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Doc Talk: dilatory dictator, fighting city hall, initial COVID-19 response

Geoff Stirling and Joseph Smallwood are waiting for Fidel Castro in "Waiting for Fidel."
Geoff Stirling and Joseph Smallwood are waiting for Fidel Castro in "Waiting for Fidel."Ovid.tv

In 1974 Fidel Castro invited three Canadians to visit Cuba, where they were to interview him and make a documentary about it. The visitors included Joseph Smallwood, the former Socialist premier of Newfoundland, who was there to ask Castro about the successes and failures of the Communist system in that country; Geoff Stirling, a media mogul who had put up the funding and was eager to debate the values of capitalism with Castro and hoped to make a profit from the movie; and Michael Rubbo, the director, who wanted to learn something that he could share on the screen.

Cuban officials greet the visitors warmly and treat them with style. They’re chauffeured in luxury Volga sedans to a marble mansion (the former home of an American tycoon) where servants tend to their needs.


They wait a long time, at first patiently, enjoying the tours of the island given them by their handlers and the splendid meals they are provided. But they grow increasingly anxious as the date scheduled for their departure approaches and Castro still has still not arrived.

Hence the title “Waiting for Fidel” (1974). The three are like the characters in a Beckett’s play, though more luxuriously accommodated, as they pass their downtime debating philosophical and political topics.

They dine at a big banquet table and take in the odd assortment of sites chosen for them by their hosts. At a mental hospital they watch as patients inexplicably practice throwing javelins. At the beach where the Bay of Pigs fiasco took place, Stirling, a yoga aficionado, stands on his head next to a tank. At an engineering school they engage with a student in a discussion about the difference between socialism and communism. Meanwhile the genial septuagenarian Smallwood fills a notebook with questions for Castro such as “Prime Minister, you’re a doctor — a doctor of what?”


But their patience wears thin. Stirling turns on Rubbo, accusing him of shooting too much film and wasting his money. How will he ever turn a profit? he asks. Rubbo says profit need not only be monetary — it can also be measured by the quality of the film and its impact on the relationships between countries.

Whether the resulting documentary improved any international relations with Cuba is doubtful, but its quality is undeniable. Wry, poignant, funny, and subtle, it supposedly influenced Michael Moore. If so, Moore has yet to equal the original.

“Waiting for Fidel” can be streamed on OVID.tv.

Go to search.ovid.tv/cart/coming_soon.

Mayor Musa Hadid looks out over Ramallah, in "Mayor."
Mayor Musa Hadid looks out over Ramallah, in "Mayor."Film Movement

City Hall on the West Bank

Musa Hadid, the mayor of the West Bank city of Ramallah, has a job that would daunt even Marty Walsh.

As seen in David Osit’s outstanding “Mayor” (screened previously at this year’s GlobeDocs, it’s one of the 10 best documentaries of 2020), Hadid wants to rebrand the city, changing its image from that of a place inhabited by a victimized, defeated people to that of a vital hub of culture and prosperity. He holds meetings with aides as they devise a new city slogan, organize a Christmas tree lighting (Hadid is a Christian, and Ramallah has a large Christian population), and plan the construction of a new fountain. The projects show promise.

But then forces beyond Hadid’s control intervene. President Trump declares Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel and announces plans to open a US embassy there. Hadid and his staff brace for the inevitable demonstrations and disorder. Soon Israeli troops clash with protesters, tear gas in the City Hall plaza fells city workers, and soldiers take selfies in front of a now-bedraggled Christmas tree.


Made with irony, subtlety, and style, “Mayor” is a bittersweet lesson in civic and international politics.

“Mayor” can be streamed via the Brattle Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room, beginning Dec. 4.

Go to www.brattlefilm.org,

From "76 Days."
From "76 Days."MTV Films

The virus in China

Wuhan, China, a city of 11 million, suffered the first known outbreak of COVID-19, on Jan. 23, 2020. The story of how four hospitals confronted and combatted the mysterious plague is the subject of “76 Days” by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and “Anonymous.” It’s a Frederick Wiseman-like look at grim scenes similar to those happening today in the overstretched medical facilities in this country.

An eerie, heartbreaking sequence begins the film: Masked hospital staff members dressed in spectral white hazmat suits restrain a sobbing woman desperate for one last glimpse of her dead father. They comfort her, but remind her of her duty, and it takes a moment to realize that she is also garbed in white and wears a mask. She is one of the caregivers; it’s a reminder that those who work to save others are often victims, too.

Stories of individual patients emerge. There is the old Communist Party member who weeps and demands to be sent home. On the phone his son orders him to pull himself together and set a good example. Then he informs the man’s doctor that his father suffers from dementia. An old couple, both infected, are separated and not allowed to have contact with each other. Only one leaves the hospital alive. And a young pregnant woman with the virus is about to give birth. Will her baby be afflicted as well?


As the title tells us, this was only for 76 days. Here, after 10 months, the worst is yet to come.

“76 Days” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room, beginning Dec. 4.

Go to coolidge.org.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.