Filmmaker Guillen Landrian: Cuba’s Loose Cannon

Irina Echarry

Guillen Landrian

HAVANA TIMES — The last New Filmmakers’ Festival had a special series of screenings in tribute to the late Nicolas Guillen Landrian. The showing of nine of his documentaries was a great gift to those who hadn’t seen (or only knew a small part of) his films.

Los del baile (“The Dancers”, 1965), Coffea Arabiga (1968), Ociel del Toa (1965) and Taller de Linea y 18 (“The Workshop on Linea Street”, 1971) are films that help us understand a period of time in Cuban history. In the convulsive 60s and 70s, most of the Cuban people had jumped on the wagon of the revolution without thinking twice, and going against the current could meet with punishment. Though the Film Art and Industry Institute (ICAIC) was a kind of niche where a certain degree of creative freedom existed, it was not free from external controls and censorship.

On the decision of a handful of individuals – and thanks to the consent of many – intellectuals were expected to agree with and place their art at the service of the changes that were taking place on the island…or leave the country. The logic went that whoever dared think differently, played into the “hands of the enemy” or for opposing the socialist realist norms that were being established, had no place among a people that was making extreme sacrifices for the sake of a better life.

This helps explain why the work of Guillen Landrian, which survived the poor conservation efforts devoted to it, was not divulged. There are Internet sites where one can find his works, which also circulated via USB memories or DVDs, but they aren’t included in any film or television programs (they are not even mentioned in spaces dealing with cinema). There is no official or public acknowledgement of Guillen Landrian’s film production – it is as though he had never existed. A mere two or three film critics have studied his films.

When we take a look at the period these films were made in, we find the reason for such an omission. Landrian made highly personal films that had very little to do with the kind of cinema being produced in Cuba at the time. The cultural policy that had become institutionalized declared that the most important thing was the work of the revolution and that one had to praise it without any irony, sophistication or great innovation. Such praise had to be direct, so that people would understand it, and so that it could not be interpreted as ironic. This is when this experienced young man came along, with films that were difficult to label, critical and permeated by many currents that were in vogue in other parts of the world (the French New Wave, cinema verité, and others), currents he drew from without excess, only to shape his style – a man who was playful at a time of much stress and seriousness.

It is said he led a very intense life; that he suffered from cancer more than once, was hospitalized and even subjected to several electroshock sessions. Some speak of schizophrenia, others claim that, isolated, unable to film anymore, he decided to stage a great “performance” and burnt down the poultry farm he had been sent to for “rehabilitation,” owing to his “ideological deviancy.”

Watching his films and reading about his life, however, one gets a sense of Landrian’s “true” crime: he never legitimated the masses, nor did he identify with them, not out of contempt, but in defense of his own identity.

Skirting the epic style, heroic deeds and important leaders, Landrian took his camera into the inner world of those who no one paid attention to, highlighting those who, lost in the faceless mass, had become invisible. He pulled them out of there and focused on them as individuals. This way, he documents life in a neighborhood in the capital or travels to Baracoa in the far east of the country, where he documented the work at coffee plantations, films assemblies, shows us the life of a teenager who works at the Toa river, delves into the inner functioning of a bus assembly plant or stages the allegorical burial of ignorance – always focusing on human beings and their life stories.

One of his films’ distinctive features is that, in addition to capturing the daily lives of people, he made them look directly at the camera, without doing anything other than observe us. Landrian’s sincere and sometimes crude gaze is reflected in these faces, penetrating the eyes of all subjects, regardless of their race or gender.

For some time, he was assigned to work at a department that produced didactic documentaries. I imagine a restless spirit like Landrian must have felt constricted by such a position, but he didn’t let that get to him. Hence the sarcasm we catch sight of in Como construir una casa (“How to Build a House”, 1972), a tutorial that, as the title indicates, gives step-by-step instructions for the building of a home, making reference to Cuba’s movement of workers who built their own homes. It is almost a television lesson with repeated phrases, emphasizing the order of the steps to follow and enumerating the indispensable materials and resources for the work, making it clear that the most important element are human beings.

In Los del baile, the camera shows us a group of people, the same people who take part in mass rallies, voluntary work, trade union meetings, the same people caught in the whirlpool of changes taking place in the country, but we do not see them parading or working the land. These humble folk, rather, are seen dancing to the rhythm of Cuba’s Pello el Afrokan and other popular melodies.

With a far from conventional score (in which the voice of workers blends with the sounds of tools and music – Taller de Linea y 18 succinctly and provocatively presents us with the two parallel worlds in which Cuban workers lived: production and politics.

A commissioned piece that became something of a rare film jewel (owing to its ironic take on the notorious Havana Coffee Belt, its high-speed montage and the use of signs that interact with the audience) is Coffea Arabiga. For those who had any doubts about his irreverence, Landrian ends the documentary (made in 1968) with The Fool on the Hill playing in the background, a piece by a band then forbidden in Cuba, The Beatles.

That is why his name is barely ever mentioned, even though his work, which used photo montage techniques, crazy scores and plenty of subjective creativity, reflect the turbulent times he lived in: because he questions this reality and uses mockery to keep it from dominating him. So, it was better to grant Santiago Alvarez the documentary throne, for he was a filmmaker who, in addition to producing quality materials, did know what the times called for…or didn’t he?

Let us recall that, at the time, whoever dared think differently was accused of playing into the “hands of the enemy” or if one opposed the socialist realist norms that were being established they had no place among a people that was making extreme sacrifices for the sake of a better life. Now, what was then understood as a better life? The question has far too many answers.


One thought on “Filmmaker Guillen Landrian: Cuba’s Loose Cannon

  • Thanks for sharing with us, Irina, and for the Vimeo and YouTube links to two of his works. I remember seeing “En un barrio viejo” in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, but I forget under which circumstances. These haunting documentaries are real time capsules, and the nearest we will ever have to the ability to go back in time; they remind me of the very first I.C.A.I.C. documentary (also banned–or shelved), “P.M.” by Cabrera-Infante (the brother, not the novelist) of a Saturday night amongst the bars of Regla (also available on YouTube). For another interesting documentary, also see “La Tumba Francesa,” (the one circa 1961, not the more recent ones), also available on YouTube
    Thanks for rescuing Guillen Landrian from an undeserved and unjust obscurity. I hope he gains the wider audience he deserves.

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