If I was asked to recommend the perfect short to be studied by young film-makers, it would probably be the 18-minute LBJ. For the more impatient, it could be the six-minute Now. For those who need more, it might be either the 25-minute 79 Springs or the 38-minute Hanoi, Tuesday 13th. They were all made by the same director: Santiago Alvarez of Cuba.
Alvarez, a committed son of Castro’s revolution and a natural successor to the great Russian Dziga Vertov, would be classed as a documentarist if he hadn’t always denied this. Instead, he called himself a “news pamphleteer” who, like Vertov, had to react to events as fast as possible since “he who hits first hits twice”.
His methodology as a socialist was to attempt to use images as powerfully as they are used in the west to sell goods: “The advertisements of capitalism are, in fact, much better than the product,” he claimed. “The Jesuits were their precursors. Remember that saying about giving them a child? Remember too the famous old-style Coca-Cola bottle? Why do you think it was designed like that? Feel it and you will find out. It is in the shape of a woman wearing the long dresses of teatime. When a woman has a good body, we say in Cuba that she is Coca-Cola.”
All the films I have mentioned are astonishing in their use of the image, often superbly underlined by music. For instance, Now – made in 1965 – uses a song by Lena Horne that was banned in America but that Horne gave Alvarez to use in the film. A highly emotional commentary on racism, using mostly pirated newsreel images, Now synthesises music and visuals with astonishing precision.
LBJ, made in 1968, is a bitter satire about President Johnson, one of Alvarez’s favourite targets; it has three sections, which correspond to Johnson’s initials. L is for Martin Luther King, B is for Bobby Kennedy and J is for Jack Kennedy. Alvarez implicates Johnson in all three assassinations, portraying his presidency as the culmination of a history of socio-political corruption. Clips from Hollywood movies and a cartoon of Johnson as the all-American cowboy reinforce this view.
Hanoi, Tuesday 13th – made in 1967 – is a moving celebration of Vietnamese culture and of the country’s courageous and long-standing battle for freedom from the Chinese, Japanese, French and Americans. 79 Springtimes is a tribute to Ho Chi Minh, made in 1969, and its title refers to his age at the time of his death. Both are remarkable, the latter being perhaps the most poetic film that Alvarez ever made, constructing and deconstructing images with virtuoso brilliance. At one point, a title that says “Don’t let disunity in the socialist camp darken the future” is torn to pieces, leaving the screen blank. Then a gunshot announces a split-screen, multi-image sequence of war and destruction, ending on a freeze-frame that burns up to leave nothing. Finally, the pieces of the title join up again and, to the music of Bach, bursts of gunfire flash across the screen before another title appears declaring that the Americans will be finally defeated.
Alvarez’s polemic looks naive today, when it is fashionable to counterbalance aggressive argument with so-called objective truth. Revolutionaries are out of style. But the point about Alvarez is not just his emotional commitment, which in itself is often surprisingly moving as well as effective: it is his amazing skill as a film-maker that hits the nerve-ends. “Give me two photographs, a moviola and some music and I’ll make you a film,” he once said. He was true to his word. Working quickly and with equipment film-makers would now reject as totally inadequate, he made a series of films in the 60s and early 70s that have yet to be beaten either as propaganda, as newsreels or as pieces of brilliantly improvised cinema. Why have we forgotten him?