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Tribeca ’08: Trisha Ziff on “Chevolution”

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04252008_chevolution1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

[For complete coverage of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, check out IFC’s Tribeca page.]

Che Guevara probably never envisioned his image on a crystal-encrusted T-shirt as he traversed the Cuban countryside with thoughts of political upheaval. But there’s the rub of featuring front and center in the most reproduced photograph of the 20th century.

“Che died, but thousands of Ches were born,” remarks Diana Diaz during “Chevolution,” a documentary making its world premiere in the Encounters section of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Diaz is the daughter of Alberto “Korda” Diaz, a Cuban photographer who took the iconic shot of the revolutionary that originally went unused by the newspaper it was commissioned for and existed only as a print on Korda’s wall. It wasn’t until after Guevara’s death in 1968 that the image called “Guerrillero Heroico” found its way into his memorial service and became the inspiration for protests and pop art the world over. For the past three years, Trisha Ziff has been collecting Che items from around the globe and putting them into a wildly popular exhibition that’s still touring. With the help of “Election” producer Ron Yerxa and co-director Luis Lopez, Ziff decided to turn the exhibit into a film, which serves as a fascinating history of a single snapshot that became the legacy of two men — Guevara and Korda.

How did “Chevolution” come about?

I knew Alberto Korda here in Mexico — when he died, all the obituaries only mentioned this image. They only talked about “Guerillo Heroico.” I thought how strange for somebody to live such a huge and full life as an artist and be remembered for a single image, and what that must do to a person. I had the idea to put together an exhibition with the idea that I would assemble as many different versions of that image that artists have done, that have been done in the history of posters, that are quoted in other photographs and objects, and do an exhibition that was just about the narrative of a single image. It was a real challenge to me — you get your audience into a museum and they’re essentially walking around looking at different versions of the same image again and again in different contexts. Can you sustain somebody’s interest in that for a long period of time as a storyteller? My personal fear was “Oh my God, am I just making a slideshow that’s 90 minutes long?” You can tell it’s a film made by a curator. [laughs]

I found things that just blew my mind and I had to find a way to put them in, and [co-director] Luis Lopez was able to transform that through his graphics. The scholarship and the narrative and the imagery comes from me and I think the pace, the energy, the modernity of it as a documentary comes from him.

04252008_chevolution2.jpg How much of the story did you know beforehand and how much of this was a treasure hunt?

Because I’ve written a book on the subject and done an exhibition, the foundations were there, and because I’m a curator of photography, I have a history of working with photographers, especially in Latin America. I’ve worked with a website called Zone Zero in Mexico, the most visited website of photography in the world, so I put a small ad on Zone Zero for people who’d taken [photographs involving] the Che image. We got pictures back from all over the world. It wasn’t a treasure hunt — t was waiting for the treasure to come in. Finding Tom Morello was a treasure hunt. (laughs) That was hard.

Harder than Gerry Adams [who also appears in the film, along with Gael Garcia Bernal and Antonio Banderas]?

[Adams] is very cultured and that comes from the mural tradition in the north of Ireland. What we wanted to film and didn’t, for a good reason in the end, was on the 40th anniversary of the death of Che, they painted a mural in Derry in the west coast of Ireland. We were all set to go and film this community painting the mural, then they chose to do it with a different image, not the Korda image, so that went out the window. But Gerry knew Jim Fitzpatrick [one of the artists most responsible for proliferating Korda’s Che image]. I thought that was amazing, but he’s a very rounded, well-read, curious person, so it’s not surprising. Few politicians talk, obviously, about art. The crossover’s not there. I wish more did.

How receptive was the Diaz (Korda) family to a film?

Diana Diaz and the estate are represented in Los Angeles by a gallerist called Daryl Couturier, who represents a lot of Cuban artists and he’s very trusted in Cuba and I think a combination of Daryl being there through this film as the voice of the family because they obviously couldn’t have come to the States and left Cuba now because of the embargo.

There’s a history of trust because Diana Diaz knew me, she knew my work on other exhibitions and I live in Mexico. We’ve had consistent dialogue over five or six years. That’s not to say she’s liked everything that I’ve done. She is, which I value immensely, very respectful of a vision that isn’t necessarily her own of her father’s image, and I put images into the show that she really doesn’t like. It’s hard for her to see [something] that she feels disrespects the history of that image, either taken to a place of humor or maybe used in a sexual way. She is appalled by those things and it’s a stretch for her to feel comfortable allowing me to do my work, so it’s a complex relationship but it’s based on a lot of discussion and.

04252008_chevolution3.jpgIt may be purely coincidental, but the timing of this precludes Steven Soderbergh’s Che biopics — is there something about right now that lends itself for reflection about Che?

I think it’s totally relevant. It’s a Che wave, no? I think it comes back to another question, which is why do we need heroes? What is it that’s so appealing that we’re seduced into hearing the story again and again in all these different versions, or to wear it as a t-shirt, or to have a poster on our wall? There’s something very seductive about him, or the fiction of him, and I think it’s because we live in a time where people are lost, where there is no leadership, where life isn’t about making choices because you believe in them.

I think we live in a diminished moment, from that point of view, where there isn’t the idealism that existed in the ’60s — people really had this notion that they could make changes. We’ve lost something, so whether it’s that we revisit him in a real way or it’s this sentimentality of revisiting something that gave people hope at a certain time, I think there’s a seduction. We need leadership. Within that image is this desire, this hope, and it doesn’t go away.

Finally, out of all the Che items you’ve accumulated, which is your favorite?

I have Che matryoshka dolls from Russia and I love them because they’re different iconic photographs of Che — there’s obviously the Korda Che, but then there’s the René Burri Che — he took the very famous one of Che smiling with a cigar. Then inside that, there’s a Che, a Christo — Che as Christ. And then you go right to the little tiny matryoshka doll in the center and it’s just a candle. It’s just an image of light, an image of hope. So I love those. I bought them on eBay. I think, as a curator, eBay is brilliant because you can search and get extraordinary artifacts. I have a fantastic packet of cigarettes from Barcelona where the Che image on the package is so distorted, such a bad version that’s it’s brilliant. It’s hilarious. And people bring me stuff all the time. I mean, I’m kind of Che’d out.

[Photos: “Chevolution,” Red Envelope Entertainment, 2008]

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