Pik and Che: Cuba in Africa

When documentary filmmaker Jihan el-Tahri met Larry Devlin, the cynical 1960s head of the CIA, in the Belgian Congo she managed to prise from him the fact that the United States did indeed issue an order to assassinate Patrice Lumumba.

Crippled by emphysema, Devlin threw caution out the door and revealed that he had other plans for regime change. He was approached by the wily and ruthless Mobutu Sese Seko and gave him the go-ahead and guarantee of support to topple the revolutionary nationalist government that had just achieved independence from the Belgian Congo.

El-Tahri’s Cuba: An African Odyssey is a two-hour exploration of Cuba’s various interventions in Africa from the 1960s to the late 1980s and is replete with interviews as revealing as her encounter with the CIA’s man in the Congo. After knocking on countless doors, the Lebanese-born filmmaker secured tête-à-têtes with figures who played crucial roles on a world-historical scale, such as key strategists on every side of the Cold War divide.

El-Tahri tells the story with compelling cinematic language and uses fascinating archival material of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Pik Botha, as well as the interviews she conducted with Magnus Malan, Ronald Reagan’s under-secretary of state for African affairs, Chester Crocker, and Politburo strategist Victor Shubin, among others. These are interspersed with footage of wars, meetings, summits ­- and Castro on safari.

Determined to use only footage shot by African cameramen, she presents events through the lens of the Developing World. This meant plumbing the depths of archives in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea-Bissau, among others. This is reflected in the film when she interviews her subjects, all sitting among volumes of books in their respective national archives.

An Egyptian diplomat’s daughter, she has lived in many countries and studied political science at the American University in Cairo—a hotbed of radical ideas and movements. Fluent in Spanish, French, Arabic and English, her interviews work because she tries to create a conversation with her interlocutor. But these sometimes don’t happen according to plan.

Interviewed by the Mail & Guardian, El-Tahri reveals juicy tidbits about her adventures, such as that Henry Kissinger asked to be paid for being interviewed. He landed up on the cutting floor, where about 300 hours of other footage also lay. Crocker gave her only 20 minutes and wanted to redo the interview after he realised her radical bent. She said she’d agree if he wore the same shirt and tie.

She spent four years making the film, travelling to the United States, Russia, Cuba, Portugal, Angola, the DRC, Mozambique, Ethiopia, France, the United Kingdom and South Africa, where she has temporarily settled after deciding to make a movie about the ANC and the transformation of liberation movements into governments. She decided to leave out the Mozambique and Ethiopia episodes when they conformed to a logic different to the one she was trying to portray.

The film makes grand claims about Castro’s potent little island and its role in ending apartheid and closing the colonial chapter in Africa and there is little to suggest that this narrative can be faulted, provided one keeps in mind that historic events are caused by the interactions of many factors, including contingency.

The film begins with a shot of Nelson Mandela in Cuba, standing next to Castro at a rally in July 1991, barely six months after his release from prison, and asks why this most famous of African liberation leaders decided to visit Castro on his first overseas outing. The ensuing film answers precisely that question: Cuba is presented as the force that intervened in such a crucial manner that it all but effected the withdrawal of South Africa from Namibia and landed one of the kicks that brought the apartheid government to its knees, forcing it—perhaps indirectly—to release Mandela as a first step to ending apartheid.

The Angolan story is the most convoluted and the most important intervention for South Africa and what was to become Namibia. The Cubans helped install Augustinho Neto in 1975 by sending in 36 000 troops to defend the MPLA against a pincer attack from the FNLA and Unita. The other crucial intervention came at Cuito Cuanavale, the battle which many historians are increasingly beginning to see as one of the death knells of the apartheid regime and which resulted in the 1988 agreement for the simultaneous withdrawal of South Africa from Namibia and the withdrawal of Cuban troops from the region.

Steven Markovitz, of the Encounters film festival, told the M&G that after 9/11, cinema audiences have become interested in seeing documentaries that scratch beneath the surface of explanations provided by governments and the film industry. Catering to this need, his organisation has worked a deal with NuMetro to screen documentaries as feature films and Cuba is being screened at NuMetro from May 9. Parliament’s media arm, Parliamentary Millennium Projects, is part sponsoring the screening as an attempt to generate debate about the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, has its 20th anniversary in 2008.

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