Films that Tackle Touchy Social Issues


Cuban Filmmaker Belkis Vega

HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 26. (IPS).- “Viviendo al límite” (Living to the Limit), a documentary by Cuban filmmaker Belkis Vega that follows the lives of five HIV-positive people, will be shown for the first time on Cuban television this week, four years after its release.

Films dealing with social issues often have a long road to travel from the project stage to production and an even longer road until they finally reach a mass audience. This was one of the conclusions reached at the First Thematic Exhibit of the Humberto Solás Low-Budget Film Festival, held Nov. 20-23 in the city of Cienfuegos, 256 kilometers southeast of Havana.

“Documentaries explore society’s wounds in an effort to cure them, to find a solution and close those wounds, but if they are not able to further knowledge and stir collective reflection and debate, and a search for solutions, you are left wondering if it was all really worth the sacrifice,” Vega told IPS.

This problem affects Cuban and foreign films that delve into such issues as gender stereotypes, violence against women, sexual diversity, and the stigma and discrimination of living with HIV/AIDS, and which are generally shown only at special screenings and festivals, reaching very small audiences.

On the other hand, Cuban television now regularly shows soap operas or campaign ads that touch on these topics, but only superficially, without exploring the causes or consequences and, in many cases, legitimizing the patriarchal, sexist or machista conduct they apparently seek to combat.

“The media (a state monopoly in Cuba) has no policy for approaching and dealing with these issues. Rather there is a lack of awareness of how important they are for our society to progress,” said Vega, who, while recognizing that some of these issues are no longer entirely invisible, still believes that they are discussed only randomly and inconsistently.

Television productions “don’t take into account the social and economic conditions that cause people to become infected with HIV, or the role that peer pressure can play. Viewers just don’t identify” with these portrayals, said Carlos Aragonés, coordinator of the non-governmental AIDS Prevention Group.

“We need to talk about people who hook up on a street corner and have sex any way they can, however they can and with whomever they can. The media has to shake things up,” Aragonés said during one of the debates of the thematic festival, which held sessions on issues like migration, gender violence, masculinity, sexual diversity and poverty.

Humberto Solas
Humberto Solas

The film exhibit paid tribute to the founder of the International Low-Budget Film Festival, renowned Cuban filmmaker Humberto Solás (1941-2008), who died Sept. 17, leaving some of the most memorable female characters in the history of Cuban filmmaking.

Solás, who helped shape the Cuban film industry, often chose to tell his stories through the eyes of a woman because, as he once said, “women reflect society more deeply, the effects of social transformation on a woman’s life are more transparent. Women have suffered more from society’s contradictions and are thus more sensitive to them and hungrier for change.”

But according to film critics Joel del Río and Rufo Caballero, who participated in the forum on Women in the Films of Solás, the late filmmaker’s work remains largely unknown to audiences and ignored by academics.

The Nov. 20-23 Thematic Exhibit was planned as a complementary and itinerant session of the International Low-Budget Film Festival, which is held every year in April in the eastern town of Gibara.

According to Sergio Benvenuto, who organized the exhibit, the aim was to “develop a professional space” that will guarantee “an ongoing exchange” among experts and filmmakers.

“The idea is not to tell each other how we should write, but to work out ideas so that we don’t fall into a trap or fail to reach our audience or go too far,” Salvador Miló, who wrote a screenplay on the effects of “machismo among people of the same sex,” focusing on the specific case of two boys harassed by other boys, told IPS.

The screenwriter’s project was selected for one of the screenplay writing workshops that ran parallel to the exhibit’s debates, with the participation of filmmaker Enrique Pineda Barnet, Women’s Studies Chair of the University of Havana, Norma Vasallo, and Cuban Higher Institute of the Arts Professor Danae Diéguez.

In addition to bringing together the worlds of science and art, two spheres that generally do not mix, the screenplay writing workshop and the Low-Budget Film Festival itself are aimed at effectively influencing the development of new socially-committed audiovisual projects and contributing to fund-raising efforts for their production.

The way films approach the issues they deal with – one of the aspects discussed – gave rise to a debate on the relationship between freedom and social responsibility in art, when participants analyzed certain song lyrics and television dialogues that encourage violence against women or convey racist or homophobic messages.

“We all have a responsibility and something to contribute. Artists may be free to write whatever they please, but we must have the freedom to criticize what they write,” said Julio Cesar Gonzalez Pages, coordinator of the Ibero-American Masculinity Network.

Based on an analysis of a documentary in which filmmaker Felix Zurita strongly denounces gender violence in Nicaragua, Gonzalez Pages, a historian, examined how a humorous approach to certain issues, such as sexual diversity or disabilities, can legitimize violence and discrimination.

“The media in Cuba is starting to discuss sexual diversity, but transsexuals and transvestites remain absent from this discussion and, when they do appear, they are always negatively portrayed,” Olivia Lam, a transgender currently being diagnosed by a committee connected with the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), told IPS.

“It never reaches the level necessary for people to understand us,” said Diana Padilla, who participated along with Lam and several experts in the roundtable on sexual diversity. “The more transvestites are portrayed in comical roles or as rapists in police dramas, the more we are stereotyped and judged as if we were all the same,” she commented to IPS.

Padilla is also one of the people interviewed in the documentary “ELla trabaja” (SHe Works), a film by Jesús Miguel Hernández that tells the story of a group of Cuban transvestites, the support they have been receiving from CENESEX for years, and their struggle to find a space that will allow them to be who they choose to be and still be included as part of society.

These issues have to be dealt with “realistically, without ambiguities, or a lukewarm or superficial approach,” psychologist Alain Darcout told IPS.

“In the case of art, formal aspects cannot stand in the way of content,” Darcout, an expert on education and the media at the Cienfuegos Health Palace, concluded.