Habaneros, BBC doc on the Cuban revolution.

Havaneros — You Say You Want a Revolution.

Habaneros, the BBC’s bril­liant new doc­u­men­tary chart­ing the his­to­ry of Cuba, com­pletes an unlike­ly come­back for Julian Tem­ple, one time enfant ter­ri­ble of British cinema.

Tem­ple shot to fame in 1980, when he doc­u­ment­ed the rapid rise and demise of the Sex Pis­tols in The Great Rock and Roll Swin­dle. In it, Mal­colm McLaren clev­er­ly presents him­self as the evil Sven­gali pulling all the strings, and the brains, there­fore, behind the band’s success.

On the back of which, Tem­ple was hand­ed the reigns on Absolute Begin­ners in 1985, which duly became the most expen­sive film ever made in Britain, and which was sup­posed to have estab­lished Gold­crest as a rival for the big Hol­ly­wood stu­dios across the pond.

Absolute Begin­ners.

Instead of which, the film bombed, the quote stu­dio unquote crashed – aid­ed by the dis­as­ter that was the Al Paci­no vehi­cle Rev­o­lu­tion – and Tem­ple depart­ed with his tail between his legs in the gen­er­al direc­tion of the Hol­ly­wood hills.

One of the pecu­liar­i­ties of the film indus­try is that it is always bet­ter to have made some­thing, any­thing, how­ev­er vac­u­ous, than to have more pru­dent­ly done noth­ing at all. So once there, they gave him more mon­ey to make his sec­ond fea­ture, the instant­ly for­get­table Earth Girls Are Easy, from ‘88. He spent the next decade mak­ing equal­ly for­get­table if impres­sive­ly expen­sive music videos for big name artists like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, The Kinks and David Bowie.

The Great Rock and Roll Swindle.

But his unlike­ly come­back began in 2000 with The Filth and the Fury, his well-received Pis­tols doc which went some­way to cor­rect­ing the bias­es of his ear­li­er ven­ture. While in 2015, he made the Ecsta­sy of Wilko John­son, one of the many, many impec­ca­ble Sto­ryville docs that BBC4 has been pro­duc­ing over the last decade (reviewed ear­li­er here). And now this, once again under the aus­pices of the BBC, this mag­is­te­r­i­al doc chart­ing the his­to­ry of Cuba over the past hun­dred years or so.

The first half of Habaneros charts the his­to­ry of Cuba in the run up to the rev­o­lu­tion in ’59. The repeat­ed inter­fer­ence of the US through­out the first half of the cen­tu­ry, which even­tu­al­ly pro­duced the Batista rev­o­lu­tion in 1933. But he quick­ly proved him­self to be every bit as cor­rupt as the regime he’d revolt­ed against, and he and his acolytes bled the island dry before retir­ing to Flori­da in ’44. But he returned once more in ’52 when he was re-installed as a US pup­pet – imag­ine that, a US backed mil­i­tary coup to over­throw a demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed for­eign gov­ern­ment. Who’d have thunk it.


But in ‘56, the exiled Fidel Cas­tro sailed back to the island with 81 troops, only to be imme­di­ate­ly ambushed on land­ing. Just the 12 of them sur­vived, flee­ing in des­per­a­tion for the hills of the Sier­ra Maes­tra, with the sum total of sev­en rifles between them. But in what must sure­ly be the most unlike­ly suc­cess­ful rev­o­lu­tion ever embarked upon, just three years lat­er he and Che Gue­vara marched tri­umphant­ly into Havana on News Year’s Day of 1959, hav­ing tak­en con­trol of the entire island.

This first half of the film is undoubt­ed­ly the more live­ly of the two, as Tem­ple bril­liant­ly mix­es media, telling the breath­less sto­ry of the lead up to the rev­o­lu­tion through a mon­tage of care­ful­ly cho­sen inter­views, archive footage and ani­ma­tion, on to which he super­im­pos­es news­pa­per and mag­a­zine pages that com­ment on the visu­als and voice over underneath.

The sec­ond half then fol­lows the his­to­ry of the island in the wake of that rev­o­lu­tion, from the Bay of Pigs, to the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis, the cold war and the even­tu­al col­lapse of the Sovi­et bloc in the‘90s, which result­ed in their sole source of fund­ing dis­ap­pear­ing into the ether.

Viva la revolucion!

As scrupu­lous­ly fair as you’d expect from one of the many projects over­seen by the peer­less Alan Yen­tob, the sec­ond half is inevitably less excit­ing than the pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­vour that pre­cedes it. As on the one hand, the rev­o­lu­tion con­tin­ues to be cel­e­brat­ed by some, who right­ly point to the hero­ic resis­tance that the island has main­tained against the avari­cious inter­fer­ence and oafish grand­stand­ing of its bul­ly­ing neigh­bour to the West. And on the oth­er, there are all those who lament how inevitably dis­ap­point­ing that rev­o­lu­tion proved to be for the lives that so many of the islanders were forced to live.

It’s a bril­liant film, intox­i­cat­ing­ly so in its first half, and every­one involved, espe­cial­ly Tem­ple, should take a very deep bow.

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