A few posts back I wrote about the extraordinary cinematography of Ivan’s Childhood (Soviet Union, 1962) and how Tarkovsky wanted it to look as if it had been shot by Sergey Urusevskiy. This one is and I’m sure this is the most sensational cinematography I have ever seen. Teamed with director Mikhail Kalatozov, with whom he made The Cranes Are Flying (Soviet Union, 1957), Urusevskiy shot this propaganda film celebrating the Cuban Revolution of a few years earlier. Many critics bemoan the narrative, with its focus on types rather than individuals, and suggest the politics are naive, but are united in their praise of Urusevskiy. For me the narrative, about American imperialism, is entirely satisfactory and reminds us, 50 years on, that the US penchant for interference in other countries, in the interests of US corporations, remains undiminished. Four stories, focusing on a prostitute, a student, and two farmers, show how the people were exploited under the US-backed dictator, Batista; while these are effective it is the cinematography that makes it one of the greatest movies ever made.
In the 21st century we are spoiled by the effects that can be created by CGI. I mean spoiled in the sense that cinema can never be the same again because the fact that anything can be shown means that nothing is special. Okay, that may be an overstatement, I did find the streets of Paris folding over in Inception (US-UK, 2010) impressive, but that experience is increasingly rare. In watching the long elaborate takes that fill I Am Cuba I find myself constantly assuming that CGI must have been used to cover the ‘joins’ except, of course, there was no CGI in 1964. There wasn’t even the steadicam. And Urusevskiy somehow manages to, despite often extremely rapid movement, beautifully compose the shots! His penchant for Dutch (canted) angles give the Social Realist narrative an Expressionist sensibility that intensely portrays the characters’ anguish caused by their exploitation. To give an idea of the complexity of some of the shots I’ve pinched this from Wikipedia:
the camera follows a flag over a body, held high on a stetcher, along a crowded street. Then it stops and slowly moves upwards for at least four storeys until it is filming the flagged body from above a building. Without stopping it then starts tracking sideways and enters through a window into a cigar factory, then goes straight towards a rear window where the cigar workers are watching the procession. The camera finally passes through the window and appears to float along over the middle of the street between the buildings.
Sample the opening five minutes:
Now get hold of the film.
If you are interested in Spanish language cinema, there is only one place in the UK to be during the first half of March and that is Manchester, where Cornerhouse Cinema hosts the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival. But don’t despair, if you can’t get to Manchester you can still see some of the films on tour around the UK (and in Dublin) at various specialised cinemas.
The festival includes screenings (with a mini Cuban festival during this year’s celebration of 50 years since the Revolution), guest appearances, Q&As and special events, education events for Spanish language students and much more (including a salsa demonstration in the bar and Spanish-themed food and drink). Cornerhouse is helped to produce the festival by staff from the two Manchester Universities and the University of Salford plus the Instituto Cervantes.
It’s always difficult for me to get to festivals during term time, but this year I managed a day at ¡Viva! and relished the opportunity to enjoy three films and to feel the buzz of being in such a lively atmosphere. First up was a new documentary about one of my favourite directors, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, the best known Cuban filmmaker outside Cuba and arguably one of the two or three most influential figures in the history of Cuban Cinema.
This 2008 documentary, a Cuban/Spanish co-production titled Titón, de la Habana a Guantanamera and directed by his wife Mirta Ibarra, is a memorial, a love letter and a celebration. It also offers a persuasive argument in favour of one of the great filmmakers of the last century who chose to work in revolutionary Cuba rather than move to North America or Europe – where it would have been easier to make films and to promote himself.
Through a combination of interviews, newsreel and film extracts, ‘home movies’ and photos, Ibarra has concocted an engaging and informative documentary record. I was particularly interested in the early material dealing with Alea’s time at the Cine Centro Experimentale in Rome and his subsequent career in primitive advertising films in Cuba prior to the 1959 Revolution. Most of his earlier films have not, to my knowledge, been available in the UK and it was fascinating to learn more about these. The documentary also provides more contextual material for any analysis of Alea’s better known work such as Memories of Underdevelopment (1968). Alea’s ‘middle period’ features in the 1970s and 1980s are also unfamiliar for most UK audiences and again I found that the documentary whetted my appetite for more.
Perhaps the most important achievement here is the presentation of Alea’s criticism of the Cuban Revolution as the positive supportive action of a man who believed in the true concept of ‘constant revolution’ – the only real way to support struggle is to keep arguing for more and better changes. Any of those puzzled American critics who still persist in seeing Alea’s best-known films like Memories and Strawberries and Chocolate (1993) as somehow subversive of the Revolution would do well to study Ibarra’s film.
The only slight downer in this screening was the poor quality of the archive material on show. It looks to me as if ICAIC, the Cuban film institute, must have transferred its archive of newsreel footage to video. The documentary itself, like many festival screenings these days was projected from Digi-Beta tape.
The Black Virgin(Venezuela 2008)
I don’t think that I’ve seen a Venezuelan film before and I found this one a bit of a struggle to pin down. Cornerhouse had a poster suggesting a romantic comedy. It certainly had its comedy as well as melodrama moments. It was also presented with what I must reluctantly assume was ‘magic realism’ (that term seems now to be so overused). The story is narrated (in an adult voice) by a young boy and he may of course be an ‘unreliable narrator’. He begins by describing his affection for his beautiful teacher and being mildly irritated by the attentions of his precocious classmate who expects to marry him. But the narrative’s main focus is the despair of a woman who thinks her husband is ‘playing away’. We then learn that this community lives in a unique ‘town of black people’ on the coast of Venezuela. In a sequence straight out of a ‘Columbus discovers America’ movie, we see a flashback to a Spanish woman arriving on the coast with her aged husband and the coffins of her three sons all killed in the Spanish Civil war. ‘Senora Isabel’ is played by Almodóvar’s 1980s heroine Carmen Maura on fine form (but in a rather limited role).
Senora Isabel has built the town and is responsible for its people. When the aggrieved woman seeks the help of a local woman with some form of magic power, she learns that the way to get a wish granted is to change the figure of the Virgin in the local church for a ‘Black Virgin’. Senora Isabel grants the woman’s wish. The Black Virgin appears and all kinds of wishes – good and bad – come true.
I’m assuming that many of the allusions and references in the film (e.g. the presence of a Brazilian in the village) have specific meanings in Venezuela. I found myself drawing on my limited knowledge of other Hispanic Caribbean/African communities such as Cuba and Nicaragua to make sense of the cultural mix and especially the use of religious imagery and music. The photography is very stylised with extensive use of filters or digital manipulation to create the magic realist tone. The film ended abruptly after the intrusion of a second narrative associated with an external threat to the town. I think it would be difficult to release this film in the UK, so I was grateful for the chance to see it. We get too few opportunities to see how other cultures attempt to use cinema to tell local stories.Sleep Dealer (Mexico/US 2008) This terrific ‘speculative fiction’ movie combines an impressive array of contemporary developments in both technological and political activity to produce a genre picture with real soul.
‘Memo’, the neatly named protagonist, is a youth in a village in Oaxaca in the far south of Mexico. His father has a small agricultural plot – a ‘milpa’ where beans are grown as a combination crop with corn. But life is hard. A US multinational company has damned the river and taken ownership of all the water – the campesinos must pay to irrigate their land and the dam is protected by robot guards with video cameras and machine guns.
Memo is bored and sets up an illegal satellite dish hacking into phone lines around the globe. One night he is listening in on a conversation when he realises hat he has been detected and he immediately shuts down. Shortly after, he and his brother set off on a short trip, but watching TV in a bar they suddenly realise that the reality TV show which shows American security forces blowing up the hideouts of suspected terrorists has detected Memo’s satellite dish and a ‘drone fighter’ piloted by a controller in San Diego is set to demolish their home. They are too late to save the shack and their father who is shot down as he tries to escape.
In despair, Memo heads for the North to become a sleep dealer in Tijuana. The border with the US is closed but Mexicans still do the work for Americans. They go to factories in Tijuana where they jack into a neural system and operate robots carrying out all kinds of tasks in US industry and services. This work eventually makes the worn-out workers blind. The final main narrative idea is that neural bloggers offer ‘memories’ for the nostalgia industry on the neural network and Memo has his own memories ‘uploaded’ without his knowledge. How will he react when he finds out?
All of these ideas leap off the news headlines. Water as a commodity, private security, US drone strikes in Pakistan etc. are ripe for exploitation. There are obvious reference points to Phil K. Dick (he would have loved the neural blogging of memories as an idea) and to films like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46. This a really clever script with its play on the Mexican-American cultural experience. I was also reminded of the first Robocop movie when seemingly outrageous ideas were delivered in TV broadcasts. It’s a cliche now perhaps, but as in Paul Verhoeven’s later Starship Troopers, there is still mileage in hearing a reality TV announcer warning you that there is extreme violence coming up and then exhorting you to make sure that your youngest kids don’t miss it! This and similar sick jokes got big laughs at the screening.
A Sundance-supported film, this Mexican-US release (largely in Spanish) looks like it has been picked up by Fortissimo and might well get a UK release. Director Alex Rivera is American with Latin-American parentage who decided on a Spanish language production with Hispanic characters (in America and Mexico). I’d urge you not to miss it if it does appear. With the earlier La Zona this is further proof of the strength of popular Mexican cinema and its ideas about speculative fiction.
The screenings of both La virgen negra and Sleep Dealer were close to full houses and this added to the fun of watching the films. ¡Viva! is a festival well worth supporting. See you there next year in March? And don’t forget the tour!
Hasta siempre is a 57 mins documentary produced by an independent group in Brixton, South London, that enables ordinary people in Cuba to speak about their lives and their hopes for the future. The format of the film is very simple. After a brief historical background, utilising some newsreel footage, the main body of the film comprises interviews with a variety of Cubans. There is a historian and a psychologist (one of five siblings who have had professional careers in the years since the revolution) but also older people, mothers and children, youths and middle-aged people. Two things are striking about the interviews. Firstly, most of those interviewed are Afro-Cuban. This not surprising given that the filmmakers are (I assume) from Brixton’s African-Caribbean community (or have been chosen by Brixton producers). But it does mean that this documentary corrects the under-representation of Afro-Cubans in Cuban films generally. Secondly, the interviewees are not hand-picked as supporters of the revolution. Some are critical of current conditions – others very pleased for what they have got. The most telling interviews are those in which a youth first tells us all about the problems and just when you think he’s about to say that he wishes he was in America, he asserts that he never wants to be anywhere else but Cuba. Generally, the people interviewed seem very sussed and very aware of what is at stake in Cuba and what they would lose if the current situation changes. Even some of those who are critical recognise the realities of the situation. The main negative comment is that people can’t travel and visit the US, UK, Jamaica etc.
Overall, this is a limited view of aspects of Cuban reality, but I would recommend it as an informative documentary which made me more optimistic than pessimistic about the future for Cuban socialism. The DVD is available from Rice ‘n Peas and sells in the UK for £10 – you can see extracts from the film via the link. It’s available in other currencies as well.
This YouTube clip shows the start of the film (to get a sense of how the interviews work, go to the Rice ‘n Peas page above.
Made in 1966, it took this film until 1980 to be released in America (see below) – as with this post, see the other Cuban films below! Made by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who much later went on to make Fresa y chocolate (1994), the first Cuban film to receive an Oscar nomination for the best foreign film, the film is a fantastic blend of all kinds of influences that reflect Alea’s own career up to that point and post-revolutionary Cuba. As interesting, especially when you read other reviews, is the varied responses to the film that seem to say as much about the culture that people are writing from, as any intended effect or message devised by the filmmaker himself. Alea, himself a supporter of the revolution that brought Castro to power, did not look at his culture from within. Early in his career, he studied film in Italy (in the early 1950s – post the major works of Italian Neo-Realism).
La Muerte concerns the death of a dedicated working man, so dedicated that he has been buried with his working card as a symbolic acknowledgement of his lifetime of service (churning out busts of José Martí, ‘the Apostle of Cuban Independence’). When his wife, accompanied by her nephew, goes to collect her widow’s pension, nothing can be done without the missing card, and the rest of the film is the tale of our hapless hero’s attempts to retrieve it and to rectify the injustice that has been done.
Given the specificity of the film’s time and cultural place, the expectation is that you would need to explore all the references to even begin to fully understand it. Certainly, it’s filled with in-jokes about the regime in Cuba, which is apparently why its release in the US was so substantially delayed (for fear that its Latin-American self criticism would be grist to the US political mill). In fact, it works brilliantly now – perhaps for any of us who have experienced petty bureaucratic frustrations and the apparently wilful misinterpretation made by people with that authority (temporarily) over you. Hang on – something like a universal experience there then!
I won’t pretend to even begin to have understood all the references, but I was struck (as an outsider) by the nephew’s regular use of of the word “Compañero/ Compañera” when addressing (politely) the increasing stream of uncooperative, disinterested bureaucrats he encounters. It implied a shared vision and belief and therefore added to the humour through its increasing dissonance with their behaviour. The whole film begins with the collective version of the noun to address the mourners at the funeral. Reading a variety of reviews, there is a difference in the interpretation of the tone – from interpreting it as being a gentler kind of humour to a subversive critique of the Cuban social structure. The film certainly resonates with British examples, probably more in the former category, which lampoon British rituals and empathising with the common man (of which the nephew is a perfect example). Immediately, I found myself reminded of Joe Orton and Loot – with its ascerbic, farcical treatment of a funeral that’s being used as a cover for a robbery. The black comedy is less severe in Death, although at times no less dark – with the vultures circling over the uncle’s house where the unburied body awaits an exhumation order. Both indulge in that ‘comedy of manners’ where characters are increasingly going through the motions of the behaviour expected of them, while everything unravels underneath. (There is no surprise at the nephew’s final murderous chase through the cemetery).
Rather than ‘Ortonesque’, critics refer to it as ‘Kafkaesque’ – because of its links with the spiral of hopelessness of Joseph K in The Trial within the ‘corridors of power.’ However, this belies the effect of the humour (in both Loot and Death) that casts something like tolerance over the society it represents. It is humour shared by insiders, who have experienced those rituals and problems and continue to do so, without the threat to individual identity and the real hatred of the power of oppression that Kafka shows in his narrative.
Alea had adapted a Kafka short tale early in his filmmaking (Una Confusión cotidiana (1950)). His biography demonstrates the wealth of influences in his work and these are visible even within this one work. Luis Buñuel is referenced and there is a surreal, absurdist sensibility running throughout. However, there is the silent comedy style (Mack Sennett is referred to) – and there is a direct hit on Harold Lloyd as the nephew attempts to escape a building via its high ledge and a large clock. The comedy is played with such sympathy (my limited reference palette wants to suggest ‘Chaplin’) – because of the way we are completely on the side of the little man, whilst laughing at some of his disasters. There is a wonderful moment when he is sent to the back of the queue, only to reach the front as the clock ticks onto five. The current ‘compañero’ dons jacket and disappears, refusing to stamp even one more sheet. I laughed at and with – Salvador Wood’s unassuming underdog was perfect, with all kinds of small nuances of expression and gesture that communicated exactly his response or emotion.
I’ll end with a reference to B. Ruby Rich’s review of the film in Jump Cut (22 May 1980) for a most comprehensive analysis of the film and its cultural context.