Interview with Cuban filmmaker Fernando Perez
By Mario Luis Reyes (El Estornudo)
HAVANA TIMES – On the night of November 26th, Cuban State Security forcefully broke into the San Isidro Movement’s (MSI) headquarters, located at 955 Damas Street, in Old Havana. They evicted 15 people bunkered down inside the home for over 10 days, demanding the release of rapper Denis Solis. Some of them were holding a hunger strike.
Executed amid a social media blackout, the operation sparked the indignation of hundreds of artists. Fed up with censorship and a lack of freedoms, they came together outside the Ministry of Culture (Mincult) the following day. They demanded to talk with the minister.
Among the people who joined the group outside Mincult on November 27th, was the prominent filmmaker Fernando Perez. He promised that he would intercede with public officials so they would listen to the young people present.
The director of movies such as Clandestinos, Madagascar, Suite Habana and José Martí: El ojo del canario, shared his main impressions about what happened that night and in the days that followed.
MLR: Did you know about the San Isidro Movement beforehand? Did you know about the hunger strike and police cordon? What do you think about the Movement and the independent artists that are members of this group?
FP: I knew very little about MSI, but I knew it existed. From what I remember, nothing had been published about this group in the national press. I knew about them thanks to some young friends who talk to me about social media. I’m not familiar with these platforms; I don’t have a Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media account… I’ve chosen not to. I believe that they are a positive platform for young people, but on the other hand, it’s such a vast and open space that can become addictive. It ranges from the most well-thought-out and profound opinions, to other more superficial and direct ones that are completely unfounded. Being discriminated against because of this is also especially hard.
I recently found out, from word of mouth, that Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and others were holding a hunger strike, with some demands linked to the end of State repression and other demands I didn’t fully understand.
What happened with MSI was the trigger for what happened on November 27th, but it wasn’t the only reason this happened. When I was heading to the Ministry of Culture, I didn’t know what their demands were. However, I know lots of young filmmakers, painters and writers who were there. So, I could sense and verify that these complaints were centered on demands for participation and being heard. The young people demanded their right to freedom of speech. Likewise, for dissenting opinions not to be repressed. They called for an end to expressions of hate via this awful system called repudiation rallies.
Linked to culture and artistic creation, this group of young people were mainly defined by their diversity. There wasn’t a prevailing tendency. There was nothing that defined this group other than its diversity, and that’s what was so new and beautiful about what happened. This opportunity for a new language, and demanding a dialogue with the Ministry of Culture, which is supposed to represent them. But they don’t feel represented because they aren’t recognized. There is no dialogue, and there is no willingness to sit down, talk and accept them.
When a representative group – chosen by all of those present – managed to get a foot inside the door, including some MSI members. They had two principal demands: to reopen the case of rapper Denis Solis, to look into the legality of his arrest and imprisonment, even though many people didn’t agree with what he did. The second was that Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara be released and no longer harassed and repressed.
Taking part was for me an unforgettable experience because all of these demands were discussed in-depth, and there was an eagerness to establish a dialogue. Tough pills to swallow were also said, it was inevitable, but it was cathartic too. However, an agreement was finally reached and I walked out of there thinking that this dialogue was going to continue. It was like stepping into the future. That’s what made November 27th such an important moment in our reality.
What did you think about the discussion that took place at MINCULT that night?
I had the impression, and I still do, that it was like stepping into the future. I was moved to see how young people expressed themselves, complaining, expressing their disagreement, but wanting to take part, and putting Cuba above all else. Their love for Cuba was put above everything else. Emotionally, it foreshadowed everything that can and should happen. It happened that night, we had it. In spite of it being clearly a political protest, in my opinion, it was more of a poetic protest. The young people there were all artists. With a very special sensitivity, with very concrete ideas and a wish to express them.
I have come back from this journey to the future, in recent days. We have returned to reality where dialogue has been broken, and the landscape now fosters fragmentation, unbelief, both sides entrenching themselves again. We’ll wait and see what happens. I can’t see the horizon right now, but this horizon has to be out there, because having this dialogue is all of our responsibility, every generation is involved. Seeing how we can get this new language incorporated. This language is out there, young people are speaking it, and we have to listen to them. We’ll see how this happens.
You said that you would ask MINCULT to receive the young people and that this would be the beginning of a new language. Are you disappointed by this breakdown in dialogue? Will it be delayed or is it inevitable?
Dialogue is inevitable, it must exist, but right now, there’s a contraction from what I can see. There is a breakdown, and the current landscape isn’t the same as it was on November 27th. How will it happen? I can’t tell you right now. I’m really reflecting on this. It’s a time for reflection, for finding an answer individually that can be a collective answer.
Before anything, I believe that there has to be a will to sit down and talk and there can’t be extreme positions. One side can’t continue repressing others who think and express themselves differently, with police. There really has to be an opening to receive diversity. The other side also has to understand that not everything is up for negotiation. Things have to be talked over gradually, things won’t change overnight. This isn’t making concessions, or compromising your principles or anything. You have to understand that the group asking for a dialogue represents a diverse group.
I didn’t take part in the 30-person group’s internal decisions; I can’t judge that and I don’t, but you have to carry on insisting on a dialogue. You have to express your wish for the dialogue. The landscape is changing and the language will gradually change. This might seem illusory, but I think it’s the only way. Respect, listening to each other and standing by your opinions so they can be heard. Disagreements need to be discussed at length until a solution is found.
Our reality is very complex. Many years have passed without an opportunity like the one November 27th gave us, and we need to take great care now we that have it. Points of view aren’t as emotional as they were on November 27th, but the horizon is out there. If only we could all see it.
What do you think about the coverage that Cuban press is giving to MSI and what happened on November 27th?
National media has given an avalanche of information in recent days, but I believe that this information is incomplete. I believe this is one of the problems with our press. It’s a press that doesn’t give complete information and is generally geared towards showing a single point of view. I believe that this has become a serious problem. It was something we discussed at MINCULT, on November 27th, and it has been discussed in many different meetings too. I really hope this can change.
On the other hand, I refuse to take part on social media, but I do recognize it’s potential as a tool for free communication, but it can also be polluted. I’m not up-to-date with social media, really; first of all, it’s really hard for me to use with my Internet connection, but I don’t think I’d be checking it much even if I could. It’s an avalanche that does include a wide range of opinions, but they are always geared towards one view. I can’t judge social media because I don’t look at it. I get interesting things forwarded to me from friends, but there is lots of bias in those things too. I believe that the media, in general, is facing a vision that doesn’t encapture the real complexity of what is really going on.
Anyhow, I think History will put everything in its place. In the immediate future too; we won’t have to wait for this to happen. But I believe that immediacy sometimes creates heated and extremist reactions to what we experience, which Time also puts in its place. That’s when we can analyze all of the facts with a clear head. This will come, beyond media manipulation.
You read a letter sent by artists to MINCULT, which was what made the institution dismiss the dialogue? What did you think about the artists’ demands?
I read it when MINCULT published it, rejecting it. My contact with the group of 30 representatives went as far as sending them my support for what they were thinking of doing, but I didn’t know what these demands were. Going beyond the terms the MINCULT uses, I believe there were demands that can’t be negotiated, and this already marked quite an absolutist view. I think that the fact that they asked – and they have their reasons to ask for this – that talks not be with MINCULT but with the President, already put the dialogue on a level that wasn’t intended in the beginning. They still hadn’t had a first meeting with the ministry of Culture. I believe they should have first done this before demanding other things. There was an opportunity there for the government to say there is no negotiation.
I don’t like to weigh events by political tactics and strategies. I believe there were demands that were a dead alley, and this encouraged the right conditions for a breakdown. It’s unfortunate that this happened, because intolerance is what prevailed in this instance. We’ll have to see how this plays out now, where we will go, what will happen. Will both sides really want to sit down and enter a dialogue? We’ll see. The dialogue needs to be picked up again. We need to figure out in what conditions and how. It’s a situation that proves just how complex the points being discussed are.
You normally walk quite a lot in Havana. What’s in been like in 2020, in your eyes?
I don’t know if you remember, but at the end of my movie La vida es silbar, the Bebe character finishes with a monologue saying that she thinks absolute happiness will come for all Havana residents in 2020. I remember this and think: there isn’t a more mistaken prophecy in the history of humankind. This 2020 has been a year that turned the whole world, not just Cuba, on its head. Humanity is staring down a dead-end street development has taken us down, because it has no regard for Nature. Everything we know about this world, which is increasingly unequal and injust, has been expressed in the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the lockdown was announced in Cuba, I was two weeks away from beginning to shoot my next movie, Rikimbili o el mundo de Nelsito. I was really sad because it was a setback, but I took advantage of the first three months at home to think over the movie, to move a few things around. It was positive, it was also a time for reading, of finding yourself again.
The pandemic was dealt with quite efficiently here. People stood in solidarity, supporting each other. In the first phase people were really hopeful it would soon pass. Then, the other outbreak came and the situation dragged on too long. Financial problems have also grown.
With the global economy sinking, ours, which is the weakest of them all, has experienced a period of shortages, shrinking, facing everyday problems that take up all your time. All of this can be seen in individuals and society’s pscyhe, so it really is a time of social crisis. Things have also been made worse by Trump’s administration and its measures (which luckily won’t last much longer): less remittances, more blockade, less dialogue, more hostility. In the meantime, we can’t find a way out of our problems here, financial ones and opening up.
All of this has coincided in this fateful 2020, and now in December, we are waiting for real change to happen in the new year. I’m not losing sight of the hope that 2021 represents our reconciliation with Nature, in Cuba and the world. That this dramatic and shocking experience will be a lesson for us to live in harmony with the planet and its energies. That we live with our individual duty to make the world a better place.
If you had to rewrite La vida es silbar today, which year would you say that Cubans’ happiness would come?
Decreeing absolute happiness is a utopia, and utopias are unattainable a lot of the time. The whole point of La vida es silbar is to point out that every person’s happiness lies in their own process of finding it. That’s what a constructive process is, I believe, of learning and sensitivity, which happens when finding your own happiness and that of somebody else. This feeling of happiness is personal, my happiness doesn’t have to be your happiness, but you have to understand everyone’s happiness. This is the beginning of a dialogue. Happiness is everywhere, we just have to understand that our world and reality is diverse and plural, different for everyone… But we have to share this space.
Within the space that is Cuba on this planet, we must achieve this. We can’t carry on not seeing eye to eye because of hate, extremisms, dogmas, repression, a lack of freedom of speech. Conflicts will inevitably arise. Conflicts will continue.
I don’t want my words to be understood as “conciliatory”. I’m talking about understanding. But in order for there to be understanding, we have to cure the many injuries and conflicts that won’t heal overnight. This was the underlying reason why dialogue didn’t continue this time. But like I said: the horizon is out there, with no date.