Bay of Pigs
Event into concept

by John Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 4, 1974, pp. 7-8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

Manuel Herrera’s GIRON (Cuba, 1973, distributed in the U.S. by Tricontinental as BAY OF PIGS) is a documentary about the Cuban victory over C.I.A. trained and equipped Cuban exile mercenaries at Playa Giron in mid-April, 1961. This 72 hour war, which ended on the beach of Playa Giron, failed to shatter the Cuban Revolution. Between the premature raids, carried out on April 15 by U.S. B-26 bombers, and the actual landing of troops two days later, Fidel Castro declared that the Cuban Revolution was the first socialist revolution in the Western hemisphere. The Cuban people rallied behind Castro and the Cuban military easily defeated the ragtag band of mercenaries, many of whom had owned a great deal of property in prerevolutionary Cuba.

But GIRON is not a conventional documentary. At times it seems we are watching AIR FORCE or one of those Korean War flics. A handsome young man clambers up the ladder of a fighter plane, he adjusts his helmet and harness, the cockpit cover slides to, the crew pulls the blocks from the wheels, and the sleek jet fires down the runway into the early morning sky. Although GIRON is called a documentary, it is a fascinating, provocative attempt to mesh documentary footage with historical reenactments shot and edited in the style of the Hollywood war film.

The documents are actual footage shot by combat cameramen plus what is apparently some other war footage, still photographs, maps, narration, radio speeches, and interviews. The reenactments, on the other hand, use handheld subjective camera shots, multiple perspective, quick editing (sometimes approaching Eisenteinian montage), emotion-laden music, typical war film soundtrack. But even more than the techniques, the structure and content of these reenactments resemble those of the fictional war film. Isolated units engage in fire fights. Fighter pilots exchange frantic radio messages. Reaction shots are inserted into continuous action And individual heroes’ activities are highlighted (“Here’s where I was when it started, here’s what I did” ).

Unlike Costa-Gavras, Pontecorvo, Rossi, Petrie, and the new German and French historical reenactments, Manuel Herrera and his collaborators do not obscure the difference between truth and fiction, between documentary and reenactment, between then and now. Instead, they heighten it through alienation techniques like those developed by Brecht and Godard. And these intrusions supply some of the best moments in the film. A small unit is pinned down by a mercenary machine-gun emplacement. The scene is a reenactment narrated by an actual veteran of the battle telling his own story. This soldier grabs a grenade from a comrade and crawls down a drainage ditch alongside the road that separates the two groups. In the voice over, he talks about his fear and about how he never used a grenade before. Once in position, he puts the grenade pin in his mouth and pulls. Nothing happens. He explains how he had seen that in movies, but that it doesn't work. He would have pulled all his teeth out. Finally, he primes the grenade and wipes out the mercenaries’ strong point.

A young woman has volunteered to take a message back to headquarters from a group that has been cut off by the enemy. It is night. She and a male companion think they are surrounded by the mercenaries. She explains in voice over how she tries to eat the letter because she had seen them do that in the movies, but the letter is a long one. These digs at Hollywood films are double edged. First, they serve to distance us from the reenactments, to show us that they are staged fictions. Second, they are sly digs at the United States, whose trained mercenaries are the villains of the piece. By showing that many of the conventions of the Hollywood war film are fallacious, GIRON intends to shake its audience’s confidence in these films’ whole ideological base. It’s like saying that John Wayne’s ability to pull out a grenade pin in a Hollywood movie has no bearing on real life, in which the Cuban army can easily defeat U.S. sponsored troops. GIRON celebrates Cuba’s hard-won independence from U.S. imperialism at the same time that it declares its own freedom from Hollywood’s cinematic hegemony. These two scenes and their multifaceted implications show how complex and freshly experimental this film is.

But the film also testifies to the grave dangers involved in borrowing fictional film techniques from Hollywood films. It strengthens the claim of Godard, Gorin, the Cahiers du cinéma group, and others that form has no neutral existence. In their view, all aspects of film form—types of shots. modes of editing, particular camera movements—imply a certain world view. Since most film techniques were developed by bourgeois film makers, these techniques express, according to this view, bourgeois values. While there is much about this extreme opinion that I find unacceptable, the presence of these “bourgeois” forms does undercut the film’s revolutionary content.

Bourgeois film makers from Griffith to Hitchcock and Truffaut developed these techniques (for example, invisible editing, subjective camera movements, constructing scenes from footage shot from different perspectives) the better to manipulate audiences emotionally by involving viewers in the action, by drawing them into the film world. The result is to deny the audience any access to a rational analysis of their situation inside and certainly outside the theater. In an interview in Cine Cubano (Nos. 86-88), Manuel Herrera spoke directly about this problem and about his own intentions:

“For a long time, capitalist cinema taught us to look at films, but only that: to look. It never taught us to think. The narrative structures were organized in such a way as to prevent the spectator from thinking, to prevent any possible reflection. It is up to us, as Lenin said, to assimilate and to transform everything of value the culture has developed.”

But in GIRON, the alienation techniques are not strong enough. The “fictional” segments of GIRON sweep the audience up and force it to accept without question a glorification of war, of tanks, guns, and planes, of male prowess in war, of the “that’s-the-way-it-has-to-be”   attitude toward death in combat, by presenting war and its equipment in a visually exciting way.

Admittedly, anyone who thinks very carefully about it, who compares Cuba under the Mafia, Uncle Sam, and Batista with present day Cuba, must rejoice in the Cuban victory at Playa Giron. But, does that mean that we must accept John Wayne’s mentality, that we must buy into the glorification of arms simply because they serve a revolutionary end? This is not an easy question. In thinking about it, I am reminded of the East German poet Wolf Bierman’s scathing lines about the superficial change from one position to another without an accompanying change in heart.

“With the hard broom of Stalin we
So rubbed our bodies down the back
The backside now is scratched all red
That formerly was brown.
(“Germany: A Winter’s Tale; Part One” )

John Wayne’s response to the world is no more acceptable in a Cuban film than it is in an U.S. film. This is not to put forward a pacifist line; the C.I.A.-trained, gusano mercenaries had to be defeated. But that is no justification for reveling in their suffering and death. (For example, the film has scenes in which the defeated, fleeing mercenaries viciously fight and club each other over the few remaining rubber rafts which could take them to safety.)

In GIRON there is a disjuncture between showing the artifice of the narration (the reenactments stand out very clearly as reenactments), yet encouraging the audience to get caught up in the heroics of a selected number of representative combatants. The film lacks an analysis of the forces behind mobilization both in Cuba and in the United States. Once the emotional rather than the analytical method of filmmaking is accepted, the eye becomes more important than the brain. Thus, the visually interesting exploits of a few fighter pilots are emphasized. The mobilization of factory workers, the supplying of the defense forces, the participation of women and black Cubans are ignored. We are told that, contrary to U.S. expectations, the Cuban people rallied around their government, but nowhere in the film is this statement demonstrated. We see one still photograph of crowds listening to a speech by Fidel Castro on the eve of the war. Other than that we see only that the regular military (most of the men interviewed were veterans of the guerrilla war against Batista) and the militia carried out their assigned tasks. The film leaves the civilian population’s participation unexamined. One funny sequence which details the comic reactions of an aged peasant to the war strengthens the feeling that the civilian population did not participate in or understand the war. Except for a few eye witnesses, no civilians were interviewed.

Not only does the film, by default, present an elitist view of participation in turning back the invasion, by default it also presents a racist and sexist one. Although Cuba has a large black population, the only non-white (a mulatto) specifically mentioned in the film tried to run away after he was wounded. An old man physically restrained him and persuaded him that it was more dangerous to run than to stay. Another time, two female witnesses were interviewed extensively. The one female participant, a lovely woman with long flowing black hair, was in the film for poetic visual effect—her letter carrying mission was peripheral in the context of the film and was dropped before it was completed. In sum, the film presents the conventional idea that males do things while women watch.

Because of its emotional impact, the film’s Hollywood aspect dominates the “documentary” part of the film. GIRON ends up glorifying the same thing the Hollywood war film glorifies, the military establishment. It isolates a military moment from history and from the social, political, and economic totality of Cuba in 1961. In spite of these severe criticisms, GIRON is nonetheless an interesting, informative film. It should precipitate valuable discussion of the implications of film form. Cuban directors of fictional films—Gutierrez Alea, Solás, Herrera—and the great documentarist Santiago Alvarez are making valuable contributions to political filmmaking. For those interested in the aesthetic problems of political film, Cuban films are exciting events. But just because Cuba is a socialist country, we should not be mistaken about the extent to which they have solved these aesthetic problems. Seeing GIRON did not prove to me that Hollywood styles and techniques can be assimilated and transformed by socialist filmmakers. This does not mean that they cannot, but proof is still needed.