Castro, as seen by an adoring American

Special to The Times

Love him, hate him, one has to admire Fidel Castro's stamina. As we are reminded in Estela Bravo's documentary, "Fidel," this is a man who has lasted through nine American presidents.

Viewers will not see a balanced portrayal of Castro, who took over the island country of Cuba in 1959, but they will get a sense of what makes the man behind the trademark cigar and beard tick. Though excoriated by the New York Times, other publications have found reasons to praise it; a Toronto Sun critic wrote that it is "full of details about the man and the country and is well worth seeing" and the Miami Herald called it "infuriating but fascinating."

"Fidel" has done good business in New York and eight other cities, and played to sold-out houses at the Toronto Film Festival. It opens Friday at Laemmle's Fairfax Theatre and the Playhouse in Pasadena.

The documentary, a combined U.S.-British-Canadian production, finally aired Jan. 2 on state-owned Channel 6 in Cuba and drew so many calls that it had to be repeated two days later.

"I was hurt by some of the reviews, especially because they reviewed it from a political point of view and not a cultural one," says Bravo, on a recent visit here. "On the other hand, I got so many personal letters, like one from Harold Pinter, praising the film. My feeling is you get enough of the negatives about him in this country, you don't need that from me. I've always seen this as sort of the untold story, the answer to 'who is this man?' I had to be true to what I see in him."

There are none of the famously time-defying speeches. Instead, Castro's charisma and persuasiveness are seen in intimate interactions with others, from Nelson Mandela in Africa to "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace in New York. There is a humorously antiquated interview with Edward R. Murrow on "Person to Person," and anecdotal testimonials from a mixed bag of celebrities, including Harry Belafonte, Alice Walker (who compares him to a "big redwood"), Ted Turner, director Sydney Pollack and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Garcia Marquez calls Castro the best editor he ever had and advises never fishing with him because of his competitiveness.)

Castro did not grant Bravo a one-on-one interview. (At one gathering, she is heard asking him, "How many times have they tried to kill you?" "I'll know when I get to heaven," he replies.) But the filmmaker was given access to 4,000 state archival materials, in recognition of her 30 liberal-leaning and award-winning documentaries, and to her background, which includes a love story itself worthy of a movie.

Born in New York to a pair of union organizers, Bravo, 69, was at Brooklyn College when she attended a meeting of Students for a Peaceful World in Poland in 1953. There she met Ernesto Bravo, a medical student and anti-Peron activist from Argentina. A year later, she went to visit him in his home country, where he was in hiding after having been tortured and tried under Peron on charges of organizing anti-government student activities. "We agreed then and there we were going to be married," she says, though she did return to the U.S.

It eventually took a monthlong journey on a cargo boat from New York to reach him, but the two wed in 1956. While she raised three children, he became a professor of biochemistry.

"One day he told me he'd been invited to Cuba to teach in medical school and I thought 'great, it's closer to the States,' " Bravo says. "Little did I know that the move would be closer only geographically." (The partial U.S. embargo that began in the Eisenhower administration became total under President Kennedy in 1962, the year Bravo moved to Havana.)

Today, Ernesto Bravo is a consulting professor of bioethics at the University of Havana and his wife travels easily between the U.S. and her home in Cuba. Only once did the Bravos consider leaving Cuba -- when the Soviet Union pulled out in the early '90s, igniting what became known as the "special period."

"Suddenly, there were no lights, no air conditioning, no gasoline," Estela Bravo says. "Ernesto and I asked ourselves, should we leave? Many of our friends did. But we decided we had roots there that were too important and slowly things did improve. People don't talk enough about how the Cubans banded together then and the sacrifices they had to make."

She was self-taught as a filmmaker. Although her name is celebrated in other parts of the world, her home country hardly knows her. "But you know, if I had stayed and lived in New York, I probably would have gone to film school and ended up making films in a formulaic style like so many others," she says. "I think by doing it out of Cuba and my way, they have more passion and are rawer.

Her films have mostly chronicled life in Latin American countries. "I like stories that are about people caught up in political conflicts," she says.

Some of her admired ones -- shown often on the BBC -- include "Missing Children of Argentina," "Holy Father and Gloria" and "The Cuban Excludables." "Miami=Havana" was shown on PBS. A retrospective of her work was recently presented by London's National Film Theater.

She is now completing "Operation Peter Pan," following some of the 14,000 Cubans who fled or were sent to Miami when the revolution broke out and Castro came to power.

That he remains there 44 years later is cause for constant fascination, which is why Bravo's film is creating interest, its frankly favorable tone (though Jesse Helms does get his licks in) and decidedly unglossy style beside the point. Bravo herself is constantly asked about her adopted country's future.

"There is a group of young leaders who are now very visible, who will run the government when Fidel is no longer around," she says. "But I don't think anyone will ever really replace him."

Remain he does and so Bravo's documentary is a work in progress of sorts. "I have added new material to keep it timely," she explains. "In the last year, I was there with a crew when Castro celebrated his birthday with the Buena Vista Social Club, and I was the only one who got an interview early on with Elian Gonzalez's father so I could include that as well."

With Castro's record for longevity, this film may keep on changing.

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