We’ve all seen the Che photo that half of our high school classmates wore on their shirts, but not many of us know the artistic and political history of this iconic image. Documentarian Trisha Ziff illuminates the story of how a casual photo became an international symbol of revolution. (GPG: 4/5)
Review by Contributing Editor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
In many ways the story of Chevolution is the story of Che Guevara himself, but in another sense the film is the story of Alberto Korda as well. While almost everyone knows the name of Che Guevara, few people know the name of the man who took the most famous photograph of the revolutionary. Many people also don’t know much about the background of Che Guevara, mirroring the decontextualization of the image itself. Chevolution tells the stories of how both these men became involved in the Cuban Revolution, leading up to the fateful moment when their lives intersected most significantly, at the moment Korda took the famous picture of Che.
Korda was a fashion photographer, so his style of working with a camera tended toward amplifying the beauty of his subjects and positioning them as objects of a more timeless beauty rather than as an intentional expression of the zeitgeist. This is how this more decontextualized image of Che was produced; after all none of the guns, grenades, or sugar cane that Che is often shown with in photographs are present in this one. We only have his likeness, his emotion, and the connotations of revolution and change that still cling to the photo. One particularly revealing moment comes when a T-shirt hawker on Venice Beach uses the Che quote “a true revolutionary is motivated by love” to sell his merch. After the photo got out of Korda’s hands, it was quickly repurposed into so many different forms and causes that it has effectively lost its meaning except for a very vague connotation with revolution.
Finally, one rather loaded debate that is still being carried on around this photo is the ownership of the image going forward. The Guevara estate has expressed its wish for the image to be national property, in the public domain. Meanwhile, the Korda estate has fought in court to maintain the copyright, with one of its members serving as an interviewee to advance her argument for why her family should retain the copyright. This debate plays into the exact same logic that has led to the commercialization of the image which the Korda estate would like to continue profiting from. The film only covers this aspect of the image’s cultural life for about five or ten minutes, in a fairly shallow way.
Some questions that the film notably didn’t ask about the commercialization debate: does the subject of a photo/ their family have any right to control how the image is used? Should the family of an artist be able to control how their art is used? Does the nation from which a cultural flashpoint like the Che photo sprang have a say; that is, does society get to claim art as its own regardless of individual “ownership”? And is legal or economic power the appropriate arbiter of these questions? Indeed, the inclusion of a member of the Korda estate but not a member of the Guevara estate has tilted the debate within Chevolution toward the old traditions of copyright and artistic license that are increasingly outdated in the age of the Internet. The film’s conversation about the image was lessened because of this failure to explore more of the nuances of the issue–even though these nuances were so clearly there.
After a little digging, this reporter found that Diana Diaz, the member of the Korda family featured in the film as an interviewee, has a close relationship with filmmaker Trisha Ziff. In an interview for IFC’s website, Ziff says re: approaching the Korda family about the film, “there’s a history of trust because Diana Diaz knew me, she knew my work on other exhibitions and I live in Mexico. We’ve had consistent dialogue over five or six years.” This is a disappointing look at the film, since it shows that there is likely quite a lot of perspective on this issue that was omitted fronm the film’s coverage of the photo. If the filmmaker had taken the time or had the courage to seek out the opinions of those who don’t believe the image can be copyrighted, or of the Che Guevara estate, that would have made the story much more well rounded. It is ironic that this piece is centered around a propaganda image, and has become something like propaganda itself.
Does Chevolution pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Since it’s a documentary Chevolution does not pass the Bechdel-Wallace test. After all, only one person tends to be talking at a time, so two women cannot talk to each other. Further, the interviewees aren’t characters so they can’t have or not have names. Finally, the doc is focused on Che Guevara so the interviewees are almost always talking about a man, namely Che.
Top Photo: The iconic image of Che.
Middle Photo: Many variations on the image of Che.
Bottom Photo: The image being used in a modern day revolutionary action.
Photo Credit: Red Envelope Entertainment.