by Lynn Cruz
HAVANA TIMES — The following text silently fades in over black: “Cuba is a socialist Latin American island nation where the State controls most of the means of production to guarantee the wellbeing of its citizens.” Thus begins Marcelo Martin’s documentary, El tren de la linea norte (“The North Line Train”).
The film documents a journey that begins at the station in Moron and ends at Punta Alegre in the central Cuban province of Ciego de Avila. Since its creation, the train has been virtually the only means of transportation connecting these two destinations. It makes a stop at Falla, a town the filmmaker has intimate ties to, located in the municipality of Chambas.
Alcohol, cock fights, sugar, rum, dead cattle and ruined buildings – these are the images of an impressionist montage intercut with the story. The filmmaker undertakes a journey in search of a lost paradise, visiting different places around the town, now unfamiliar to him, but still alive in his childhood memories.
This obsession may well be his worst enemy, for, in his efforts to report on the town’s ills, he fears being misunderstood and begins to explain with words what the images are already revealing on their own. The camera penetrates the town, makes its way into its different spaces and approaches its different actors, the inhabitants of Falla.
The townspeople are picking up and sweeping away the last remnants of the carnival. Martin gradually pulls away the masks of joy and festivity. Now, he is a stranger in search of answers from these people, from the ones who stayed. It is a trip back home, undertaken from the distance the lens affords.
The documentary conveys the urgent need to rescue Falla’s collective memory. Different generations reveal their specific ways of enduring the same problem: forgetfulness. What has happened? Why have the town’s old buildings disappeared? Why is there no longer a theater in town? Why has the baseball stadium been turned into a stable? Why does no one take the time to repair the movie theater, the only place devoted to cultural activities that’s still standing?
We are presented with lives trapped in neglect and indolence. Rodolfo, one of the townspeople, says: “The house was abandoned and people started taking away the bricks.” He’s referring to the home of the former sugar refinery owner. “Before, the town was very lively,” Juan Antonio, a young computer programmer, says with regret. “There used to be a hotel there, in that park,” Chayo, an 80-year-old woman recalls. “The library was once a visual arts and theater venue, but later, I don’t know how, we lost all that,” Milagros, the library woman, remembers.
The director breaks with this and takes his critique further. He ceases to rummage through the past to focus on the harsh living conditions of the townspeople at the margins of society, particularly the Afro-Cuban population, the most underprivileged. Through this, he also captures the town’s moral decline and lack of opportunities. “Falla’s lost all its men. They’re all in prison for killing cows,” says “El Pichon,” a young ex-convict.
Who is responsible for social work in town? What happened to the social workers who led the “energy revolution” throughout the country? Many questions remain as we hear the testimonies of the townspeople. Martin conducts a kind of survey and gradually approaches not only the town’s problems, but also their causes and culprits.
Falla’s main sources of income are “sugar, alcohol, rum and cattle.” In a parallel montage, we are shown the scant employment options available to the townspeople, intercut with what those interviewed tell us. The montage gives viewers the feeling of being trapped. The conditions these people live in stem from the existing companies’ inability to generate jobs and satisfy the real needs of the population.
A storm breaks: the carnival. This way, we are shown the dilapidated houses and cultural venues, worn down by time, neglect and hurricanes – the individual versus the system, a common motif since Memories of Underdevelopment. Little by little, the filmmaker arrives at a higher truth, that true corruption is not to be found at street level but among higher-ups, in the municipal Party council and in the management of State companies.
A seemingly isolated phenomenon prompts new questions. Why is there no transparency at State companies? If socialism places human beings at the center of everything, how have the inhabitants of Falla arrived at such a dehumanizing state of affairs, become lives caught between today and the promises of a tomorrow that never seems to arrive? Humans are finite beings, “the time is now.”
“The problem you see over there is the same problem the refinery at Varona has, because of the cattle, more than a thousand hectares.” “When you go see a government official, they don’t solve your problem. They lower their heads like cats and look the other way.” So says a farmer working the land under Cuba’s usufruct decree 259.
As Martin delves more deeply into and discovers more about the town, he begins to mingle more with the locals and to become involved in its history. At first, he only does so with Chayo. People’s despair, their loss of faith in the government, becomes overwhelming. This is evident in those who work for the State and those who don’t. Discredited because of people’s lack of rights and irregularities in terms of duties, this State produces discontent and bitterness.
This is a road movie with a soundtrack reminiscent of old Westerns, a score that gives the film an ironic tone. Pollution and unsanitary conditions characterize the town’s daily life, as those with power are implicated in increasingly shadier episodes. Martin’s investigation, recalling those of Michael Moore at times, continues, as the filmmaker demands that the pertinent authorities offer a response and goes after these when they do not.
At the beginning of the film, Chayo turns on a radio. We see this again near the end of the film, as we revisit the same, unresolved issues. The radio connects us with what lies beyond the town’s limits and borders. It is a symbol of freedom. Thus, the train says goodbye to the town, its people and the spaces they inhabit. It would seem to be the end.
The filmmaker wanted to be true to the train’s itinerary, so he boards it again and heads to its last destination, Punta Alegre. We are presented with a desolate landscape before the sea. We have put the sullen Falla behind us and what we find ahead isn’t better. No words are needed.
The artful cinematography, the spontaneity of the characters, are other positive aspects of the film. This is an uncomfortable social testimony, leaving spectators feeling impotent and disconcerted. The train of the north line has shown us a side of Cuba we don’t often see.