Among the most inexplicable realities of the past decade in Cuba is the non-existence of spaces to watch Cuban cinema. Since the beginning of the 21st century, in almost in all intellectual polemics on the island, it became a recurrent complaint the little or no interest of the media and state institutions in promoting Cuban audiovisual productions, either by reporting its productions, its presence in festivals, and awards received, as well as the minimal presence of films produced on the island on television and in movie theaters.
As movie theaters were disappearing in Cuban cities, so was the exhibition of local films. Apart from the premieres of recent titles, with only a few days in a few theaters, the public circulation of national films was restricted to the brief days of the New Latin American Film Festival in Havana and the ICAIC Youth Exhibition. After the closure of the latter, there are even less spaces available than before, except for the INSTAR Film Festival, with only two editions so far.
Today, when my foreign students ask me where they can watch the films I write about or play for them in class, I can only suggest they go to the tennis court of the Norwegian Embassy in Havana, where every month the Cinema under the Stars space is held, or to the headquarters of the theater group El Ciervo Encantado, which also programs movies. Those are the spaces that exist in the capital, while in a few provinces something similar happens.
The best way to describe such panorama is as criminal. A crime committed not against the industry (there never was one) or the artists (who in general know how to get by), but against the people. Cuba’s venerable film culture is dying out. Few Cubans know the names of active local filmmakers. Apart from Fernando Pérez, whose trajectory and public presence is remarkable, cinema in Cuba as a mass phenomenon is already a thing of the past.
This happens, paradoxically, at an unprecedented moment for that culture: almost fifty Cuban filmmakers have debuted in feature films in the past 20 years, generally moving away from the “ICAIC authorship” and promoting a cinema that wants to talk less of the obsession by an intellectual elite to offer an idea of nation, and instead is dedicated to produce personal poetics, small films, but with an intense vocation for self-expression and a desire to experiment with language. Numerous academic texts, books, and courses on Cuban cinema are taught in universities around the world, while interest grows in international festivals for what some describe as New Cuban Cinema.
If such an entity actually existed, its circumstance would be unprecedented. Because we are talking about a transnational, delocalized and diverse cinema, without stylistic prescriptions or office editorialism like those of the old ICAIC. Current Cuban filmmakers, who work with the same difficulties as most of the independent creators of the world, are in fact a completely new species because they are not formatted by the moral imperative that prevailed until a few years ago. The project of a national cinema is reformulated with them in the direction of a transhumant condition from the referential point of view and, it must be said, also ideologically. We are more than two decades away from the family conflict and the claim for a common homeland that Video de familia (Humberto Padrón, 2000) narrates, with the children of that community growing old in a diaspora that produces its own imaginary through the desires and memories, the images and sounds of a possible Cuba, as in A media voz (Heidi Hassan, Patricia Pérez Fernández, 2019).
Such pretensions are summarized in the 175 pieces of Land Without Images, the exhibition curated by Cuban filmmaker and critic José Luis Aparicio for Documenta 15, that during July was exhibited in an improvised hall of the documenta-Halle museum in Kassel, Germany, in daily programs lasting more than ten hours. This, thanks to the invitation of the Hannah Arendt Institute for Artivism, directed by Tania Bruguera, one of the projects invited to the art fair.
The curator is only 28 years old and that is significant. When the last generation of Cuban filmmakers who demanded to be adopted by the ICAIC made the AHS Young Film Exhibitions in the late 1980s, in its Ojo: pinta section, they curated their referents in the same way, but their referents were very different.
Aparicio begins his particular catalog of Cuban cinema presented in Kassel with PM (Orlando Jiménez Leal & Sabá Cabrera Infante, 1961), the original sin of film censorship in Cuba under the spell of Fidel Castro. And he closes it with an elegy for the uncontrolled vices of extreme cinema that find their apex in the work of Jorge Molina, but includes a growing repertoire of adherents, which in Land Without Images are embodied by Miguel Coyula, Juan de los muertos, Terence Piard, the Magdiel Aspillaga of El regreso de la mujer de Onán (2006), Marcos Díaz and the curator of the show himself, who can be inscribed in that current with El secadero (2019) and Tundra (2021).
In between, the selection goes from seminal pieces by filmmakers like Néstor Almendros, Fausto Canel, Fernando Villaverde and Miñuca Villaverde, some of them produced within the ICAIC of the early 1960s, the one of less narrow dogmas and where Nicolás Guillén Landrián was still tolerated—this, before all those works were hidden in a discreet chest—, to a very precise selection of creators who in the 1980s and 1990s experimented outside the narrow frameworks of institutional cinema: Tomás Piard, Manuel Marzel, Ricardo Vega, Marco Antonio Abad, Manuel Rodríguez, Juan Carlos Cremata, plus a fragment of exile cinema: from Néstor Díaz de Villegas and Jiménez Leal to Orlando Rojas and the Landrián of Inside Downtown (with José Eguzquiza, 2001), passing through an essential piece such as El Súper (Orlando Jiménez Leal & León Ichaso, 1978), until reaching the work of Eliécer Jiménez Almeida.
I cannot resist asking myself ironically: what would Alfredo Guevara have thought of this collection of “deviant” cinema, often without illuminist ambition or teleological yearning, very often seduced by the film genre, and openly anti-totalitarian? What would he have said about how Land Without Images “reprehensibly” brings back to the fore all the dissidence that he and so many others wanted to extirpate from the cinema made in Cuba? Precisely the land without images that this exhibition invokes is a strange zone for that “virtuous” idea that, by means of impositions and decrees to administer freedom, they wanted to impose on us as the only possible territory in which to exist. In any case, what is left of it today? Besides an ICAIC that cannot reinvent itself and is torn between the pressure of the censor apparatus and the demands of the creators, what is left of Cuban cinema today?
Land Without Images suggests that the idea of national cinema will necessarily have to be different from the official one, without hegemonies imposed by means of a rhetoric with hardly any contact with day-to-day practice. And it shows that the chauvinistic nationalism that invoked the Homeland believing that only in it was the Nation legitimate was the unhealthiest feature of institutional cinema. Because it turned the resulting art into a derivative of normative practices alien to the free flight of imagination.
In order to make this idea coherent, so that historiography, critics and anthologists to come can trace a path that forces to rewrite the syllabus of the leftist-inclined professors of the American and European academy who teach Cuban cinema, this exhibition devotes its main emphasis to telling how the dissidence of yesteryear has a firm ground in the practices of current Cuban cinema, which competes on equal terms with the most daring productions of the present and wins awards at Locarno, the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) or Rotterdam.
Aparicio has already produced a referential body that accounts for that formidable outburst in Cine Cubano en Cuarentena (CCC), the island’s largest audiovisual repository of all times available on the web, born after the ICAIC signed the death certificate of the Youth Exhibition in 2020. Conceived as a necessity and under the sinister design of the COVID-19 pandemic, what began as a sort of personal vade mecum ended up becoming one, two, three, a thousand samples, which naturally burst the limits of those other selections administered from above, where obscure officials review from what a character says about José Martí to the political trajectory of the registered filmmaker.
From my perspective, that vade mecum is in itself a declaration of principles. There are not much more selection criteria than the availability of the works on the web or the willingness of the creators to show them. And there is room for everything from “ICAIC authorship,” so well defined by Michael Chanan, to post-national cinema. This selective criterion is exemplary for Cubans, trained as we are to decant, purify, divide into camps. On the other hand, the capital impurity that governs CCC puts the notion of fragment before that of unity.
Imagining the Nation therefore supposes that in Land Without Images are present, apart from what has been mentioned above, the creations that straddle the genre limits, the video-creation, in exemplary pieces of the last 20 years, such as Bojeo (Celia and Yunior, 2006), Reconstruyendo al héroe (Javier Castro, 2007), Habana Solo (Juan Carlos Alom, 2000), Sucedió en La Habana I (Henry Eric Hernández, 2001) and Sucedió en La Habana II (Henry Eric Hernández & Dull Janiell, 2003), Causa No.1, 1989. Nosotros los acusados aquí… (Hamlet Lavastida, 2019), or a cinema halfway between several traditions, but which in my opinion wonderfully represents the non-metropolitan Cuban amateur audiovisual, such as En el iglú (Emmanuel Martín & Léster Romero, 2008).
A self-respecting dissident exhibition of the present must embrace the nightmare zone of the institutional model of Cuban cinema, which responds to the totalitarian practice of denying the possibility to speak to those who demand the scrutiny of the established power and its hegemony. And this applies to titles like 8-A (Orlando Jimenez, 1993), La imagen rota (Sergio Giral, 1995), El informe (Ricardo Vega, 1990), Veritas (Eliecer Jiménez Almeida, 2022), Nadie (Miguel Coyula, 2017), Entropía (Eliecer Jiménez Almeida, 2013), and even La reina de los jueves (Orlando Rojas, 2016).
I cannot help but mention that Land Without Images is subtitled “The Absent in Cuban Cinema.” Now we see that what has een “absent” is huge. And it includes today’s filmmakers, with hardly any thematic or stylistic links between them, who draw the richest landscape Cuban cinema has ever seen in its history. What do Rafael Ramírez, Heidi Hassan, Alejandro Alonso, Fernando Fraguela, Katherine T. Gavilán, Lisandra López Fabé, Miguel Coyula, Carlos Melián, Marcelo Martín, Fabián Suárez, Damián Saiz, Carla Valdés, Eliécer Jiménez Almeida, Ricardo Figueredo, Raydel Araoz, Carlos Lechuga, Carlos Quintela, Marcel Beltrán, Ana Alpízar, Marta María Borrás, Daniel Santoyo, Susana Barriga, Alán González, Yimit Ramírez, Daniela Muñoz have in common? I dare to venture only one trait: that they are not State officials nor do they speak on behalf of the State as members of an institution.
And a final detail: many of these filmmakers break down their praxis in exercises of pedagogical didactics. Therefore, as part of the exhibition, Alonso and Ramírez gave workshops from Documenta 15 where they explained their working methods. As intellectual subjects, several of today’s Cuban filmmakers are by choice producers of theoretical models and hermeneuts of their own representation mechanism. This should be interpreted as another degree of freedom, similar to the one exercised by an exhibition that puts together the necessary images for a land that has lost its own.
In any case, we are not discovering something new, for we are still condemned to reinvent the narrative of these murky days. When what is about to happen happens, we will need to sit back again and look, we will need to meditate. And we will discover that the previous outlook was narrow, insufficient. Then we will re-imagine where we came from. And the curators of tomorrow will weave their own fabric. Hopefully, the audiovisual exhibition of the future will be in Havana. And that no one will have to give the go-ahead to works and creators. That’s my hope.