HAVANA TIMES – A few meters from the popular Yara cinema and a month before the 44th edition of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, scheduled for December 8 to 17, the Norwegian Embassy in Havana premiered on November 8th the independent film Vicenta B, by filmmaker Carlos Lechuga (1983), winner of the Norwegian Fund for Cuban Cinema 2021. The exhibition, with free admission and open to the general public, was held as part of the embassy’s Cinema Under the Stars space.
Vicenta B has been portrayed by some media as “a film that shows a Cuba that is increasingly distant from hope” or “the film that shows the loss of faith of Cuban society.” The Dominican newspaper El Caribe, for example, goes further and states: “Vicenta B, by Carlos Lechuga is part of the cancellation that the Havana regime subjects to works that may question – even just a little – the continuity decreed by a revolution that is a ghost. And this is a funeral parade.”
After its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, in which its director called for freedom for the political prisoners of the July 11, 2021, protests in Cuba, the film began a successful and politicized tour through several countries and film events such as San Sebastián, the festival Ceará cinema in Brazil, the Chicago Cinema, Biarritz, among others.
When it became known that Vicenta B could be seen in Cuba, expectations and desires grew to see Lechuga’s third fiction feature film amid so much controversy and to which renowned Cuban actors and directors have joined. Lechuga’s previous works such as “Melaza” and “Santa y Andrés” were also vetoed for showing in Cuban movie theaters by the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), a kind of cursed pedigree of the author. With Santa y Andrés he triumphed at the Guadalajara, Mexico film festival (Best Fiction Film) and competed in France in the Fiction Feature Film category.
What does Vicenta B say? It’s the story of Vicenta Bravo, a 45-year-old black woman who has the gift of reading people’s fortune by throwing her cards. Her son leaves the country and Vicenta faces a suffocating loneliness, accompanied only by her saint and some of her friends. To deal with the pain caused by distance, Vicenta helps other people – she has always done so – and in a special and fruitless way to a young woman who puts an end to her torment by lighting herself on fire.
It is not the first time —nor will it be the last— that Cuban cinema deals with family breakup due to emigration. Family Video (Humberto Padron, 2001), Larga Distancia (Esteban Insausti, 2010), and Casa Vieja (Lester Hamlet, 2010), among others. Nor is it the first film starring a non-white actress, nor the only one that explicitly addresses Afro-Cuban religion.
Following the presentation at the Norwegian Embassy which included messages of gratitude from the director, the producer, and the leading actress, we ask ourselves again: Was Vicenta B banned in Cuban cinemas as stated?
First: in November of last year and in a post on his Facebook account, the director explained that the film was entered in the 43rd Havana Film Festival and appeared in the Latin American Contest section and was set to be shown at the Yara cinema on Saturday the 3rd of December at 5:30 p.m. Then, according to another communication from him, it was excluded from the official competition and transferred to the smaller Acapulco cinema for only two screenings. As a result and in the face of the attempt to “lower the film,” its filmmakers did not accept what they called “police negotiation,” demanding that the cultural authorities rectify their position.
Second: the then president of the ICAIC Ramon Samada, interviewed by the government media Cubadebate, stated that the work had been invited for exhibition at the event and that the producers “in use of their rights” had declined such a proposal and he concluded by saying: “Vicenta B It is not censored.”
In an interview following what happened with Santa and Andrés, Lechuga expressed that censorship takes away a certain virginity from the audience and people approach it in a different way, less innocent, a little more contaminated. “And this makes you lose clarity, transparency, when facing the work.”
Whether there was censorship or not will be up to each individual’s interpretation, what does seem to be true is that the Festival, on its own initiative or external pressure, decided to withdraw the work from the competition in 2022 without a clear justification.
This makes me wonder: Where are the sins of the film Vicenta B? That most of its actors are black? Because it portrays how hundreds of families live today in cardboard and wood houses on the banks of a river? Because of the shocking and devastating misery? Why does a young man decide to leave the country and a girl end her life? Is it because it is very sad and does not reflect the drive, strength, and joy of life of the Cubans that official propaganda spreads so much?
Why are Antonio Maceo, Quintín Banderas and Camilo Cienfuegos disgraced? Why does a film like this not agree with the National Program against Racism and Racial Discrimination approved by the Council of Ministers and executed by a commission headed by the president? The film PM yesterday, Vicenta B today?
That’s also what cinema is about: despair, exposing reality in all possible ways, the unseen, beyond beautiful beaches, voluptuous women and old cars. Of course, Lechuga, and you and I also know that not all black people on the Island have the same fate as Vicenta Bravo, nor do they live at a social disadvantage as seen in the film, nor do all young people see their only option to leave the country, nor is that the only Cuba that exists in Cuba.
However, Lechuga’s film is a work, in my opinion, of little time and development. The script lacked greater rigor —the scene of the man who fakes his illness is very similar to the one told by Marilyn Solaya in Wedding Dress—; in the editing, the soundtrack, and you could also have considered a better ending, or do you have two? Of course, I must undoubtedly applaud the performance of its protagonist, Linnett Hernandez Valdes, and the work done by another excellent actress such as Aimee Despaigne.
Co-produced between Cuba and Colombia, Vicenta B is a film that all viewers will not be able to empathize with —nor does it have to— but it allows us to open the debate, question ourselves and question. Religion, emigration, and poverty in 77 minutes and on a big screen in the center of Vedado. Yes, Vicenta B was seen in Havana, although its director insists that it was in Norwegian territory.