[OPE-L] The Last Action Hero: The Ocean Press Story

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Wed Jul 26 2006 - 17:07:02 EDT

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The last action hero

The Ocean Press story

How does a leftist Melbourne book publisher manage the lucrative legend of
Che Guevara? In good conscience, writes Michael Dwyer. Melbourne Age, July
25, 2006

THERE are no fake action heroes in Cuba. The absence of commercial
advertising means no Superman signage, no Wolverine-flogging cable TV, no Mr
Incredible or Lightning McQueen luring your kids into a fast-food joint.

What billboards exist feature slogans of national pride and solidarity such
as "Cuba podra probar que este mundo puede salvarse" (Cuba will be able to
prove that this world can be saved), typically under the bearded faces of
real-life action figures Fidel Castro or Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

Only one of them grows older from one picture to the next. El Che, who was
executed in Bolivia in 1967, remains forever young, handsome and
charismatic, an image-maker's dream.

Since the success of The Motorcycle Diaries in 2005, his star has once again
gone global. But next year, the 40th anniversary of his death, his
international billboard profile is likely to make Superman look like last
year's underpants.

In January, film director Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Traffic,
Oceans 11), began shooting a biopic titled Guerrilla, starring Oscar-winner
Benicio del Toro, based on two books of Guevara's memoirs.

Like The Motorcycle Diaries and 15 more volumes of the Argentinian
revolutionary's written works, the global rights belong to a North Melbourne
publishing house, Ocean Press.

It's an independent company with "a radical world view" and, with a million
copies of Diaries sold last year alone, a pretty radical cash flow as well.

David Deutschmann, who founded Ocean with his partner, Deborah Shnookal, in
1989, acknowledges the ideological dilemma this presents.

"Ocean Press has a political heart and a political soul, I hope, but it's
still a business," he says. "And despite ourselves - because we're quite bad
as business people - it's been a success. Even before Che Guevara we were a
moderate success. With Che, I'd say we've become quite a good success in
Australian terms."

How a Melbourne company came to manage the complete written works of Che
Guevara is perhaps worth a screenplay in itself.

It could begin in front of a butcher's shop near the corner of Elizabeth and
Flinders streets in 1969, where a 14- year-old kid from Sunshine joined his
first political protest to support the Gurindji land claim on the Wave Hill
cattle station in the Northern Territory.

With the election of Marxist Salvador Allende as Chilean president in 1970,
Deutschmann's interest in the politics of Latin America blossomed as he
pursued various left-wing causes through high school and university.

After the CIA-sponsored coup of '73, he became involved with political
refugees from Chile who helped deepen his admiration for Guevara. It wasn't
until the early '80s that Deutschmann made his first trip to Cuba at the
request of a progressive American publisher for whom he was working in New

"I had an Australian passport, so I didn't have the travel restrictions to
Cuba that Americans are subject to," he explains.

In 1987, he edited The Che Guevara Reader, which has since become the most
authoritative anthology of Guevara's work in the English language.

In the past 25 years he's revisited Cuba dozens of times. He now owns a
house there, and is due to return in mid-August at the invitation of Fidel
Castro, to participate in the President's 80th birthday celebrations.

"The first time I met Che's widow, Aleida March, was about 10 years ago," he
says. "In 2000 we began to have serious discussions with her about one or
two books. It was a gradual process of proving we were people she could
trust, but also who could actually deliver."

Today, Ocean Press services more than 2000 bookstores in the United States.
It's shifted 400,000 English copies and 45,000 Spanish copies of The
Motorcycle Diaries there, and sold the translation rights to 39 other
countries. The Italian deal alone accounts for $US1.5 million ($A2 million).

Aleida March's motives for this arrangement are not financial. Deutschmann
emphasises that the "significant proportion of money" flowing from Ocean
Press goes to the Che Guevara Studies Centre in Cuba, a resource centre that
"seeks to illuminate (the) cultural depth, political incisiveness, irony and
passion" beyond the iconic T-shirt image.

"Che's widow and four children live in Cuba, and they don't see a cent," he
says. "They still drive old cars, and she lives in an old house with paint
peeling off the ceiling. If she wanted to receive this money she could
easily live quite differently, but she believes it should go to the studies
centre, to social projects, to Cuba."

Aleida March was herself a guerrilla fighter before the Cuban revolution,
which is how she met Guevara in the late '50s. That story will be part of
Soderbergh's film, Deutschmann says. He's facilitated many meetings between
March and the director since he sold the film rights for two books,
Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and The Bolivian Diary, for
$US700,000, to Soderbergh last year.

As for Ocean's share of all that filthy lucre, "that was one of the things
we were losing sleep over", Deutschmann says.

Four months ago, they established Ocean Sur, a company dedicated to
publishing books from and for Latin America, at greatly subsidised prices.

Deutschmann has since spent most of his time setting up offices in Cuba and
Venezuela. Branches in Chile, Colombia and Mexico will open in coming

Ocean Sur is publishing a new Spanish language title every week, with a
strong emphasis on the politics of the region. There's also Ocean Film,
which specialises in making documentaries on Latin America with young

"I'm not on any campaign for Cuba," Deutschmann says. "Obviously I support
very strongly what they've tried to do these last almost 50 years, to create
an alternative, but it's by no means a paradise and by no means a model.
Nevertheless it is, for the Third World and Latin America, an example of
what you can do if you prioritise social concerns above others.

"What I feel most strongly about is that Cuba has the right to determine its
own destiny."

Only Hollywood, however, can determine the destiny of Che Guevara. For
Puerto Rican star and producer Benicio del Toro, Guerrilla has been a labour
of love for seven years - it was he who brought Soderbergh to the project
while they were making Traffic together in 1999.

But the commercial imperatives of mainstream filmmaking are known to trade
historical fact for popcorn sales on occasion. Is David Deutschmann
concerned that Guevara could turn out to be next year's Mr Incredible?

"I wouldn't be honest if I didn't admit to some nervousness, some
hesitation," he says.

"We're still involved in the process of working on the script, but I
personally have no veto over the script. Neither does Aleida March or Cuba.
The film is Soderbergh's. But we are involved in helping that team prepare
the script, introducing them to people, clarifying historical details.

"I will say that Soderbergh insists on this being historically accurate. I
think all the key people involved in the film have a real commitment to
doing a really challenging, honest film about Che."

Perhaps his personal entreaty from beyond the grave will be persuasive
enough. In Guevara's prologue to his Reminiscences of the Cuban
Revolutionary War, he makes an open invitation for others to add to his

"I only ask," he writes, "that such a narrator be a strictly truthful."

LINK <http://www.oceanbooks.com.au>


Hasta la Victoria Street Bookshop
360 Victoria Street
North Melbourne
Tel: 9326 4280
Opening Hours: Mon-Fri 10am-5:30pm

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