Hubert Sauper is in search of a utopia. The Austrian filmmaker has been searching for some time now, just not as bluntly as in his latest documentary: Epicentro. Here, he opens with a man leaving a cinema to stand on a large image of the Western Hemisphere embedded in the floor. Cuba is a utopia, the man declares. What does “utopia” mean, Sauper asks. The man isn’t sure, but he’s confident that whatever a utopia is, it’s Cuba.
Catholic author Thomas Moore coined the term utopia with his 1516 novel about an island off South America’s coast with a perfect social, legal, and political system. Sauper describes it in Epicentro as, “No one owns anything, but no one wants anything.”
That’s somewhat true of the Cuba presented in Epicentro: No one Sauper interviewers seem to have much beyond a TV, maybe a phone and some clothes. Yet, they don’t seem to resentment those who do. And they are surrounded constantly by those who do. Cuba is in danger of becoming another Venice—a land frozen in time and populated by tourists.
Epicentro is consistent with Sauper’s previous films (Darwin’s Nightmare and We Come As Friends). Each is an immersive look at people and places that seem otherworldly, and each feels like the kinds of text they would never assign in a public school history class. They’re more like coveted works an upper-level student would give you if you wanted to know what was really happening.
I think Sauper likes being that upper-level student. Here he offers two young girls, a woman in her 20s, and Oona Castilla Chaplin (granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin) as his subjects. Sauper adores them, which makes depicting them on camera all the more perplexing. Is it possible to not be a tourist in a foreign land? To craft an objective image and not have it misconstrued?
All images contain a trap, but Sauper takes great pains not too fall in. As he points out in the movie’s narration, the Spanish-American War (April 21 to Aug. 13, 1898) coincided with cinema’s invention—a method of mass communication that allowed artists to lie so convincingly the viewer thought they were witnessing reality. There’s an often-told story of the first public exhibition of The Arrival of a Train (1896), where audience members dove out of the way because they thought the train on the screen was coming for them. They didn’t understand that the train and they were occupying two different spaces and times. They didn’t know—couldn’t know—that cinema collapses those gaps.
The story of Arrival of a Train is pretty good, but I’m sure there’s been some embellishment over the past 100-plus years. But, compare that story with another Sauper gets from one of his subjects: an animator who toyed with a movie camera as a child. He discovered how to film an explosion simply by having his brother toss a bucket of water from off-camera while shaking the camera. When he played it back, it looked like a newsreel. When he showed it to his father, his father thought it was an explosion. Why? Because he believed what he saw? Or because he didn’t think his son was clever enough to believably fake the explosion?
As the saying goes: It’s easier to fool people than to make them believe they’ve been fooled. Sauper isn’t trying to fool anyone, but he is a filmmaker, and that’s how the medium works. Like Sauper, you’ll fall for the subjects of Epicentro, and you might even find yourself waxing poetically about Havana. It means “heaven” in Spanish, one local says. Sometimes it looks like it. When that happens, Sauper makes sure to muss it up. If he didn’t, you might start thinking it’s all true.
Written and directed by Hubert Sauper
Produced by Gabriele Kranzelbinder, Daniel Marquet, Martin Marquet, Barbara Pichler
Kino Lorber, Not rated, Running time 108 minutes, Opens Sept. 4 in virtual theaters.