Interview with Cuban Director Juan Carlos Cremata

He is putting on stage what many people prefer to conceal.

Helson Hernandez

Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti

HAVANA TIMES — Cinema and theater director Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti spoke with Havana Times about his most recent and controversial work for the stage, La Hijastra, in addition to sharing some exclusive revelations with us.

HT:  Can we say that the name “Cremata” is a point of reference for Cuban culture?

Juan Carlos Cremata:  My surnames are Cremata Malberti, as are those of my siblings, and we’re very proud of both of these. They aren’t very common. As far as we could find, they have Italian and/or Spanish roots, we don’t know exactly. It seems they appeared in the Canary Islands.

Once, Helio Orovio said he knew something about their origin. From what he was able to tell us, there was fairly quirky artist type named Cremata who lived in Santiago de las Vegas (Havana), where the surname served as a kind of shield. The Malbertis were also artists. So, I imagine that the combination of the two is what produced us.

My mother, my siblings, my cousins, uncles and a good part of our family are, in one way or another, closely linked to artistic pursuits. My brother Tin, with his impressive work around the Colmenita children’s theater group, is the heir of immense work that almost since his birth has carried him forward, and he continues to champion our mother through this.

My father was an actor and a born director, though he didn’t pursue them as careers. Both of our parents instilled in us that love for art from the time we were very young. The truth is that we don’t see this as work because art is part of our lives. It’s like the blood flowing through our veins…like our life-giving breaths.

HT: Do you remember your first conscious contact with an artistic activity?

JC: They used to take us to the theater a lot, and at home they would rehearse things. As a matter of fact, we were practically born in a television studio. My father would take us to rehearsals of his productions where he did amateur acting. Before the triumph of the revolution, my mother kept all the costumes and scenery at home; these were from a ballet school in which she had done flamboyant performances at the Amadeo Roldan Theater.

We even had a puppet stage that we could play with. We gave theater performances and even put on a circus for our friends on the block. Dressing up and acting was common in our games. My aunt was a very famous actress, as was my uncle, who was a very good and popular actor.

The mixture of fiction and reality was an essential part of our education. After studying history for two years at the University of Havana, I changed over to the beautiful major of playwriting at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), which is where I graduated from.

From that moment, I knew I wanted to and was going to make movies. That led me to be part of the first generation of graduates from the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Baños. This was, as I’ve said elsewhere, “my second mother.” The rest has been doing and creating…every day, every second and with every breath. In some ways I’ve returned to being the child I’d never ceased to be.

HT: Is the theater a primary means for you to express your artistic interests?

JC: The theater was my first education. If I was formerly known as a filmmaker, the live quality of the stage performance is intrinsic and essential to me. It’s an act of faith, a boundless passion. Along the way I discovered that, more than the finished work, what interests me is the fact of creation itself: the rehearsals, the preparation.

I have fun doing these, even more than in the consummation of a work, which I should confess make me suffer a little, almost a lot. At that point they’re no longer mine, they become the publics. So the theater gives me a chance to play more every day, in every function, in every repetition, which is always different. As for film, well, unfortunately I can’t do it as often as I’d like, if I could I’d be saying something different.

HT: Do you think that the impact of your stage work reveals certain taboos that still exist here on the island against accepting a more diverse and open theater?

JC: By nature I’m an open person and that’s all I try to do. I’ve never questioned whether or not the public is “prepared” for what I offer, because I don’t believe in preparing anyone, let alone preparing anybody for a catharsis. There are people who are more conservative, and sometimes I’d say even hardcore conservative. But sometimes I’ve found readings so open that I didn’t even suspect they could be so open.

I once read that humor is not in the hands of the person who writes it, but in the minds of those who read it. That’s what I’ve concluded as well. Art isn’t only in the hands of those who do it, but above all, it’s in the minds of those who know how to appreciate it. Some people have more prejudices than others. Each person is responsible for their judgment, their prejudices and/or their interpretations.

I always try to present a reading as open as possible, and I’ve found more people willing to fight against those taboos than to maintain them. The public has accompanied me in this, perhaps much more than the critics who, at their worst, are much more biased. It seems there must be an eternal divorce that exists between them.

I think the theater work that is done in our country is quite diverse and open, yet I think we should open and diversify it even more. That’s what should be done. I’m trying not to repeat myself, but to me that is what’s especially fun. With seriousness, with passion, with commitment. Because what’s fun is the opposite of boring, not what’s serious.

HT: Speaking of your latest work, La Hijastra (The Stepdaughter), this has been highly controversial on today’s Cuban stage.

Cremata directing Yerlin and Yadier.

JC: “La Hijastra” did nothing more than stage something that many people, unfortunately, are still trying to conceal. That can hurt, and believe me, it hurt us too. For me it was not an unrewarding exercise since it demanded a huge effort from the actors and an intense physical and emotional effort. But it was an important and an urgent work for today’s stage.

Before doing anything, I always ask myself why something is important enough for me to dedicate my time, my talent, my sweat and my energy into it. Unfortunately, some people decided that it shouldn’t remain on stage, despite it being an extraordinary public phenomenon and it having an impact on the society in which we live.

There are still people today, at the beginning of the 21st century, who are afraid of controversy and who slink behind moralistic, retrograde or patriotic concepts. The culture of debate in our country has strayed into a sad spectacle of “step aside it’s my turn” or “my opinion is the only one that has value, the others are garbage.”

Some people don’t accept the confrontation of ideas, which if aren’t opposed cease to be reasonable. I understand those who are upset with the work just as much as I understand those who applauded it. Those who will never understand are the ones who spoke out, and — what was worse — they were the ones who decided to censor it, without even seeing it.

La hijastra spoke precisely about how the lack of values in our society. And that language, although it has nothing to do with my cultural level, exists and it’s taking a toll on a very large part of our population. For us it was a performance for definition.

We can have fun, but we also want to draw attention to things that hurt us, that wound us, and that define us as a culture, as a nation. Let it hurt who it hurts, let it upset whoever gets upset.

HT: Will your work as a cinema director continue bringing to the big screen works designed for the theater?

JC: In film, unlike theater, you can’t do everything you want. My experience has taught me to at least greatly appreciate everything I can do. Whenever I see an interesting text, that captivates me, while simultaneously unleashing my energy and dreams — I dedicate myself to it.

Although I just shot and edited Contigo Pan y Cebolla — which was the best way I found to pay a posthumous tribute to person and work of Hector Quintero, who I always closely identified with — I’m also working on a feature film composed of three shorts written in collaboration with three young writers: Carlos Lechuga, Eduardo Eimil and Carlos Ramos. This is something more personal in which we dare to speak a different language, one that’s even a little more contemporary, or let’s say a little more experimental.

It’s called “Mar(L) de muchos consuelo de tontos” and it should be released in the next Exhibit of Young Filmmakers in April 2013. The three shorts are called, in order: En fin…el mal, Mas alla del bien y del…mar y En el mal… la vida es más sabrosa.

And I’ve already gotten approval for an upcoming film based on the work of a lesser known playwright, but someone who also stirred my senses: Elio Fidel Lopez. I can only tell you that it’s going to be titled Fe de ratas.

Dozens of projects often come to me. But those who know me know that all my steps are directed toward my most ambitious dream: the film adaptation of the great novel by Carlos Montenegro, “Hombres Sin Mujer.”

HT: Tell us about your experience of getting a scholarship to study in New York and the direct contact you had with the culture of that country.

JC: Having obtained a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in the United States was my third birth. Also, that of living two years in Buenos Aires was a huge stage experience as well. But after the Guggenheim, I was someone else and I completed, experientially, the artist that was being forged within me.

Many Cubans have achieved this illustrious recognition throughout history. In movies, before me, it was only obtained by “Titon.” To live for more than a year in New York, and to travel to many parts of North America allowed me to study. There was also as my graduation project at EICTV and my short film Oscuros Rinocerontes Enjaulados”, which was accepted into the archive of the Museum of Modern Art; I was also granted a free pass for a year to see everything that was going on there.

I was able to meet important personalities close up and I had experiences that I never thought I would, though I’d always dreamed of having them. In addition to the enormous experience meant by the mere fact of living in the so-called capital of the world, New York is a universe in itself. So, as was logical, I was reborn there.

Nevertheless I can also confess that I was much more Cuban when I was there. I learned about much more of my culture and I reaffirmed my desire to return to my country to contribute to our culture from here – without the cheap chauvinism. I could have stayed and tried other ways, but I preferred to return, and returning to Cuba was the beginning of my true vocation as a creator.

Had I stayed I would have always been a spectator. I only felt something similar when years later I surrendered myself entirely to Paris…and almost died. But I returned to life. I have so much to do!

HT: From among the films you’ve directed, what does Viva Cuba have that’s special?

JC: All my films, like all my work, are very special to me. But Viva Cuba introduced me internationally, still today. It’s thanks to that film — which, according to scholars, has won the most national and international awards in the history of Cuban cinema, accumulating the incredible sum of 46 awards — I’m literally alive.

But look, it was an unplanned film and it was born out of the disappointment I had at the time with ICAIC (the Cuban Film Institute). I think it was the result of an accumulation of work and at the same time the work of almost blessed improvisation. It was a film that pioneered many things. Others will come, but that was the first of its kind in our country.

The beginning of the play La Hijastra (the Stepdaughter).

HT: Which actor would you be interested in directing, regardless of their nationality, and what’s the next idea that will be occupying your time?

JC: I’m interested in all actors. I respect them and I try to take care of them to the maximum, but I work in relation to the play/film, not the actor. I haven’t been fortunate to work with all of the ones that I’d like to, some of whom good friends. Hopefully my life will be long enough and my career extensive enough so that I can share with everyone I want to and those who I’ve admired.

I regret not having had the immense joy of directing Enrique Santiesteban, Consuelito Vidal, German Pinelli, Gina Cabrera, Maria de los Angeles Santana, the incalculably profound Margarita Balboa, the lyrically exquisite Doris Garcia, the incredibly authentic Eloisa Alvarez Guedes, the essential Idalberto Delgado, the incomparable Anreus Idalia, an unrepeatable Rosario Carmona; Luis Alberto Ramirez, who I adored as an actor and also as an uncle; the irreplaceable Eleanor Borrero; Luis Alberto Garcia Sr., although I have had the pleasure of working with ehis formidable son, Elsa Gay, who I’ll never forget; or Elio Mesa, who I’ll always remember, just like my aunt Sarita Malberti, eternally in the glory of felt or feigned passion, and even the grand heights of Reynaldo Miravalles.

I was able to share much of the boundless passion of Llaurado Adolfo, with whom I directed my first attempt at the theater with “Ay mi amor”, though this never opened, and I almost did something with Miguel Navarro, who was an exquisite and unforgettable friend. I missed out on Sergio Corrieri as he left us a few months after he said he wanted to work with me. I will guard that sad joy…just like I’ll also hold onto the demand from Miguel Benavides, Litico Rodriguez and Adria Santana.

But I still have that dream of one day being able to work with my teacher Ana Viñas and with Mario Balmaseda. I haven’t lost the hope of working with Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Rosita Fornes, Salvador Wood, Berta Martinez, Veronica Lynn, Pedro Renteria, Mario Limonta, Aurora Basnuevo, Zoa Fernandez, Asseneh Rodriguez, Jorge Cao, Coralita, Ramon Veloz, Casin Orlando, Natacha Diaz, Miriam Learra or even with Juana “the Cubana” Bacallao.

The other ones who got away from me were Vicente Revuelta and his sister Raquel, Florencio Escudero, Candita Quintana, Silvia Planas, Alicia Rico, and the so many others still working that make my projects just not enough…