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Natural Born 'Comandante': Oliver Stone Meets Fidel Castro

By Kathy McDonald

Fidel Castro (left) and Oliver Stone, from 'Comandante.' Photo courtesy of Ixtlan/HBO.

Oliver Stone's films have been lighting rods for controversy, particularly when he's fictionalized real events (consider the responses to Salvador, JFK and Nixon). In May, HBO will air the three-time Academy Award winner's first documentary, Comandante, a person-to-person encounter between Stone and Cuba's head-of-state, Fidel Castro. His aim was to demystify Castro, to go behind the caricature of cigar, beard and military fatigues. Because Stone is not overtly antagonistic here and does not condemn Castro, expect a strong reaction—perhaps even outrage—from Cuban exiles. 

For the past 44 years, the United States government and the intransigent Cuban exile community have demonized Castro. While Stone confronts Castro, questioning him about political repression, free elections and Cuban advisers in Vietnam, it is not an adversarial relationship. What emerges from the film is sense of Castro the man: his well-known charisma, effusiveness, sense of humor and skill in evading pointed questions.       

Comandante opens with black-and-white newsreel footage of Castro's triumphant entrance into Havana in January 1959. Stone mixes in newsreel footage throughout the film, but the majority of the 90-minute digitally shot doc is culled from three days of conversations between Stone and Castro.

"I'm not sure it's a documentary," says Stone. "I can't define it. The fourth wall is ripped; there was no sense of order or manipulation."  Stone kept it loose by not staging a formal sit-down interview, thereby accumulating more than 30 hours of footage. The film was shot by a Spanish TV crew, and both Stone and the crew can be seen on camera. Initially the footage is very kinetic, but as taping continues, the camera settles down and the footage becomes more static. The first day of informal interviews starts in Castro's bookcase-lined office, incongruously decorated with busts of Abraham Lincoln, Simon Bolivar and Napoleon. Framed photographs include those of Castro with Hemingway.

As the filming and conversations continue over the next three days, Stone and his crew, accompanied by a translator, tour a number of sites with the Cuban leader. There's a visit to Castro's screening room (where we learn of his favorite movie stars—Brigitte Bardot and Charlie Chaplin), lunch in his Palace, a visit to the contemporary art museum, a stop at Havana's medical school and a walk through the Old Havana section, with Castro as the guide. All the while the cameras roll and Stone continues his queries. Castro's flexibility of movement throughout the city is striking: although accompanied by security, it appears he can move freely about, often greeted by an enthusiastic populace.

Stone had met Castro briefly at the Havana Film Festival in 1986. "He seemed to like the movies I'd done," Stone told the sold-out audience at the films' Sundance Film Festival premiere. "He seemed to respond to JFK, Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon [as a guerilla fighter] and Nixon, too. Probably not Natural Born Killers or The Doors; he wasn't that kind of guy."

Before filming, Stone considered the doc format carefully and sought to avoid an atmosphere where "accidents were prevented." He explains his approach to the nonfiction genre: "How do you get into mind of someone who is head-of-state, who is basically a stranger? Why did we have question-and-answers? Why did we have talking heads? ‘Why' motivated everything through the whole thing, including ultimate questions that came to me, what I felt like asking him."

Stone compares Castro to an aged movie star. At 75, he was still fit and exciting. "He's like a Marcello Mastroianni character carrying a movie," muses Stone. "It's mostly him; he carries the movie for 90 minutes. I guess he's the About Schmidt of political leaders." But there were moments of tension, and Castro reacts testily to questions about political repression and Cuban advisers as torturers in North Vietnam's POW camps. Castro declines to call himself a dictator; instead he asserts, "I'm a dictator to myself and a slave of the people."

"I was blunt," maintains Stone. "I cut him off a lot, and I cut him like a director, changed the subject when I felt like it; I was rude." Stone felt that a more hostile and contemptuous relationship would have been unproductive. He elaborates, "It's a fine line, similar to the line between a director and an actor. How far can you push the actor, without the actor closing down?"

Fernando Sulichin, Stone's Paris-based producer, facilitated production funds from Spanish television and HBO. He sees the combination of the director and political leader as "an alignment of stars." He notes that Stone set out to demystify the myth, something that he also attempted with his next documentary for HBO, Persona non Grata, which looks at the conflict in the Middle East and includes an interview with Palestinian President Yassir Arafat shot a mere 12 hours before Israel cordoned off Ramallah.

"These are political docs," says HBO's Shelia Nevins of Stone's "enormously biased" works. She reveals that Stone's documentary style matures in Persona non Grata. "He's a better filmmaker in the second film; he's listening harder, trying to understand what's going on." She notes that Stone did not pursue a theatrical release for either film, aiming for the widest possible exposure. Adds Nevins, "There's a buzz about docs, as the world gets smaller and reality gets more important." Geoff Gilmore, director of the Sundance Film Festival, concurs. He praised the film when introducing it at its Sundance (and world) premiere: "This is a film whose time is as necessary right now as ever before; it's a film that debunks myths, that deals with politics and with icons, and with a director with the kind of creativity, intelligence and passion that could make it work."

How has Cuba (and Castro) managed to survive as America's most strident antagonist a mere 90 miles from the US for more than 40 years? Stone admonishes audiences to judge for themselves Cuba's "new world order," a non-corporate state 90 miles off the Florida coast. Castro maintains that the present waste of resources worldwide will result in extinction of humanity. The non-commercial, almost time-warped look of Havana is certainly unique in the Caribbean: the old cars still in working order, a department store with limited stock, and the lack of advertising (although there are many billboards of Che Guevara and Castro).

For historians, Castro's view of the Cuban missile crisis is most revealing.  He feared obliteration but concedes that at the time he was not savvy enough about the balance between world powers. Stone hopes to make accessible to scholars—and the curious—the raw footage of interviews, noting that Castro has many details to add to the historical record.

Castro often remarks that only Stone has sought to question him on certain issues. Among Stone's queries: Did Castro ever consider therapy? No, he solved his own problems. Castro's love life? He says he won't kiss and tell. What is the relationship of Castro to his female interpreter? Both are taken aback by the query, clearly surprised to consider it after working together for more than 30 years.

In post-production, Stone and his editor, Alex Marquez, found that the translator often changed Castro's words. Subtitles in the film reflect what Castro literally says often in subtle conflict with the translator. Ultra-clarity and over-elaboration in the translation were essential to Stone.

By the close of the film, the camaraderie between the men is palpable. The former revolutionary escorts Stone to the airport in his Mercedes. Fidel Castro embraces Oliver Stone, adding "Life is good because it brought you here." The fourth wall is indeed knocked down and out.


Kathy A. McDonald is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who contributes regularly to Variety and Daily Variety's editorial special reports.