The most exciting filmmaker I’ve come across during my wanderings through the cinematic wilderness is Cuban agitprop documentarian Santiago Alvarez. A member of the Cuban Communist Party and working for the Cuban Film Institute, where he cranked out weekly installments of Latin American Newsreel, he was the model of energetic resourcefulness.
Alvarez declared, “Give me two photos, music, and a moviola and I’ll give you a movie.” And that’s a fitting self-description of his work. Three out of four films described below are constructed largely of images re-photographed from newspapers and tattered copies of Life magazine, creatively edited and set to bouncy pop music.
His most famous film is Now (1965). It is a desperate call to arms; a riotous film seemingly intended to incite riots everywhere. And boy does it work. I’m a mellow guy and it makes me want to go out and march arm-in-arm right up into the face of “The Man.” Alvarez’s camera cuts and bounces and pans across one still photograph after another and seldom smoothly. This isn’t Ken Burns stuff here. This is crude, sometimes handheld. The film lasts as long as it takes Lena Horne to sing the title song and concludes with “NOW!” bullet-riddled into the screen.
Another justly famous film is LBJ (1968). Structured into three sections, it focuses on the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. (“L”), Bobby Kennedy (“B”), and John Kennedy (“J”), and implicates Lyndon Johnson in all three. The movie expands upon the materials of Now to include images from Playboy and found footage ranging from television commercials to old B-westerns. Its conspiracy theory conceits may seem factually suspicious today, but the film’s spirits are still intoxicating.
My favorite films are Hanoi, Tuesday 13th (1967) and 79 Springtimes (1969), both focusing on the Vietnam War in ways that Hollywood wouldn’t dare.
The first is one of the rare films actually shot by Alvarez. He was given a hand-cranked 16mm camera and enough film and money to shoot for one day in Vietnam. He was sent to collect day-in-the-life footage (it was entirely shot on a single Tuesday in December 1967), but what he caught was “lightning in a bottle.” The movie reminds me of the village attack in Apocalypse Now, only with the emphasis shifted from the attack to the pastoral calm before the carnage.
79 Springtimes is an affectionate romp through the life and times of Ho Chi Minh – through all of his 79 years. It’s a reverent and loving depiction focusing on his accomplishments and triumphs, and his death is movingly mourned by hundreds of tear-stained children’s faces. (Yes, it is pure propaganda, but propaganda at its most poetic.) The film’s highlight is its frantic war montage cobbled together from all sorts of still and moving images and printed and edited to make the film itself appear blown to pieces as if caught in the crossfire.
Many of Alvarez’s most famous films are available on YouTube. But, if you really want to see them at their best, try to get your hands on the terrific DVD package He Who Hits First, Hits Twice: The Urgent Cinema of Santiago Alvarez. Disc one has a rich assortment of his films and disc two contains one of the better documentaries I've seen about a single filmmaker.
The DVD liner notes read, "Most work that [Alvarez] was doing was for immediate consumption. He wasn't thinking, 'Is this going to look great in two years?' He was thinking 'Is this going to look great in two hours?'" That nicely sums up his raw urgency that I find so timelessly appealing.