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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Revolution in the Revolution
by Donald Levit

Done for French-German television ARTE, Cuba: An African Odyssey is the fruit of fifteen years’ research and organizing on the part of Egyptian Jihan el Tahri. Treating three hot wars within the context of over “a quarter century plus one year, one month and one day” in the life of the larger Cold War, this African Diaspora 2008 Summer Film Series entry amasses a wealth of near unknown historical footage. Unknown, too, or else forgotten, among the instantly recognizable two Cuban, and Russian, American and some African leaders, are many others, including present-day interviewees poorly identified in titles unreadably imbedded in translation subtitles.

Disguised in 1965, clean-shaved in a suit and thick-rim glasses, Che is another man -- on shipping across Lake Tanganyika into the Belgian Congo/Democratic Republic of the Congo/Zaïre -- to bring revolutionary expertise to those fighting for the leftist MNC ideals of popular PM Patrice Lumumba, usurped and murdered by Col. Joseph Mobutu. Before his own failure, capture and murder, Che would take Bolivian guerrillas to task on “the reality of war. I emphasized the importance of a united command and discipline . . . of the party’s line.” Unable to inculcate military or ideological order, Guevara left Africa secretly after eight months.

So opens the film, followed by a middle section on Cuban aid to also-assassinated Amílcar Cabral’s PAIGC movement for Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde, separately independent in the wake of Lisbon’s 1974 Carnation Coup, the former as Guinea-Bissau. Speaking of the convoluted situation in, and worldwide concern with, Angola and Namibia -- the last section in time but the documentary centerpiece -- Fidel emphasizes that, contrary to capitalism’s imputing its own imperialistic ends to Cuba, “we have no selfish reasons.”

An ex-U.S. diplomat assesses that then as now we misread Cuba and the legitimate credit it deserves for bringing settlement to Angola’s alphabet soup of conflicting acronyms, armies and special interests from the Western and Eastern blocs as well as within the African continent. Governed after 1975 nationhood by the formerly Zambia-based liberation party MLPA, large, potentially rich Angola was plagued by warring factions, with South Africa’s “mandate” South West Africa/Namibia serving as a base for UNITA armed incursions (soon also supported by Washington, which as well funded yet another army in FNLA), as Pretoria simultaneously fought Namibia’s revolutionary SWAPO and maintained apartheid in its ex-German protectorate today touted for tourism as “quaint, but a land of stark beauty and riveting contradictions.”

The mix is impossibly complex for anyone not already familiar with the three conflicts not so very long ago. Movements of national liberation fought against moribund colonialism and, like Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia portrait of Civil War Republican Barcelona, against each other, while a tired Soviet Union sought to disengage and the U.S. (and Europe) rattled sabers in public and engaged in covert actions. Washington at last agreed to recognize Havana enough for it to sit in on negotiations -- and smoke cigars -- along with Angola and South Africa. Nelson Mandela was released from prison and would make to Havana his first trip abroad, Soviet assistance was terminated, and 450,000 Cuban troops and their “Stalin’s organs” missile launchers were recalled.

Fidel was so joyfully embraced in Angola’s capital, Luanda, that his visit was extended into a three-week triumphal tour. Already suffering privation, and later itself to lose Soviet aid, his own island had given its lifeblood for emerging brother nations: the remains of ten thousand of Cuba’s fallen (many of them at Cuito Cuanavale, the greatest battle on the continent since El Alamein) were transported home for burial.

We are told that Che and Castro are idolized in Africa. Scoffers may find irony in the Caucasian leader’s boast of “a little parcel of land defended by [native and Cuban] blacks and mulattoes,” but there can be no doubt that Angola, once the jewel in the crown of imperial Portugal, was the crowning achievement of his government’s supplying “no less than seventeen African revolutions.”

The legwork research here is impressive, even for those who question El Tahri’s hagiographic treatment. Protagonists’ motivations and actions are of course open to different interpretation, with interviewees on whatever side seemingly likeable, eloquent and sometimes surprisingly humorous about the past.

For the present, Cuba: An African Odyssey is essential for what it says about uni- or multilateral “interventions,” that hodgepodge of economic, political and humanitarian interests. Power dictating when and where nations violate others’ sovereignty, from Greece, Bulgaria and Cuba in the 1820s, ‘70s and ‘90s, through Japan, China, Colombia, Armenia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Vietnam, Nicaragua, to Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo but not Darfur or Rwanda, the conundrum remains. Georgia is the latest, not the last. 

(Released by Facets Multi-Media; not rated by MPAA. For more information about this film, contact Diarah N’Daw-Spech at Art Mattan Productions, phone 212-864-1760.)

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