‘Epicentro’: Philosophy Through the Eyes of Cuban Children

Courtesy of Hubert Sauper

Liz Leyva and Darian Hernandez

To Hubert Sauper, Academy Award nominee in 2004, his documentary “Epicentro” is about utopia, childhood, memory and cinema. The Austrian filmmaker spent three years, from 2016 to 2019, capturing the life of a few families within a marginal section of Old Havana, Cuba, to explore these vast philosophical concepts.

“Epicentro,” a documentary premiered in Sundance Film Festival 2020, equates utopia to the current status of Cuba. The Castro dictatorship, established in 1959, created the basis for the current economic and political situation.

In Cuba, the typical monthly salary can be as low as twelve dollars a month, and citizens still cope with seemingly democratic elections where their ballots select only municipality or province deputies, never the President.

Sauper uses the vintage cars’ images and several deteriorated locations in Old Havana to substantiate the notion of Cuba as a utopian land almost frozen in time. Sauper seemingly agrees with the quote, “Children are the hope of the world,” by Cuban patriot Jose Marti. He assumes Marti’s remark by giving children the leading role in his documentary.

The innocence of Leonelis, the “star” of the film, captivates the audience as she acts, dances, and enlightens the viewers with Cuban history lessons.

In addition to the concepts of utopia and childhood, “Epicentro” constitutes a eulogy to memory. The director evokes remembrances of the preCastro Havana, full of casinos, and home of international mafia leaders.

The documentary catalyzes more profound reflections about the changes needed on the island and the reasons behind their current status.

“Epicentro” emerges as a prompt to analyze the historical memories of Cuba, through the eyes and voices of authentic Cuban citizens. Sauper’s documentary also provides a perspective on the story of filmmaking and its impact on the masses. Since “seeing is believing,” cinema often becomes a more acceptable truth than mere written words. Such trust in films proved to be a double-edged sword over the years.

In “Epicentro,” Sauper demonstrates the power of cinema by showing a collection of warfare videos allegedly filmed during the Spanish-Cuban war. Those videos, the explosion of the Maine and yellow journalism convinced the American people to declare war on Spain, and support a military intervention of the U.S. in Cuba.

Experts suggest the footage of naval battles filmed in 1898 was created by using a water pool, firecrackers, cigars’ smoke and a small replica of the boats. Through the camera lens, everything looks real. The videos presented to Leonelis, and her classmates, raise numerous questions about the truthfulness of films and their ability to manipulate audiences’ perceptions.

One of the protagonists of the documentary compares filmmaking to the business of tourism.

According to him, tourism can turn a society’s identity and values into shallow attractions — tourism labels and stereotypes elements that are assumed to be a distinctive part of a given culture.

Similarly, films portray what the filmmaker understands as the cultural essence of a society, which can result in a misleading representation of a nation’s identity. Applying the same rationale to “Epicentro,” those who have not visited Cuba cannot understand why the documentary is not a fair representation of its population. Sauper did not portray a commercial image of the country or narrate a politically biased story.

Still, his production presented a set of adult individuals who can convey an erroneous impression of Cubans’ intellectual level. Most of the adults interviewed were uneducated and provided inadequate responses to general knowledge questions.

While this may be the case for some Cubans, it is not representative of the whole nation. Cuba has plenty of middle-class and low-class citizens whose educational levels are comparable to the elite of the first world. Many artists and professionals – who earn similar salaries to those interviewed for the documentary – could easily prove this claim if given a chance.

If the utopian Cuba is depicted erroneously, the audiences can develop biased assumptions. “Epicentro” demonstrates the power of cinema and the responsibilities inherent to filmmakers. Although Sau- per stresses that his film is not about Cuba, but about various philosophical concepts, the unheard voices of those who do not support the regime resonate enough to deserve a place in the documentary.