soviet bloc. In Ireland, nationalist Catholics were saying, 'One man, one vote.' In France, the students were rebelling against the government. In America, you had the anti-Vietnam War protests. In Mexico, you had the protests against the Olympics and repression of the Mexican army. So you had all these things happening and here's one guy who gives his life for his ideals and is then taken up by causes sort of globally at that time as this iconic figure representing no longer him and his own struggle as Che the individual, the man, but becoming more generic and representing these other struggles and these other ideas. And that just continues. I think we live in a time and a culture where we desire leaders and heroes and we want our lives to have more meaning than shopping. (Che) has become beyond himself. He represents, I think, the best of humanity in some ways."

Reflecting on Che, she added, "You have this massive contradiction in a way. You have a man who led a revolution, who lived and died by the gun and yet his image is taken up and honored by people who ideologically would be very opposed to that. And I think that's the fascination of contradiction. What happens to an image over time? In some ways you can argue that meaning and content is so often removed from symbols in our culture. Everything is up for grabs. We consume everything and we forget about the source and the meaning. We wear Maoist badges -- well, I don't, but my son would -- and we don't think about the Cultural Revolution and what that actually meant for the Chinese. I see hammer and sickles all over the place and it's kind of hip, but no one thinks about Stalin. It's really interesting where we can live in a culture where the content of symbols and images is removed. And in some ways I hope this film makes people think in that way."

Kids wear Che T-shirts, she continued, "and they don't know who the hell's on their T-shirt. They just wear it because it's cool. And what kind of culture do we live in when that level of ignorance is permissible? I think the only image that still isn't (able to be used) that way is the swastika. Punks wear it on one level to be outrageous, but it doesn't transcend its meaning. It's still locked in its meaning. Skinheads in England wear it because they aspire to Fascist ideas, but it's never lost its meaning. It's always locked in that history. It's almost like the only untouchable film symbol.

"I think those are the kinds of discussions that in some way come out of this film. This is a faith and this was a man who had ideas and lived a certain life and yet the image is so reproduced in so many different forms. You can get it as a doormat, as a mug, on underwear. It's so reduced in so many contexts from who he was and that's something we don't even think twice about in our culture."

Filmmaker Flashbacks:
From Jan.28, 1991's column: "If all goes well, mid-February should be an exciting time for Orion Pictures. Its "Dances With Wolves," already the winner of three key Golden Globes, is the front-runner for Oscar nominations, to be announced Feb. 13. One day later, Orion opens its much-anticipated thriller "The Silence of the Lambs" ... at approximately 1,400 screens.

Why is "Silence" opening on a Thursday? "We thought it might be kind of fun to open this picture on Valentine's Day," David Forbes, Orion's president of marketing and distribution, told me.

"It is a picture that plays so extraordinarily well to an audience that we felt to get a jump on the weekend was reinforcement about how good the picture is ..."

Update: Orion was, indeed, on top of the world in February 1991. "Wolves," which took in $184.2 million domestically, went on to win seven Oscars, including best picture and director (Kevin Costner). "Lambs" opened Feb. 14, 1991 to a tasty $13.8 million at 1,497 theaters ($9,196 per theater). It grossed $130.7 million domestically and won five Oscars, including best picture and director (Jonathan Demme). Unfortunately, this great success didn't last. Orion, which had gone into business in 1978, was in financial trouble by 1997 and was sold to MGM by Metromedia, Orion's principal owner since 1990.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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