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Shooting a revolutionary an epic task for 'agnostic' Soderbergh

'Did you love it or hate it?" asked another critic at the end of Steven Soderbergh's four-hour-and-18 minute Spanish-language epic, Che.

The luxury of revolution at a fictional distance is that you're allowed more room for equivocation. The action-packed first half of the film, starring Benicio del Toro as the revolutionary leader, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, covers Guevara's role in the Cuban revolution. In the intermission, the journalists at the Palais were handed chicken sandwiches and water bottles to fortify themselves for the second half, a re-enactment of Guevara's ill-fated campaign in Bolivia, leading to his capture and execution in 1967.

In all, the filmmakers took seven years to write and research the piece, then shot each half in just 39 days. The short shooting schedule is remarkable for a film which included dozens of locations, war re-enactments, a sprawling multinational cast and a time period covering 13 years.

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"I work fast but I've never moved this fast in my life. This was off the chart," director Soderbergh said at yesterday morning's press conference. "I was so overwhelmed just trying to shoot this stuff on schedule, I said to everyone who came on set: I can't show you around. You're going to have to take care of yourself."

Working in Soderbergh's favour was a very portable (four-kilogram) RED high-definition camera, which allowed him to shoot with natural light in a variety of conditions. So unobtrusive was the camera that actress Franka Potente (who plays the German woman known as Tania the Guerrilla) said the director "managed to blend in like a chameleon between the leaves."

Soderbergh says he had no political agenda in making Che: "I came to him as a sort of agnostic. I'm not from South America. I don't want to build him up or tear him down. I'm just compelled by the fact that he twice gave up everything and put his ass on the line for someone else's benefit."

While Che Guevara's story seems like a natural one for a movie, Soderbergh said, "there's so much writing [about him] so much activity and he means different things to different people, which made the editing a long, intense experience."

For Cuban actor Jorge Perugorria, who plays a guerrilla fighter and also helped the other actors with their Cuban accents, the Che connection was personal: "Since I was 5 to 12, we repeated in school every morning: 'We shall be like Che. He was an example to follow, a human being who was capable of sacrificing himself for the fight for equality.' "

Not everyone, especially Cuban exiles, view Guevara as a romantic figure. On the Croisette before the Wednesday evening screening, a small group of protesters gathered to condemn the man who, as the chief prosecutor in the early years of Cuba's dictatorship, was called "the Butcher of la Cabana," for his role as "supreme prosecutor" at the Cabana fortress prison.

Soderbergh responded: "I've read all the anti-Che material and I know what the arguments are. The bottom line is there's no amount of accumulated barbarity that I could put on screen that would satisfy them. I don't know how to answer that. Most of that is about a period we don't portray in the film, which I guess, to them, is proof of my sympathies."

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What Castro might think of the film remains a mystery. Benicio Del Toro, who plays Guevara, met the Cuban leader at a book fair and Castro knew about the project: "He said he was very happy we spent so much time researching the subject. I would like for him to see it. Probably no one knew Che better than he did."

Soderbergh visited Cuba five times in his research for the film and was told several times that he might get a call: "Fidel is legendary for calling at 2 in the morning and saying, 'Let's talk.' But the call never came. I understand he likes to watch movies and he likes to stop them and declaim on some subject periodically and then start the film again."

Given the running time of Che, Soderbergh said, "he may not survive these two films."

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