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A Prolific Cuban Filmmaker's Inventive Newsreel Agitprop

Cinema Lenin dreamed of: Ho and Álvarez
photo: Extreme Low Frequency

Cigarette dangling from his lips, rifle cocked at the hip, a G.I. poses over the corpse of a "liberated" Vietnamese. In Puerto Rico, another G.I. punches and kicks a dark-skinned man to the ground. In Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, the uniforms are different but the song remains the same. The eight films that constitute the first half of this double-disc set were all made for the Cuban newsreel, 1965 through 1973, and represent a tiny fraction of Álvarez's prodigious output (reckoned to be over 600 films). Che, Ho Chi Minh, Allende, LBJ—the subjects are staples, but the treatment is extraordinary. Self-taught and deprived of money, time, and often as not, raw footage, Álvarez fused the kind of cinema Lenin dreamed of: Eisenstein with a Latin beat. As a cutter, he's radical, inventive, mischievous, and dogmatic. "Give me two photos, music, and a Moviola," he said. "I'll give you a movie."

Now (1965) is a searing montage of U.S. racism scored to a scorching Lena Horne protest song. In Cerro Pelado (1966), LBJ's birth is crosscut with a volcanic eruption and a cow in labor. More lacerating than any Hollywood 'Nam, 79 Primaveras (1969) shows an American bombing raid from the receiving end. Disc two is given to Travis Wilkerson's portrait Accelerated Under-Development, itself an invigorating piece of agitprop in the Álvarez idiom. Wilkerson is distributing through his new DVD label (extremelowfrequency.com; its second release, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, is also out now).


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