In my last post I dealt with art that’s critical yet committed to expressing the realities of today’s Cuba. At that time I discussed the hip hop duo Los Aldeanos, while this time we turn our gaze to the work of filmmaker Eduardo del Llano.
Del Llano is a recognized Cuban script writer and author, who (under the playful and self-run banner of Sex Machine Productions) leads a group of artists committed to the creation of critical films that intelligently satirize our nation’s situation.
The entire series revolves around the adventures of the character Nicanor O’Donnell (a Cuban intellectual, critique and patriot) who has to simultaneously deal with family conservatism, the commercialization of everyday life, public simulation, press censorship and visits by police agents.
In one of his latest works, titled “Pravda” (the Russian term for “truth,” and which refers to the Communist Party newspaper, the principal publication of the USSR from 1918 to 1991), Nicanor is an admirer of the exploits at the Moncada Garrison, the 1953 guerrilla attack that marked the genesis of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Nicanor is arrested and subjected to interrogation for carrying out Kafkaesque “clandestine painting” employing revolutionary banners and slogans of the July 26th Movement. That film, set to music with a theme by the hip hop duo Los Aldeanos, is an excellent reflection of the relationship between art, activism and power in today’s Cuba.
The dialogues reflect the appropriation of nationalism and patriotism as state-owned property:
Nicanor: I’m a patriot
Agent: Yeah, that’s what they all say, as if this homeland is for everyone.
Nicanor: “It’s not?
Agent: No, it’s only for everyone…who deserves it.
Suspicion runs throughout the officialdom concerning any show of independence. Likewise, there’s an arbitrary categorization of citizens’ initiatives, regardless of what’s formally recognized by the law.
Agent: Why did you sneak outside several nights to paint banners and ‘long live the 26th’ on walls in Vedado?
Nicanor: I told you … I want to keep the original meaning alive, the ritual act.
Agent: The modus operandi…
Nicanor: If you like, though the term seems a bit worn-out… Look, those slogans always appeared clandestinely.
Agent: Before the revolution … when they were protesting the dictatorship … following your logic you paint because you’re a dissident, because it establishes a comparison between…
Nicanor: A dissident who paints graffiti with the slogans of the regime that he supposedly hates?
Agent: Nobody carries out patriotic assaults at three o’clock in the morning.
Nicanor: I do.
Agent: Well, that’s not normal.
Nicanor: That it’s not normal doesn’t make it subversive
Agent: What? – I’m the one who decides that.
Nicanor: Wow, I thought it was the law that made those determinations.
For those who are unfamiliar with the internal dynamics of political control in Cuba for half a century, this dialogue might seem surreal. However, this expresses almost exactly the type of arguments of the agents of power use when confronting activists and independent creators.
Anyone with experience in interacting with these agents (and their political culture) will testify to their viewing any criticism — even from the left — as being “subversive” or at least “manipulated by the enemy.”
Autonomous initiatives are “destabilizing actions by the CIA,” while calls for participatory socialism and popular self-organization are “fine for other countries, but not in Cuba, because here the revolution is already taking care of those concerns. And if anyone dares to defend their sincere involvement or membership in any left wing current, officials lash back saying “being left in Cuba is defending the ideas of Fidel and Raul,” thus slamming the door on any attempt at friendly dialogue.
But people tend to be stubborn when — in addition to believing in the cause they defend — perceive the position that confronts them as being orphaned.
But as for Nicanor, in an act of transparent transgression against power, he announces to his inquisitor: “Next Saturday I’m going to put up more graffiti, sickles and hammers along with the phrase ‘All Power to the Soviets.’”
I think that phrase condenses the idea of intent, libertarianism and patriotism, from art criticism that is determined on insisting, despite those “blows of life” as announced by the Cuban lyrics.
In this approach, like those taken every day through many decent and compassionate acts by doctors, teachers and ordinary people, the legacy of a revolution is still living (though damaged) , despite the dark forces that butcher it with their actions.