It is the story of the power of a single image
Everyone has seen the image. Some may have wondered who he is, some of us know but everyone has been struck by it – the image of a man wispily bearded, hair flowing like a mane, looking intensely, penetratingly over the shoulder of the photographer as if into infinity.
Arguably the most reproduced image in the world, the image has adorned everything from the ubiquitous T-shirts, coffee mugs, key chains, vodka bottles, swatch watches, protest marches. It can be found painted on the walls of ghettos of Miami, in the guerrilla headquarters of the Zapatistas in Mexico, in the insurrection in Palestine and Philippines and as a tattoo on the arm of Maradona. It can be equally found as a backdrop of a swish bar in Bangalore to a free clinic in most rural Bolivia.
No other image in the history of images has been used so widely in so
many, often contradictory, settings. No image has been able to evoke the sense of empathy among such a diverse group of people cutting across geography and time as has this image. No other image has spontaneously come up whenever there has been a conflict – from Sarajevo to Iraq.
This is the story of this image. This is also the story of the power of an image, of an icon – in sustaining a myth and in propagating it. Images
tell a thousand tales but few image can tell both the story of universal rebellion and defiance and sell socks and vodka at the same time. That is why this is a story that needs to be told.
The first part deals with the man Che Guevara and a short history of the man – from his motorcycle journey to the Cuban revolution, then bringing in the history of the man who took the iconic image, an image that he labelled later as Guerrillero Heroico
(Heroic Guerrilla) – Alberto Korda.
We see the context in which the photograph was taken – a mere two frame shot that Korda took during a memorial service for victims of the La Coubre explosion, when Che stepped forward for a few seconds before disappearing from view. The power of the image struck Korda but it was not widely circulated until the student riots of 1968 in Paris, when the image suddenly exploded and became a symbol for the passions of an entire generation.
The story moves on to how various parallel developments, not always connected to each other led to the image going viral at the right moment – Fidel and Korda’s refusal to copyright the image in the name of free expression, the invention of new imaging and copying techniques, the dawning of the age of larger than life celebrity (Elvis, Dylan, Beatles etc), rebellion fervour in university campus around the
world (Vietnam war was reaching its climax) and finally the murder of Che in Bolivia, martyring him, at a time when he was arguably the most famous revolutionary in a world where visual media was beginning to flex its muscles.
All of the conditions come together to make the image an almost independent entity from the man. With the result that down the decades people starting consuming the image unaware of who the man is and what he stood for. But what is fascinating is how the core idea and ideals of the image and indeed of Che himself survived the commercial appropriation. While Che’s image adorns bikinis in Brazil, it is still held aloft when injustice is protested anywhere in the world.
The film-makers have made a very slick and coherent narrative of the journey of the image. The pace never lets up and it has managed to bring together many different viewpoints in one single storyline. We
hear the history of the man and move on to the image and then on to how that image began to mean everything rebellious even after being appropriated. We hear from the people directly responsible for making the image go viral and from those who consume the image – from people who denounce him as a murderer and wonder what is there to emulate to those who say that they are not believers but if they have to believe, they would believe in god Che. Along the way we are given a grasp of why Che is still so fascinating and mesmerising to us, fifty years after his death (he is worshipped as a saint in Vallegrande, where he was killed).
No side is taken by the makers and the narrative is politically neutral (not an easy feat when dealing with Che). The focus is on the image and the threads that come and go from it…
It has got a great cast (including film-stars!!), perfect editing, fascinating footage, great music and most of all it has a great theme as subject. We gain a better understanding of ourselves and the society
around us, our need for heroes and how a powerful image like this fulfils all our needs. We get a better understanding of the power of image. And not the least, we understand Che a little better, to his relevance, as an icon, as an ideal in a world he would have felt intensely uncomfortable in…
I was shocked to see the rating on Imdb, one of the rare times that the site has got it completely wrong. I wonder if people actually saw this before rating it. Or maybe it was only the Cuban-Americans of Florida who voted!!!
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