Martin Marquet tells how he was moved by an observation made by a critic after the world-premiere of Hubert Sauper’s Epicentro in Sundance. He makes films like a jazzman, the critic noted, “the kind of freeform documentary style that we just don’t see so much anymore.”
Produced with his father Daniel Marquet, and with sales handled by Wild Bunch, Epicentro is a complex, multi-layered, deliciously photographed, ingeniously constructed essay on Cuba both past and present, and told much of the time, though not exclusively, from the perspective of a small group of Havana kids.
These are children who know their history, one in which the US has been an oppressive coloniser since the sinking of the USS Maine in the capital’s harbour in 1898. This history is presented in tandem with the history of cinema itself, and the camera, we are told, is a symbol of that same US colonialism.
They are also kids who roam the streets, perform, dance, argue, pose for tourist snaps and ultimately get the chance to pull off a highly satisfying stunt (both for them and the audience) in one of Cuba’s notorious casino hotels.
“I just find documentary film from the perspective of young people so powerful because you have to listen, and you cannot deny that the kid is saying something that ultimately they’ve experienced from within and that is not as polluted as we, as adults, see the world,” stresses producer Marquet.
“We over-analyse it and express anger and frustration and ego. Kids for me have a fascinating and very effective way of seeing what we need to focus on. So they naturally grew to become the lead characters in the film.”
Marquet got to know Sauper when he was handling publicity on the director’s We Come As Friends, which examines how colonialism, war and business have contributed to the exploitation of South Sudan.
“I absolutely loved his films [he also cites the director’s Oscar nominated Darwin’s Nightmare, 2004, about the terrifying effects of fishing the Nile perch in Tanzania’s Lake Victoria] because for me they allow for an experience of a context, whether it’s social, political or economical,” he says, underlining Sauper’s particularly cinematic approach to his material. “It’s less factual knowledge thrown in your face and it’s more about experiencing the reality of a context.”
“Even though this is not on the African continent, it really works as part of a trilogy, complementing his two previous films,” Marquet adds, commenting how, “Epicentro is very much about fake news but set within an earlier geo-political context, looking at how America’s communication strategy and use of cinema as propaganda [purported] to be saving the world, when all we were doing was colonizing it.”
Sauper is a continual presence within his documentaries, whose distinctive Austrian-accented voice can be heard both in commentary and en passant. Neither does the director have any particular qualms about placing himself in front of camera. He is also the possessor, and expresser, of strong opinions. Was he therefore difficult to produce?
“I can only speak for myself – I would say personally that Hubert presents many challenges, but those challenges have a reason to be, because documentaries are not easy to make and he has a process that requires himself as an artist to be free and independent. There’s no art that can be made if [the artist] follows conventions too much. Rule breakers are the ones that make history with art,” Marquet comments.
“I’ll add one thing – the great thing about Hubert is that he’s incredibly collaborative in his willingness to learn from others, to hear ideas. He reads a lot of books before he even starts something. He’s deeply interested in making sure that everything he represents on camera has symbolical, factual and historical currency.”
Marquet underlines a need for diversity and pluralism not only as regards filmmaking personnel and a wide range of viewing outlets, but just as crucially in what we get to see on the screen in terms of rich, intelligent and, importantly, cinematic non-fiction content.
“I come back from Sundance excited and also worried. I realise that I spent 15 years working as an international film publicist. My job was to translate in words and momentum the importance and the artistry and the meaning of these films that are told from a point of view that is very personal but that doesn’t necessarily translate into mainstream distribution.
“But at the same time these are films that have gone to enough festivals to prove that we cannot underestimate the cultural capabilities of international audiences. Yet today we’re in a world of streaming platforms, with a few powerful decision makers at the top deciding what the world gets to see and experience.
“I find that the ‘dotcom’, as with everything in life, has broken the boundaries in terms of how we can reach many more audiences, and that’s wonderful, but we have to continue to ask ‘what is cinema today and where is cinema going?’
“There is something about this film Epicentro – everybody at Sundance was telling me that they don’t want to see yet another journalistic approach documentary that is a summary of 100 New York Times articles that they’ve already read.
“I care to protect a culture in cinema that I and many others know and believe has a real way to transform people from within. I hope that with my work as a producer in the non-fiction world I can continue to nurture that and stay away from narrative documentary that I find too much about factual knowledge and less about the experience. That’s really what I want to keep focussing on.
“So as difficult as it is, and as long as it takes to produce films like Hubert’s. That’s the only reason I do this job.”