A company currently markets a t-shirt featuring the famous, iconic photograph of Che Guevera above the words, “I have no idea who this is.” Another t-shirt morphs the image of Che with that of Cornelius, the glamorous, (r)evolutionary chimp from the original “Planet of the Apes.” Still another enacts a similar detournage by insinuating Cher into the ubiquitous Che silhouette (“Cher Guevera”), while Madonna alludes to the same image on the cover of her American Life album. If Cher and Madonna have already been there, you know that an appropriated image has not only been commoditized, but also long since depleted and emptied of any real significance. Against that pop culture background I figured that it was safe for me, an underground filmmaker, to move in and deconstruct the road kill that is now Che Guevera.
Wrong.The morning after a packed screening of The Raspberry Reich, my latest feature film, at the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art in Toronto in late February 2005, I awake to a phone call from my producer in Berlin. Bruce, we have a problem. I can tell by his tone that it’s big. He informs me that we’re being sued for seven hundred thousand Euros (approximately one million Canadian) – roughly ten times the budget of the movie – by the estate of Korda, the personal photographer of Fidel Castro and author of the indelible image of Che Guevera, arguably the most famous photograph in the world. I have a vision of a white dove flying out the window, clutching in its claws my meager future profits from the movie. But even curiouser, I feel an odd sense of validation: suddenly my modest, anti-capitalist movie has been hit with a major international lawsuit. The fact that communists are launching it is an irony I’ll have to sort through later. But what exactly is it, this product of mine that has so incensed the minders of the Holy Grail of Che?
Flashback to the autumn of 2002, when I traveled to Berlin to shoot a porn movie about terrorism, a genre cross over that seemed to me at the time not only inevitable, but necessary. Nothing fancy, just a low budget art film made under the auspices of my usual producer, Jurgen Bruning, and his sassy porn company, Wurst Film. And when I say low budget, I don’t mean a million dollars. I mean a hundred thousand. Canadian. (At that time, roughly eighty thousand US dollars.)
The script I wrote focuses on a group of inept, would-be terrorists led by a charismatic, overly idealistic young revolutionary wannabe named Gudrun who patterns herself after Gudrun Ensslin of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the infamous RAF, who blew up US military installations, robbed banks, and kidnapped industrialists in Germany in the early seventies as a protest against corporate malfeasance, American imperialism, and western capitalist hegemony – you know, the same shibboleths that exist today. The movie is what I’ve termed agit-porn, a heady mixture of Marxist revolutionary sloganeering (conveyed via continuously flashing and rolling intertitles), quasi-Warholian camp posturing, and good old-fashioned pornography. The idea was to re-introduce into the public discourse, after the post 9/11 moratorium on liberal sensibilities, the kind of solid, leftist rhetoric that popped up in the manifestos of all the most prominent terrorist groups of the seventies (the RAF, the Weathermen, the SLA). But the film was also intended as a critique of radical chic, the modern tendency of art, fashion, and pop culture to expropriate images of revolution and insurrection in order to advance the sale of otherwise decidedly unrevolutionary products.
In The Raspberry Reich, Gudrun believes that heterosexual monogamy is a bourgeois construct that must be smashed in order to achieve true revolution. To that end, she forces her young, largely straight male acolytes to have sex with each other in order to prove their revolutionary commitment – a convenient pretext for a variety of sexual encounters between hot young men, a porn prerequisite. Like the aforementioned seventies terrorist groups, Gudrun believes that any social or cultural upheaval must be predicated on sexual revolution. Gudrun Ensslin famously appeared in a porn movie before she formed the RAF, and the Weathermen were known to engage in sexual orgies in the van on their way to blowing up buildings. For me, the ideas of revolution and porn were a perfect fit.
During production I had the scathingly brilliant idea of blowing up photographs of famous revolutionaries and terrorists to act as a backdrop for the various sexual escapades of the characters. And so it was that I came to film one of Gudrun’s followers, a character that calls himself Che, jerking off in front of a giant blow-up of Che Guevera. When my production designer, Stephan, approached me to ask which specific image I wanted to use, I casually leafed through a book and pointed to the most famous photograph, the one that has been fetishized on a James Dean scale. Since it’s omnipresent, appearing on a host of commercial products – t-shirts, mouse pads, lighters – I figured it must be in the public domain. And even if it wasn’t, there must be fair usage laws allowing it to be used for artistic or satirical purposes.
Montage forward. The Raspberry Reich debuts at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals in early 2004 before going on to play at over 150 film festivals worldwide, a surprising run considering the anal penetration involved. (footnote #1) The movie is released in New York (“Puts the man back in manifesto,” declares the New York Times), and I travel with it to such far-flung locales as Zagreb, Melbourne, and Hong Kong. When it’s finally released on DVD, the European cover shows the character who plays Che standing with a gun in front of a blow-up of the famous Che image, his pants around his ankles.
Dissolve to the night of my sold-out screening back home in Toronto. My friends and I have a long discussion beforehand out of the blue about copyright. In the Q and A, I’m asked why I chose to use the image of Che in a sexual context; I reply that everyone else is in the world seems to be jerking off on it, so I just decided to represent it literally. The issues of Che and copyright are in the air. The next day I get the dreaded phone call. We’ve been Che’d.
In his lifetime Korda, who died in 2001, only pursued copyright once, suing Smirnoff, a vodka company. He donated the fifty thousand dollars he was awarded in a settlement to the Cuban healthcare system. On the subject of copyright, Korda once said, “As a supporter of the ideals for which Che Guevera died, I am not averse to its reproduction by those who wish to propagate his memory and the cause of social justice throughout the world, but I am categorically against the exploitation of Che’s image for the promotion of products such as alcohol, or for any purpose that denigrates the reputation of Che.” Apparently his daughter, a Cuban ballet instructor, and the French businessman who now control the copyright don’t appreciate my ‘revolutionary’ interpretation of Che. (Footnote #2)
It’s in Argentina, Che’s birthplace, a couple of weeks later at the Mar del Plata International Film Festival, where the movie is enormously popular, that the layers of irony begin to sink in. I, a low-budget, quasi-impoverished filmmaker, am being accused by litigious communists of the capitalist exploitation of an image that has already become, itself, a symbol of inappropriate capitalist excess. I, a lowly pornographer, have made a movie that critiques modern culture for violating the original spirit of the Che photograph, and yet it’s me who is being punished for daring to use it in a (homo)sexual, pornographic context, a hyperbolic extension of its already fashionable, sexual exploitation.
Back in Toronto I meet a wonderful Cuban man (with whom I have now been in a relationship for eight months) who happens to be a Santeria priest (Rule of Ocha). I feel helpless as the case drags on in France – for some reason my lawyers don’t think my presence in court will help – so I instigate a Santeria ritual performed by my new Cuban Canadian connections to see if their saints can help me, the same saints who Cuban communists both dismiss and, somehow, fear. Chickens are sacrificed and I am cleansed, while in France my lawyers work some magic of their own, managing to prevent the court from actually viewing the movie, whose pornographic content probably would not be viewed as having the same revolutionary spirit with which it was intended. Someone’s magic works, for the damages are reduced to 5000 Euros, although we’re still expected to remove the image of Che from the movie. (Footnote #3)
But for me, the real lesson gained from the ordeal is embedded in the final irony of the capitalist exploitation of a communist icon. In its capitalist incarnation, the image, ironically, becomes heroic, unassailable: the essence of idealism and socialist revolution. What gets lost is the real Che Guevera behind the photograph.
My boyfriend introduces me to a friend he knew back in Cuba before they both escaped with their lives, a film-maker who was kicked out of the Communist party for having effeminate mannerisms and whose homosexual-themed films were confiscated; a man whose first boyfriend was sent to a forced labour camp for being openly gay. (Hamas, anyone?) His best friend was also jailed for fifteen years for making a film in which he masturbates while watching Castro on television, a scene eerily reminiscent of the one in my movie. This Cuban sees no romance in the image of Che, whom he refers to as “a homophobic Argentinean motherfucker who came to my country and made people suffer.” He tells me this story: Che once walked into the Cuban embassy in Nigeria and, seeing the books of Virgilio Pinera, the most important Cuban playwright of the 20th century, swept them to the floor, asking, “What are the books of that maracone [faggot] doing here?” He tells me of Che’s complicity with Castro in promoting the idea of “The New Man”, his proto-fascist version of the Ubermensch, which had little sympathy for sissies, and of having to recite every morning at school the phrase, “Pioneers for communism/We will be like Che.” When this Cuban sees gay men blithely dancing in druggy clubs in their tight Che Guevera t-shirts, it makes his blood boil. Sometimes he tells them that if they were caught behaving the same way in Cuba they would be in jail, and he reminds me that if I had made The Raspberry Reich in Cuba, I would be locked up too. That’s what makes the peculiar pop culture deification of Che so hard to swallow, as do Hollywoodized hagiographies like The Motorcycle Diaries – capitalistic products that market Che as some sort of socialist saint. He ain’t.
So please, before putting on your Che t-shirt, take a minute to look him up on the Internet. The sexy symbol on your chest may be just as much oppressor as oppressed. And remember, intellectual property is theft!
- In Berlin I had occasion to meet the son and brother of Gudrun Ensslin, which made my more heretofore abstract and satirical take on the RAF become suddenly, palpably, real. Both men supported my take on the sensitive issue of the RAF, a still painful chapter in recent German history. More recently, I appeared with Gottfried Ensslin, Gudrun’s homosexual brother, at an event in which Susanne Sachsse, the actress who plays Gudrun in my movie, read from letters that Gudrun sent to him while she was incarcerated in Stammheim prison in which she encourages him to pursue homosexual revolution. The left paper Siegessaule praised the event, calling The Raspberry Reich “one of the best commentaries on the subject of the RAF.”
- As the lawsuit was launched in France (although a local sheriff delivered the forty page summons to my door in Toronto), and as France has the strictest copyright laws in the world, I sent out my feelers for a top-notch French lawyer to represent us. My friends at Tetu magazine recommended Emmanuel Pierrat, one of the best copyright lawyers in France who also happens to be gay and a fan of my films. He told me that there has never been a pro bono case in the history of the French bar, but that he would do his best.
- We also had to pay the court costs, so the whole debacle ended up costing us more in the 25-30 thousand Euro range. The film is still widely available as a bootleg.