‘Epicentro’: Getting centered on Cuba in a new documentary film
The filmmaker Hubert Sauper in Cuba.

Epicentro is Sundance Award winner and Academy Award nominee Hubert Sauper’s vibrant, elegiac postcard from Cuba—its past, present and future.

A bittersweet history lesson suffuses the film: We are Cuba, the gateway to the Americas, the blockaded but unbowed survivor of economic war with its behemoth unfriendly northern neighbor. Invaded by both the Spanish and the United States empires on any number of pretexts, Cuba still proudly proclaims its independence.

As the Austrian-born Sauper shows us, revolutionary idealism is intact, especially among the youth. The beautiful, spirited, multiracial youth have more energy and savvy than their would-be conquerors. “We are small, but powerful. Ready for anything.” Their energy and experience portend optimism for the post-capitalist world!

The island where the (so-called) New World was discovered has outgrown its chains of tradition. Religion and economics notwithstanding, Cuba’s youth remind us that unlike the spoiled children of failed empire, the island has learned hard lessons.

Three dystopian epochs of history have washed over it: the slave trade, colonization and globalization. The Cubans have freed the chained slaves and raised the wage slaves. Led by Fidel and Che, they beat back the stronger empires, garnered the world’s admiration and came to modernity on their own terms. What hasn’t killed them has made them stronger.

Epicentro shares more than just this remarkable tenacity. The same unwillingness to recognize the impossibility of their economic struggle has nurtured a rich and raucous brew of art and music. Cinematic tourists are escorted through the vibrant, edgy Havana night streets. We are treated to the cross-pollinated music of the different cultures and generations. History lessons unfold into drama, love stories and celebration.

Sauper isn’t always successful in weaving this gauzy tapestry. Sometimes the images add up to less than a coherent 108-minute picture. A bit more narrative structure may have made the film more widely accessible. Sometimes we are left wanting to know more about the characters who open their doors and lives to us on the screen. Still, it is hard to argue with the overall effect. Spirit and flesh are clearly willing.

The one principal whom Sauper focuses on is Game of Thrones actress Oona Castilla Chaplin, daughter of Geraldine Chaplin, granddaughter of film pioneer Charlie Chaplin and granddaughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Chaplin’s haunting compositions catch the island’s pulse. Her history, like that of Cuba, suggests a cultural bridge from a conflicted past to a more socially inclusive, humanitarian future.

Like Sauper’s film, the music leaves us craving more of Cuba’s culture and political wisdom. The trailer can be viewed here. It is currently streaming. Rotten Tomatoes gives the doc a 94% rating.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU. He has served as a supernumerary with the San Francisco Opera for years without getting to sing a single note on stage!