Facade of Elena, the building in Centro Habana which inspired Marcelo Martin’s new documentary
From Café Fuerte
HAVANA TIMES — While Havana’s old town continues to experience a visible architectural and socio-cultural renewal, unattended buildings in the neighboring borough of Centro Habana languish and deteriorate before the eyes of its tenants and the inertia of government authorities.
The area was once a zone of transition between Havana’s colonial-era settlements and the more modern buildings that were being constructed in the fledgling neighborhood of Vedado. Its magnificent edifices profited from an urban development program undertaken between 1827 and 1840. Today, nothing but a decaying image of these achievements remains.
Elena (2012), a documentary by filmmaker Marcelo Martin Herrera, affords us powerful images of the collapse of Centro Habana, which continues to crumble and offers no hope of ever becoming a habitable neighborhood again. The 42-minute film takes its title from the name of one of the buildings located on 117 Vapor Street, between Espada and Hospital Streets, built in 1927.
The result of three years of investigative journalism and interviews with the tenants of the ramshackle building, Elena is one of the most compelling testimonies about Havana’s architectural debacle produced in recent times.
A graduate of Cuba’s Higher Institute of Industrial Design (ISDI), screenwriter and director Martin Herrera (Havana, 1980) began his career making graphic designs and animated publicity for television. He is currently a filmmaker and publicist attached to the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC).
230 buildings collapse each year
The film was screened at ICAIC’s 12th Young Filmmakers’ Festival this past April, where it received an honorary mention. To date, it has not been scheduled for screening at any of Cuba’s movie theatres or shown on Cuban television.
With 163,763 inhabitants and covering an area of five square kilometers (a mere one percent of the capital’s total surface area), Centro Habana is Havana’s most densely-populated neighborhood.
According to official figures, the neighborhood is made up of 46,277 residences, 22,712 of which are in poor condition and 4,198 of which are in a critical state. Some 230 buildings collapse within the boundaries of Centro Habana every year.
A total of 24,311 of its residents are currently living in “temporary shelters”, a government euphemism used to describe facilities where large numbers of homeless people are lodged, usually for long periods of time.
“I haven’t seen a news report that captures the country’s debacle as honestly and as unflinchingly in years,” a Cuban State journalist told CaféFuerte. “Though Elena is a documentary about a concrete, everyday reality, it also captures, through metaphor, the irrecoverable ruins of Cuban history and of an architectural heritage that is vanishing all around us.”
Our source (who asked to remain anonymous) believes that now, when the assemblies in preparation for the 9th Congress of the Federation of Cuban Journalists (UPEC) scheduled for July 14 and 15 are underway, Elena ought to be shown to communications professionals.
Martin opens his documentary with a screen showing Article 9 of Cuba’s Constitution: “The State shall work to ensure that no citizen is denied comfortable housing.” He closes the film with a dedication: “To Havana, a city that is still waiting.”
The documentary began to be shot in October of 2009, when a work brigade from the Salvador Allende Contingent was expected to undertake the building’s renovation. Repair work had actually begun earlier, in 2000, but had been suspended.
“The building’s stairway collapsed, like New York’s Twin Towers,” an interviewee who identifies himself as “Manolo” remarks in the documentary. Elena’s tenants were moved to a shelter, but many returned to the building, the victims of daily thefts and despair.
“Everything I owned was stolen from me at the shelter. I lived in the shelter for eight years and I have absolutely no hope of getting anywhere,” a woman says.
Though Elena is not suitable for residence, it is still inhabited, like many other buildings in Centro Habana. To access it, tenants use a corridor built between the edifice and a neighboring building. Many apartments and rooms have no kitchens or bathrooms, and leakages and sewage, full of excrement and worms, are a common sight.
A never-ending lie
“All of this is one big lie, an insult…I have devoted my entire life to the revolution, in Cuba and abroad,” tells Gregorio, an elderly gentleman who took part in internationalist combat missions when young.
Gregorio lives surrounded by putrid waters that overflow into his quarters constantly. He is forced to take out bucketfuls of sewage regularly. He tells that a public official offered to unclog his drains, but asked for 40 dollars for the service (about one thousand Cuban pesos).
“I don’t have 40 dollars. I can offer 100 or 200 pesos (4 to 8 dollars), at most, because I can’t afford anything else with my pension,” Gregorio explains.
Emilio, another tenant, brings a crushing reality to the fore: “A person can’t go 25 years without a bathroom or kitchen.”
Elena documents the telephone calls to different State institutions and the headquarters of the construction brigade, which were unable to offer an explanation for their evident neglect of the building. All they secure are evasive replies and promises which, at the close of 2012, had not yet been fulfilled.
“The documentary opens with nightmarish images of unnamable bugs moving in the waste water that floods the building’s quarters every day, and closes with the photographs and addresses of other buildings in Centro Habana – a small sample of buildings as deteriorated as Elena, or already a pile of rubble,” filmmaker Eduardo del Llano wrote in his blog. “Elena is one of those critical pieces which, in addition to being rigorous and energetic, reveal imagination and even a sense of humor. It is a protest piece, but it is also cinema.”