Last April, HBO planned to broadcast Comandante, a sympathetic documentary of Fidel Castro made by Oliver Stone. Around the same time, Castro rounded up some 75 dissidents and threw them in jail, and three men charged with hijacking were executed by the Cuban government following summary trials. The film, criticized by the press for its soft approach to Castro, was yanked by HBO and never aired on the network. Instead, HBO sent Stone back down to Havana for a second take. The result, Looking for Fidel, airs tonight, April 14, at 8 p.m. ET on HBO. Looking for Fidel takes a harder line toward Castro than Comandante did, yet even Stone concedes that it is primarily a platform for Castro to explain the thinking and motives behind his crackdown on dissidents the last two years.
Last week, Ann Louise Bardach questioned Oliver Stone about both films, and about the 60 hours he spent with Fidel Castro, Cuba's ruler since 1959.
ALB: Do you know that the Cubans are refusing visas to virtually all reporters and not allowing them back in the country?
OS: You know, the advantage I have is to be a filmmaker. [Castro] seemed to love my movies. Apparently he liked my presence, and he trusted that I wouldn't edit him in a way that would be negative from the outset. But I did tell him, the second trip, that I would try to be tougher, not disrespectfully so. As you see, several times [in the film] he does get upset.
ALB: I gather you rejected the idea of demonizing him.
OS: Of course. My role here was not as a journalist. It really was as a director and filmmaker. In my job, I challenge actors. I provoke them.
ALB: Let me ask you about the part [in the film] where Castro's in front of eight prisoners charged with attempting to hijack a plane [to Miami]. He says to them, "I want you all to speak frankly and freely." What do you make of that whole scene, where you have these prisoners who happened to be wearing perfectly starched, nice blue shirts?
OS: Let me give you the background. He obviously set it up overnight. It was in that spirit that he said, "Ask whatever you want. I'm sitting here. I want to hear it too. I want to hear what they're thinking." He let me run the tribunal, so to speak.
ALB: But Cuba's leader for life is sitting in front of these guys who are facing life in prison, and you're asking them, "Are you well treated in prison?" Did you think they could honestly answer that question?
OS: If they were being horribly mistreated, then I don't know that they could be worse mistreated [afterward].