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  • TBC
  • Documentary
  • 2008
  • 86 mins

Chevolution

Chevolution

Synopsis

In this engaging documentary, co-directors Trisha Ziff and Luis Lopez trace the history, evolution and symbolic significance of an iconic photograph of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara

About

"Some people don't even know who he is. They have the T-shirt, but they don't know who he is." These words, heard near the beginning of Trisha Ziff and Luis Lopez's Chevolution, refer to Argentine Marxist guerrilla Ernesto Guevara, immortalised in an image that would be reproduced, transformed, reappropriated and parodied more than any other from the twentieth century, making him 'the Mona Lisa of photography' and an enduring icon of his age and our own. And it is in keeping with both the persistence and the adaptability of the man's legend that these words should be spoken by actor and sex symbol Gael Garcíá Bernal, who has himself recently contributed to Guevara's iconography by embodying him in the feature The Motorcycle Diaries (2004). Later there will also be comments from Antonio Banderas, who played the Latin insurrectionist in Evita (1996). Guevara is indeed a man of many faces.

When Alberto 'Korda' Díaz took the photograph (later entitled 'Guerrillero Heroico', or 'Heroic Guerrilla') in 1960 at a mass funeral service for the victims of a suspicious explosion at Havana's port, medical student Guevara had already refashioned himself as 'Che' and become a hero of the Cuban revolution, much as Korda had by then himself abandoned the glamour of fashion photography for something more politically committed. This documentary is concerned with how both the revolutionary and his most famous portrait have changed in their significance with the passing years, while continuing to exercise a hold over the popular imagination.

Korda's image was in fact not used for Cuba's official coverage of the funeral, but it would be published in the Cuba's official newspaper 'Revolución' in 1961, and would resurface and spread rapidly through Europe around the time of Che's execution in Bolivia in October 1967. By the time of the upheavals of May 1968, the pop art movement (and Cuba's refusal to recognise international copyright) had helped transform Korda's photo into a striking graphic, a convenient banner, and a symbol of resistance across the world. Since then it has become a universally recognisable icon, exploited commercially in the West as a brand logo on all manner of saleable commodities in a manner that would no doubt make the anti-capitalist revolutionary turn in his grave, while it is still used as a rallying point by genuine leftist militants in a rural Latin America where conditions of poverty and in equality have not, according to Bernal, changed much in the last 50 years.

Chevolution marries history, biography, ideology and iconography to tell a story as multivalent as the image at its centre. Over carefully compiled archival footage and a dizzying array of products (from beer bottles to bikinis) displaying variations on the Che image, the filmmakers have gathered a broad and eclectic spectrum of talking heads, including Guevara's friend and fellow traveller Alberto Granado, his biographer Jon Lee Anderson (author of 'Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life') and iconographer Michael Casey (author of 'Che's Afterlife: The Legacy Of An Image'), Korda's daughter (and current holder of the image's copyright) Diana Díaz and several of fellow Cuban photographers from the 1960s, as well as a variety of artists, musicians, students and armed rebels who have all used (or abused) the Che image to express something of themselves or their beliefs - and the documentary intersperses plenty of anonymous vox pops amongst its better known interviewees, to reflect Guevara's lasting demotic appeal as a folk hero (or indeed villain).

In all this, the Che icon is thoroughly deconstructed only to be reassembled into something even more complex and polysemic than it was before, so that Chevolution might just change the way you look at both the image itself and the world that has embraced it as a badge of optimistic dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Shepard Fairey, Tom Morello, José A Figueroa, Gerry Adams, Antonio Banderas, Jim Fitzgerald, Michael Casey, Jon Lee Anderson
  • Director: Luis Lopez, Trisha Ziff
  • Screen Writer: Trisha Ziff, Sylvia Stevens
  • Writer (Book): Trisha Ziff
  • Producer: Trisha Ziff
  • Photographer: Jan Pieter
  • Composer: Joseph Julian Gonzalez

In a nutshell

Like the ubiquitous image that it celebrates, this documentary says many things about history, culture and ideology, without ever seeming anything less than clear and compelling.

by Anton Bitel

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