I met Juan Carlos Tabío on March 4, 2014, when I was working on a text about his work during the 1980s. That paper, entitled “Juan Carlos Tabío and the Staphylococcus aureus of costumbrismo“, had been commissioned to me by Juan Antonio García Borrero, who had invited me to a Workshop on Film Criticism dedicated to the Cuban cinema of the 80s to be held in Camagüey.
That paper also allowed me to come into contact with many approaches on the subject, most of which conveyed a rather biased account, based on complacent and overly impressionistic criteria. Indeed, it was not without a reason that Tabío would compare the cinematography of this decade to “an unhealed wound”. And that was precisely what I felt, that it was an unfinished, incomplete issue, even poorly drawn in the scope of its contexts; and I’m not talking about the nature of the films produced in those years, but about the persistence of film critics to highlight “some tendency towards trivialization and thematic superficiality”, an approach with which I did not quite agree.
That same March 4, some hours later, Tabío received the news that he had won the National Film Award. Undoubtedly, this was a happy coincidence for me. It was a highly deserved recognition, and although I had met Tabío for the first time a few hours earlier, my impression was that of having been in the company of an old friend, to whom one could only wish the best.
So we went from commenting on some details about my paper for the Workshop to talking about the idea of a future book on his work. We began a very prolific stage of dialogues, which extended over several months with plenty of e-mail messages sent back and forth. It was not easy for me; I had to learn on the fly the difficult art of interviewing and exploring the life of this great man who, in addition, rewarded me with his friendship and trust. It was not easy for him either, and I could feel it all the time. His simplicity and humility did not allow him to feel comfortable with the idea of being an object of research; and even the Prize itself awakened in him many mixed feelings or, as he himself called it, “a crisis of faith”.
It didn’t take long for that crisis to extend to the book project as well. In one of our last messages (about the book), he wrote to me, referring to his circumstances after the Prize: “I feel like in one of those nightmares in which one goes out naked into the street. […] The only thing I long for is to spend the time I have left on this planet as unnoticed as possible”. And so, suddenly, as many things happen in this life, a long and emotional interview was buried in the twists and turns of the Internet. Until today, when, invited by his son Juan Manuel, I have decided to bring to light some fragments of this dialogue, which I hope will become, at some point, the book we started together and which, unfortunately, we will no longer be able to conclude with his physical presence.
Those who knew Tabío know that the following lines are marked by the deepest honesty, shrewdness, sharpness and bold criticism, which is only possible due to his inherent quality of artistic freedom and commitment. Those who did not know him cannot expect a philosophical treatise, nor an epistemological, ontological or anthropological dissertation. Tabío was an artist, an intellectual, but he was also an ordinary guy with an endearing connection to popular culture. He quoted El Guayabero as he did Cervantes’ Don Quixote. And, regarding the latter, I end this brief and occasional introduction with a quote Tabío made of the character Maese Pedro when he said to his young servant: “keep to your plain song, and don’t attempt harmonies, for they are apt to break down from being over fine”.
Thank you for the plain and lucid singing, Juanca.
How did you get started in the world of cinema? Was it a calling, chance, opportunity…?
In 1961, I was in limbo. I had dropped out of high-school in my fourth year, and I had been expelled from a career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) where I was studying Diplomatic Law. At that time, Alfredo Guevara’s office manager was the daughter of my father’s best friend, and since that’s what friends are for, I joined the Cuban Institute of the Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC). Cinema was not the center of my interests, but I was satisfied because that would always be better than working for real.
I started working as a production assistant, director and cameraman. In 1963 I managed to direct three little documentaries that immediately fell into oblivion and, as Mario Rodríguez Alemán (“Mario Rodríguez Alemán Democrático”, Zumbado once called him) might have said, could be thrown into “the dustbin of history”. In any case, not even the negatives of these documentaries remain.
At that time (April 1964), I was called up for compulsory military service. I spent about two years in the Navy. One day like any other, in my unit, the officer on duty called a group of recruits by their names, and without any explanation they informed us that we were being transferred to the UMAP (Military Units to Aid Production), they put us on a Leyland bus with two drivers and a guard with a rifle at each door. The bus was also filled with other recruits from different army and navy units. During the more than 24-hour trip (the two drivers took turns driving), the bus made a few brief stops for the drivers and guards to get something to eat and go to the bathroom. We couldn’t get off the bus, we couldn’t even drink water. We urinated and shat on the footboard of the rear door. You can imagine how that bus got to Camagüey, to a small town called Minas, near Vertientes.
I still don’t know, and I will never know, of course, what was the selection mechanism that sent some recruits to the UMAP, because, at least in my unit, the “chosen ones” were exactly the same as those who stayed. I believe there was a quota to be filled and the selection was made more or less randomly. I can’t think of any other explanation. Well, it doesn’t matter now.
I spent about a year and a half in the UMAP until I was demobilized.
Did the fact of having been in the UMAP change your perspective on filmmaking? Did this context influence the way you face or choose certain themes or situations for your future films?
Being in the UMAP changed my perspective on everything in life. Of course it was a traumatic experience. Four or five months after I entered the UMAP I was granted my first pass. I had bought a ticket for the Camagüey-Habana train that left in the morning. On the day of the pass, I got on the train (I was wearing the UMAP uniform, which was the only clothing I had), a passenger made a comment about my presence, murmurs, someone called the inspector and he made me get off the train. If anyone disagreed with me being taken off, they didn’t say so. At the station, the ticket seller gave me my money back as if it were a regular office formality.
Why was I taken off the train? What crime had I committed that made me an “untouchable”? It doesn’t matter. I was in the UMAP, I could have been religious or homosexual, I could have tried to “escape” from the country or been a “fan” of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, I could have had long hair or been one of “those youngsters who walked around with a little guitar”, etc. Who knows. I definitely could not be on the same train with “our working and revolutionary people.”
That same afternoon, together with my other fellow “UMAP soldiers” who were on leave, I got on the train that had been assigned to us, a cattle train (fortunately without cattle, but also without seats). The trip from Camagüey to Havana took 36 hours.
Beyond what this situation may have affected me personally, there is something over
which I’ve thought all this time: this kind of things happen when intolerance and exclusion are imposed by a regime as moral principles in the disguise of patriotic and ideological values. Many (in one way or another) will act as direct participants, while many others (also in one way or another) will resign themselves, accepting it as inevitable. Any frontal criticism would be problematic, and, of course, risky. All the people on the train and at the station in Camagüey, the bus drivers, the guards with the rifles, all of them, were ordinary Cubans. Like any others, good people. The Cuban people.
In 1967 I was demobilized from the UMAP.
(Let me make a clarification about the homophobia-UMAP relationship, because there has been a misunderstanding about this: within the UMAP homosexuals were only 10 percent of all “UMAP soldiers”, and within the UMAP homosexuals were also segregated, isolated in special units. Those gay units were like the UMAP within the UMAP).
And then, when you finished your service, how did you manage to get back into the ICAIC?
When I was discharged, I could not return to the ICAIC because a new provision did not allow me to return to my previous work center. But the father of a fellow conscript of mine in the Service was an official in the Ministry of Labor and he managed somehow that I was readmitted in the ICAIC. So, both my entry and my return to the cinema were marked by a catastrophe, chance, and the favor of a friend.
And what happened the you didn’t start directing feature films in the 70s? Look how curious it is that when you made El radio, your first fiction short film, Sara Gómez, who was the same age as you, had made De cierta manera two years earlier. This is a doubt of mine, of course, but was there any particular reason why you didn’t agree to make feature films?
Well, indeed, I was able to return to the ICAIC; nobody pointed fingers at me, but in the political climate of the late 60s the future didn’t look bright for an “ex-convict” like me, especially after the Congress on Education and Culture in ’71. The UMAP had just been closed, but its “spirit” (so to speak) seemed to have spread all over Cuba. There was a permanent intolerance towards anything that departed one millimeter from “the official truth” (the strike zone at that time was even narrower than it is now); parameterizations in the theater and purges in the university were the order of the day. Although the ICAIC was still “in a way” an island within the island, it also, like all cultural organizations, had supported the conclusions of that unfortunate Congress. Who could assure me that, in the same way they had taken me off the train in Camagüey, they would not take me off the ICAIC in Havana? Given this state of affairs, I didn’t feel encouraged to start thinking about making my first feature film. It’s not that I had some idea for a film and I didn’t dare to make it, it’s that I couldn’t think of anything, I was stunned. For years I had a recurring nightmare that I would be sent back to the UMAP. The only thing I wanted was to go as unnoticed as possible.
But, well, time went by and due to that Cuban proneness to forgetting, or rather to burying things, I was encouraged to make my first fiction short film (I was never very good at documentaries) and I made El radio [The radio set], and a little later La cadena [The chain]. Although both were based on good ideas (La cadena had a stellar cast), they were horribly made.
Nevertheless, at Titón‘s insistence, I wrote the script for Se permuta [A House for Swap], but until it was decided how the “transfer” of some documentary directors to feature film directors was going to be implemented, my case would not be considered.
From my point of view, Se permuta announces one of the key issues of your later cinema, namely: the recurring self-reflexivity, defamiliarization, and metatextuality. I am referring specifically to that moment in which Enrique Colina appears on the television set of the character played by Rolando Núñez and offers a dissertation on the film. In my opinion, this is one of the climactic scenes not only of Se permuta, but also of Cuban cinema. Why are you so interested in the dialogue of mirrors between reality and fiction? In general, critics associate this use of self-reflexivity in your films with Brechtian distancing effect. What is your opinion of this criterion?
Well, thank you very much for the praise. Look… because of you I know of a series of articles and essays by foreign critics (that I didn’t even know existed) that, when analyzing my films, point in that direction. I already knew a long essay (with a very long title) signed by Guy Baron on Plaff published by Cine Cubano, where he also alludes to “the techniques of Brechtian distancing effect”. The same thing happens in Cuban critics as well. Some have even spoken of “my debt with Brecht”.
Bertolt Brecht is one of the essential artists of the 20th century. A playwright who created expressive resources that have influenced the theater to this day. Well, I’m not going to hammer on what everyone knows.
Now, for Brecht the distancing effect (a resource that he used only in some of his plays) is a didactic operation, an ideological, political one.
The Encyclopedia Encarta says:
He rejected the methods of traditional realist theater and favoured a freer fiction form in which to use distancing mechanisms such as asides and masks to prevent the spectator from identifying with the characters on stage. He considered the “distancing effect” as essential to the audience’s learning process, since it reduced their emotional response and, on the contrary, forced them to think.
For my part, and this is an opinion like any other, I consider that the metatextual, self-reflexive games that appear in many of my films (and in other fiction works by many authors), although they also provoke an effect of distancing, have nothing to do with Brecht. They participate in a much older game. Ultimately, it could be said that Brecht’s operation is an orthopedic variant of that game.
In Memorias del subdesarrollo [Memories of Underdevelopment], when Sergio takes Daysi Granados (I don’t remember her character’s name) to the ICAIC and meets Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (the very author of the play!), and they talk about the play itself, they are playing a game that has nothing to do with Brecht, a game that already appears in the Athenian comedy. Rodríguez Adrados says, referring to the comedies of Aristophanes: “In the parábasis, the chorus speaks as a group of Athenians to the audience, commenting on the play (underlining is mine). He (the chorus) takes off his mask and forgets, at least many times, his dramatic character.”
Actually, that sequence in Memorias… where Titón appears, is the only moment in all his work in which he uses a resource of this kind. About fifteen years later, when we were writing the script for Hasta cierto punto [Up to a Certain Point], I proposed to Titón to establish a self-reflexive game where the different levels of “reality-fiction” overlapped between the reality of the port, the fiction of the script proposed by the screenwriter Oscar, and the fiction imposed by the director Arturo, presenting these three aspects as communicating vessels.
I even sketched a sequence according to that idea. Titón preferred to present the antagonistic visions between Oscar’s script and Arturo’s film in a, let’s say, more conventional way.
And now, look at this:
In 1982 Titón finishes the editing of the film. (It should be remembered that at that time, late 70s, early 80s, the official discourse stigmatized “material stimuli” and, above all, the workers were presented as seraphic beings who worked selflessly, only to win the Socialist Emulation and thus “build the luminous future of socialism”.)
In the film, the screenwriter Oscar wants to break through the true and harsh reality of the dock workers and capture it in his screenplay. He videotaped interviews with the workers, assemblies where they harshly discussed their fees in the Collective Bargaining Agreements before starting to unload each ship. Oscar drank beer with the workers, fraternized with them to get to the heart of the issues. Plus, of course, his relationship with Lina made him understand a lot of things. The screenwriter Oscar wanted to put all that in the film. But Arturo, the director, didn’t want it. In a dialogue between them, almost at the end of the film, Arturo tells Oscar that he does not want to touch the subject of material stimuli among the workers and ends up telling him: “We are going to criticize machismo. I don’t want anything else”.
But Titón, who was the real director, did want the film to reflect the material needs of the workers and their struggles to achieve economic improvements. And so he did. Or so we thought.
Shortly before its theatrical release, some of the “uncomfortable” scenes in Hasta cierto punto were censored, leaving the story of the dockworkers almost exclusively as a criticism of machismo.
Was Arturo less real than Titón?
Now let someone tell me that reality and fiction are not truly communicating vessels.
This game (which, as we have seen, is sometimes imposed on us by reality itself), I think, consists in the author’s fascination with the possibility, always latent in every work of fiction, of crossing the border with reality. And it has nothing to do with Brecht, except when critics stick the label on it. (By the way, yesterday I saw on TV a short film by Pablo Trapero –I couldn’t see the title– which is like a summary of all the possibilities of this “recurrent use of self-reflexivity, defamiliarization, and metatextuality”, as you say).
Now, the expressive resources that Brecht used in the 20th century to “reduce the emotional response” of the spectator and “force him to think”, such as the use of masks, in classical Greek theater could serve the opposite purpose. I copy you an excerpt from Gabriel Josipovici’s essay What Ever Happened to Modernism? dealing with this subject: “To us moderns a mask hides something, to the Greeks it revealed.”
Josipovici quotes John Jones, author of the essay On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy: “What was done by the man in the story is done again by the mask. For the actor-mask is not a portrait; it presents, it does not represent; it gives us King Oedipus.”
Does this not prove that even the very concepts of reality and fiction are cultural categories, interchangeable according to time and place? Quantum physics has shown that the difference between the real and the virtual is increasingly problematic. A quick way to make this apparent (or at least to accept its possibility) is to perform a very simple experiment literally related to what you have called “dialogue of mirrors”:
If you stand in front of a mirror, say, two meters away, take a camera and focus your image to make a self-portrait (“Lady before a mirror”), it turns out that the focus of your camera does not mark two meters, but four. That is, two meters between your real person and the surface of the mirror and another two meters from the mirror to your reflected virtual image. If that space on the other side of the mirror (between its surface and your image) is real, since your camera (which is part of the reality on this side of the mirror) marks it, then what is your virtual image? Is surely that virtual image of yours, looking at you from the other side of the mirror, less real than you?
Where this confusion reaches its apotheosis in art is, of course, in Don Quixote. It is in this infinite novel where these encounters between reality and fiction (this dialogue of mirrors, as you say) become really disturbing.
In The Order of Things, Foucault writes: “In the second part of the novel, Don Quixote meets characters who have read the first part of his story and recognize him, the real man, as the hero of the book. Cervantes’s text turns back upon itself, thrusts itself back into its own density, and becomes the object of its own narrative”.
What is, then, so disturbing about this? Borges clarifies it in “Partial Magic in the Quixote“, a wonderful little essay included in the volume Other Inquisitions. Borges says: “if the characters of a fictional world can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious”.
And this is really what frighten politicians. All of them. Any attempt to relativise “the truth” means heresy.
And the fact is that this is an eternal game, one that has been emerging from time to time throughout the ages in narrative art (literature, theater, cinema, television), from Aristophanes to Pablo Trapero, and including of course that unique milestone that is Don Quixote.
Like any game, every time it has been attempted “seriously”, the result has been spurious, moving between naivety, aridity and pedantry. Its only and essential requirement is humor.
No matter how much has been written about humor, no one has found a definition that covers its multiplicity. It seems that it can be many different things. I would not be surprised if all of them were truly “snares of the Devil”, as St. John Chrysostom warned, who to reinforce his argument concludes with a simple and forceful truth: “Christ never laughed”. And not only Christ, every form of Power, be it celestial or rooted in “the kingdom of this world”, that thinks itself the owner of the Revealed Truth (whatever it may be), is inevitably associated with sternness, solemnity and feels a particular repulsion (or fear?) of humor.
Our dear friend Juan Antonio García Borrero published some time ago in his blog an article entitled “Re-reading the Cuban cinema of the 80s”, which includes a letter that Carlos Aldana, then head of the Department of Ideological Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party, addressed to Alfredo Guevara, then president of the ICAIC. In that letter, Aldana explains to Alfredo his criteria about the script of El elefante y la bicicleta [The Elephant and the Bicycle], and I think it illustrates emphatically what I have been telling you. I quote:
The situation our society is going through and the situation, as you well know, still not completely overcome regarding the relations between the Party and the intelligentsia, after the failed experience of Alicia… do not leave room for the tendency that is triyng to be expressed in that script, at least with that language. We cannot allow this controversial film to jeopardize what we have been doing so far. This project must be postponed […]. As we shall discuss, I advance you the idea of raising the stakes and challenging them to deal with these issues seriously. [The underlining is mine.]
Apart from the fallacy contained in these words (remember for instance the censorship suffered by the magazine Pensamiento Crítico), what’s the reason of this a priori rejection of this language? What is behind this “raising the stakes and challenging them to deal with these issues seriously”?
In my way of seeing things, I think that the politician’s intention was none other than to try to strip the work of art (of course I am talking about the work of art in general and not this film in particular. God forbid!) of its essence: play.
If I have more or less understood Gadamer, when he defines art as play, he is referring to a play that is neither an evasion of reality nor its slavish imitation, but one that operates, through its own language, from and on reality, “illuminating the known thing with new light, bringing out, beyond the superficial and contingent aspects in which it usually presents itself in everyday life, its essence or its deep structure”.
And I personally think that where play goes “as far as the brush does not reach” is in humor. Not by chance, at the end of the 20th century, the only Cuban films demonized were Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas [Alice in Wondertown] and Guantanamera, both comedies.
(Ironically, it is quite possible that Aldana’s letter, against his intention, saved El elefante… from oblivion. Alfredo was not going to allow Aldana, as he did not allow any Minister of Culture, to order him what films could or could not be made.)
More than twenty years have passed since then. The officials who determine the cultural policy in Cuba are others. However, from then on some films, some plays and some art exhibitions haven’t had the same fate as El elefante y la bicicleta. It depends on the winds blowing in the celestial spheres.
Now allow me a Brechtian aside: I personally consider that the concept of cultural policy, if not an oxymoron, is at least quite problematic. The culture of a nation, which is not only art, is a natural, constant, spontaneous and free product of the spirit of the people. It arises horizontally within civil society and does not respond to superstructural directions or orientations.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Cuba was exposed to the most brutal influence of American culture, yet it was during that period that all the cultural elements that today define us as a nation crystallized, and that without the slightest hint of cultural policy on the part of our governments back then.
Cultural policy means control, and control means censorship.
Forgive me all these digressions and let me return now to Se permuta, which was the aim of your question.
Look, although there are some who love it, I find it very uncomfortable to talk about my own work. I will only tell you that at the press conference with the critics when the film was premiered (that was in the ICAIC library, which by the way was packed, I did not know that in Cuba there were so many film critics), well, I said that although the purpose of the film was to address our immediate and current reality (thus distancing myself from the epic-historical character of almost all the cinema of the 70s) the intention of the film was, basically, to entertain. Afterwards Julio scolded me, asking me how I had dared to say so: “Hell, because it’s true!”, I answered him.
Now, I would like to place it in its context because it is about that context that I would like to speak, or rather to raise a question, which is always more disturbing than a certainty. That context would be what has been called the Cuban Cinema of the 80s. This cycle begins in 1980 with Techo de vidrio [Glass Ceiling] by Sergio Giral, and tragically ends in 1991, when a witch-hunt was staged to attack Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas, directed by Daniel Díaz Torres, in this film’s premiere. This led to the government’s decision to turn the ICAIC into a department of Cuban Television.
Just now, going through my old papers, I have come across an article by Roxana Pollo published in Granma on June 19, 1991, as a result of the premiere of Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas. This was one of the three articles published in our national press, accusing this film, and incidentally all of the ICAIC filmmakers, of being counterrevolutionary. Of course, this same national press had closed its doors to a response from us.
This article refers to a debate in the late 80s between critics and filmmakers precisely about Cuban cinema in the first half of the decade. I don’t remember that debate, but, well, I have the virtue of having a very bad memory. I’ll copy a paragraph from Roxana’s article:
That debate years ago at the Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC), when, based on several articles by film critics, a dialogue arose to discuss the reasons that explained the cautious and paralyzing atmosphere that pervaded Cuban cinema in the early 80s. At that time, they talked about the challenges of an engaged, revolutionary art. Of leaving behind the so-called “responsible inhibition” to give way to a disturbing cinema that, immersed in everyday life, would coexist with its successes and mistakes to contribute, to the extent that art can and should do, to a possible solution.
(It is still funny that when, from the Creation Groups, we began to make “a disturbing cinema that, immersed in everyday life, coexisted with its successes and mistakes to contribute, to the extent that art can and should do, to a possible solution”, the government wanted to get rid of the ICAIC.)
Claudia, although at that time you were in diapers, I ask you in case you have any bookish reference. I was not –still– in diapers, but, as always, totally lost: what debate is she referring to? By the way, what became of her?
Well, indeed, I was in diapers when Roxana said that, although I may have some bookish reference.
The debate to which Roxana refers is the one that took place publicly through the press, in June 1988, between film critics and the ICAIC filmmakers. The reason: an alleged crisis in Cuban cinema. The result: the UNEAC promoted a meeting of filmmakers and critics with the presence of Armando Hart, then Minister of Culture, Sergio Corrieri, head of the Department of Culture of the Central Committee of the Party, and Julio García Espinosa, then president of ICAIC. The event: the evolutionary process of Cuban cinema was discussed and analyzed, especially its development in the 80s, as well as the position of film critics, their shortcomings and lack of professionalism.
Ambrosio Fornet describes very well this debate in all its aspects and dimensions in his book Las Trampas del Oficio. In case you don’t have it, here I transcribe what he says:
Around this same time [he is referring to the late 80s] a debate began to brew around the issues of popularity and depth in the latest Cuban films […] Some were of the opinion that there was a thematic exhaustion and that the slogan of “not giving weapons to the enemy” had produced forms of censorship or self-censorship that now prevented a bold treatment of the conflicts of the socialist society […] and others, finally, advised waiting before making too sharp a diagnosis, since it seemed that we were facing a wider crisis that was not exclusive to cinema but reached other fields of culture and, in general, of the life of the country.
And now I would like you to read these words, said by none other than yourself in 1988, the same year in which that debate took place. By the way, it seems that Fornet was inspired by these words of yours to write the paragraph I quoted above. You say:
I believe that Cuban cinema, both past and present, in general suffers from a stigma (I’m talking about fiction cinema): sappiness. This creates a cinema without major conflicts, in small problems that do not reflect even by chance the development of social and individual conscience. But this is not exclusive to cinema. The same happens with the whole of revolutionary fiction after 1959: novels, short stories, theater. And I do not rule out honorable exceptions. One needs to be told a story, and the story we tell is simply sappy, although, in all fairness, sometimes cinema has been in this respect more daring than other genres of fiction. And why does this delirium of expression occur? There is an internal debate within the artist that embodies an apothegm: to talk about our contradictions is to give weapons to the enemy. It is not only an internal debate, but also an external one. Therein lies the crux of censorship and self-censorship. To the extent that we are consistent or not with that apothegm, we will or will not make a sappy art, a flabby literature (Revista Cine Cubano, No. 125).
Wow, I was really wise at that time, now I had to get the dictionary to find out what the hell apothegm meant… Look, seen from the perspective of this moment, those words of mine seem to me right now really excessive and overflowing, (back then I was very young, I was only 45 years old). Of course, there are films, plays and novels between 1959 and 1988 of great value, and even if their purposes did not include a “bold treatment of the conflicts of socialist society”, they can by no means be considered “sappy” or “bland” (art is not only a direct criticism of the immediate reality). However, I consider those words of mine to be the symptom of something that was happening, of something that was changing when it came to judging the function of art in our society, both among critics and artists.
And already at that time (between ’87 and ’88, which not by chance was when the Creation Groups were created at the ICAIC) our cinema, but also our literature, was beginning to demand a more incisive treatment of our immediate reality, to address the contradictions that our society was generating.
That’s why Ambrosio said: “it seemed that we were facing a wider crisis that was not exclusive to cinema but reached other fields of culture and, in general, of the life of the country.”
If we now look at what was happening in our literature, we can ask which Cuban novel or short story written between 1959 and 1988 (when the meeting at the UNEAC took place) could be described as critical of our reality, whose hallmark was “an incisive treatment of our immediate reality”; “a bold treatment of the conflicts of the socialist society.”
I asked that question to Arturo Arango, who knows much more about Cuban literature (and a lot of other things) than I do, and Arturo answered: “None written inside Cuba. Las palabras perdidas [“The lost Words”], by Jesús, which in a way does that, I read it in manuscript no sooner than 1990″.
So, what are we talking about?
And we must bear in mind that censorship has been much more virulent with cinema than with literature (I don’t know, it could be because films are in color and literature in black and white). In the 90s, Rigoberto López presented a script based on a newspaper article by Leonardo Padura about Yarini, the famous pimp of the early 20th century. The response Rigoberto received was that our leaders were tired of hearing about whores and pimps; in 2002 or 2003 Arturo Arango’s novel El libro de la realidad [“The Book of Reality”] was published in Cuba. The novel is about a group of high-school students who are recruited by the Cuban Government to become part of a guerrilla cell that trains physically and mentally to spread the Revolution throughout Latin America. As this topic was very sensitive, the script (written by Arturo himself and Gerardo Chijona) was transferred to the Ministry of Culture. To this day, Chijona and Arturo are still waiting for its approval. Those are the two examples that first come to my mind.
Leonardo Padura stated in an article a couple of years ago: “Cuban comedies of the 80s […] did not pretend their hallmark to be a controversial view of the surrounding reality, but rather their ironic look at the attitudes and processes of the country’s civic life and individuals.”
Well, Pasado Perfecto [Havana Blue], the first novel with Mario Conde, meant a sharp turning point in Cuban detective novels, but could it be said that it went far beyond “an ironic look at the attitudes and processes of the country’s civic life and individuals”? I’m sure this novel went down very badly with some people up there, but, whatsoever, it was published in Cuba in 1991.
Curiously enough, Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas was released the same year. That’s what I was referring to.
Jorge Fornet, in an excellent essay where he analyzes with all rigor and depth the contemporary Cuban literary fiction, and which not by chance is titled “Cuban fiction between utopia and disenchantment”, begins by saying. “Cuban fiction arrived late to disenchantment […] Needless to say that such disenchantment does not necessarily imply the rejection of the very idea of Revolution”, and further on he says: “The Fall of the Wall, or to be more precise, the disappearance of Socialism in Eastern Europe and the subsequent disappearance of the Soviet Union, unleashed an economic and moral crisis in Cuban society that would also modify our fiction. This crisis gave rise, in the first half of the 1990s, to a transition stage. […] [Cuban fiction writers] would not take long to dissociate themselves from that perspective in which there was still room for utopia, for that New Man announced by Fanon and Che Guevara”.
Returning to cinema: how many of the Cuban films that dealt with our immediate reality (comedies and non-comedies) of the60s and 70s could be included in that definition?
Memorias del subdesarrollo [Memories of Underdevelopment] is for many, including myself, the best Cuban film so far. The other day I watched it again on TV and every time I watch it, it gets better. Well, in my view, rather than a critical look at Cuban reality at the beginning of the Revolution through the lens of the main character, an expropriated bourgeois, what the film proposes (and, in fact, fully achieves) is the humanization of that character, a symbol of a world that is disappearing.
Sergio, the main character of the film, is indeed, according to a strictly classist vision, an expropriated bourgeois, but actually, inwardly, he is an uprooted person who breaks with his parents, his wife and friends, who of course leave Cuba, and he is left alone, and as an aristocratic spectator (Saint John Perse said: “the Uprooted is the aristocrat of our time”), he observes the new reality (that of the early 60s) to which he neither wants nor can belong, but that somehow fascinates him. And of course, he allows himself some ironic comments such as “This humanity has said enough and has started to walk, like my parents, like Laura… and will not stop until it reaches Miami”; but also, as an insightful man, when he makes an analysis of Bay of Pigs his considerations could have been published in Granma.
(In the essay by Jorge Fornet that I just quoted, when he discusses the novel of the same name on which the film is based, he says: “Nor am I interested, for the purposes of this work, in that novel whose most notable example would be Memorias del subdesarrollo, by Edmundo Desnoes, because rather than expressing the disenchantment of those who committed themselves to the Revolution, it shows the maladjustment to it”.)
Even Titón himself was surprised by the reticence (or rather the rejection) with which Memorias… was received in official circles, and in a letter to Ramoncito Suárez, the film’s cinematographer, he told him that the film “is not so controversial or anything like that” and that he thought that this official rejection was due to the fact that “they are a little prejudiced with the awards” the film had already won.
Yes, Memorias… was a controversial film (and for that reason it was shelved for some time), but not because it assumed “a bold treatment of the conflicts of socialist society”. The heresy of Memorias… was that for the first time (I insist, in 1967!!!), a Cuban bourgeois appeared in our cinema as a human being, and not as the bad guy of the movie.
(Titón, around that same time, in an informal meeting at someone’s house where some high officials were present, expressed strong criticism of the UMAP, which led to a heated discussion in which one of those officials even questioned Titón about his “revolutionary condition”. What happened is that, at that time, in 1967, all revolutionaries (a very well-defined concept at that time) shared the “enchantment of the world” proposed by the Revolution. All revolutionaries still believed in Santa Claus, even some of those who at that very moment were in the UMAP… And it was one thing to criticize the government individually, to make internal criticisms –even at the risk of being “excommunicated”, as there were cases– so that the problems could be solved “from within”; and quite another thing to expose those criticisms in a work of art.)
Ustedes tienen la palabra [“It’s your turn to speak”], by Manuel Octavio Gómez, attempted a critical approach to our immediate reality, but I don’t really remember it well… I don’t know which other…
Well, maybe also De cierta manera [One Way or Another] (1974), by Sara Gómez. Don’t you think so?
Yes, of course, De cierta manera. I consider De cierta manera a very important film, among other reasons because it showed for the first time in Cuban cinema an aspect of our reality: marginality, a subject that (except for very rare cases such as the play María Antonia, by Eugenio Hernández) had been silenced until then, not only by cinema, but also by practically all forms of fiction (and by journalism, of course).
However, marginality was not generated by the revolutionary society, but inherited as a “remnant of the past”. The film even shows how the character played by Mario Balmaseda, a true marginalized character, gradually assumes revolutionary values, a transit highlighted in the final song: “Véndele, a ese mundo vacío…” [“Get rid of that empty world…”].
Actually, De cierta manera didn’t propose “a critical approach to our immediate reality” (in the 70s no Cuban film did so); on the contrary, the film assumes precisely those “new revolutionary values” confronting them with the “remnants of the past”. What happens is that, by doing this, it exposed an underlying reality that made some people uncomfortable.
I was a close friend of Sara’s, and on more than one occasion I sat with her at her dining room table to discuss the script she was writing with Tomás González. I had recently finished a documentary (of which not even the negatives are left) that one way or another touched on the theme of marginality (the script was written with Tato Quiñones), and Sara had also helped me in the editing and narration of the documentary.
Sara’s untimely death was a very hard blow for Cuban cinema. I can very clearly imagine the films that Sara would have continued to make.
Of course, in the 60s and 70s excellent films were made in Cuba, classics of our cinema, but however you look at it, during those decades, and despite the “conflicts of socialist society” that were arising (the UMAP, “Revolutionary Offensive”, failure of the “10-Million Ton Sugar Harvest”, Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Congress on Education and Culture, “Gray Years”, the announced economic welfare that had not yet appeared, etc.) most Cubans (at least those who felt “revolutionaries”) lived in “an enchanted world”. It was a heroic era. And heroic times cannot produce critical art.
And here lies the question I was talking about. Why did those critics who met at the UNEAC in 1987 and 1988 try to make it seem that it was precisely during that decade of the 80s that Cuban cinema stopped assuming “a bold treatment of the conflicts of socialist society”, as if Cuban cinema of the 60s and 70s (in addition to literature and theater) had assumed that critical attitude?
Contrary to that criticism raised in the UNEAC, I think that this disenchantment, this attempt to begin to show “the conflicts of the socialist society”, began precisely with the Cuban cinema of the 80s, especially from the Creation Groups (and not in the 90s, as it happened in our literature). And assuming those chronological distinctions that obsess those who come to treat the history of Cuban cinema dividing it into decades, as if these were watertight compartments, I would tell you that this critical operation began precisely in 1980, with Techo de vidrio.
Although this film is not, by far, Sergio’s best work, in my opinion it does place for the first time the focus (although timidly and in a very incipient way) on “the conflicts of our socialist society”.
In Arturo Arango’s excellent article “Entre Cecilia y Alicia” [“Between Cecilia and Alicia”], where he lucidly addresses this messy issue of Cuban cinema in the 80s, he says: “In 1980 Sergio Giral finished Techo de vidrio, a film that in the view of critic José Antonio Évora is the first one “of a critical wave of films that would open channels for the dilution of self-censorship (in the director’s own words) and for the consequent appearance of less pressured and better structured works from the formal point of view”. The cost this film paid for inaugurating this critical line was that it was not released until 1988″. (1988 was not by chance the year in which the Creation Groups emerged).
In this same article, Arturo begins by saying:
In historical terms, the decade of the 80s in Cuba began with the Mariel boatlift (April 1980) and ended with the disappearance of the Soviet Union (a process that concluded in December 1991). In cinematographic terms, it began with the controversy surrounding Cecilia (1982), the film by Humberto Solás, and ended with the case that had as its center Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas (1991), by Daniel Díaz Torres. Within the ICAIC, the first of these events resulted in the replacement of Alfredo Guevara, the founding president of the Institute, by Julio García Espinosa, one of the co-founders. The second event resulted in the replacement of García Espinosa by Guevara.
In 1982, Alfredo wrote a letter to Jorge Fraga about Hasta cierto punto, then a film project with a script by myself, Titón and Tato Quiñones (Jorge Fraga at that time was director of the Department of Artistic Programming, in charge of approving new projects). I quote some excerpts from Alfredo’s letter to Fraga:
I cannot understand how you can blindly approve (blindly because it is not finished) a script loaded with ambiguities, double meanings, and inconsistently directed critical intentions. […] How demagogic it is to oppose, as the film does, the working class to the leaders, technicians and intellectuals generated by the working class and who still are ideologically part of it. […] The most remarkable thing [is] the manipulation of reality by a critical aristocracy, which makes of the fair incitement to fair criticism a resource that conceals the will a thousand times explicit in our daily life, to use a demagogic criticism, lacking any subtlety of analysis and depth, and not infrequently dishonest and vulgar. […] His critical vision is more anarchic and liberal than revolutionary, even though he is a revolutionary, someone who wants to be one […] It is a long experience with Titón, with Juan Carlos [Tabío], with the group that surrounds them.
In my view, this letter was the first shot that preluded the campaign of disqualification of Julio’s management as president of the ICAIC and of the cinema made by the ICAIC under his presidency. That is to say: the Cuban cinema of the 80s.
As we have already seen, Alfredo is removed from the ICAIC and Julio enters, who does approve Hasta cierto punto.
And that is when this campaign against Julio and the cinema of the 80s really begins. This campaign was joined by some critics recruited by Alfredo, as was the case of Rufo Caballero (this campaign would become more virulent after the launch of the Creation Groups in 1988).
In 1988, and thanks to Julio himself, an event took place at the ICAIC that I consider a critical factor in the history of Cuban cinema, as I was telling you: the formation of the Creation Groups.
The other day, talking with Juan Antonio García Borrero in my house, I was telling him that, for me, it had been very clumsy of most of our film critics not to have valued in its right dimension the critical importance of the Creation Groups in the process of revitalization of Cuban cinema. And Juan Antonio agreed with me.
It was an extraordinary moment in the ICAIC, something like a Cinematographic Republic. An unprecedented episode of decentralization in the Cuba of 1988. Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas (the last film finished within one of the Creation Groups) was accused of being counterrevolutionary (an accusation extended to the ICAIC as a whole).
From my point of view, there were two simultaneous shots that triggered this witch-hunt (these shots were of heavy caliber): one was aimed at Julio to disqualify his management as president of the ICAIC (and incidentally, all the films that had been made during his presidency); the other one was aimed at Hart to remove him from the Ministry of Culture. Both shots hit the target. Of course, the “forbidden fruit” was precisely the Creation Groups and the cinema that began to be produced from them. And if the ICAIC was not dismantled and turned into a department of the ICRT, it was due to the firm opposition of its filmmakers (also nucleated, precisely, around the Creation Groups), and the no less firm support of the entire Cuban intelligentsia.
Because it is within this atmosphere brought about by the Creation Groups that some films began to be produced that, according to Guy Baron, “are on the threshold of an important change in Cuban cinema […] only a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall”. According to Nicolás Azcona: “those first films were a recognition of the inner voice towards definitive growth, the establishment of a style […] Plaff (1988) and Papeles secundarios [Supporting Roles] (1989) are the most evident samples of this process; Fernando Pérez would delay a little longer with Madagascar (1994)”. (N.B.: Both Baron and Azcona are foreign critics).
However, the Cuban encyclopedia Ecured, when talking about Cuban cinema in the 80s, says this: “Comedy predominates as a genre in the film productions of those years, with great public acceptance. Se permuta (1983), Plaff (1988), by Juan Carlos Tabío; Una novia para David [A Girlfriend for David] (1985), Papeles secundarios (1989), both by Orlando Rojas; and La bella del Alhambra [The Beauty of the Alhambra] (1989), by Enrique Pineda Barnet are some of the films that constituted exceptions within a trend towards trivialization and thematic superficiality that characterized the cinema of those years”.
For other critics, all the comedies of the 80s, without exception, are shipwrecked in that “trend towards trivialization and thematic superficiality that characterized the cinema of those years”.
Now, look how odd it is that this whole process of official disqualification of the cinema of the 80s, which began with that letter addressed by Alfredo to Fraga and which had its climax with the witch-hunt unleashed around Alicia…. was based on considering the cinema of the 80s as hypercritical. However, some of the critics (especially from the 90s onwards, that is, after Alfredo’s return to ICAIC), continued trying to disqualify, in bulk, all Cuban cinema of the 80s, but for totally opposite reasons! And comments of this type were spread: “the calm and conservative context of the 80s”; “the Cuban comedies of the 80s did not pretend their hallmark to be a controversial view of the surrounding reality”; “the comedies of the 80s tended towards trivialization and thematic superficiality, dangerously bordering on populism, full of pleasant films of an often naive costumbrismo“.
This is similar to those mysteries of quantum physics that even Einstein did not understand where things are themselves and their opposite at the same time. In March 2014, a Workshop of Film Criticism was held in Camagüey, aimed precisely at an aesthetic and conceptual revaluation of the Cuban cinema of the 80s. (Coming thus to be something like the Second Vatican Council within our film criticism).
Coincidentally, the magazine La Gaceta de Cuba had already published in its December 2013 issue (that is, only three months earlier) a dossier entitled “The long decade of the 80s”, where appeared Arturo Arango’s much quoted essay “Between Cecilia and Alicia”, and which seems to me an obligatory reference to address this subject. Here I copy a paragraph that seems critical to me:
The Cuban cinema of the 60s and 70s put on the screens a reality in which to recognize ourselves: it built an identity that we lacked, especially because it made visible the history of the nation. We all agreed that in the capitalist past we were those “poor, broken and exploited men”, and we could even still be like that in the early 60s. The cinema of the 80s placed before our eyes the image of contemporaneity in a country that had become literate, institutionalized, that had notable schooling rates, that had experienced a remarkable development especially in the rural areas. The public, for the most part, recognized itself in that image and celebrated it. But the image on the screens was not the face of those “princesses of fairy tales who have known everything right from birth”, and that other media “had made us believe we were”; instead, the image was that of something imperfect, irregular, ambiguous, unsatisfactory.
Because of my deafness, I did not physically attend the workshop, but I did send a letter to Juan Antonio stating my criteria on the subject. Well, you know that better than I do because you did attend the workshop, and in a very active way, and it is from you that I know of several very lucid and revealing interventions that took place there.
Now allow me to quote you: “It has taken many years for the Cuban cinema of the 80s to be justly appreciated, without reiterative generalizations”.
Precisely, the article by Juan Antonio that I quoted above, “Re-reading the Cuban cinema of the 80s”, is one of the texts that were read at this Workshop, as well as a response to my letter. This article begins by saying:
In the message that at the time he sent to the organizers of the Workshop, and whose reading initiated the debate we held around the Cuban cinema of the 80s, filmmaker Juan Carlos Tabío put on the table a key question: “How is it possible then that for some that “trend” is considered disturbing, uncomfortable, censurable to the point that it has provoked the very serious intention of dissolving the ICAIC, while for others it is a trend “towards trivialization and thematic superficiality, dangerously bordering on populism, full of pleasant films of an often naive costumbrismo“. If until now we critics have not been able to construct a moderately coherent response to this paradox, it is largely because we have hardly been interested in retaining the aesthetic notion of this production. […] The fact that a film can be classified as a comedy, which is a genre that critics tend to evaluate as something minor, in no way means that its director is renouncing to think critically about what is going on around him. Among us, the joke (remember Mañach’s sharp observations) can be the most effective device to counteract the solemnities and gravity imposed by an excess of collective duties. […] It seems to me that perhaps this very specific reflection made by a politician to the head of a cultural institution hides part of the answer that Tabío was precisely asking for in his previous message. How a number of films that generated the mistrust of the ideologues of the PCC can be considered innocent?
Look, I have been forced to repeat some things that have already been said, but I do it to try to make clear what I am telling you. In the many times cited article “Between Cecilia and Alicia”, Arturo quotes an interview Ambrosio Fornet made to Manolo Pérez for the Contracorriente Video Library of the ICAIC:
We reached a point, several days after May 13 , when a leader of the Revolution at that time told me that what particularly worried him was not Alicia… but the dominant trend that existed in the ICAIC…
A. F.: But that was a trend that came from behind.
M. P.: Of course, and he was sincere, upfront and quite clear within the framework of a conversation. To the initial arguments of the merger [of the ICAIC to the ICRT and the Film Studios of the Army] he added a more powerful charge against Alicia… and against what was he described as “a trend”.
Here we have found the very core of this whole issue. The trend was not only Alicia…; the trend could also be Plaff, it could be Papeles secundarios or other earlier films. Alicia has been just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Now, allow me a slight digression, because the very concept of critical art seems to me also quite problematic. In what way can art be critical? I ask this question because criticism is an exercise of reason, pure and crystalline (if not, ask comrade Kant). Any subject (art, philosophy, history, politics, economics, sociology, theology, sports, etc.) is approached by criticism only through the instruments of reason (one assumes), and if it is a coherent work, its result must be very clear and not lend itself to multiple interpretations. Art, on the contrary, is by definition polysemic.
I think that a work of art is something like a riddle (just like all of reality), but a riddle that does not contain a single answer.
Umberto Eco said that the novel “is a machine generating interpretations” (of course, this would extend to any work of fiction). So, I don’t know how a work of art is to be understood if it contains a univocal message, if it does not generate multiple interpretations.
Several years ago, I let a script I had just written to a friend of mine. My friend asked me, before starting to read it: “How far do you go, what is the strongest thing you say?”. Indeed, it seems that the only value that we attach to a Cuban film is its critical load.
But this situation places the current situation of our art of fiction at a crossroads: do we forget the unavoidable premise that every work of art should be “a machine for generating interpretations”? Do we approach our reality through a univocal discourse, with obvious movies just like some novels where an omniscient narrator describes reality absolutely, leaving the reader in a completely passive situation?
What happens is that the misery of our press and television have done nothing but to repeat endlessly the same official discourse for more than fifty years, like a one-note obstinato. And look, somehow some things need to be said that need to be said.
(What would happen if a Cuban filmmaker made a film like the multi-awarded Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water or Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which do not even remotely address the social problems of Mexico today, which, by the way, are much more serious than those faced by Cubans. Of course, in Mexico the critical function is assumed by journalism. So much so that every now and then they discover a dead journalist in a ditch.)
Alfredo returned to the ICAIC and the Creation Groups perished. However, the first films that appeared in the 90s were those made from the last scripts elaborated within the Creation Groups in the 80s: El elefante y la bicicleta, with screenplay by Lichi Diego and myself; Madagascar, by Fernando Pérez, with screenplay by Fernando himself; Fresa y Chocolate [Strawberry and Chocolate], with screenplay by Senel Paz and Titón himself; Adorables mentiras [Adorable Lies], with screenplay by Senel and Chijona himself. Adorables mentiras and Fresa y chocolate, although they were filmed in the 90s, began to take shape in the 80s and were the last two projects approved by Julio and the Creation Groups. They were the last two projects of the 80s.
In the article by Padura that I quoted above, we read: “the comedies that began to be made from the 90s onward had a different perspective of their environment: the new conditions of existence of Cubans affect in many ways this cinema, which darkens, becomes more caustic and critical”.
I totally agree with Padura, of course that the comedies that began to be made from the 90s onwards became more caustic and critical. And, I add, comedies and non-comedies; and those appeared in the 2000s become even more caustic and critical; and those of the 2010s more and more, and so on, as far as censorship allows.
But this is not only happening in Cuban cinema; this is happening in literature, in theater, in the visual arts, in our unofficial blogosphere, in the comments expressed in the streets, and so on. All spontaneous forms of expression in our civil society, contrary to the image that our press and television give us, are becoming more and more “caustic and critical”.
And why is this happening? A short way of saying it is that many Cubans are seeing further and further away the light at the end of the tunnel. The long way will have to be sought in the aforementioned essay by Gabriel Josipovici What Ever Happened to Modernism? I quote:
the phrase “the disenchantment of the world” is originally Schiller’s, and all Schiller’s mature critical writing is an attempt to come to terms with what he eloquently describes as the disappearance of a glorious earlier age, an age in which man was simply a part of the world, while now he stands outside, looking in, aware only of what he has lost.
This is the disenchantment Jorge Fornet spoke of.
Baseball is a thermometer of our society. During the first decades after the triumph of the Revolution, our star baseball players rejected millionaire contracts from the Major Leagues; since a few years ago, more than a hundred baseball players have pursued the adventure of searching for a contract (even if it is not millionaire, of course) in any country where there is a baseball team.
I recently read an interview with the great baseball player and manager Alfonso Urquiola about the current state of our baseball. At one point in the interview, Urquiola said that the current moment “is very different from those days when a diploma or a medal and a hug from Fidel made heroes out of us”.
And it is not that heroes have ceased to exist, but their existence is in the past. Heroes emerge and act in the founding moments of a New World; later, with time, everything becomes complicated, for better and for worse, and the future becomes the present of survival. The new becomes old, and of course, we all get older. As for me, I retired some time ago, I got off the train. This time nobody forced me off, I got off by myself, motu proprio.
About thirty years ago, Juan Manuel was 4 or 5 years old, and I took him to a children’s movie, I think at the Riviera movie theater. We arrived before the movie started, the theater was in darkness and already almost completely full of children and parents, and we sat in the last rows. We were silent for a while, and perhaps because the white screen seemed to Juanma the luminous end of a tunnel, he said to me: ” cinema is like a train.”
And at the risk of getting lyrical, allow me to end with these verses by El Guayabero (something like a Heidegger of Underdevelopment):
Life is like a train
That travels thousands of leagues.
Time is the rails
And the train has no return.