“Plantados”, It’s Like Nobody Was Listening

By Jorge Luis Lanza

HAVANA TIMES – I’ve decided to start this urgent review of the movie Plantados (2021), by Cuban-Colombian filmmaker Lilo Vilaplana – who is now living in Miami – in an unusal way, because in my long career as a movie critic, I don’t usually explain the title of my articles.

In order to write the movie script – which is excellent by the way -, Lilo draws inspiration from writer Angel Santisteban, the author of the short story collection Los hijos que nadie quiso, (the children nobody wanted). He is considered one of the most prolific Cuban writers of his generation and one of the most critical voices of the Cuban regime at the time, authoring an example of literature about prison in Cuba and the heir of a legacy left in this genre by writers such as Carlos Montenegro, who wrote Hombre sin mujeres (men without women).

The movie premiered in Miami in 2021, and it tells the chilling stories of political prisoners under the Cuban regime in the early 1960s, who dared to refuse to wear the prisoner uniform, thereby demanding their human rights as prisoners of conscience.

The movie stars actors Gilberto Reyes, Ricardo Becerra, Frank Egusquiza, Carlos Cruz and Roberto Escobar. The premiere was held as part of the Miami Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award.

The movie screening even stirred controversy within the Cuban exile community as many of its members didn’t agree with it and were angry with the Miami Film Festival’s response to the movie. 

I’m not surprised that the movie won the popularity award in a place like Miami, but famous emigres had greater expectations for the awards ceremony. There are some questionable points about its aesthetic, some terrible perfomances and over-the-top scenes of repression. However, the film sequence where one of the lead characters who had suffered repression in the regime’s prisons then identifies one of his wardens in exile, in Miami, and they kidnap him taking justice into their own hands, is totally believable.

The keys to the movie’s message can be found in the final scenes of the film, a suppressed dilemma on the island, where political tension is growing, overcoming resentment, and admitting that reconciliation is the true path to a peaceful transition in Cuba.

In Cuba, pro-government movie critic Rolando Perez Betancourt dedicated an entire page in Granma newspaper to attack the movie and also Andy Garcia’s movie La ciudad perdida (the lost city).

It’s unusual for a feature movie produced in the US to spark the interest of state-controlled media, bearing in mind that the Cuban Film Institute’s cultural policy has ignored this aspect of Cuban culture, except for recognizing academics such as movie critics Juan Antonio Garcia Borrero, who has called these productions “buried” Cuban film, because of the secret and illegal way they are circulated on the island. 

The only time state-controlled media showed a cultural interest in Cuban movies from the diaspora was in 2006, when La Gaceta de Cuba magazine dedicated a file to the subject.

In the eyes of a totalitarian regime like Cuba’s, this attitude is seen as a challenge to the Cuban political system and the budding Revolution, so they received inhumane treatment and unsuspected forms of violence that the movie describes with great realism and historical accuracy. This was recognized by many of the survivors of this tragedy and political emogres Angel Francisco de Fana, Luis Zuñiga, as well as others who were moved during the screening and even shed tears because it evoked so much pain and suffering. The real faces of these leaders in exile finally appear at the end of the movie when the credits begin to roll on screen.

In order to give this movie the realism it needed, the director used a gloomy and suffocaing aesthetic, which was in keeping with the atmosphere needed in a prison movie. The visual discourse feeds off his previous work on TV, especially the narco series El Capo, which was widely accepted by Latin audiences at the time and short fictional movies such as La muerte del gato (2014), the latter was circulated secretly on the island.

Going back to my original idea, Lilo has had the courage to tell a heartbreaking story that few people know about and has remained unpublished in Cuban fiction – the only precedent that exists up until now on this subject is La ciudad perdida (2006), which famous Cuban-American actor Andy Garcia made his directorial debut. The script by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, in Casablanca style but this time we watch the drama of Cuba’s exile community, including the short stories of executions of prisoners at La Cabaña that nobody had talked about until then.

The closest precedent to the Plantados movie is the documentary Nadie escuchaba (Nobody listened) made in 1998 by directors Jorge Ulla and Orlando Jimenez Leal, a crucial piece of work that has the merit of paying testament to lots of the situations described in this feature movie, that many people are unaware of, stories that were decisive in the UN Commission on Human Rights’ inspection of the island.

Before the UN Commission’s historic visit to the island and the international community’s indifference to the human rights situation in Cuba, two books were published that were a hit and have been a source of inspiration for filmmakers such as Andy Garcia and Vilaplana. Against all hope: 22 years in the Gulag of the Americas, by former prisoner of conscience Armando Valladares and Siete años en Cuba, by Pierre Golondorf, a French photographer who was sent to jail in Cuba in the early ‘70s, accused of being a CIA agent, and ironically he was a prominent intellectual representing the European Left that was dazzled by the Cuban Revolution.

As I’m writing these words, Vilaplana has just premiered the sequel Plantadas about female prisoners of conscience in Cuba, with a greater impact on audiences and was well-received on social media. In a situation like the one that exists today on the island, where over a thousand prisoners of conscience exist in Cuba, this film never gets old.

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