JOHN MCKAY | Canadian Press
TORONTO (CP)—Oliver Stone has always attracted the lightning and it’s happened again.
The director of such controversial films as JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon says his recent project, a documentary on Fidel Castro, was the victim of a fake e-mail campaign, a new “sickness” that he believes threatens pop culture and even democracy itself.
Stone’s Comandante is a free-form personality profile of the durable Cuban dictator culled from 30 hours of interview video he and his crew shot in Havana in 2002. But it was cancelled by HBO last May when the U.S. network argued that a new, aggressive crackdown on dissidents in Cuba had rendered the film incomplete and outdated. Apart from screenings at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, it has not been seen, especially by American audiences, and no U.S. telecast is planned.
But Comandante has been acquired by CBC Newsworld, which plans to air it in prime time Sunday night, making it the only broadcast in North America in the foreseeable future.
Stone says he’s glad Canada had the guts and he’s hoping some Americans along the Canada-U.S. border at least might catch it.
“Canadians have always been open to Castro and Cuba, they go down there a lot. You know, what harm is there in seeing it? What harm in letting someone speak for himself?”
Stone also hopes to reacquire the rights to Comandante and release it on DVD.
Shades of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ controversy or of the CBS decision to axe that Ronald Reagan biopic, Stone says it was a low point in his career when it became clear that 95 per cent of the film’s critics in the media hadn’t even seen his documentary.
“There was a tremendous response, especially negative, from the American-Cuban lobbies,” he says in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “It’s ugliness and I think because of computers they can make a million e-mails out of five people. They can clone themselves into a larger power than they really are and it’s just paper.”
The 56-year-old filmmaker says he’s convinced, though, that such paper now plays an important role in the process of mucking up democracies.
“It’s just a sickness and popular culture is really prey to that. . .you can get blogged out. There’s so much blog.”
Anti-Castro elements weren’t the only critics, however. Roger Ebert wrote that as an old baseball player, Castro easily knocked Stone’s softball questions out of the park. Another said it was akin to making a documentary on Al Capone and neglecting to mention he was a gangster.
Although Stone disagreed with HBO that his conversations with Castro had been rendered outdated, he understood that even a subscriber-based cable channel is subject to political and economic pressures, what he calls one of capitalism’s weaknesses.
So he agreed to HBO’s request to return to Havana and conduct a more confrontational interview, which he says he did last May. The result, called Looking For Fidel, will air on HBO April 14 and may also be acquired by the CBC at a later date.
But it’s clear Stone is passionate about Comandante, which he says shows off a charismatic world leader in a relaxed state that few people have seen before. He concedes he’s not the hard-hitting Mike Wallace type and that while he did ask some tough questions, when he got answers he let it go because he’s polite.
“The words are in his mouth, they’re not in mine. I may have a bias or not but the point is he still reveals himself and it allows the viewer to make up his mind.”
Stone says La Barba was given the right to say “Cut” at any moment the questions became uncomfortable but that he never invoked that right.
“He said ‘Go make your movie, shoot what you want.’ There’s a man who is at ease with himself, he’s comfortable in his skin as the French would say.”
Intercut with grainy newsreel footage of the 1959 revolution, the 93-minute film is a handheld medley of cinema verite moments all cut to the constant rhythm of Latin music on the soundtrack.
We see Stone sharing the backseat of Castro’s car, even opening some of his host’s mail. The camera pans down to reveal that Castro wears Nikes. He jokes with Stone about Viagra, about movies, about love and about never considering seeing a shrink. He gets serious when he says he didn’t buy the lone gunman theory of the JFK assassination, that he never wanted Soviet missiles in Cuba, and that his regime does not believe in torture or terrorism.
At one point Castro asks Stone if he was decorated for his Vietnam service. Yes, Stone replies quietly. Was he wounded? Another low-key affirmative.
The film ends with the two men at the airport, parting with a hug.
Stone argues that his country should emulate Canada and end its four-decade-old boycott of Cuba. He is not the least apologetic about his clear admiration of Castro, as a survivor and as a person. And he has no regrets about his now-infamous statement that he found Fidel to be one of the world’s wisest people.
“It’s come back to haunt me, absolutely. No question. But I maintain he’s been on the world stage for 40 years. . .you can hate him, but you can’t ignore him.”