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Film Review by John Richmond of The Canadian-Cuban Friendship Association  (Toronto)


Finding Fidel – The Journey of Erik Durschmied

A Feature Documentary by Bay Weyman

Finding Fidel is an interesting and touching portrayal of the intersection of the life of Austrian-Canadian journalist Erik Durschmied with that of Fidel Castro. The film succeeds in capturing the emotional journey of Durschmied’s life: from surviving the Nazi occupation of Austria during WWII to covering some of the most horrific conflicts of the late 20th century.

This film is not, however, about Fidel Castro, but rather a caricature of Castro – one that many Canadians will be familiar with from years of watching and reading Canadian and American mainstream media.  It is Fidel Castro as a prop in a story about a journalist at the end of his career who feels cynical and skeptical about the possibility of real change in today’s brutal world.

The film has a very narrow focus: it reduces a complex and important period in history to a one-dimensional, Cold-War inspired view of the last 50 years in Cuba and leaves the viewer with a distorted and highly misleading impression of a leader and a country which have successfully survived many years of both covert and overt hostility from the United States along the internal difficulties of attempting to build a unique form of socialism.

The film lacks context and perspective; a context and perspective which would have helped the viewer to understand how and why Castro led Cuba after the Revolution.  

The film takes the easy route; hackneyed, predictable US-inspired anti-socialist propaganda rather than confronting the difficult reality that while Cuba has had its share of problems, Castro’s leadership has been very much a product of not only his own personality but also the history of Cuba and its relations with the US up to the beginning of the Revolution, the international context from the 1950s until now, the economy in the Caribbean and Latin America, and the internal political and social dynamics of the island nation.

Castro is presented through the Durschmied interview as a lone soldier, possibly cynically manipulating his own followers, Durschmied and more importantly: Durschmied’s viewers back home in Canada.  Castro appears to pose as some kind of liberal-Democrat  interested only in ending the Batista regime (of which we see very little and only in the context of the Cuban government having to fight rebels who destroy vehicles by the side of the road).  Later in the film we are invited to think about “what price” the poor Cuban people have paid for this “manipulation.”

Castro is presented early on in the film as most clearly not what he became: a “Communist”.  Castro’s later turn to Communism appears as some kind of cynical power grab.  But the reality, which would have been easy to find and present in the film,  is that prior to the Revolution Castro was committed to freeing the Island from its long history of foreign domination and underdevelopment and was open to how that might be achieved – some form of social democracy, socialism or communism.  But the Revolution - to those who knew anything about it - was most certainly committed to radical change; no one who knew Castro then, either those in favor of his movement or those opposed, thought the situation of ordinary Cubans could be improved without some kind of radical upheaval.  This was the objective of the Revolution – not necessarily a Western style liberal-democracy or Soviet-style communism per se.  But the film leaves all this out.

The film misrepresents Castro and the Revolution in part through Castro’s own comments to Durschmied on film but also through omitting the fact that Castro was surrounded by many intelligent and committed people (such as Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and his own brother Raul Castro) who were communists.  Che and others had already thought through what they believed was needed not only to free Cuba but also the rest of Latin America and were wary of Fidel Castro’s perspective – the true Communists in the July 26 Movement, in the cities, and in other groups debated their positions with Castro and pushed him to a steadily more radical position as time went on and the facts on the ground changed.  Castro’s comments to Durschmied in the fipm are  presented in some type of space/time void – absent from a complex reality.

Also missing from the film is the fact that many other members of the Revolutionary movements who were not necessarily “communists” in an orthodox sense were anxious for a radical break with US capitalism in order to allow the country to end its economic dependency and chronic underdevelopment.

Although missing from the film, the fact is that the Revolutionary movement consisted of many different organizations – each of which recognized the major role Fidel Castro played in the final defeat of Batista and were therefore were willing to follow his lead in the re-building of Cuba.   

Many other contextual issues are missing from the film as well including the destructive,  fanatical and almost irrational opposition faced by Castro and the Revolutionary movement following the defeat of Batista and the attempt to transform a corrupt, poor and economically dependent country into the modern, independent and progressive nation Castro had promised during the Revolution (Castro faced widespread acts of terrorism and sabotage - many orchestrated in the US even at a very early stage).

Castro’s opponents could not or would not deal with his ideas in a constructive and rational manner – fulfilling the dire predictions of many of those Revolutionaries surrounding Castro and setting the stage for a further radicalization of the Revolution.  As Castro and his ideas grew in popularity his opponents became ever more committed to his total destruction.  Where was this in the film?  Would viewers not come to better understand Castro and Cuba today if they knew even some this history?  Why was this crucial context left out of the film?

As Castro moved to deliver on promises of free, universal health care and education (including the introduction of kindergarten and day care and free University), the replacement of slums with affordable public housing, land reform, job creation and economic development, and other issues he faced not only fierce domestic opposition but also the opposition of the world’s most powerful state: only 90 miles away the US was determined to make sure Castro did not succeed (at a time when, post-WWII, almost no one was in a position to aid Cuba).  Active hostility on the part of the US toward Cuba continues to this day – but of this we see almost nothing in the film.  Will Cuba be invaded in the same way as Grenada, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and so many others?  How many Cubans will die and how much of Cuba will be destroyed if this occurs?  Again – none of this is in the film.   

Even stranger, we are told almost nothing of the very difficult period Cuba faced with the collapse of its main trading partner – the USSR – in the early 1990s.  Castro, against all expectations, managed to rally the majority of the Cuban people to a new vision of the Revolution and socialism.  Castro invited people to meet and voice concerns and ideas about the situation in Cuba (more than six million responded), re-oriented Cuba to a new relationship with capitalist countries like Canada and Japan and began a long, slow and difficult process of reforming the Cuban economic, political, social and legal system (including reducing military spending at a time of renewed hostility from the US in order to focus resources on health, education, social security and agriculture).

Viewers of the film would almost certainly better understand Fidel Castro if they had been told about Castro’s ability to convince Cubans that through self-sacrifice, solidarity and flexibility with the (then) new international context, that Cuban socialism would survive to see a better day.  And many Cubans felt vindicated in their support of Castro when Hugo Chavez Frias was elected President of Venezuela and began the process of both changing Latin America and bringing Cuba in from its almost total regional isolation.  Cuba went from having a small number of international commercial relations to having strong economic and diplomatic ties with all the nations of the region (even, despite US pressure, ties with countries such as Chile).  None of this appears in the film but from the point of view of many Cubans, Cuba’s new status is nothing less than a total coup.  With each passing day Cuba is increasingly integrated into the region’s political, social and economic life – but, thanks to Castro, for the first time in history, on its own terms.  After much hard work and sacrifice Cuba is now a truly independent country – but one would never know this from watching Finding Fidel: The Journey of Eric Durschmied.

Throughout Cuba’s difficult road to 21st century socialism, Cuba has demonstrated a profound sense of solidarity with other developing nations.  Cuba has reached out and offered extensive medical assistance not only to friendly countries such as socialist Bolivia but over 100 other countries, many firmly in the orbit of the United States and its allies.  Countries like Haiti and Pakistan that are constantly on the receiving end of US military “assistance” and yet remain desperately poor have received extensive help from Cuban medical programs and the Latin America School of Medicine where foreign students study medicine for free.  Many Cubans are justly proud of this project closely identified with Castro – but we see none of this in the film.

But what we do see in the film is a poor country and that poverty is closely linked by the narration of the film with Castro himself.  We are invited to imagine “what price” Cubans have paid for Castro’s victory over Batista.  As if, once again out of context – the people of Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, the Dominican Republic or Paraguay have not suffered worse poverty and, more importantly – much worse human rights abuses.  Castro and Cuban socialism are strangely linked to Nazi Germany and fascism – when the people of the region have suffered horribly from real US-backed fascist regimes in countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua and Chile.   

What we also see in the film are brief glimpses of life in Cuba that are highly misleading; none more so than the visit to the book stall in Old Havana where we see an endless supply of old and battered books on Che, Fidel and the Revolution.  The context, once again, is missing.  What we are not told is that the book stall is located in a tourist area and is aimed at tourists.  We are not told that the books are priced in tourist currency (the convertible peso) and we are left with the impression that the stands are in some way the equivalent of a Canadian bookstore.  Cuba has many bookstores with a wide range of books at affordable prices and a very well attended annual International Book Fair at which thousands of books from Cuba and other countries are sold at very low prices in Cuban currency (the Fair travels across the Island).  One of the great achievements of the Revolution was the eradication of illiteracy early on – and a great appreciation of literature and the arts – precisely through the sale of low cost books.  But why ruin a good Cold-War drama about the sad state of Cuban socialism with the truth?

In the end, what is missing from the film tells us more than what the film is apparently about.  This film is certainly not about Finding Fidel – it is about running away from the reality that is Cuba today and the complexity of Fidel Castro, his relationship with Cuba for more than 50 years and his struggle to build a radically different society on the doorstep of one of the most powerful and unforgiving nations on earth.