His status as a cultural phenomena rivals Elvis Presley, Andy Warhol, and Marilyn Monroe. The famous portrait of him in the black beret is purported to be the most reproduced image in the entire history of photography. This seems contradictory to an anti-establishment former medical doctor who originally set out to liberate disadvantaged indigenous Latin American people.
The commercialization of his image is in direct opposition to this formerly privileged Argentine who traveled by motorcycle along the western coast of South America searching for a higher purpose in life, and finally settling in Cuba with the future dictator Fidel Castro.
Images endure, but does a person’s life resonate after death? The documentary veers off into a history lesson of photographer Alberto Korda, his studio, and a freewheeling pre-Castro Cuba. Viewers endure too much footage on this photographer in the titular Chevolution, which is one of the drawbacks in this documentary. The filmmakers couldn’t decide, and neither should the audience, on what should be the focus: a history of Cuba, or a man and his legend. Twenty minutes into the film, Che’s absence speaks volumes during the digression into Cuban depravity and world politics.
Ernesto Guevara’s life and mythology perhaps endures because he was an intelligent, compassionate, and misguided assassin. Political and social injustices in Bolivia set the stage for his initial revolutionary bent. He rejected the inequalities of the time and sought ways to topple government officials and to empower its downtrodden people.
Eighteen months after his fateful meeting with Castro, Che and other revolutionaries set sail for Cuba to overthrow Bautista. Two years into the campaign, he abandoned his medical aspirations and embraced his role as rebel, warrior, and future mythological entity after the successful Cuban exercise.
Post-Cuban Revolution, filmmakers Trisha Ziff and Luis Lopez veer off target again as they deconstruct Castro and his need for photographers to supply propaganda images. Would there be a documentary without its subplots? Was Guevara’s life not enough to fill a documentary as the title subject?
Perhaps the time allocated to photographers and graphic artists complements the intended scope of the documentary that some viewers might miss. Guevara made his living in Mexico City as a photographer, so it’s only fitting that an image taken by another photographer most commemorates his life. This image was taken by Korda during a mass funeral as Guevara stepped onto a dais and looked out into a sea of mourners. How many people actually know the story of this image that’s emblazoned on t-shirts, bikinis, shorts, and hats? The expression captured in a fraction of a second was one of contemplation, mourning, and anger–not defiance to rally against the system, as many mistakenly think.
Most don’t understand who the man was and what he represented. Guevara left Cuba disenchanted, in search of new challenges and people to liberate after having failed to industrialize Cuba. He later died in Bolivia, defeated by an inferior army led by Teran, his murderer. He is said to have stated before his execution, “Aim well, because you’re about to kill a man.”
Why entitle the documentary “Chevoltion”? What did he revolutionize? He didn’t improve a machine, equipment, or political system that transformed the lives of those he wanted to help. His image is a universal icon for struggle, but Guevara didn’t. An Italian publisher is responsible for printing posters and other media bearing his image, which spread like wildfire around the world as a symbol of change and rebellion.
The last third of the film focuses on the image, its reproduction, and international copyright laws. If not for capitalism, a system he was against, he might have remained regional folklore. Guevara represented death, socialism, and bloodshed to achieve results. Commercialism devoured his legacy. Social divides and injustices still exist in many Latin American countries. Guevara was a doctor who advocated murder rather than saving lives. Not all want the memorabilia. Perhaps Alberto Korda’s daughter should invest money that the family estate lawyers regularly win in impoverished communities in Argentina and Cuba. Isn’t that what Ernesto “Che” Guevara would’ve wanted? And wouldn’t that be revolutionary, to actually help people rather than taking advantage of them?