By Irina Echarry (photos: Juan Suarez)
HAVANA TIMES — Those of us who attended the opening of the 14th New Filmmakers’ Festival earlier this week were witness to an important development – not only because the lesser known pictorial works of documentary filmmaker Nicolas Guillen Landrian were shown in the lobby of the Chaplin cinema, but also owing to the film they reserved for the occasion.
Carlos M. Quintela’s La obra del siglo (“The Work of the Century”) was filmed in Cuba’s Juragua nuclear city, in the province of Cienfuegos, a place that invokes the great illusions the island harbored during the 1980s.
Thousands of engineers and technicians traveled to the Soviet Union to study their disciplines, an atmosphere of hope prevailed, and a city where the workers of the Caribbean’s first nuclear power plant would live began to be constructed. And that was only the beginning. Cuba hoped to build 12 reactors along the length of the island, with the aid of the sister Soviet Union.
The film not only deals with an unfinished project but also delves into the human aspect of the process, into the frustration of abandoned dreams.
In addition to stock footage (the filmmaker uses materials from Tele Nuclear which follow the process of constructing the plant and city), a fictional story is used to develop the film’s story. It is a simple, everyday story rendered in a direct, unflinching manner, without apologies or embellishment, almost as if to make the spectator feel a part of it.
Three lonely men, three different generations – grandfather, father and grandson – share an apartment in the nuclear city, in one of the model, Soviet-styled buildings that flourished across the country at the time. An amalgam of disappointment, love, isolation, the longing to be in control, lovelessness, fear and sadness has engendered men who rub each other the wrong way, confront one another and survive in the reduced space of the dwelling.
I am grateful that film does not limit itself to a nostalgic lament for the pro-Soviet era we experienced, like other materials. The collapse of the Soviet Union not only put an end to the country’s dream of “progress;” it also turned into a nightmare, doing away with individual illusions of personal realization, in the human and professional spheres.
Another of the film’s achievements is that it does not exclusively aim to be liked by the critics, no doubt capable of praising its cinematography and interpreting a number of codes and symbols, relying on a language and tone that manages to capture all audiences.
The film’s central concerns leave us with a number of questions. What do the inhabitants of this ghost city think of the abandoned project today? Though it offers a testimony of the everyday, the film does not give the nuclear city’s current inhabitants a voice, perhaps in order to stress their ghostly or shadowy existences.
Did the project meet with any kind of opposition? It’s hard to know, particularly when the press of the time underscores only the “positive” side of the enterprise. The question that remains relevant and we should continue to pose: would it not have been wiser to accept our condition as an underdeveloped country and spend all of the money invested in that pipe-dream into something more in step with our reality? What does reaching for the stars get us when we barely know the ground beneath our feet?
La obra del siglo is a sincere film that does not rely on the kind of sentimentalist manipulation that has tainted Cuban cinema in recent times. There are no laments or wallowing in sadness, only the the acceptance of a reality – a reality that, among other things, ought to make us reflect on dreams, that perfect seasoning that adds zest to life but, when used in excess, can leave us with a truly bad taste in our mouths.