Las Vegas Sun
September 18, 2004

Lukewarm Applause for Stone's Castro Doc



The world premiere of Oliver Stone's follow-up documentary on Cuban President Fidel Castro met timid applause from a half-full house at the San Sebastian International Film Festival on Saturday.

The festival kicked off Friday, with a warm reception for the world premiere of Woody Allen's new movie "Melinda and Melinda" - an urban tale of sex, infidelity and miscommunication. Allen received the festival's lifetime achievement award, given by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar.

Stone's documentary, titled "Looking for Fidel," presents a more balanced portrait of the Communist leader and life on the Caribbean island than Stone's 2002 film "Comandante."

Despite ample publicity, the premiere attracted fewer than 200 viewers on the second day of the nine-day festival, where 19 films from Iran to Argentina are vying for the top prize, the Golden Shell. The film, by the director of blockbusters such as "Platoon" and "JFK," was not competing.

"It's a very spontaneous movie," Stone said at a news conference after the screening. "It's not a left-wing documentary, and I hope Americans will see it that way."

"It was made for educational reasons, not for money, but I've had enormous difficulties to in order to market it," he added.

Lukewarm applause marked the end of the hourlong piece, which attempts to give voice to all the major players in Cuba through interviews with prisoners, dissidents and rights advocates as well as Castro and his supporters.

"The documentary is politically balanced, and Oliver Stone is conscientious in his interview" with Castro, said Radio Televisao Portuguesa movie critic Teresa Nicolaua.

But while the first documentary was criticized for Stone's appearing too much on screen, critics said the latest goes overboard on Castro.

"Castro's answers are too long. It gets a bit tedious at times," said Nicolaua.

Viewers also complained about the dullness of the settings, with much of the film shot in Castro's office and the few outdoor scenes showing little variety from other films about Cuba.

Stone's first film on Castro was based on three days Stone spent with the Cuban leader in early 2002.

But the film faltered after the Cuban government abruptly cracked down on its opponents, arresting some 75 political dissidents and executing three men convicted of hijacking a passenger ferry in a bid to flee to the United States.

"Comandante" was screened at the Berlin Film Festival in 2003, but HBO postponed its release in cinemas as the events in Cuba were condemned worldwide.

The new documentary starts with an interview with Castro and then proceeds to the work's highlight: an interview, with Castro present and participating, with eight prisoners accused of hijacking a plane to try to enter the United States.

"I'm not in power. I'm just the spiritual chief for the majority of Cubans," Castro says.

Later, Stone talks to dissident leaders Elizardo Sanchez and Osvaldo Paya, who denounce the lack of liberty in the country.

"The most difficult part was interviewing the dissidents," said Stone. "Fidel Castro didn't wish them to be interviewed."

As expected, Castro is severe in his criticism of President Bush.

"Bush has appointed dangerous anti-Cuban extremists as men of confidence," Castro says.

He also jokes about the "exactly 734" assassination attempts the CIA has made on his life.

Castro, 76 years old and in power for 47 years when the film was made, is shown undergoing a medical checkup during which a doctor tells him he has the heart rate of a 30-year-old.