Iconoclasm and Experimentalism: From Revolutionary Cinema to Today
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Iconoclasm & Experimentalism: From Revolutionary Roots to Today’s Cuban Cinema

Tomás Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968. Photo courtesy The Film Foundation

As a complement to the exhibition Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950, the Walker Moving Image department has curated Cinema Revolution: Cuba, a series of four classic Cuban films by filmmakers who gained international recognition soon after the formation of Castro’s revolutionary ICAIC (the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos). To spark conversation about their impact today, we invited six experts on Cuban film—Juan Antonio García BorreroMichael Chanan, Gustavo Arcos Fernández-Britto, Oneyda González, Dean Luis Reyes, and Alejandro Veciana—to respond to the question: How is revolutionary Cuban Cinema still revolutionary today?

In their essays, presented when possible in both English and Spanish, they cover key considerations—including the innovations in form, technique, and style that are still admired or emulated today; the impact of these ’60s-era films on young people in Cuba today; its influence on today’s generation of artists; and the relevance of this work for audiences outside of Cuba. The fourth installment of the series comes from the perspective of Michael Chanan, author of Cuban Cinema (2004), as he contextualizes the production of revolutionary Cuban film from the sixties and its lasting influence on contemporary Cuban film.

In 1958, the year before the Cuban Revolution, an article appeared in a Havana journal which pooh-poohed the idea of a film industry in Cuba on the grounds that the domestic market was far too small. Cuba was destined to remain merely an outpost of the Mexican film industry and occasional host to Hollywood films seeking exotic locations. Yet three months after the dictatorship was overthrown, the new regime created a film institute, the ICAIC, which would quickly demonstrate that where there’s a will there’s a way, and the new cinema that quickly emerged joined the new wave cinemas making headway in France, Britain, and Latin American countries like Brazil. The new institute was empowered to function as producer, distributor, and exhibitor, and became in effect a state monopoly, in which socialist production practices nurtured highly skilled, low-budget filmmaking. But it was also designed to operate autonomously—an autonomy it would fiercely defend over the coming years, first against liberals who attacked it as hardline Marxist and then against hardline Marxists who attacked it as bourgeois. Later, it would be incorporated into the ministry of culture, which largely protected it from the direct control which was applied to the rest of the mass media, although it would sometimes come under strong pressure to conform.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s La muerte de un burócrata, 1966. Photo: The Film Foundation.

The new Cuban cinema was entirely modern. It represented the confluence of the two avant-gardes, the political and the aesthetic, and its revolutionary ideology was shared by political filmmakers across Latin America. The difference was that Cuba had escaped the domination of its screens by the US majors and was liberated from the cultural imperialism of Hollywood. The overthrow of the old order unleashed tremendous creative energies and gave license to iconoclasm. There was no attempt to create an alternative “house style,” and the Soviet concept of socialist realism was alien to Cuba’s tropical socialism—what Che Guevara once called “socialism with pachanga.” The times called for exuberant experimentation, which the ICAIC encouraged. Audiences, seeing themselves on screen as they never had before, loved it, and the mobilization of the audience’s enthusiasm in turn enthused the filmmakers. Directors like Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and the documentarist Santiago Álvarez began to win well deserved awards at international film festivals for their cinematic innovations.

Since those times, the conditions for small film industries have radically altered. While the Hollywood majors still dominate big-screen entertainment with ever more inflated budgets, the explosive development of digital cinematography has promoted low-budget and independent filmmaking on multiple levels and in unexpected places. Nor is Cuba excluded from this new 21st-century media landscape. While official Cuban cinema struggled to survive the economic crisis of the 1990s, a new generation appeared on the scene and eagerly turned to video, just like everywhere else. Notwithstanding the island’s isolation, Cuba has developed a vibrant and youthful independent video culture, which reflects a country not to be found in the imagination of the mainstream media—either outside or, indeed, inside Cuba—but another island, with different preoccupations, shaped by new post–Cold War sensibilities. It is a generation for whom Fidel had become a “voice-off.”

Various tendencies have appeared, and some of the new filmmakers are engaged in pushing the boundaries of what was deemed politically acceptable to articulate publicly. Their work has explored questions of sexuality, race, marginalized subjectivities, migration, and other politically awkward subjects. It ranges across experimental video art, short fiction, cultural promotion for television, music videos, and documentaries. It includes the popular short political satires of Eduardo del Llano featuring the popular actor Luis Alberto García as a tragicomic anti-hero called Nicanor O’Donell, made on the margins of the official film industry, a unique creation which has reached episode thirteen. There are more women engaged in filmmaking than ever before. There are even full-length movies which have sometimes achieved international success, like Alejandro Brugués’s Juan de los muertos (Juan of the Dead, 2010). This is a zombie comedy which completely escapes the criteria of official cinema, in which Havana faces an attack by the undead, whom the flummoxed media immediately label as “dissidents.” If it is tempting to read this as an allegory of late communism, there is a long tradition of films as national allegory in Latin American cinema, including that of Cuba.

Alejandro Brugués, Juan de los muertos (Juan of the Dead), 2010

And yet, although the new independent filmmakers do not see themselves as part of the old project of revolutionary cinema, they readily acknowledge Cuba’s rich revolutionary film culture as a significant source of inspiration, especially its tradition of iconoclasm and experimentalism. They are not in oedipal rebellion against their artistic fathers: on the contrary, several new films were dedicated to Alea following his death in 1996, not to mention a major work of homage, Miguel Coyula’s experimental tour de force Memorias de desarrollo (Memories of Overdevelopment, 2012). In short, they have what the artist and critic Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel) has called a “genealogical conscience.” But in assuming a critical eye towards their reality, they do so from another angle, through another prism.

Inevitably this leads to political tensions. Film has always been seen in Cuba as a primarily artistic rather than commercial endeavor, for which the guiding principle was pronounced in 1961 by Fidel Castro: “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.” In practice, as the cultural historian and screenwriter Ambrosio Fornet later explained, this turns cultural creation into an arena that must be continually renegotiated, “with no quarter granted to the bureaucracy and with the temptation of irresponsible whimsy firmly resisted.” For the new filmmakers there is an added complication. Their situation is anomalous. Independent production isn’t illegal, but nor is it legally recognized. The new dispensation for small enterprise and self-employment (trabajo por cuenta propia) does not include independent filmmakers. The fellow who sold me pirated DVDs on the street corner is a legal cuentapropista (self-employed) but some of what he sells is made by local filmmakers who do not enjoy the same legal status. Situated outside institutional production, the independent filmmaker’s relationship with the government is both ambiguous and ambivalent. The ICAIC often supports them with facilities, and runs the annual Muestra de Cine Joven, established in 2001. But although the sector is mostly tolerated, it receives no state support. The independents exist in a sort of ill-defined no-man’s-land and suffer the consequent bureaucratic obstacles.

The system marginalizes them, and occasionally censors them. Yet young independent filmmakers I spoke to in the days after Fidel Castro’s burial, often film school graduates working outside the system making highly personal works, millennials who would clearly not call themselves Fidelistas, said they felt offended when they were referred to by hard-liners as “the enemy.” They readily expressed their respect for the Fidelismo of their parents and grandparents, even if they tended to see his brother Raúl Castro’s governance as something like a holding operation, struggling to keep control.

However, the future is uncertain. The rapprochement with Washington in 2014 led to a loosening of restrictions, and Hollywood was quick to respond, going down to Cuba to shoot episodes of stuff like House of Lies and The Fast and the Furious. Business correspondents reported skepticism in the island’s independent sector over whether this would benefit independent filmmaking in Cuba. On the contrary, it looks more like a return to the fate described by the author of that article of 1958, in which Cuba serves Hollywood primarily as an exotic location. Meanwhile it remains absolutely true that in the current order of things, making films in small underdeveloped countries is never going to be easy.


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