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Waiting for Fidel is the film in which Australian-born National Film Board of Canada director Michael Rubbo consolidated his inimitable style of personal filmmaking. The film meshes three elements tentatively present in his earlier documentary, Sad Song of Yellow Skin (1970), and that here, in full-bodied combination, make Rubbo’s style distinctive to him. These elements are his participation in the on-screen action, his generosity toward his subjects, and a recognition of the superficiality and unreliability of documentary truth. The film begins with three men in an airplane

on its way to Cuba to film a promised interview with Fidel Castro. Geoff Stirling, a hip, capitalist media mogul, is making the film in co-production with the National Film Board. Rubbo is the director. Joining them is the former Prime Minister of Newfoundland and the man who brought the province into confederation with Canada, the socialist Joey Smallwood. Different as their personalities are, at a certain level of generality the three share the hope that the interview with Cas-

tro will promote understanding between Cuba and the capitalist West. As hinted in the film’s title, the interview never

happens. The film team bides its time in comparative luxury, waiting and hoping for the phone call summoning them to Castro. The focus of the film becomes the interaction among the three characters and their responses to Cuba. It is through this interplay among characters and between them and Cuba that the film rewards the audience with entertainment and insight. The most famous scene in the film occurs late,

when the three men have become frustrated at the stonewalling their quest for a promised interview has met. Rubbo has been filming their dinners, their recreations, and their controlled visits that their Cuban liaison man set up for them at such sites as a housing project, two schools, a chicken farm, and the Bay of Pigs. Stirling, who has put up the outside money for the project, gets into a heated argument with Rubbo over his shooting ratio. Rubbo has been filming at roughly a 25:1 clip. Stirling insists that a 3:1 clip would be more

than sufficient. He berates Rubbo for his profligacy and calls him incompetent. Rubbo defends his way, and the Film Board’s way, of making documentaries. During their argument, they curse a lot, their cuss words bleeped out on the sound track. It is funny and revealing, but its charm also lies in Rubbo’s involvement as an actor, not just an observer, and his willingness to allow his own foolishness to remain on screen. Few directors who appear in their films are as willing to be as harsh on themselves as they are on others. Rubbo’s generosity toward his characters is

remarkable. Stirling could have been made to look merely ridiculous and unsavory. He seems incapable of acknowledging anything positive in the Cuban system, railing against fact that schoolchildren have to spend part of their day working in a factory and complaining that a broadcaster like him would not be allowed on the air in Cuba. Smallwood, who is in his seventies, could have been portrayed as tiresome and dotty, but he comes off as admirable in his lowkey but stubborn determination to think the best of Cuba and to do his best to ensure that the film contributes positively to international understanding. Interspersed throughout the film are brief scenes of Smallwood preparing his questions for Castro. The film’s Cuban liaison comes off as a likeable, unofficious human being, somewhat bemused by the antics of his Canadian charges. And Rubbo’s willingness to see himself as one of the characters, with foibles and blind spots of his own, saves the film from the kind of condescension or sanctimony that so often detracts from films featuring the filmmaker as the documentary protagonist. Ostensibly the film may appear to offer a

vision of Cuba in lieu of the hoped-for scoop with Castro. In the state-sponsored location scenes, we get some interesting, off-the-cuff interaction with Cubans speaking without script. A pair of university students set the visitors straight on finer points of Marxism. An inmate of a mental hospital suggests that Rubbo, not her, may be the crazy one. A lyrically shot scene of a pick-up baseball game seems to capture a certain innocence in the Cuban personality. But these encounters are superficial, and Rubbo knows it. What matters is not what they reveal about Cuba, because they reveal very little. Far more interesting is what they reveal about Stirling, Smallwood, and Rubbo. They interpret the encounters so that they fit in with their existing ideological concerns. For Stirling, nothing he sees

is good; only a restoration of capitalism can save Cuba. Smallwood is impressed by the progress Cuba has made and thinks it is headed in the right direction. Rubbo is ambivalent, wanting to be impressed. What the film finally demonstrates has little to do with Cuba and everything to do with how our mindsets shape the way we perceive and interpret new experiences. It is now quite common for documentary film-

makers to assume an on-screen role of provocateur. What remains rare, however, is the willingness to keep one’s on-screen role roughly equal in dramatic force to other characters. And Rubbo’s awareness of the limitations of documentary, while widely shared, is rarely expressed in such a natural way, organic to the story, but instead is typically announced or stated in a way external to the narrative.