Freedom, fear and madness

By Miguel Coyula

Miguel Coyula, screenshot from Corazon Azul (Blue Heart).

HAVANA TIMES — I can’t remember when it was that I realized I was free. It wasn’t a sudden revelation, nor was it an impressive one. When I think about jail time or even death as a result of my work, without any kind of fear, I don’t think this has to do with being brave. Quite simply, my life is worthless if I can’t do what I enjoy and say what I think.

Most people’s mistake is to think that their lives are too important.

At the just concluded edition of the Havana Film Festival, I was walking around the Hotel Nacional [the Festival headquarters] and several colleagues pretended like they hadn’t seen me, others greeted me timidly. But’s that normal. This is a country of cowards. A lot has been said about how the government has instilled fear in the Cuban people. However, the main culprit of this has been the people themselves, artists and the press.

In my personal experience, this process that began with Memories of Development, got worse with the government’s censorship of Nadie (Nobody) (2017), and the play Enemies of the People (2017). This has been useful for me to choose the people I’m really interested in. They are only a few, but I have always been more interested in quality than quantity.

My other colleagues tell me I’m crazy, a filmmaker who has lost my boundaries and is now a dissident. That’s the coward’s excuse. Intellectuals in this country openly protest censorship when it’s an art institution who is censoring an artist who has some kind of tie to this institution. However, when they see State security forces and the police repressing someone, who is working 100% independently, they protect themselves by saying “he’s just gone mad.” 

Lynn Cruz in The Enemies of the People.

In the beginning, I would get advice from them: “Why are you exposing yourself so much?” or “You can yank the chain but you can’t yank the monkey’s tail.” Then several actors left the shooting of my new film Blue Heart and I’ve had to kill them off (the characters they play). I have been condemned by colleagues. Others are ashamed: Not too long ago, a critic came forward to tell me that he had written a summary about one of my films but he didn’t dare publish it, even using a pseudonym, because he’ll lose his job.

Fear is being spread not only across our island, there are also many Cubans who live abroad and are afraid of not being able to return, such as is the case of another Cuban critic who lives in Miami, who initially wanted to write about Nadie in the Herald newspaper, but when he found out about the police and state security forces censoring it, he withdrew his proposition because he travels to Cuba regularly and he told me he didn’t want any trouble.

Therefore, we can say that there isn’t any freedom of expression in and outside of Cuba for Cubans, at least not publicly. Except for a select few, “the small group” like poet Rafael Alcides says. The rest strategically maneuver themselves and have learned to move “intelligently” or “via the appropriate channels”. 

I don’t differentiate between spaces, my discourse would be the same in the official Granma newspaper as well as the anti-Castro online publication Diario de Cuba.

I would screen Nadie at the Casa Galeria El Circulo or in front of a group of generals from the Communist Party Central Committee.

“It’s painful to live in fear… That’s what it is to be a slave” says Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. Comparing Cuba, sometimes I ask myself whether this majority can sleep peacefully at night, when the most intelligent of them know that they aren’t completely free. But no, fronts are put up, as well as defensive attitudes to survive and the truth is that a lot of them believe they are free. They don’t lose sleep over that.

I’ve got my eye on you. Screenshot from Nadie.

During this time, I have been able to verify via institutions and international festivals that what I used to believe about my work only being censored in Cuba, is in fact a problem that goes beyond our national borders, as a result of political and economic interests with the Cuban government.

In 2011, the Cuban Embassy pressured the director of Lebanon’s Latin American Film Festival to withdraw Memories of Development from the program just a few days before it was to be screened and that’s what happened, it was taken off the program. Then, the ICAIC demanded that it be taken out of a Cuban Film Festival in South Korea.

Furthermore, none of my feature movies have been screened in Cuba apart from on a few isolated occasions.

This year, my latest movie, the documentary Nadie, was accepted to take part in the Mar del Plata International Film Festival in Argentina and it was rejected a short time after for a strange reason, they said that I hadn’t sent the movie in the format they needed. This, even though there were still months to go before the festival was set to begin, they refused to receive a new copy, where I had corrected what they were allegedly claiming, but they bluntly ended the conversation. This happened not long after the police operation kicked off here to stop it from being screened at the Casa-Galeria El Circulo, in Havana, an event that was covered by Spanish-speaking media.

Raul Castro and his close associates need to end their government immediately. However, I don’t think this country will change, even if there is a change in government. The process to undo all of the moral damage done to several generations will be extremely long. It’s a pessimistic view, but the majority of Cubans, both the working class and intellectuals have their limits and alliances very clear. This happens both in pro-government circles as well as among those who say they are “neutral”. I don’t know whether a society where you can’t directly mention and criticize politicians publicly seems normal to them. The fundamental problem is that they don’t want to break the stunted umbilical cord that connects them to Cuban institutions.

Ches: Screenshot from Memories of Development

I would never aspire to hold office in a new government, I’ve always hated the game of politics, a word that Fidel Castro seized to make it a derogatory term. And the Cuban people have come to terms with this as it is. Those who say: “I’m not interested in politics” are really saying: “I’m not interested in badmouthing the government”. Using this logic, are Fidel and Raul Castro not politicians? I know I am not a politician, but I am interested in art that does criticize politicians.

That’s why it’s important to say that my films are political movies. There are many other Cuban artists who do the same but insist on saying that their art isn’t political. This is directly linked to financial matters. It isn’t about ideologies, it’s about the growing consumer society in laissez-faire capitalism that we are experiencing here on the island.

Not too long ago, I was talking to a friend who said “I want to make independent films too, but I also want to be able to go to a restaurant, club, in other words live, be happy.” To which I responded: You can’t do both in Cuba and if you believe you can, you will be making compromises in one way or another. So, what is your priority?”

Personally-speaking, this is the only way to create with real independence. So if I am crazy, I am very happy to not assume what the majority accept as “normal”.