HAVANA TIMES — The film Fresa y Chocolate (“Strawberry and Chocolate”) is only 20 years old, yet it’s already a film classic, capable of touching the core of human souls, pitting individuals against their own prejudices.
The movie was born from a novel by Senel Paz and was co-directed by Tomas “Titon” Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio.
The film (in full here, with English subtitles) is a celebration of diversity, which shook Cuba’s consciousness, connecting with viewers to reveal all the pain and suffering caused by their own homophobia.
In Cuban society there will always be a “before and after” Strawberry and Chocolate.
For the title role they chose a young actor, Jorge Perugorria, who had before him the enormous challenge of portraying a gay intellectual, doubly discriminated against because of his sexual preferences and his critical thinking about the reigning Soviet-style orthodoxy.
Jorge Perugorría (“Pichi” to Cubans) welcomed us into his home on the outskirts of Havana.
Q: Why did Strawberry and Chocolate have such a huge impact?
A: The impact of Strawberry and Chocolate came out of the need of the country and of Cuban cinema to address an issue that had been taboo up until then. We knew we were making a movie that was imperative, and that was our fuel.
Apart from the subject matter, I think that the cinematic result was an endearing film. I’ll never forget its premiere at the ’93 Havana Film Festival. The screening was magical. It was then that I discovered to what extent art could connect with the viewer.
Later — when we presented the film in Europe, the US, and Japan — people were amazed that we were able to produce such a movie in Cuba. Up until that time we were perceived as being monolithic, like the Koreans or the Soviets during the worst stage of Stalinism.
The film shattered preconceptions and demonstrated that Cuba was full of contradictions and that it had people who thought differently…that it had people who practiced different religions. It showed that though people had their problems, they existed and formed a society full of nuances.
Q: Actually, I too wondered how you were able to make that movie.
A: It wasn’t easy, but it was crucial that the project be directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea – the master of Cuban cinema. The project was born little by little but it became extremely difficult to censor it after the publication of the Senel’s novel and following its script winning an award at a previous Havana Film Festival.
Nonetheless, during filming — when we were touching on some pretty tough issues — we jokingly wondered, “Will they really show this in theaters?”
Q: Well, they did show it in theaters, but it took 20 years for it to be broadcast on TV.
A: This shows that there’s a divorce between the cultural policies of this country and the mass media. There are two policies: one where the artist has much more freedom, and the other whose “filters” determine what’s on TV, the radio and the written press.
It’s incredible that this happened. But the big question I have to ask is who determined that the Cuban people weren’t initially ready to see Strawberry and Chocolate, and who decided that 20 years later that they were?
Q: What did the film mean for you as an actor?
A: A lot. I’m part of the generation of the character that I portrayed. Plus, the development of the gay character “Diego” enriched me as a person. It opened new horizons for me, giving me so much, because he was a character that was tremendously evolved culturally. It was a real learning process.
Prior to that, my dream was to do theater, and an occasional Cuban film. I was dreaming of one day working with Titon, Tabio or Sola, but it never crossed my mind that I’d achieve international standing or that the doors to European and Latin American cinema would suddenly open up for me.
Q: Were you stigmatized as an actor for playing the role of a gay person?
A: After making Strawberry and Chocolate, Titon joked, “To vindicate you, now we’re going to shoot Guantanamera (here in Spanish),” because in that new movie he gave me the role of truck driver, a macho guy with a different woman in each province.
I didn’t have any prejudices. I came from the theater, and there people are tolerant of other people’s sexualities. But we live in a sexist society, and the country still has prejudices around that issue. Things have changed only a little, despite all the efforts made so far.
Q: Twenty years later, how do you see Strawberry and Chocolate?
A: Unfortunately, the film still reflects many aspects of things one would wish were features of the past. This country is immersed in changes, but we still need to continue learning from Strawberry and Chocolate.
As a society we haven’t gotten to that final hug between Diego and David, that reconciliation that respects differences between people who think differently but who can coexist…and even be friends.
(*) Read Fernando Ravsberg’s blog (in Spanish).