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A Warholian Mosaic of an Iconoclast

Chevolution (2009)

Picture 002
Fortissimo Films

Everyone knows the image this film is about. Everyone might not know who he is or when or where the photo was taken, but he or she knows what the image means. It’s cool, edgy and rebellious. It’s got that little frisson that moves it beyond just another photograph to one of the most reproduced images of all time. It’s so famous that blind items can run in the gossip press about starlets getting their tattoos of it removed. In a London restaurant restroom, a mash-up of the image and the Mona Lisa hangs on the wall. And from its first appearance, it took very little time to morph into shorthand for — well, whatever you want it to mean.

The image, of course, is Alberto Korda’s portrait of Che Guevara. Korda, a renowned Cuban society and fashion photographer, was in the crowd at a memorial service when Guevara stepped forward on the podium. Korda raised his camera and got two shots — and the rest is history.

“Chevolution” traces every step of the image’s journey through archive news photos, interviews and demonstrations to its current prevalence in global pop culture. The story of how the photo came to be used across Europe in the student protests fascinates, as Cuba’s communistic disregard for international copyright law enabled the image to be reproduced at will. The issues of fair usage and misappropriated copyright meant that Korda was not even acknowledged as the photographer until the 1980s. Listening to artists such as Jim Fitzpatrick — who simplified the photo into a block poster print with a red background — and Shepard Fairey — whose adapted image of Barack Obama was so crucial to the last presidential campaign, although this was done after his footage was shot — explain why it’s acceptable for them to alter other people’s work for their own gain is more than a little self-serving.

Or are their adaptations fair comment on the image’s power and appeal? Korda’s daughter, Diana Diaz, who controls his estate, is a thoughtful interview subject who has clearly given careful consideration to what the image stands before and why so many people relate to it and want to make it their own. She also explains thoroughly why her father felt he should be able to execute some control over the image, for it to be used only in ways of which Guevara would have approved.

Ah yes, Guevara. We have to wait a long time before someone breathes a hint of criticism about him, and the filmmakers leave this initial task to a teenage Cuban-American. For the most part, the interviewees — including Gerry Adams, Antonio Banderas and Gael García Bernal — discuss the importance Guevara has for them, and how people relate to the photo both as an image of him, as well as those who don’t. The best was the guy on an American beach who claimed Guevara invented the mojito.

Directors Luis Lopez — who served as cinematographer for the Dixie Chicks documentary “Shut Up & Sing” — and Trisha Ziff use a score of Cuban music and a mix of flashy visual collage techniques to keep their movie zipping along. Ms. Ziff, who has curated museum exhibits and written books based on the photo, is one of the interviewees, an unusual tactic for a documentary. Then again, a movie about a picture is also slightly unusual, and regrettably nowhere near as memorable as the original image.


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