HAVANA TIMES — “I brought my handkerchief,” a woman said, “because I always end up crying.” There are many people like her crowding in the hallway of Havana’s 23rd y 12th Street movie theater, waiting to experience the powerful, disturbing and dramatic stories often told by the documentaries of Cuba’s Paloma project.
This particular documentary, Ingrid Leon’s Mujeres…la historia dorada (“Women: The Golden Story”) beats all previous films in terms of emotional outbursts: a dozen women sit in front of the camera, each tearing out bits of pain, anguish and perseverance from inside themselves and throwing these in front of the audience.
It’s October 11, International Day of the Girl Child, and the premiere of Mujeres becomes the first activity of the Ellas Crean (“Creative Women”) Festival, organized by the Spanish Embassy in Cuba. A collective photo exhibition greets us in the lobby of the cinema.
The theater was packed, and many had to stand throughout the 33-minute-long documentary. The theater employees scheduled another screening for those who were left out.
I wonder what it is that attracts people to these stories. Is it compassion, morbid curiosity, feelings of solidarity?
Josefina, a retired teacher, says that she hasn’t missed a single thing done by Lizette Vila (and the Paloma Project), because “they always portray the human side of things. It may sound crazy, but I like seeing other people’s misfortunes. It’s a way of reaffirming how grateful I should be for the life I have.”
Xiomara, a nurse, fanning herself more and more quickly, points out that “we all have our share of unhappinness and problems, no one is a stranger to pain. If it’s not because of a sick relative, it’s because of unrequired love or frustration over something. You could make a movie with any one of us.” Those around her nod in agreement and continue to talk about what they saw in the documentary.
Stories like slaps on the face come one after the other, without giving the spectator any respite: a writer whose works were censored after she expressed disagreement with the cultural policy of Cuba’s so-called “Five Grey Years”, mothers who have lost their daughters, others who have raised two sick children on their own, a renowned athlete who managed to overcome an accident she had at home, a victim of domestic violence, the attorney who was unjustly convicted and awaits justice, and others. All of the stories are told with humility, taking us from distress to a place of balance and peace. Getting the pain out, expressing it, making it public, is already a step towards overcoming it.
It’s a shame the documentary relies excessively on tears and sappiness, as though the issues of suicide, violence, abandonment, incomprehension, loneliness or injustice were not sufficiently dramatic in and of themselves. Even when those interviewed express hopes and dreams, the film’s sentimentalism (a pompous-sounding voice-over, the camera waiting for the timely tears, melancholic music, a far too sentimental homage to Havana) becomes overwhelming, acting as a kind of hook for an audience accustomed to cheesy soap operas.
People’s emotions are piled on top of each other without leaving any room for thought. There is no reflection on pain, the film merely exposes and describes it. These are important issues that need to be addressed, as the official press does not tackle it in its pages. The documentary allows us to get to know these anonymous women that make up the Cuban people, but it is a mistake to force us to feel pity for them. I refuse to feel sorry for these women. I want to understand them, admire them, sympathize with them, help them.
In the documentary, Lina de Feria, the woman whose works were censored for more than 20 years, tells us: “We need to speak about pain (…) we need to speak about it so people know this pain and Cuba becomes a better place.” Of course, we have to speak up, to scream, let others know you’re there, but we must leave all melodrama where it belongs, in soap operas and Sunday films, for tears and sorrow prevent critical thought and productive debate.