Khaleej Times (India)
25 March 2004

Castro is slave of the people in “up close” documentary


TORONTO - Fidel Castro moans in an explosive new Oliver Stone movie: “I can’t help it, I am a prisoner here, this is my cell,” as he paces, gaunt and erect, around his office like a condemned man.

That intimate glimpse of the grizzled Cuban dictator, absorbed in a private exercise regime, comes in a feature-length documentary, which gets its world broadcast premiere on Canadian television Sunday.

Castro’s self-image as a prisoner of his people will outrage American critics, who revile him as a tyrant who jails and kills opponents while condemning Cubans to decades of communist-inspired destitution.

“Commandante” a close-up portrait of a man who has defied a US embargo since 1960, had been due to air on US-network HBO last year, said the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which will show the movie here.

But it never appeared in the United States after Castro’s government jailed 75 dissidents and executed three men who tried to hijack a ferry.

Stone claimed in a press conference in Morocco in October that his film was hijacked by the “Cuban mafia” in the United States, but has since returned to Cuba to prepare a more critical picture of life in the country.

“Commandante” features conversations with Castro, filmed over three days in 2002.

In close ups, by cameras which often peer right into a single eyeball, or focus on Castro’s gnarled hands, the movie shows the old revolutionary letting down his guard.

After avoiding political icebergs for nearly half a century, Castro admits to a fondness for the movie “Titanic.”

He also owns up to a crush on film starlets Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot. Favoured male icons are Charlie Chaplin and France’s Gerard Depardieu.

Castro shows Stone the comforts of a frugally appointed Mercedes: a box of candy, a decaying book and a pistol.

And he grimaces in remembering a tough drinking session with former Russian leader Boris Yeltsin.

Hardly politically correct in a diatribe about Cuba’s great leap forward in education, Castro boasts, without obvious irony: “even our prostitutes have a university education.”

And he even indulges one of Stone’s pet obsessions, conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of president John F. Kennedy: ”I have never believed the theory that it was only one man.”

“Commandante” premiered at the Sundance independent US film festival in 2003, where some critics labeled Stone’s treatment of the dictator “softball”.

Castro was given the right to stop or cut the movie at any time during filming, though Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which airs the movie Sunday, said he never took up the offer.

He spoke to Stone through a translator.

Though some critics have charged that Stone, director of ”Platoon” and “JFK” was seduced by Castro, he did question him on why he did not hold direct elections and on prejudice towards homosexuals and blacks.

Stone does not however cross-examine Castro on US charges that he represses and kills dissidents. But the film makes for compelling television, exposing loneliness and fragility in Castro’s makeup, along with a hint of wildness.

Reflecting his longevity, clips of US presidents whom Castro has outlasted, and shots of him as a young revolutionary flash across the screen.

Stone’s critics will no doubt gag, in a final scene, when he and his crew are seen accepting hugs from Castro, after he delivers them to Havana airport. But the movie suggests, that Cuba’s fate is likely to painful, whatever happens when Castro finally shuffles off the stage.

“Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking, that what lies ahead will be easy,” says Castro in a speech taken out of context and used by Stone just before the credits roll.

“Maybe what lies ahead may prove to be more difficult.”