Crematorium, or the Funeral of All Cubans

Irina Echarry

Juan Carlos Cremata. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — Juan Carlos Cremata is a Cuban filmmaker who does not evade social reality, does not retreat to a hermetic personal project or become alienated dreaming of an idyllic Cuba. On the contrary, he often attempts to shed light on that thing we call “identity”, which very few can define in any profound way. And he attempts to do so through everyday stories peppered with a fair degree of imagination.

On April 2, Cremata’s latest films, the shorts Crematorio, en fin…el mal (32 min.) and Crematorio II: Más allá del bien y del…mar (26 min.), premiered at a special screening of the Young Filmmakers’ Festival at Havana’s Chaplin Cinema.

Crematorio II (“Crematorium II) is the story of two women – a white noblewoman and her black servant – who come back to life and take a stroll down Havana’s Colon cemetery. During their promenade, they talk of the changes that have taken place in Cuban society – changes which, to these ladies, have been for the worse.

They talk about flowers, dancing, salt, moral values – and even about deodorants.

With this exchange, Cremata deploys a critical and thoughtful humor, hoping the women’s reflections will lead us to self-questioning. The jokes and popular references, however, address only the consequences of Cuba’s social changes; they do not go beyond the comical to reach the causes behind those changes. Like one of the young spectators present that day said, “it yanks the chain but says nothing about the monkey.”

As a result of this, the possible inconsistencies that come to the fore in the character of the rich woman (who appears disconnected from reality, locked in her memories, from time to time) become secondary, and her former servant is the one that reminds us of the pace of current developments.

At other points, she is capable of judging her surroundings with categorical and accusative phrases, clear allusions to the country’s contemporary situation (“Dead people everywhere. Dead people who die and dead people who are still alive. Dead people who still cry “death!” to those who are still alive.”)

We are left to ask whether the lady knows who the people responsible for the changes she condemns are. Does she know such changes were condoned – consciously and not – by all of society? She doesn’t say, it is less dangerous to dwell on how salt was saltier and spicier in times past, or insinuate her discontent with the fact flowers are now grown en masse, for everyone.

The camera follows the two women as they walk and leaves them only when they return to the grave. The short film offers us a distant gaze at the reality we live in – the audience smiles, not recognizing themselves in what they see.

Crematorio (“Crematorium”) centers on the funeral of an old militant who was misunderstood by his family and died with an upraised fist while watching a heated political address on television. The family nearly loathes him – only his disabled daughter (they call her “retard” in the film) has some words of love to share with him.

His senile widow believes he is still alive, the older daughter has arrived from Miami to sort out who gets the house. The lover, his illegitimate son and grandchildren, a Santero and a transvestite are only worried about losing the house and set out to offer the dead man something he would not have tolerated: a ritual and a show.

The man’s former comrades, members of the Association of Revolutionary Combatants, also feel entitled to the property and, in addition, organize a vigil with school children. Everything converges in a single space: the transvestite show, the Santeria ritual and the eulogy read by a primary school girl. One by one, the relatives lean over the coffin and pronounce their parting words for the deceased, all full of contempt, hatred and vengeful words…in a funeral parlor that’s falling apart around them.

Hysterical laughter reverberated all through the theater – people were having a blast, rolling in their seats with laughter. “It’s the best thing I’ve seen in a long time, I liked it more than Viva Cuba,” said a girl while coming out of the cinema. A 50-year-old man suggested “all films should be as funny as this one. There’s nothing better than laughing about death, it’s a way of reminding ourselves we are still alive.”

And, of course, who can doubt the benefits of a good laugh? We should not, however, doubt its secondary effects either. Overwhelming laughter often gets in the way of other processes, like proper breathing and exercising the mind. It is a circular process: we laugh, we stop thinking and, as a result, laugh some more. The result is that we begin to think less and less. When the mind is numbed, it stands still – leaving room only for superficiality.

Was the audience aware that what they were seeing on the screen were themselves? What do we see when we look at ourselves? Nothing beyond stereotypes, mockery, poverty, commonplaces portrayed in a carnivalesque and tiresome tone.

Cremata’s shorts invites us to have a good laugh at our miserable lives (or forms of survival), but we could well ask ourselves: should we let ourselves be carried away by laughter? Wouldn’t it be better to not make fun of what we are? Do we want to continue observing our own funeral with our mouths agape, as though we were laughing our heads off or were already dead?