The “epicenter” explored in Hubert Sauper’s “Epicentro” is Havana, which he identifies as the center of the world, the model for both utopia and dystopia, and the nexus of slavery, imperialism, and globalism. But the center of the film is also Sauper’s point of view, his camera, and cinema itself. A hypnotic immersion into a country and culture embargoed by decades of our country’s foreign policy, “Epicentro” combines the absurdist cinematic meditations of Werner Herzog with Boston-based filmmaker John Gianvito’s poetic investigations into American imperialism. The documentary starts streaming via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room Aug. 28.
Sauper has explored the fate of former colonial countries before in such brilliant, idiosyncratic films as “Darwin’s Nightmare” (2004), about the post-colonial exploitation of Tanzania, and “We Come as Friends” (2014), about the chaos in Sudan. This is not his best film, but it might be his most personal and ambiguous.
He wanders about Havana, shooting striking images that are edited into elliptical, impressionistic montages, with music ranging from Mozart’s “Requiem” to a street musician’s rendition of “Guantanamera.” These glimpses of the city include towering waves crashing at night on a breakwater; vintage cars in technicolor shades of pink, aqua, and pea green tooling along battered city streets; cavernous, cinematically derelict buildings; and boatloads of tourists cramming bars and snapping selfies.
Two local girls he calls “Little Prophets” serve as his guides; they are delightful, bright kids who offer an alternative version of the island’s history while showing off their singing, dancing, and acting talents. As perks for participating in the production Sauper sneaks them into the huge swimming pool at a fancy tourist-only hotel. He also, perhaps gratuitously, brings in the actress Oona Castilla Chaplin (to be seen in James Cameron’s upcoming sequels to “Avatar”), who offers thespian lessons, shares clips of her grandfather Charlie’s classics “The Gold Rush” (1925) and “The Great Dictator” (1940), and sings Cuban songs.
Though this may be Sauper’s most genial film, “Epicentro” is no mere cheery jaunt through picturesque poverty featuring cute kids and colorful characters. As one of the Little Prophets describes it, “This is a film about foreign interference and slavery and people in the street. And that the explosion of the Maine wasn’t real [but] was fabricated in a bathtub.”
She is referring to the mysterious destruction of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, which roused Americans into sending troops against the Spanish in the ongoing Cuban War for Independence. The event is notable, Sauper explains, because it marked one of the earliest uses of the nascent film medium for the purposes of fake news and propaganda. Many of the newsreels about Spanish atrocities and US military actions, clips of which are included by Sauper, were reenactments taken for reality by trusting audiences.
This begs the question as to whether Sauper’s film is any less staged, propagandistic, or exploitative. He confronts that issue obliquely, by filming others filming and photographing Havana and its residents, tourists and artists turning the city and its inhabitants into keepsake images of their own narratives. In one sequence a photographer intrudes into the home of a poor family and snaps away with a camera with a giant lens. A child asks for something for his picture and the photographer gives him a New York City souvenir pen. “The conditions that they have [are] pretty tragic,” he says. “But I’m never going to pay for photographs because to be photographed by me is an honor.”
Sauper differs from the obnoxious photographer not just because he treats the kids to a ten-dollar slice of hotel cake and a dip in the pool. He also presents them with an iPhone, and they shoot videos of their friends and themselves cutting capers and performing scenes dressed up like models in a fashion shoot. By doing so he allows them to take charge of their own images. “Let’s make a movie as if it’s real!” says one of the Prophets. “Not real,” says another. “Telling stories.”
“Epicentro” streams at the Coolidge Corner Virtual Theatre beginning on Aug. 28.
Go to coolidge.org/films/epicentro.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.