In 1965, Che Guevara was one of the most visible leaders of the Cuban revolution. And then, he wasn’t.
Castro sent Guevara to the Congo that year to assist revolutionary tribal factions there. The Congo efforts failed. By then Guevara had broken with Castro over Russian involvement on the island and was longer welcomed in Cuba. So in order to evade the CIA, Guevara was smuggled into Tanzania, where he spent three months, and then Prague, where he remained for five months before making his way to Bolivia and death.
Margarita Hernández’s debut film Che, Memories of a Secret Year, documents Guevara’s surprising whereabouts during that missing time. The film screens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s annual Latin Wave film festival along with 10 other Latin American offerings.
A Brazilian-Cuban, Hernández never imagined that she would make a film about the revolutionary freedom fighter. She considered him not only too well known but also exploited. There was nothing new to say about him, she thought. Then someone gave her the book, La otra cara del combate (The Other Face of Combat) by Luis C. García Gutiérrez, a former Cuban secret agent, dental surgeon, and documents forger. “He falsified documents and faces,” Hernández explains.
Interested in his story, Hernández got in touch. When he told her about his work with Guevara, Hernández was floored. She had no idea Guevara spent time hidden in Tanzania and Prague. Like all Cubans, Hernández was raised steeped in Che Guevara lore. But here was an important part of his life that was completely unknown to her. And, she suspected, to most Cubans.
Hernádez spent seven years researching the story. Along with reading his diaries and biographies, she made multiple trips to Cuba and the Czech Republic, both to speak with the agents who accompanied Guevara and to scour government records. She interviewed famed Guevara biographer Jon Lee Anderson and found two little-known fictionalized books about Guevara’s time in Prague.
“I was able to get first-hand accounts from the agents who accompanied him, from people who were with him in Tanzania and Prague," she says. "The film is based on factual accounts, not imaginings.”
The film’s been screened in Cuba, Prague, Brazil and Panama, but Latin Wave is the first screening of Che: Memories of a Secret Year in the United States. Hernández notes the different audience reactions she’s seen at screenings.
“In Brazil, they asked if Castro was sending Che to his death in those conflicts. Was Castro trying to get Che killed, they wanted to know. They were very curious about Castro and Che’s relationship," Hernández says. "In Cuba, the audience was silent, slightly perplexed.”
The film’s scheduled to screen on Cuban television later this summer. Hernández puts an emphasis on the word scheduled. “We’ll see if it happens," she says. "You can never be too sure of things in Cuba these days.”
Also on the Latin Wave schedule is Belmonte by Frederico Veiroj. The fourth feature by the Uruguayan director, Belmonte is an intimate look at a middle-aged painter who struggles to balance the demands of his art and family. He has an 8-year-old daughter (an old soul with a missing front tooth), a pregnant ex-wife, aging parents who refuse to retire, and a sympathetic brother who’s trying to keep the family fur coat shop afloat. He also has a thriving art career.
The film is filled with small, often sweet moments that slowly reveal Belmonte’s inner life. While looking at paintings with the artist, one prospective buyer tells him, “That painting looks unfinished.” Belmonte deadpans, “Well, maybe you can finish it at home.”
Other films include Alonso Ruizpalacios’s Museo, a true-crime drama starring Gael García Bernal, Arturo Infante’s The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste García, a comic Cuban sci-fi, and Luis Ortega’s El Angel, a box-office hit based on the true story of a teenage serial-killer and thief.
Latin Wave Film Festival, May 2–5. Tickets from $10. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. 713-639-7300. More info and tickets at mfah.org.