Cuban Lesbians on the Big Screen

Irina Echarry

irina1HAVANA TIMES — Some time ago, my friend Ivet was approached and asked to take part in a documentary about the lives of lesbian women in Cuba. Ivet is a little camera shy and turned down the offer.

We didn’t hear anything about the documentary after this and thought the film hadn’t gone through. On Friday, May 31st, however, the work premiered at Havana’s 23 y 12 movie theater. Titled “Women Between Heaven and Earth” (“Mujeres entre el cielo y la tierra”), Ingrid Leon Vila’s documentary is made up of interviews with eight different lesbians.

Though touching on a number of sensitive issues, the documentary does not have the tone of an indictment. At points, the score and montage tend to sugar-coat certain scenes or give them an epic grandeur that is over the top.

The voice-over is at times grandiloquent, the montage between different stories tends towards the choppy (leaving one wanting to know more about a specific experience) and, for my taste, the film overuses images of works of art and devotes too little time to the women interviewed.

None of this, however, prevented me from staying glued to my seat. Those responsible for getting me “hooked” are the eight women who invite us into the space of their lives.

I would have liked to have seen my friend narrate the ups and downs of her life: the shame she felt the day she had to pick up her clothes from garden in front of her apartment building, in front of the entire neighborhood, after her mother had thrown them out the window to signal her disapproval over “her behavior”; the angst that made her swallow a lethal cocktail of sleeping pills and alcohol…in short, Ivet opening up her heart to anyone who wanted to listen.

I know, however, that Ivet is not the only lesbian with plenty to say about suffering, intolerance and marginalization in society and the family.

irina2One need only look at how women have been oppressed throughout history, at how they have been controlled, mistreated and manipulated across the centuries, and at how they have struggled to emancipate themselves, to have a say over something that belongs to them alone: their body.

The issue of lesbianism, however, stretches beyond the feminist struggle for women’s rights and is more complex than the question of stigmas and labels. Lesbianism is misunderstood and condemned by people of different gender, race and educational level.

The tribulations faced by lesbian women usually begin at home, within the family, and almost always at a moment of great importance in the lives of most human beings: when one begins to search and define one’s identity.

One of the women interviewed in the documentary was thrown out of her home when she was 13 and lived in the street for a long time, sleeping in cemeteries or anywhere she could. Later in life, owing to social pressures, she married a man who would sexually abuse and threaten her. “He would hang ropes around the house, he’d say he was going to kill me and all of our boys.” One day, her husband hung himself.

Another woman tells us that, “at one point, I wasn’t sure whether what I was feeling was right or wrong.” She would ask herself who she was, the kind of person she was. Later, she had a hard time at university for not quite fitting the “feminine” stereotype. They would harass her, saying she was manlike. “I was so disheartened, I felt so much pain. It was so unfair, so inhuman, so contrary to the way a revolutionary should act. It was a huge disappointment for me, the worst time of my life. I didn’t understand the situation. The way I saw it, I was a revolutionary, a committed woman, exactly what the revolution called for.”

Another woman mentions that she knew she was different from the time she was a little girl, that her parents didn’t see “a pretty little girl, I was different from my cousins in the family.” Having no particular interest in pleasing anyone, she adds: “I walk the way I feel like walking, I talk the way I feel like talking.” She believes what’s important is being true to oneself.

Another interviewee fell into a deep depression. “I didn’t have the courage to tell my mother. I didn’t want to bathe or eat, I would listen to music and what I’d think about was ending my life.” So she asked a cousin infected with HIV for a bit of blood she could inject herself with. He gave it to her.

Yet another woman says she didn’t choose her identity to please others but to feel comfortable with herself and lead a happier life. “I’ve asked myself how I manage to be so strong. I haven’t found the answer. Because, I look like a strong person, but I am also very gentle, sweet and kind.”

irina3Each of the women shares moments of their lives, their illusions, their grief and their happiness with us. And, though their stories often have a tragic ending, all of them, in their own ways, have tried to love and longed to be loved, beyond schemes and labels, breaking away from stereotypes, hoping they will live to see the day in which society is sufficiently mature enough to accept them the way they are.

Personally, I feel this will take some time. During the screening, I heard people express pity or compassion towards the women. “Poor things,” some women sitting in front of me said.

Then, when these film’s protagonists got up from their seats and went on stage, these same women, somewhat taken aback, exclaimed: “My, they are quite the tomboys!”

Most of the women interviewed, however, are unfazed by such comments and show both the courage and desire to continue to fight for their happiness and to do as they please with their bodies. “If people aren’t willing to give you happiness, you have to take it, make it, invent it for yourself.” The society we live in, by the looks of it, isn’t yet ready to accept differences.

The truth of the matter is that we are accustomed to judging others on the basis of an image, an outward appearance, a stereotype, and never go to the essence of things.

My friend Ivet, the women interviewed in the documentary and all other lesbian woman still have much work ahead of them.

Irina Echarry

Irina Echarry: I enjoy reading, going to the movies and spending time with my friends. Many of the people I love are dead, or are no longer in Cuba. I will do my best to transmit my thoughts, ideas or worries via these pages so you can get to know me. I will give an idea of my age, since it helps explain certain things. I’m over thirty-five, and I think that’s enough information. I don’t have any children yet, or nieces or nephews. There are days when I transform myself into a child with no age at all in order to see life from another angle. It helps me break the monotony and survive in this strange world.