HAVANA TIMES, March 25 — What is it to be a revolutionary in the 21st century? Where are the values in Cuban culture? How is a socialist society built? The questions rained down on us. As the debate heated up, more the questions are laid bare. Thus we see them: stark naked, challenging reason, rigid thought and dogma.
The main figures were a handful of young film directors, a couple of critics and teachers, an odd cultural director or two, with the rest being aficionados of the art of reflecting. The setting, by a wise stroke of luck, was the Jose Marti Cultural Society. To “think Cuba,” this discussion session was convened by the Criticism and Research Section of the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz (AHS) in Havana.
When I arrived the round table had been occupied for a while. The theme: Cuba in the audiovisual realm and the role of the new creators.
It’s necessary to start from a truth: Cuban directors have historically been obsessed with representing Cuba to the detriment of a formal search, said Danae Diéguez, who was both on the panel and its coordinator. Danae is a professor at the Superior Institute of Art (ISA) and organizer of the New Directors Showing, which is the most important and controversial event of the new audiovisual artistic vanguard.
“Also prior to 1959, Cuba and our culture were permanently at the center of film production,” pointed out veteran critic Gustavo Arcos. “The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) has critically undertaken the action of coming closer to our reality. So then, to what extent is the discourse of new directors distanced from that of the older generation?”
Karel Ducasse, the author of award-winning works such as Zona de silencio, argues that the interest in approaching the theme of Cuba “comes to us because it’s a reality that is painful to us because it’s not carried out with the participation of everyone. The leaders should understand that social processes are undertaken with everyone involved and with diverse opinions. A society cannot be built on the basis of orders and commands. If the Revolution continues like this, little time is left.” That’s her opinion – lapidary and cutting, but hers. And she’s not the only one, as we’ll see shortly.
For Arcos, who is also a professor at ISA, in the polemical inspiration of the young Cuban audiovisual artist there is a continuity. “It’s only that this contemptuous look at the environment is adjudged by the circles in power, which reject it for not entering into the ‘revolutionary paradigm’. Buy what I want to know is… What is it to be a revolutionary in the 21st century?
Dead silence. The questions, seemingly rhetorical, come forth. And their numeric superiority was distressing, but not disconcerting. “It’s less harmful to agitate yourself with doubt than to relax in error,” wrote the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni.
Immersed in demystifying traditional values, criticizing the bureaucracy, poverty, paranoiac censorship, cultural policies, as well as racial, educational, migratory and other problems, this alternative production framework —uncontrolled by the industry or by any other cultural institutions— has met with formidable resistance when trying to present them, especially on television stations, all state-run. “Many limitations exist, despite some signs of openness,” Danae recognized.
According to Arcos, what’s most unfortunate is that “people are distanced from the works of the new creators. New technologies are also an opportunity to decentralize distribution, since in Cuba there are no alternative theaters run by small independent operators.”
The creators themselves admitted that new technologies have helped them a great deal; however, “We’re out of step and it’s difficult for us to assimilate these,” they indicated.
Some restless voices among the public now began to couch their pronouncements. Reinier (a young producer who is a graduate in art history) complained that “confronted with limitations in making holistic, systematic understandings…, the responses of young directors are fragmented.”
Another certainty then appeared and received an explicit majority consensus among the audience: the works of the new directors have covered a space that the media abandoned. No one refuted the coordinator’s statement. There are no shades of opinion in the Cuban media; that’s a concrete truth.
“It’s true,” said Karel Ducasse, “but there’s a need to embrace new issues, ‘to look behind the mirror’, meaning that our work has to attain universality.”
“I believe the impact of some works exists because there’s a commitment to reality. Those are revolutionary works,” underlined Guatemalan director Alejandro Ramirez, who is very involved with Cuba and is the author of documentaries such as De Moler and Monteros, among others.
The end of the voyage approached. The clipper ship of discussion made its way to the port of answers – which didn’t mean solutions.
“Where are the values of Cuban culture?” shot Arcos again. “To tie Cuban art and culture to obsolete frameworks could bring an end to the Revolution. The powers that be give too much dimension to a work when they censor it. If you believe a book, a song or a movie will change a nation then your country is poorly constructed. But over and above that, these are revolutionary works. The authorities have to be attentive to what the youth are thinking, not the other way around.”
From the public, the young intellectual Julio Caesar Guanche enriched the discussion by noting: “A long bureaucratic tradition exists that classifies all thought that is different as being bourgeois and decadent. Bureaucratic censorship is one thing and serious ideological technical critique is another very different one. We lack this latter capacity. Artistic quality needs a favorable environment for the critic, directed as much to the social context as to the work itself.”
Before closing the curtains, Danae Diéguez made a polemic confession: “I love piracy. However, I have an ethical conflict as the organizer of the Film Showing. Though I believe in this form of dissemination, it’s contradictory for me to encourage it due to my having to respect the rights of the creators.”
Clearly the phenomenon is more complex from “up close” than from “afar.” And, as we saw at the beginning, uncertainty can be the mother of ideas. The ignoramus affirms, while the sage doubts and reflects, said Aristotle.
“These works propose a re-dimensioning of revolutionary values by locating the actions of youth in the present and not in the future. It’s necessary to speak of our world today,” concluded Arcos.
Paraphrasing the title of a valuable documentary by a Cuban resident in Switzerland, Sandra Gomez —who was also present in that forum— many ended up affirming aloud “The future is today.” And it’s also ours, I might add.