Alfredo Ureta, a Cuban Video and Filmmaker

Helson Hernandez

Alfredo Ureta on a radio show.

HAVANA TIMES, May 31– “Although the public currently associates me more with music videos, I feel like a person of the cinema,” Cuban video and filmmaker Alfredo Ureta told HT.  And speaking of cinema, Ureta’s first full length film “La Mirada” (The Look) – shot over four years – is coming out soon.

HT:  How did an interest for the audiovisual world enter your life?

Alfredo Ureta: Many people think I’m a graduate of ISA (the Superior Institute of Art) or some other art school, but the fact is that I’m not.  My training was principally as a telecommunications engineer, something that doesn’t have a great deal to do with audiovisual production or the cinema.

I’ve always had an interest in images, ever since I was young.  I was born in Havana but when I was five my mother moved to Colon, in Matanzas Province.  To keep me occupied in something positive she used to let me go to a small cinema that didn’t even have a roof.  It was near our house, on the same block, and was one of the few places that I could go – so I went there a lot.

I remember one day the manager of the cinema knocked on the door of our house to talk to my mother.  She wanted her to speak with me so that I wouldn’t go to the movies so much.  It seemed that even the employees there were complaining because when they had poor quality movies or reruns, I was the only person who would show up for them.  I would be the only person sitting there watching them and they had to work just for me (laughter).

I always have an image in my mind: It was almost 11:00 at night and they were showing an old movie with “Cantinflas” (a character played by the Mexican actor Mario Moreno).  I think it was The Three Musketeers, and I was watching it for the fifth time.  Suddenly I saw that they’d turned the lights on there in the cinema and my mom appeared.  She walked in front of the screen looking for me.  Imagine, I’d been there since noon and it was going on midnight…

Later I began my studies in the field I referred to previously, and when I was there the idea occurred to me and a friend for us to buy a video camera.  Back then they had the old Beta Max, which seem so basic when you look at them today, but they were good cameras. We approached the video department at the school, and that’s where we learned how to edit.  After graduating I even stayed there working in that same video department, performing what we call our social service commitment there.  Actually everything I was doing had a lot to do with audiovisual work.  I can’t say that I ever really worked in my career field since I never focused on it.  Instead, I stayed in this other world which I’m a part of today.

HT:  Your first works were in the cinema but not actually in the production or directing.

AU: Yes, I always thought about being a film director, but when I began in cinematography it was in photography, first as a camera assistant and later as a camera operator.  This was why I had the opportunity to follow up on an offer to work at the San Antonio de los Baños International Film School, where I spent almost three years.

I didn’t go to the film school just to teach, more than anything it was for learning, because thanks to it I was able to get closer to celluloid, working in the development labs, allowing me training like this that was more cinematographic than television-related, because though currently the public associates me more with music videos, I feel more like a person of the cinema, as I’ve said before.

HT:  So do you think that this whole process has had an aesthetic influence on the definition of the audiovisual work of your videos?

AU: Yes, I think so.  What I always try to do in my videos is tell a story, even if it’s only to a minimal degree, and that’s something inherent in the cinema.  With respect to videos, I believe that my audiovisual aesthetics is related more to the cinema than to television.  It’s difficult for me to approach making a spot for advertising, which has more to do with television.

That’s why what I try to do in videos is to have stories that are more closely attached to a film style – considering the locations of the cameras, the movements, the form of presenting the story and the characters.  I play with that because I feel more comfortable with it.  It would be a little more difficult for me to confront it in the sometimes very uninhibited way that many directors do.  By no means is this a criticism; on the contrary, for me it’s only more difficult to approach it like this.

HT:  Documentaries also occupy a small but no less important part of your work in making audiovisuals.

AU: To be honest, I haven’t made many documentaries, only two.  I had the luck that one of them was with the maestro Lazaro Ross, the grand voice of folkloric music in Cuba, and that gave me a great deal satisfaction.  But later I focused myself more on videos and fiction, and what in fact nurtures me most in my works of fiction has been my experience with videos.

Making a documentary enriches one vastly, since you’re under an obligation to research, to delve deep into certain issues that perhaps were unknown to you up until that moment.

But I insist, and I’m being completely honest, I think that videos have contributed more to my training, and not just to me but to the rest of my team, which is made up of photographer Alejandro Perez; Susel Ochoa, the producer; and the technicians Estevez and Manolito Barrero.  These are people who have repeated working with me on many works, including the last two movies I made.  Thanks only to our experience with videos, today we have the possibility of feeling more comfortable with fiction.

HT:  Then we agree that the name “Alfredo Ureta” as a director is known more based on your early work with videos because people paid a little more attention to that part of his creative work.

AU: It’s also a fact that now my first movie will be coming out, though we shot it four years ago.  But since it was an independent film that I financed personally, it has made it difficult to get to the final stage.  Fortunately it premiered this past May 12.

I’ve also had the luck that my videos have been with important and very well-known artists on the island’s musical scene.  I’ve worked with musicians such as David Blanco, Bueno Fe, Haila, Havana Charanga, Bamboleo, Adalberto Alvarez, Warapo, great trova musicians like Polito Ibañez, and Pablo Milanes and with renowned pianists like Chucho Valdes and Frank Fernandez.  In short, I have worked with these artists and so many others of various genres and with very diverse audiences, and this diversity is what has obligated me to take on each project with a different approach.

Today I might finish doing a timba video with the Havana Charanga, for example, and later that same day I’ll begin working on something more elaborate from the point of view of composition, like something by a trova musician.

HT: And what can you tell us concerning the two movies that you have already made and that you mentioned earlier?

AU: Well, one of them, the one that opened recently, is a story about a Cuban who after 15 years returns to visit his parents, his family and to attend his brother’s wedding.  The movie really begins when at the airport he rents a car; starting from there he begins his journey until he makes it to Santa Clara Province, which is where when he finally says goodbye to his family when his destiny is revealed.

It’s a little about this man’s relationship with a Cuba that he no longer knows after 15 years of being away and his interaction with the other characters who we could call classics of the current Cuban reality, since it takes a look at a range of people: a hustler, a policeman, an Afro-Cuban religious “santero,” a recently graduated student and a couple of cultural workers.  All of this in fact happens along his journey and the plot is developed stemming from these interactions he has during his trip.

It’s a movie that’s somewhat minimalist; I always like to clarify that point.  There are no grand events, there’s no mourning, there’s not that laugher that’s generally stirred up among audiences of the Cuban cinema.  But I believe that perhaps there are a few moments that make one smile, moments of reflection.  I especially tried to adjust myself to the idea that if I had spent 15 years without coming to the island, how would the shock be later when I returned, those first hours of adapting to this new reality.

It’s a little bit of the look of this Cuban who has been distanced.  That’s why it’s called La Mirada (The Look), where it’s so difficult for the guy to adapt to the new situation as well as to adjust to the country that’s no longer his.

The other film is called La Guarida del Topo (The Mole Hole), which is in process of being completed.  It was made thanks to the fact that the script, also written by myself, won an award that brought with it funding from the Telenovela Production Department of ICRT (the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television), which assumed the production and filming of the movie.

It’s now in the post-production stage and we’re hoping that it will be ready for the Havana International Film Festival this year (December).  The story is more complicated and is one that could take place in any part of the world.  It has more to do with other projects that I’m working on right now.

HT:  What is your agenda like for the rest of this year?

AU: I’ll continue with other commitments for videos I have with a number of Cuban musicians, among them the trova musician Tony Avila.  I have another job with a musician named Renan, who after 25 years abroad is returning to the island to start a career here in his country.  Recently I filmed a live concert of the group Bamboleo, which will be part of a DVD, and I’m in process of creating the video.  There are other projects with Charanga Habanera, Haila and others.

In terms of the cinema, I’m preparing another script.  As an exclusive I can tell you in advance that it will be a story of psychological terror.