By Yusimi Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES, Dec 18 — “When you go to Cuba you have to meet this woman,” said a friend to Swiss documentary maker Kristina Konrad back in 1998. That was upon learning of the cinematographer’s intention to travel to the island, while the woman the friend was referring to was Maite Vera, the writer of several Cuban TV series and soap operas over the past three decades.
Vera is the protagonist of the film “Cuando eramos felices y no lo sabiamos” (When we were happy but didn’t know it), a 76-minute documentary presented by Kristina Konrad in the “Made in Cuba” section of the recently concluded 33rd Havana Film Festival.
The filmmaker had previously won a prestigious Coral Award for the “best film on a topic about the continent by a non-Latin America director.” That was in 2005 for her reflective documentary on Nicaragua, entitled “Nuestra America” (Our America).
At first Kristina was interested primarily in life in Cuba, but little by little she began to delve into the person of Maite. “Fascinating” was the adjective she used to describe the Cuban writer when I asked Kristina why she had made a documentary about Maite.
This fascination is evident from the beginning of the film, which begins with the 70th birthday of the protagonist in 2000. This is not a documentary about the work of Maite Vera, but about her life and her persona.
Nonetheless, like in her life, her work plays an important role throughout the documentary. Fragments of her telenovelas are interspersed with scenes from her daily life – from moments of creation; exchanges with advisors, actors and directors; stories from the past; her relationships with her son, friends and neighbors.
Many Cubans feel Maite’s scripts reflect a rose-colored vision of the regime, and perhaps the explanation lies in this documentary.
We discover a woman who lived through the Batista dictatorship and belongs to the generation that built the Revolution, experiencing the excitement of that period. Likewise, within the years of the revolution she graduated from the University of Theatre and Drama – at the age of 50.
Therefore her vision could hardly be other than that of an active defender of the cause.
However one of the best moments of the documentary, one with the most heartfelt sincerity on the part of the protagonist, is when she recognizes the mistakes of the revolution. But she doesn’t lay the blame solely on the leaders. “We made mistakes too,” she says. “We were part of the wave, part of the miracle.”
Cuban reality is visible in this film. We see Maite in a taxi in which the driver comments that he couldn’t see a certain television program because Fidel Castro, the president at that time, was making a very long speech.
The documentary shows her with her ration book and the products she can buy with it. She’s no stranger to the difficulties or to the fact that these basic staples are insufficient.
Unlike most Cubans, Maite has plenty of sugar and other things that she can share with her neighbors. While this is partly because she lives alone, the surplus is mainly because her economic situation is privileged, as she acknowledges in the film.
Her son, Humberto Gomez Vera, is a musician who lives in Denmark with his wife and one of his daughters. Since Maite visits them once a year, Konrad accompanied her on her trips to Copenhagen and shows the relationship between the mother and son, with all its love and conflict.
Humberto’s vision of what it means to be a Cuban musician in Denmark is another compelling moment in the documentary. His is not the classic story of a Cuban who married a European to leave Cuba. “I brought my Cuban wife with me,” he explains.
Humberto describes himself as the only Danish mulatto. He doesn’t idealize his life in Denmark, nor the one he left on the island. He made a decision that has had its pros and cons, and he lives according to those.
Many viewers feel nostalgic viewing shots from “El viejo espigón,” considered one of Maite Vera’s biggest hits.
As for me, being too young to have seen it at the time, my curiosity was limited to asking about the difficulties involved in its production. Maite explains that to her disappointment it wasn’t possible to film in a real port, so an imitation had to be created in the studio; in addition, they had to do lots of close up shots, since the ambiance of the port wasn’t present.
“Of the six leading actors, five were black – not mulattos, but black,” said Maite. Something that had not been seen on the Cuban screens until then, or since.
In the documentary, she speaks of her solitude with a vision very distinct from what’s shown in her soap operas. In those, her characters almost always end up in a loving relationship with a partner, but unlike them, Maite lives alone.
For ten years, Kristina Konrad filmed the life of this woman. With no other photographer than herself, she wasn’t even sure what would become of those images.
It’s perhaps because of this that the documentary turned out with such a spontaneous and dynamic feel. Maite is not sitting in a chair talking about her life, but living it in front of the camera.
The naturalness of the character is another plus for the film. I was able to confirm that the naturalness of the person we see on the screen was not feigned.
On Wednesday, December 7, while waiting for the screening of the film, Maite Vera was there with tickets for her neighbors and other friends. She commented that she had overdressed for the occasion, but she then said, nonchalantly: “I might put on heels to go to the market, though I’m in tennis shoes to go to the Radio and Television Office (ICRT).”
Admirers and detractors still see her name in the credits of some of the current telenovelas. At age 81, Maite Vera continues to work.