New Cuban Documentary against Oblivion and Lightness

What is more important, lightness or weight? -Milan Kundera

By Lynn Cruz

HAVANA TIMES“Portrait of an ever-adolescent artist” (a history of cinema in Cuba), is the most recent documentary by Cuban filmmaker Manuel Herrera, director of Zafiros, Locura azul (1997), Bailando Cha Cha Chá (2004), among his most known titles.

A hilarious film, ingenious as its protagonist, the late filmmaker and actor Julio Garcia Espinosa (1926-2016), whose films include “El Mégano” (1955), “Adventures of Juan Quin Quin” (1967), “Reina y Rey” (1994).

Herrera collects the impressions of those who along with Garcia Espinosa pursued the utopia, to make a new Cuban cinema grow, through the creation in 1959 of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (Icaic). “Portrait of an artist always adolescent” (a history of cinema in Cuba) is the echo of an era: “The sixties”.

How to be national and at the same time universal? Garcia Espinosa experimented with a groundbreaking mix that balanced tradition with the popular Cuban. His studies at the Experimental Cinematography Center in Rome identified him with Italian neo-realism, although he was also an admirer of the Frenchman Jean Luc Godard and the German Bertolt Brecht. These influences are visible in the estrangements Garcia Espinosa makes in his film “Aventuras de Juan Quin Quin”.

Some believe that he was a ground-breaker, but his filmography also shows interest in tackling more everyday issues such as the vicissitudes of a woman to feed her dog. Thus his film “Reyna y Rey” (Queen and King) is a great metaphor of the social situation lived in Cuba in the decade of the 90s.

Screenshot from Memories of Underdevelopment.

The most important legacy, apart from his films, may be the definition of imperfect cinema, a concept born of Garcia Espinosa’s own rebellion against Hollywood’s entertainment industry. He maintains that the lack of a budget cannot be a creative obstacle.

It is not about seducing, but about sharing the art, the theater, the music that also enchanted him and especially the cinema, as a tool for self-reflection. It is about making a cinema in which the spectator is not a subject but completes the fable. Also to have the possibility of searching and also being wrong.

In 2013, the prestigious Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, “The seventh continent” (1989), “The pianist” (2001), “Love” (2012) … while receiving the Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts, in his speech during the awards gala, regretted the pressures the market exerts on filmmakers. He also stressed how, in the great Hollywood entertainment industry, directors are not allowed to make mistakes. This is probably due to the existence of a space for European filmmakers to continue defending cinema more as a work of art than as solely entertainment.

Something of that creative spirit germinates from time to time on the Island, but mostly within independent cinema, although in recent years the crowdpleaser has reappeared on the big Cuban screen, “Juan de los Muertos” (2011), by Alejandro Brugués; “Sergio and Serguei” (2017), by Ernesto Daranas ,; “El Acompañante” (2015), by Pavel Giroud; “The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste García” (2018), by Arturo Infante.

Some remember the decline of the Icaic in the 80s. Light comedies, evasive themes, characterized that period. Now, one or another joke of political humor might be included, probably to seduce the Cuban audience, but without losing sight of the international market.

I speak of the political, because in Cuba the individual versus history continues with a capital letter, in such a way that even wanting to please the majority, it is inevitable to touch the taboo subject for Cubans.

It is not trivial that the character of the alienated person reappears sharply in “Memories of Development” (2010), by Miguel Coyula, who has his background in “Memories of Underdevelopment” (1968), by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, a classic of Cuban filmography. Both films are based on the homonymous novels of the Cuban writer Edmundo Desnoes.

Screenshot from Memories of Development

Another example of risky cinema (although sometimes and in a healthy way admits to being wrong), even when he makes more classic films such as “Insumisa” (2018), co-directed with the Swiss filmmaker Laura Cazador, Fernando Perez is perhaps the most important living Cuban filmmaker, “Madagascar” (1994), “Suite Habana” (2003), “Madrigal” (2007), “Last days in Havana” (2016)… His films are very different from each other. His restlessness for the search is breathed, for always trying something different.

“La obra del siglo” (The work of the century) (2016), by Carlos M. Quintela, risks not only content (three generations of men alone, grandfather, father and grandson, living in the same space), but also in form. “Santa and Andrés” (2016), by Carlos Lechuga, generated movement, controversy. It includes for the first time on the screen an act of repudiation of the army against a writer without adornments or lightness. Both these films have been awarded, and seen in many parts of the world, but have not yet been released in Cuba.

When evasion and lightness flood everything, what remains is a frugal, globalized, neoliberal citizen. A subject who wants to succeed, and to achieve it, will mask his search in pessimism or the incapacity of others, instead of admitting the critical sense that was born with the Revolution itself and using it as a tool for doubt, after a long period of faith.

What is most appreciated in Herrera’s film, besides the freshness, imagination, and cinematographic creativity, is the fact of fighting against oblivion, that energy used by those who defended the ideas of making a truly national cinema.

New challenges are experienced that are old, but that to suffer over and over again, over time, seem forgotten. It is up to those who continue to believe in cinema, to think that what makes you unique is precisely what creates the difference.

Lynn Cruz

It's not art that imitates life, its life that imitates art," said Oscar Wilde. And art always goes a step further. I am an actress and writer. For me, art, especially writing, is a way of exorcising demons. It is something intimate. However, I decided to write journalism because I realized that I did not exist. In Cuba, only the people authorized by the government have the right to express themselves publicly. Havana Times is an example of coexistence within a democracy and since I consider myself a democrat, my dream is to integrate this publication’s philosophy into the reality of my country.

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