Controversial Director Speaks Out

By Lucia Lopez Coll

Cuban director Eduardo del Llano, Photo: Ed. Salto de Pagina
Cuban director Eduardo del Llano, Photo: Ed. Salto de Pagina

HAVANA TIMES, July 2 (IPS) – Every so often Eduardo del Llano becomes news, even without his intending to. Several of his cinematographic works have had the luck – and in some cases the misfortune – of stirring up controversy in Cuba.

These have ranged from the contentious (and for some officials “counter-revolutionary”) Alicia en el pueblo de las maravillas (Alice in Wondertown / 1991) that he co-wrote, to the recent short production Brainstorm.

To classify Del Llano is difficult, because since his earliest years he has moved with ease between the cinema, literature and the theater. Humor and absurdity have always been his instruments of choice, cutting ever closer to the bone of reality to reflect on the issues of today’s Cuba.

Since his beginnings, a large part of his work as a scriptwriter has been in association with the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), along with names such as Daniel Diaz Torres and Fernando Perez, at least until he decided to test his luck as the director of an independently produced short fictional film.

That first short, Mount Rouge, was never exhibited in Cuban cinemas or on television, but probably surpassed the expectations of its producers when it became a veritable sleeper, with copies circulating across the island from hand to hand.

The movie – which generated criticism, praise and suspicion – is a comedy about the strange circumstances confronted by the character Nicanor O’Donell, who is visited at his home by two agents from Cuban State Security with the mission to install a microphone.

Five years and six shorts later, Del Llano continues making independent films, although he has maintained his affiliation with ICAIC, with which he has just finished shooting Lisanka, a comedy co-written with Daniel Diaz Torres and newcomer Francisco Garcia.

Del Llano’s short Brainstorm, was also independently produced, and is currently one of the most watched pirated films in Cuban. However, despite two prizes and a mention earned at the last Festival of Low-Budget Cinema, neither has this work been exhibited in an official manner.

Why did you choose the independent path to begin directing, despite your connections with the official Cuban film industry?

Eduardo Del Llano: Actually I wasn’t especially intending for them to be independent works, nor was I looking for any sort of underground aura; rather, I took this road out of necessity.

You sometimes have a list of things you would like to do some day, and on that list I had directing something for the cinema. This was because when you work as a scriptwriter, the stories are almost always brought by the directors, or – in the best case scenarios – we work on them together. That’s why I thought of bringing to the screen some of the scripts that I had written, which were quite cinematographic.

When I finally jumped into it, I didn’t know much about direction. I previously had the experience of directing a comedy group for the theater, “Us and Others,” but going from there to the cinema was a huge leap. I spoke with Luis Alberto Garcia and he showed interest in the project. I chose a story that wasn’t very technically complicated, with few characters and one that could be filmed on a closed set (my own house). That’s how we made Mount Rouge, which suddenly rocketed.

So after that I wanted to do other shorts, but the typical process you have to go with ICAIC – where it’s necessary to turn in a script, wait for approval and later be assigned a budget – is a big hassle, so we preferred to continue working on our own. At 40, you realize you don’t have the time to do everything you want to.

Notwithstanding, if ICAIC gave me $15,000 dollars to do the next short, I’d be more than happy, because I’m not programmatically against the institution, although I didn’t receive its support as a result of the success of Mount Rouge.

The most important thing for me is to do shorts, not whether they’re made independently. I’d feel much happier if public institutions were able to underwrite productions like mine. Therefore, I don’t want to cut myself off; I want them accept what I am and that I’m part of Cuban culture.

From the Eduardo del Llano short “Brainstorm”
From the Eduardo del Llano short “Brainstorm”

Also, the money is not my only interest. Actors and other people who have worked in my short films, especially those of my generation, have been involved in these projects because they share the perspective and the approach, not because they’ll receive a big check; this demonstrates that the work has more of a collective character.

We shouldn’t always wait for acceptance from above; we have to be daring enough to speak up and to make a little noise. I’ll continue making short films “with” or “without” ICAIC, or any other institution, as long as they always respect my creative freedom.

Nevertheless, I recently had some meetings with the management of ICAIC to find ways to open channels for collaboration in the future, provided I maintain the creative freedom that I now have to decide on the script. That doesn’t mean that I won’t consider artistic suggestions, but I would not accept any other type of restriction.

There is an entire current of independent cinema that is working along this same line; there’s a tendency that wants to say things, although it is not always limited to independent cinema. Sometimes it’s been written, in a simplistic way – especially overseas – that younger people do critical cinema because the media doesn’t do it.

There are degrees. Except for notable exceptions, television in Cuba is very conservative, as is the mass media in general. But ICAIC has a tradition of critical cinema, and things have been said along that track which would have otherwise been unthinkable. I associate myself with that tradition, not out of opportunism, but because if you’re going to have models they have to be the best.

At the same time, the power structure sees that it’s a mass phenomenon, so it looks for a way to accuse that movement. If an isolated individual was doing this, it would be it easier for them to silence that person. But nor is it that I belong to a group or movement that has raised specific objectives, which in reality are much broader.

With regard to the independent movement, I even have some differences, because I sometimes feel that many youth have a good command of the technical aspects, they’ve assimilated influences on their own and through videos clips; they know the secrets of working with images and can craft some good work, but they don’t have many stories to convey, so after their first work you can sense that paucity.

To me, at least, I’m interested in stories, good histories, without forgetting that the way in which you convey them is important, but it cannot be “the” most important thing. I’m not a “groundbreaker” from the technical point of view.

I admit that I would love for my shorts to be collected in a feature film, in a DVD, and that ICAIC distribute it, although with the understanding that it wouldn’t have the normal distribution. Nevertheless, there should be access to such films. I don’t know if there should be a space devoted for them on television, or a cinema dedicated to independent film showings, but right now access to these works is only possible through the Young Producers Festival, or those like the Low-Budget Film Cinema Festival. The standard for exhibition should be aesthetic quality and not because it’s the “appropriate time.”

Do you have plans for a feature film?

Eduardo del Llano: The short film, for me, is not a stage or stepping stone to get to fictional feature films. For the moment at least, I’m more interested in shorts and continuing to write with other directors like Daniel Diaz Torres or Fernando Perez.  Nevertheless, I’ve just finished my first feature film.

It’s called GNYO, a 97-minute documentary that I also did independently. To some degree it’s a testimony of the comedy movement of the 1980s and 90s through the group “Us and Others” that I directed.

I also hoped to reflect that stage of life when you’re a student, thinking you’re going to take the world by storm, making renovating art, even believing that you’ve found a new “ism.” Later you may achieve it or not, but that passage through adolescent idealism – aiming for what you’re only really able to do 20 years later – is a topic that perhaps has universal understanding.

What is Sex Machine Productions?

Eduardo del Llano: It’s kind of an independent company formed by a group of friends: Luis Alberto Garcia, Nestor Jimenez, Frank Delgado and me. In the beginning we made a contract, a kind of a gentlemen’s agreement, which would be applied after we managed to brake even. In essence it establishes each person’s percentage of earnings, assuming any profits are ever generated from the sale of our short films.

From the Eduardo del Llano short Alice in Wondertown
From the Eduardo del Llano short Alice in Wondertown

Up to now, I’ve generally put up the money or gotten it from backers. Others put up funding for their work, as was the case of the actors in the first shorts, and for the technicians, who usually don’t get paid the rates that request.

Later I decided to pay them, although it was a symbolic amount, because you can’t abuse friendship too much. The idea is to complete a “Decalogue” of shorts, of which we’ve made six and have already begun to prepare the seventh, all with the character Nicanor.

We always base them on my scripts, which in some way approach topics that concern our society, treating them with humor but in a critical sense, either about the bureaucracy, the imperfections of our form of democracy, the very nature of Cubans; or negative attitudes, such as machismo, which still burden our society. That is to say, the issues of society are approached in their whole, not only politics.

The character Nicanor O’Donnell is a kind of a joker in almost all of my stories, though I’ve even used that name for characters of some of the movies I’ve written for ICAIC.  It’s a conjunction of a first and last name that’s pretty unlikely, which prevents anyone from being singled out.  The main thing is that he’s an average guy, a regular people’s kind of guy, though he’s not always in the same role; he can be a journalist or a chauffeur. Something similar occurs with Rodriguez, his nemesis.

Your works touch on “problematic” issues? And are you worried about their interpretation or manipulation?

Eduardo del Llano: The manipulation on both sides bothers me.  With Mount Rouge, in Miami they ended up saying it was produced behind the back of the “régime,” and that those of us who worked on it were in danger.  It’s true that the actors weren’t shown on TV for three or four months, but they didn’t throw us in jail.  We even traveled abroad during that period and began planning our next work.

In Cuba though, the posture is rather one of silence or omission, because they don’t show our films, although with the latest work we’ve seen a different attitude; recently I was invited on the program “Secuencia,” (Sequence) on Channel Havana TV.  That was the first time that they aired a fragment of one of my shorts on television.

I’m not an incurable optimist, but I would like to think that these are small steps forward, although there’ve also been setbacks. However, I feel that they are getting the idea that making films is not a fleeting fad.

Nor is criticism new. To laugh at our defects and to fantasize about our reality is something healthy in any society.  I worked in that vein with the group “Us and Others,” and we published more than 300 stories in the comedy magazine DDT – many of them critical and satirical. The same thing has occurred with the cinema. But it’s true that you’re exposed to the widest variety of interpretations and that you’re misinterpreted on both sides.

Do you think that cinema and art in general can influence or change things?

Eduardo del Llano: Influence yes, change no. I think some works of art, or some artistic movements, have been particularly fortunate and have been able to influence situations. Right here you can find important landmarks, such as New Trova music, and the movies Strawberry and Chocolate and Suite Havana.

In some way they have an influence on people and on their perspectives of reality, those concerning homosexuality or whatever. To think that these can change things is not only ambitious, but is also one of the justifications of the power structure – not only in Cuba – for censoring, relegating or postponing artistic work. This is not sure to work, and if it achieves that aim it’s because there already existed the objective conditions in the social order for change.

I lived for a year in Spain, where I discovered through my own experiences that the other side also manages people’s opinions, disseminating what is most opportune to present at a given moment.

What’s certain is that – with all the censorship and restrictions that there are here – in five years I’ve made seven shorts and one documentary and they’ve not tossed me in jail.  Moreover, I’ve traveled abroad and I’m continuing to work on projects with ICAIC, although I also continue to think that it’s necessary for us to have many more freedoms, including the most basic ones, like being able to travel without an exit visa and letting people be able to buy and sell their cars and houses freely.

Translation by Havana Times