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.
I thought it was a bit of a gamble buying this Region 1 DVD and I was still not sure after an opening cabaret performance. However, when the narrative got going, I realised that this was quite a find in terms of genre cinema and Cuban representations.
I take the film to be a comedy melodrama related to the television telenovela, so popular across Latin America. Others have compared the film to the similar Spanish comedies of Pedro Almodóvar in the 1980s and I can see this as well. The whole point of the telenovela/melodrama is to offer a complex web of relationships, many of them family relationships that are not known to the family members involved. These relationships are then revealed in scenes that are sometimes farcical. In this film, Sissy is a young woman who wants to become a cabaret dancer – just like her mother before her. But her father, Candido, who was a cabaret singer himself, now drives a truck and is separated from his wife. He doesn’t want his daughter to join the family business. Sissy goes behind his back and impresses Armando, the cabaret owner/impresario. At the same time she meets Sergio (Vladimir Cruz, star of several Cuban films of the period) and immediately falls in love. The other major characters are Sonia (Armando’s young wife who also seems to know Sergio), Mabel (Daisy Granados, grande dame of Cuban Cinema) who is another ex-cabaret performer and a ‘creole’ couple, Promedio and Josefa, close friends of Candido and godparents for Sissy.
This is a standard cast list for the genre. What makes the film particularly interesting is the discourse on race in Cuba. Armando is African-Cuban and all the characters know each other. You can probably guess that it is all a question of who is really the child of who else. The general confusion also raises the possibility of incest and in a sense ‘plays’ one taboo against another. The complex racial composition of the Cuban population is also presented in economic terms when a Spanish impresario says that he’d like to book Sissy, even though the market usually demands black or mulatto stars.
I found the film genuinely funny and quite brave in its discussion of race (which also includes some references to Cuban Catholicism and an African spirit medium). I confess that cabaret dancing doesn’t do anything for me, though it looks well done and there is, I think, a genuine Tropicana club in Havana with a show titled ‘A Paradise Under the Stars’. The film is directed by a veteran producer/director, Gerardo Chijona and is a co-production of the Cuban state film organisation ICAIC and two Spanish companies, Ibermedia and Wanda. It’s not particularly ‘filmic’ and seemed to me to be more ‘televisual’ in aesthetic terms, with the ‘clean’ and ‘cold’ look of a television telenovela. The acting and pacing, however, overcame any of my qualms about the look of the film and I’d recommend this to anyone prepared to enjoy the preposterous narrative events and to engage with Cuban culture. The ‘special period’ of economic privation was lifting a little by 2000, but Cuba still has serious problems. This isn’t a ‘serious’ film as such, but the discourse about race in Cuba is interestingly presented for a popular audience.
This extraordinary but enjoyable film was made by one of the leading figures in post-revolutionary Cuban Cinema, Julio García Espinosa (born 1926). He was one of the few Cuban directors in 1960 to have been formally trained and became one of the founding members of ICAIC, the Cuban Film Institute. In 1969 he wrote a famous essay on the concept of ‘imperfect cinema‘. Up until his retirement in 2007 he was the Director of the International Film and Television School in Cuba. There is a useful Jump Cut essay by Anna Marie Taylor that analyses the film in terms of imperfect cinema. This is quite a detailed essay and so here I’ll just try to introduce the film in relatively simple terms. It is now available on both Region 1 and Region 2 DVDs. My comments refer to the Region 2 disc from Network, a company specialising in archive UK TV material, but presumably with a deal covering material from the old East German studio DEFA as well as ICAIC.
The film opens in Black & White CinemaScope and immediately made me think of Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) with small groups of horsemen riding over rolling hills in long shot. But instead of Barbara Stanwyck in leathers we eventually get introduced to Juan and his sidekick Jachero. With some interesting graphics in the title sequence and a score by the leading Afro-Cuban musician Leo Brouwer, my first guess was that this was some kind of Cuban take on the ‘spaghetti western’. It takes a few moments to realise that it is not going to be a linear narrative as we switch between several different ‘adventures’ with the same three or four central characters in each (Juan and Jachero, the heroine Teresa and the moustachioed villain). There are also mismatches between sound and image, jump cuts transforming characters and objects etc.
I watched it with Nick and we were both puzzled for a while until we got into it and began to deconstruct the film. Clearly we have a traditional Spanish hero and his partner – a kind of peasant version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza or perhaps the Cisco Kid and Pancho. The sequences are shown out of presumed chronological order, but we are offered Juan and Jachero in various situations in which they are forced to challenge an oppressor (the same villain) in the role of police chief/mayor/sugar mill owner etc. as well as stand up to the Church. Eventually they will join the revolutionary guerillas and take part in the capture of a village (in a sequence offered as a training film – even though our heroes are sometimes quite inept). The situations are typical of a colonised culture (staging a bull fight) and the presentation modes act as a critique of conventional genre films (including a kind of spoof James Bond, complete with ‘oriental villain’). But overall the film remains a comedy and we laughed on several occasions. According to some commentators this was the most successful Cuban film of the time attracting 2 million admissions – a very large figure given the population of Cuba (around 10 million) in the 1960s.
The concept of imperfect cinema refers to the need to steer revolutionary film away from the ‘perfection’ of Hollywood cinema and its ‘closed’ narratives with conventional genres and character types. It is better for audiences to have to do some work to ‘finish off’ the story, providing their own insights. This is similar in some ways to the ideas behind Brecht’s approach to theatre. ‘Imperfect’ does not imply, as detractors might claim, an impoverished and amateurish low-budget cinema. ICAIC budgets were not large, but the films were well-made and looked and sounded fine. Taylor’s essay suggests that Juan’s adventures might have proved popular, but that they were unlikely to have had the political impact that Espinosa called for two years later. (She suggests Espinosa’s 1970 film about Vietnam was more successful in these terms – but it is not available on DVD.)
Another Jump Cut resource is this translation of Espinosa’s essay on imperfect cinema by Julianne Burton.
Quite a good overview of different periods of Cuban film is available on FilmReference.com
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Che – Part 1 (aka The Argentine). I went overboard a few years ago over Soderbergh at the time of Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight. Then I decided he’d blown it and ignored most of the stuff after Oceans 11 which seemed so ordinary. But there was no way I wanted to miss this. The story of how 82 men aboard the Granma landed in Cuba and fashioned first a military victory and then a revolution is one of the great stories of the 20th century.
What Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro (who seems to have been the instigator of the project) have achieved is quite remarkable. It hasn’t pleased everyone (with critics from both left and right) and many audiences seemed to have been confused by both the overall approach and the narrative structure which moves between three time periods in this first part of which was originally a 4 hour plus single film. I’ll have to wait until I’ve seen Part Two next month before I can comment on the whole thing, but I was certainly hooked by this half.
The first sequence in chronological terms offers the initial meeting between Che and Fidel Castro in Mexico City in 1955. There is a brief mention of the trip in the Granma, but most of the film covers the period from 1957 until January 1959 in which the 26 July Movement headed by Castro gradually moved towards Havana and the overthrow of Batista. Cut into this is black and white footage of a ‘flashforward’ to 1964 when Che visited New York to speak at the UN. (There is also a brief flashback to Mexico City.)
The confusion arises for two reasons. First, Soderbergh doesn’t give all the information necessary to understand everything that we see (though there is a lot of material that is presented) and second, that he doesn’t offer the familiar tropes of the biopic – or the war combat action picture. He deliberately keeps his distance from Che, keeping him framed much of the time in wide shots and as part of the group. We don’t learn about his back story or about his inner thoughts – we have to come to understand him through what he says and does in his role as comandante. Personally, this didn’t bother me. I knew some of the details of the story anyway, having spent an interesting afternoon in the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. Perhaps more importantly I really like the style, which for me was Rossellini and possibly a little of Pontecorvo. Thinking about it now a few hours later, the Roberto Rossellini film that might be in the back of my mind is Viva l’Italia! (Italy/France 1961). I have seen it just the once thirty years ago but it made an impression. Like Che, it is essentially about a revolutionary leader, Garibaldi, leading his men to victory and liberation. The Rossellini method is about representing history using realist aesthetics. It’s interesting too that Rossellini developed his own camera focusing device to enable him to shoot more easily in long takes. Soderbergh on Che is supposed to have used the RED digital camera, shooting the film himself under his pseudonym ‘Peter Andrews’. (The film’s credits also mention an Aaton Super 16 camera, so I’m not absolutely sure which technology was used for which scenes.) The ‘problem’ for audiences used to mainly mainstream cinema is that this approach doesn’t favour a close identification with individual characters. Without this emotional attachment and faced with two hours plus of subtitled (but very clearly articulated) Spanish, it might be a struggle. Having said that, Benicio del Toro is in nearly every scene – but we rarely see him with his guard down. Mostly, he is teaching his compadres (and us) what we need to do to succeed in the campaign. Which is fine by me.
Perhaps I’m too easily pleased. In Sight & Sound, January 2009, Michael Chanan, the leading British writer on Cuban Cinema, tears into the film in a short piece titled ‘Rebel Without a Point’, referring to a “lacklustre script”, “odd omissions and a flat pace”. He suggests that the script “has as much depth as a Cuban primary school textbook and is rather less exciting” and wonders why Soderbergh bothered in the first place. It’s tempting to turn the tables on Chanan and ask what he really wants to do in his article. He goes on to say that the film makes no historical gaffes, that there are incidental pleasures and that the translation of Peter Buchman’s script into demotic Cuban speech is pretty good. The problem is surely that for Cuban film and history experts like Michael Chanan, there is no way that Soderbergh could have adequately ‘covered’ the military campaign and the political dealings necessary to bring the anti-Batista forces together in five hours, never mind two. I’ll grant that the film is not as ‘exciting’ as it could be and that it could certainly take more passion. But, I quite like its fairly low key, distanced stance. I really enjoyed all the talk of the need for education and discipline. From what I’ve seen of Cuban education materials, they are pretty good, so if audiences get only a primary school introduction to the road revolution, I think that will be an achievement. And as Chanan concludes, the film might just help to prod a new US President into thinking about the “irrational economic blockade” of Cuba that has lasted for almost 50 years.
I’ll certainly go and see Part Two, although I’m not really looking forward to Che’s demise. Like many others, I’d like Part Two to focus on Che’s problems in Cuba post the revolution and I’d be intrigued to see something about the Congo expedition. More please!
If you want to see how the film’s characters are represented in comparison with the official photographs of the time, you can browse a large collection of images on the website of Ediciones Aurelia (and buy postcards and posters).
January 2009 marks 50 years of the Cuban Revolution – an anniversary worth celebrating for many reasons and not least because it allows us to applaud the successes of Cuban Cinema in a post-colonialist, post-imperialist world, albeit one in which Cuba has had to steer a path around the obstacles of an American blockade and the uncertainty and then complete loss of Russian support.
The following notes (written by Keith Withall) were compiled for an event on Cuban Cinema held in Bradford in 2006 when a package of Cuban films toured the UK.
Selective Chronology of Cuba and its Cinema
Columbus landed in Cuba in 1492. By the end of the 16th century almost all traces of the indigenous Amerindian population had gone. Subsequently the tobacco and sugar industries were developed, largely dependent on imported African slave labour. Cuba was a Spanish colony throughout the 19th century, even as other peoples in South America gained independence. In 1898 the USA engineered a war with Spain. The US military occupied Cuba and a constitution was enforced which awarded nominal independence. For the first half of the 20th century Cuba was dominated by the US and was used as a research market for the North American communication industries. It also became a centre for tourism and US gangsters.
- 1952 Batista overthrows the government and becomes effective dictator.
- 1953 Fidel Castro leads a failed attempt to overthrow Batista’s government.
- 1956 Fidel Castro and followers begin a guerrilla war.
- 1959 The guerrilla campaign of the 26 July Movement forces Batista to flee. Fidel Castro becomes Prime Minister. There follows the transfer of land from large landowners to those who work it. The government expropriates US-owned sugar mills and plantations.
- 1960 ICAIC founded. The mass literacy campaign is launched in rural areas. Soviet economic mission.
- 1961 USA suspends purchases of sugar and severs diplomatic relations with Cuba. 1,500 Cuban exiles, trained by US military instructors, invade in the Bay of Pigs; an expected rising fails to occur and the invaders are killed or captured.
- 1962 Cuban missile ‘crisis’, withdrawal of Soviet ‘offensive weapons’.
- 1967 Revolutionary Che Guevara executed in Bolivia.
- 1975 New constitution, ICAIC reorganised.
- 1979 The International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema.
- 1980 Mariel exodus to USA, prompted by disasters in the sugar and tobacco harvests.
- 1985 Foundation and Film School.
- 1990 Special Period in Times of Peace.
A travelling Lumière cameraman screened films in Havana in January 1897. There were both early silent and sound films made by Cubans. However, the film audience was not really large enough to support indigenous productions: the Hollywood Studios dominated the distribution and exhibition industries. There were a few co-productions with the much more substantial Mexican film industry during the 1940s and 50s.
There were regular indigenous newsreels, but these were almost a form of ‘vanity publishing’, as the companies made their profit, not from admissions but from charging the individuals and groups that were featured. There were also occasional alternatives, including several editions of a newsreel by the Cuban Communist Party.
More significant was a continuing alternative film culture. There were numerous amateur ciné-clubs on the island. The University of Havana set up a Film Studies department in the 1940s. And there were vigorous and dissident cultural and film forums based there, which participated in the resistance to Batista’s police state.
In 1950 a key cultural group connected to the Community Party, ‘Nuestro Tiempo’, was formed. Its members included a number of names that were key in filmmaking after the revolution: Alfredo Guevara, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Julio García Espinosa and Santiago Álvarez.
Several activists with a keen interest in filmmaking travelled to Italy to study at the Centro Sperimentale where they encountered the ideas and practices of Neo-realism. On his return Espinosa directed a film in the neo-realist mould, El Megano (1956). This was a documentary that exposed the miserable conditions among the charcoal burners in the Zapata Swamps. The film was seized by Batista’s police and then banned.
Batista’s regime collapsed before the popular revolution led by Castro. The Liberation forces made extensive use of the media, with their own illicit radio station in the mountains. They also set up a Military Cultural School, which started work on two short films. And the first major cultural act in 1959 was the setting up of ICAIC (Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos – Cuban Institute of Film Art and Industry) with Alfredo Guevara at its first director. From its inception the Institute had a fair degree of autonomy, whereas the State authorities closely controlled Press and Radio. There were a number of competing sets of values; between those who supported the old society (many of whom emigrated) and those who supported national independence; and between groups who were in favour of a socialist system, including the Communist Party, who looked to the Soviet model, and more liberal groups, like ICAIC, in favour of experimentation and difference. They argued from Fidel’s maxim, “dentro de la Revolución todo; contra la Revolución, nada (within the revolution, everything: against it, nothing).”
The equipment for the Institute and the experience of its new cadres was uneven and extremely limited. They did receive assistance from visiting filmmakers, who in the 1960s included the French directors Chris Marker and Agnès Varda, and the Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens. After the rupture with the US and the arrival of economic assistance from the USSR there were several co-productions with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The most famous is Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba, 1964 Mosfilm), directed by Mickhail Kalatozov. However the Cuban themselves were fairly critical of the representation of their country in this film.
From its inception, ICAIC produced a series of documentary films and newsreels. These varied from shorts to feature length films, and ranged over the educational, the informational, celebratory, didactic and overt propaganda films. Several films dealt with the important and groundbreaking literacy campaign in rural areas that was launched in 1960. The films dealt not only with the Cuban revolution but international issues in the non-aligned movement and anti-imperialist camps.
The key figure in documentary and newsreel was Santiago Alvarez. His output and style is large and varied. But he is particularly noted for his use of montage, in the sense used by the classic Soviet directors.
Hanoi martes 13 (Hanoi Tuesday 13th) was filmed by Alvarez in Vietnam during a visit in 1966. The attack by US warplanes took place on 13 December at 2.50 p.m. The film also counterposes ordinary life in North Vietnam and an explosive montage of US President L.B.J. and US prisoners of war.
The score for Alvarez’s film is by Leo Brouwer, a key composer in ICAIC. He had made his debut in Cine-Club Vísion, sited in a working class district of Havana. The development of Cuban music was another arm of ICAIC. There was also the Graphics department were artists were encourage to experiment and develop the dazzling posters that advertised Cuban film. And there was a skilled and creative animation section.
For the first two decades ICAIC produced an average of about 40 documentaries a year. New or inexperienced recruits developed their skills first in this area. There were also feature films, averaging about five a year. The early examples celebrate the revolution in a neo-realist style. But as ICAIC developed other influences encouraged experimentation, especially the French Nouvelle Vague and associated Left Bank Group. A number of directors worked on important features including Espinosa and Alea.
Memorias del subdesarollo (Memories of underdevelopment, 1968). Based on a novel by Edmundo Desnoes the film’s main plot is set between the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. It studies a bourgeois man, Sergio, who cannot bring himself to leave Cuba for the US like his family, but also is unable to commit himself fully to the Revolution. The film uses a complex range of narrative and cinematic devices, some reminiscent of the Nouvelle Vague. It created an impact both in Cuba and internationally.
Another important film from that year is Lucia, directed by Humberto Solás. It deals with stories about women; gender along with ‘race’ remained a key contradiction in Cuban Society. There were important films addressing these issues by several filmmakers, including the black director Serge Giral (who later emigrated) and Sara Gómez, who sadly died at the end of filming her first feature.
Later films that confronted such contradictions were Retrato de Teresa (Portrait of Teresa, 1979) directed by Pastor Vega and dealing with marriage and machismo. Alea directed two films that dealt sucessively with machismo and then gay sexuality.
In 1956 box office takings were 22 million pesos spread over about 500 cinemas, about 120 million admissions. Roughly this figure was maintained in the 1960s, though it fell in the 1980s to around 86 million. Ticket prices remained at about the same level over this period.
However, there was also a thriving 16 mm exhibition circuit, comprising mobile cinema vans, cultural clubs, schools, colleges and similar where admission was free. In the 1980s video salons replaced this circuit.
A number of films from ICAIC garnered audiences of over a million in both the 1960s and 1970s. These included films by Alea, Espinosa and Peréz also Vega’s Retrato de Teresa and Solás’ Lucia. In the 1980s three films achieved over two million, including Tabio’s Se permuta (For Exchange or House Swap, 1983).
In 1989 The International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema was instituted in Havana. This was followed by an International Film School and Foundation for Film. The title of New Latin American Cinema had arisen in two film festivals held in Chile in the late 1960s. It included not only Cuban film but important movements in Brazil (Cinema Novo), Argentina, Bolivia and Chile itself. There were frequent contacts and discussions and whilst the movements each had a distinctive approach there were also clear influences between them. There were also manifestos for this new political Cinema, the most famous being ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in Argentina.
ICAIC had developed its own journal in its early days, Cine Cubano. It included reviews, discussions and theoretical articles. Two seminal articles were Espinosa’s ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’ and Alea’s ‘The Viewer’s Dialectic’.
In 1980 Humberto Solás directed Cecilia, an adaptation of a well-loved 19th century Cuban novel by Cirilo Villaverde. The film, a European co-production, was far more expensive than other ICAIC productions. The adaptation of the novel was disliked and heavily criticised; the film lost money. Following this Guevara was sent as ambassador to Paris and Espinosa became the director of ICAIC. This was a difficult period, apart from the large migrations; the Cuban economy was suffering from its restricted nature and the effects of the US boycott. However, co-productions with other Latin American countries helped maintain a fairly high output of films, both features and documentaries.
Alea’s Hasta cierto punto (Up to a point, 1983) directly addresses contradictions in the revolution by looking squarely at the problem of machismo. Filmmakers are planning a film and research it among the Havana dockworkers. Alea filmed actual dockers’ meetings on video as part of the research for the film and then incorporated them into the final production.
Younger directors were making a mark in ICAIC and there was a relatively new approach using comedy to both criticise and laugh at the problems of life under siege.
!Plaff o demasiado miedo a la vida (Plaff!, or Too much Fear of Life, 1988), directed by Juan Carlos Tabío, is an anarchic film both a parody anda film that “allegorises the nation through their female characters. In this comic reduction of the nation’s problems to the conflict between mothers and daughters-in-law . . .”
The extreme changes in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s created severe economic and social problems in Cuba. There was a revival of private enterprise, the appearance of major international companies and a return to the dollar. Almost at the same time there was a crisis when an ICAIC film became the object of severe criticisms. Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas (Alice in Wondertown) directed by Daniel Díaz Torres won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival. But it scandalised numbers of people including senior members in the Communist Party. The film was withdrawn from exhibition and it was proposed that ICAIC should be merged with Cuban Television. The united opposition by ICAIC members prevented this but Espinosa resigned and Alfredo Guevara once more became director.
Filmmaking in the 1990s was difficult and parsimonious. Reputedly ICAIC could not afford to print some films up on celluloid and they had to be viewed on video. There was an increase in International co-productions, which generated income. Lista de espera (The Waiting List, 2000) directed by Tabío, is a Cuban, Mexican, German co-production. But a number of artists and craftsmen had to leave ICAIC, and often Cuba. In the 1980s ICAIC had generated some $7 million from international sales and services. Now, when subsidies had ended, they only managed under a million in one year. Even so, as can be seen in this Cuban season, ICAIC and Cuban filmmakers are still producing interesting and distinctive features. And there is a growth in amateur and independent film using video and digital formats.
The Cuban Image by Michael Chanan, bfi Publishing 1985. A detailed study of Cuban cinema in the first two decades after the revolution.
Twenty-five Years of the New Latin American Cinema, edited by Michael Chanan, C4/BFI 1983. This includes a brief overview and includes some of the important manifestos from the movement.
www.cubacine.cu/ (in Spanish)
www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc46.2003/chanan.cuba/index.html (‘Letter from Havana’ by Michael Chanan)
Over the next few weeks, we’ll try to cover as many Cuban films from the last fifty years as we can.