HAVANA TIMES — Is Cuban filmmaker Daranas’ new film, Conducta (“Conduct”), a political film? Of course it is: politics touches everything and everything, sooner or later, rubs up against politics.
One of the political dichotomies deployed by the film is the relationship between those Above and those Below.
Arbitrary and absurd directives and prohibitions that are entirely divorced from reality are handed down from a mysterious above. This realm is inhabited by people who “have been running this country for far too long.”
Below, by contrast, life itself flows with impetus and spontaneity, defending itself tooth and nail against any attempt at standardization. Below is the realm of violence and abject poverty – but also of beauty and values in all their purity and splendor (that is to say, idealized values).
The bridge between Olympus and the humble people of a school and neighborhood in Havana is made up of somber government officials – cowardly, strict, abusive and even cruel in their actions. The social worker, police officers and school principal in the film represent these officials.
This is what I would call a populist thesis. Populism is a recurrent discourse in Cuban cinema. It is often a guarantee of success, because our people (perhaps all people are the same in this regard) love to look in the mirror and see themselves aggrandized in the reflection.
Populism makes for successful movie plots, but it is ultimately a poor source of inspiration for a work of art. The problem is that it distends and simplifies the dramatic conflict, shifting the positive to one side, towards the people (who can be terrible but are good and kind-hearted deep down, it seems to say), and the negative towards the other pole.
It’s not that the director is lying. It’s true that, in Cuba, power has become sclerotic – it has been concentrated in very few hands and has lost authority. As a result of this, institutions operate in anomalous ways and governing becomes a headache.
Ernesto Daranas isn’t lying about any of this. However, a number of questions used to drive the story are treated in a populist fashion.
Let’s look at some of these questions:
Why aren’t people from Cuba’s eastern provinces allowed to live in Havana?
Why isn’t an experienced teacher given autonomy in her own classroom?
Why can’t the students do as they please with the bulletin board in the classroom?
The filmmaker has one answer to all of these questions: because of the square and absurd directives that come down from Above.
This is false. But, let’s move a little bit beyond criticism, let’s try and answer these questions more sincerely.
Who doesn’t want people from the eastern provinces in Havana?
In the first place, the people of Havana themselves, and those from the eastern provinces who have managed to establish themselves in Havana. The film, however, lays the blame on corrupt police officers and those who set down “the rules of the game.”
Why is it considered bad that a teacher should think outside the box in the classroom?
The director presents us with a teacher who embodies all of the values of Cuba’s independence heroes. Now, go to any school in Havana and ask the parents whether they think teachers should stray from the curriculum, see what they tell you.
Why can’t a stamp of the Virgin of Charity be put on the bulletin board?
On the bulletin board in the classroom where I taught, a thick layer of dust had covered the faces of Cuba’s independence heroes. The true heroes of the students were folklore devils and reggaeton music idols.
Why not let the kids draw one of these fearful masked devils or stick a photo of Daddy Yanky on the board?
Once again, the director made it all too easy, placing the holy Virgin of Charity at the center of the debate, literally pulling her out of hat as the act of selfless love enacted by the most beautiful, disciplined and intelligent girl in the classroom.
Those who know say that populism is a pose: it loves to stir up the people, but, deep down, it fears them. Sound familiar?
Daranas amuses himself slinging mud at the dinosaurs through jokes that are as forced as they are boisterously well-received by the audience. Some will likely see it as an act of courage, and it may just be that within the specific context of Cuba’s film industry. I, however, think there were less squeamish ways of being daring.
For instance: since the teacher was rebelling against those Above, why didn’t she take things a bit further, to question her own dictatorial authority in the classroom, for example? Instead, the director follows the hackneyed strategy of masking asymmetric power relations under the cloak of love and affection.
The teacher (and whoever wrote the script) would have been far more courageous if, instead of handling the charismatic whipper-snappers as an expert tamer, she had guided them to take control of the corral. Risky? Of course, but that’s what courage is all about.
The way I see it, the film establishes close ties with the most conservative region of the popular imaginary, that region that doesn’t want to know anything about true emancipation. I notice this, above all, in how it reproduces sexist stereotypes and how it glorifies those disrespectful macho-kids who become hoodlums when they grow up.
Weren’t the protagonists of Daranas’ previous film, Los dioses rotos (“Broken Gods”), photogenic pimps and thugs from the underworld?
There’s a strategy as old as humanity itself which consists in laying the blame for all of society’s evils on the old, ailing king who is no longer able to govern, to sacrifice him and replace him with a young, vigorous and charismatic leader who will restore order without radically changing anything.
The film appears to draw its impetus from the energy that emanates from that change, about to take place in Cuban society. Needless to say, we’ll never free ourselves from those Above that way.