by John Hess
Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 106-109
At the end of a Cuban documentary by Bernavé Hernández, called CHE COMANDANTE, AMIGO, we see the following sequence of images: murals and posters with Che's image; crowds of exuberant young Cubans running toward the camera, then a young boy, about five or so with flowing blonde locks, also running toward the camera laughing; and then the final image: a painting of Che as Christ with a crown of thorns. Such images, no matter how genuine their sense of loss, admiration, and gratitude, hurl Che Guevara out of time and history into the pure, eternal, fetishized realm of myth. This is, as Barthes has explained, a depoliticized speech in which the sign, here the image of Che, is emptied of meaning and becomes available for any new meaning or use.[open notes in new window] Today we can see Che's image on T-shirts, posters, billboards, and magazine ads, though few seem to know much about him. In New York City recently, I saw the familiar red-hued-graphic Che poster in a shop complete with the beret, the flowing black hair, the up-turned eyes. The face, however, was not Che's, but the simian visage of a THE PLANET OF THE APES character.
Into this fluid and contradictory context of the reception and circulation of Che's image comes EL DÍA QUE ME QUIERES (THE DAY THAT YOU'LL LOVE Me, 1998), a 30-minute non-narrative film by the Argentine poet and visual artist, Leandro Katz, who has lived and taught in the United States since 1965. Fascinated by the famous photograph of Che's body, laid out in the crude laundry room of the village hospital in Vallegrande, Bolivia, near where Che was wounded in battle, captured, briefly held, and summarily murdered, Katz went to Bolivia to interview the corpse's photographer, Freddy Alborta. Katz wanted to understand the power of this image which, in 1967, proclaimed and proved Che's death to the world. In his film, Katz creates a real sense of loss and mourning, but one that counters the mythologizing of Che by first deconstructing this image and then by placing Che back into the Latin American intellectual life of his day through a series of cultural references to Borges, Gardel, Neruda, Castro, and current Andean culture.
One important thread of the film, then, are the sequences where Katz interviews Freddy Alborta and draws out the circumstances of this photograph. Who is Alborta? How did he come to take the photo? What happened on that day? What were Alborta's feelings and impressions? Did Alborta know the paintings to which John Berger has compared the photo? Alborta didn't, but he was aware that this was not simple photojournalism. He worked very carefully, knowing he was in the presence of an already legendary figure, a Christ figure even, and that such a moment comes once in a lifetime.
Breaking the interview format, Katz's camera watches Alborta develop a copy of the photo in his lab. We see the image appear in the developer, and then Alborta takes the photo out and shows it to us. Like a police investigator, Katz draws out all the circumstances of the photo's making and puts the photo into a powerful material context. Like history itself, the photo was a piece of work. There is little mysterious about it — except the quality of the artist's eye and what viewers bring to it. At the same time, Katz deconstructs this photograph itself, using his film camera to crop it, isolate details, reveal less obvious aspects, juxtapose several images of the event, explain the context Using Alborta's many images of that day, Katz moves from the main image, the one that circled the globe, to Alborta's other images, building up a visual sense of the whole scene. Katz also uses brief clips from some newsreel footage taken that day.
The effect is that the scene is indeed that of a "charnel house," as Jeffery Skoller so eloquently puts it. The blood-soaked bodies of two other guerrillas lie disregarded and uncovered on the floor. We see that several onlookers cover their noses with handkerchiefs and can imagine the smell of the dirt, the blood and the decaying bodies-all the agony this room embodies. Experienced in this filler way, the scene reminds us of the soccer stadiums, police academies, clandestine army prisons, and isolated concentration camps where tens of thousands of Latin Americans, activists and innocents alike, experienced dreadful tortures and a lonely death in the presence of inhuman strangers. Here by visual means, Katz once again imbeds Che's body in history, countering any effort to mythologize it.
Cultural references constitute the other important thread running through this film. On the visual track we see a variety of images from present-day Bolivia. These images might seem to document village life, but do much more. In the film, they illustrate a brief parable Katz reads in voice over, the text of which comes from Jorge Luis Borges's "The Witness," found in his collection, Labyrinths (1962). The parable reflects on the fact that when one dies, all memory, all that the person saw in life, and all that he or she witnessed dies as well.
First the one-page parable imagines the things a humble pre-Christian Saxon peasant might have seen, especially pagan rituals. Toward the end Borges comes to talk about the "pathetic or frail" forms that will be lost when he dies. Katz slightly rewrites the story to center it in a person living at the time of the conquest who witnessed Andean rituals, now mostly but not entirely lost, and also colonial ones. In his reading, Katz poeticizes the parable by repeating lines and phrases and by not moving linearly through it. The key words, repeated several times, seem written for this situation.
Further on Katz via Borges imagines the "infinite number of things" that die "in every final agony." In this case, Che is gone. We have Che's writings, documentary evidence of his activities, films and photographs of him, testimony of friends and associates as well as of enemies. But there is also much that Che could have told us and never will, things he saw and experienced that we will never know about. The narrative's richly suggestive idea here moves on in two directions important to Latin America and the left in general. Che is dead. To begin with, Katz's emphasizing this counters efforts to mythologize Che. We can learn from Che's example and his ideas and his life can inspire us, but he is dead, and we must live on and find our own way to change the world. John Berger, writing at the time the photograph first appeared, responded in this way to the image even then: "It is an image which, as much as any mute image ever can, calls for decision." By now there has been so much death in Latin America — through death squads, disappearances, summary executions, assassinations, warfare, coups, revolutions and counter revolutions. And often what actually happened and who did it and what happened to the bodies remain a mystery. So much has been witnessed and so little is known.
We also hear on the sound track Fidel Castro's reading Che's final letter to him and the Cuban people. In the letter in which Che talks about his love and admiration for the Cuban people, now his people, and his brother-in-arms, Fidel Castro. Che concludes that it is time for him to move on to carry the revolution into the rest of the Third World. This reading begins early in the film, trails off, and then returns at the end. It is as if the letter was always there as a subterranean part of the film's structure, an extended farewell. Whereas Borges reminds us of Che's origins in Argentina, Che's letter to Fidel reminds us of his important role in the Cuban Revolution.
After Alborta's photograph of Che's body circled the world, Che's brother Roberto traveled to Bolivia to identify the body and perhaps to try to return it to Argentina. But, as Katz informs us, the Bolivian military didn't permit this and the body disappeared. Here the film's title appears again and on the sound track we hear brief strains of tango strings. This music, which returns only at the end of the film, reminds us of another richly suggestive cultural reference, that of Carlos Gardel, the great Argentine singer, whose popular song gives this film its title. Gardel's 1935 film by the same name, EL DÍA QUE ME QUIERAS, made the title song famous throughout Latin America.
In that film Gardel's character, a wealthy upper class man, sings the song to his love, a poor, working class woman who thinks it's improper to fall in love with such a man. The double irony of the situation is that Gardel was himself born poor and had only recently become a dashing, wealthy, world-famous figure, and he died in Colombia in a plane crash before he could ever sing this song in Argentina. The film and thus the song are about cross-class desire and its attendant difficulties. This is a situation that, in a broader sense, Che faced. Che's inability (most likely it was impossible) to win sufficient Bolivian indigenous peasants to his cause led to his death. Che Guevara, like his fellow Argentine Gardel, went abroad to make a name for himself and died before he could return.
Again there is an elegiac sense of loss and displacement which suffuses the film. Katz imagines that on death one might lose, among other things, the "echo of the voice of Neruda," the Chilean poet and political activist. On the soundtrack we hear Neruda reading from "No Hay Olvido," a poem from the Second Series (1931-35) of Residence on Earth. Here too the narration conveys a sense of loss and mourning, but in this case it is the desire to forget the terrible things one has seen: "So many things I want to forget." All these cultural figures that Katz makes reference to here are dead: Che, Borges, Gardel, and Neruda.
However, the film contains one other cultural reference that is very much alive. The sound track contains Andean drum and pan pipe music, and we see villagers perform music and cultural rituals, particularly a colorful procession in which many of the men wear colorful masks. The Bolivian villagers also enact other gestures that appear in the film as isolated images: a man opening a drawer and taking out a 1967 diary, another carrying a coffin down the street, two peasants herding sheep toward the camera. We also see several peasants carrying large red banners and finally dozens walk side by side across a field holding a long red banner aloft.
All of these images are keyed to and illustrate moments, images really, in Borges' story. Jeffrey Skoller finds these scenes unconvincing and argues that the peasants
I see these images more in the context of the Borges story as rewritten by Katz. In the parable Borges imagines that when the man dies "with him will die, and never return, the last immediate images of these pagan rites…" Katz talks instead of a "procession of crude idols burdened with colonial gold." The film's showing the carrying of red banners depicts a more modern ritual, designed like the others in the film to create and maintain a group sensibility, even spirituality.
CONCLUSION: MYTH AND HISTORY
By carefully drawing out and examining the material aspects of this famous photograph and by placing Che in a temporal pan-Latin American intellectual context, Leandro Katz opens up the full horror of Che's death and disappearance; it is one example among many. We might say that the contexts Katz give reabsorb Che, emptying the image of its mythic, quasi-religious charge, collapsing it, and returning Che to history. This, of course, has been the traditional role of realism in art. Discussing 19th century realist painters, Linda Nochlin writes:
Katz has embodied his historically grounded realism in a stylized and avant-garde cinematic form rather than in that of the traditional documentary. Both by analyzing images themselves and including his own voice and body (in the conversation with Alborta), Katz creates a self-reflexive work that seems to echo Bill Nichols's search for a political cinema:
By bathing an heretofore mythically charged image in the bright light of historical and material reality, Katz seals off metaphysical responses and interpretations. He wants us to respond intensely to the simple fact of a man's lonely final agony and turn our attention to the political reality surrounding it. Thus he ends the film with words that express his own outrage at the manner of this death; the lines are from The Great Rebel by Luis J. González and Gustavo Sánchez Salazar:
The rules have been violated in Latin America. Over and over again the forces of reaction have viciously violated the bodies of the people they have captured and arrested. The violence continues today in sweatshops and prisons and torture centers, as transnational capital's policies are forced on people. To feel something for Ernesto Che Guevara, as an individual, we need to know something about him and understand who he was, what he did and what he was trying to do. The man before us, seen as an ordinary human being, abused, neglected, put on display, and subsequently disappeared, can evoke a subjective feeling of empathy and even outrage. Leandro Katz counters the many myths of Che (villain or hero) with his brutal death's historical reality.
Myth, as Barthes says, depends on purifying, making clear, making innocent. Katz works in the opposite direction. He disturbs the waters, questions, refuses innocence, and deconstructs, reminding us constantly that we participate in messy historical processes, ones that involve great danger. History always leads to our final agony and the obliteration of what we saw and remembered. We each bid farewell. We each witness things we want to forget. And we all look forward to the day when the object of our desire returns our love, Che Guevara no less than anyone else.
1. "Myth Today," Mythologies, trans. Annette Layers (NY: Hill and Wang, 1972) 109-159.
2. "The Future's Past: Re-Imaging the Cuban Revolution," Afterimage 26:5 (March-April, 1999) 14.
3. "Che Guevara Dead," Aperture 13:4 (1968) 38.
4. I am relying on Marta Savigliano's account of the film in her Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 1995) 65-67.
5. Labyrinths, ed. and trans. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby (NY: Modern Library, 1983) 243.
6. Realism (NY: Penguin Books, 1971) 60.
7. Representing Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991) 243.
*U.S. & Canada sales and distribution: First Run/Icarus, 212/727-1711, <www.frif.com/new99/eldia.html>. In Europe and elsewhere: Jane Balfour Films, Burghley House, 35 Fortress Road, London NW5 1AQ, 0171/267-5392.
**A slightly different version of this article appeared in Film Historia (Barcelona) 9:2 (1999), 183-188.