Sex and culture: three recent audiovisuals to think about what’s going on in Cuba

Standing out as one of the most notable discursive strategies in Cuban film today is the focus on a gender-and-sexuality-oriented exploration of the inner world and circumstances of people’s lives. It not only inserts profiles of individuals into the making of a Cuba-centered narrative, but is proof of a growing need to examine the complex intersections of sex and culture among Cuban filmmakers. These new works mobilize their entire aesthetic repertoire in order to expose (and denounce) the technology — production of knowledge, knowledge systems, socialization practices — that shapes the body and rationality of “dissident” sexualities, whatever they may be, while also aspiring to legitimize both the free expression of these identities and the manifestations that resist and transgress a structure continually re-producing exclusions, prejudices and discriminations.

In its approach to “the queer” in Cuba, cinematic representation has incorporated important contents even in instances where the queer theme does not constitute a central discursive interest, at least after Strawberry and Chocolate (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea & Juan Carlos Tabío, 1993). In many films, this issue is only a “marginal angle” of the plot, which nevertheless manages to set in motion substantial interpretations about it. But ultimately, there are many movies in which the subject matter, the plot, and the conflict development tackle and bring to the fore the social contingencies, aspirations and values surrounding and defining the queer subject. So much so that these works become a cultural gesture that, as Judith Butler would say, attacks the dispositives of abjection erected by homophobic law.

Amid the ethical and social fragility to which lesbians, transgenders, gays, transsexuals, etc., are exposed, in a civic and institutional context plagued by heterosexist models, the attention to their imaginations, bodies, practices of subjectivation, and life expectations, is inevitably presented as a corrosive transgression of norm and power. Whatever the specific approach taken by each of the films separately, as a whole they manage to show the arbitrariness of the performance constructing the hetero subject, a performance that repudiates, expels, and rejects all queer identities. This way, the films erect themselves as testimonies of the abject condition that still weighs down on them, as they are dispossessed of any real social articulation and any authentic cultural legitimation.

Considering Cuba’s present reality, the circulation and production of a cinema capable of undermining the impositions of phallocentrism, and willing to explore the structuring of sexuality in our social geography, has become essential; a cinema with the capacity to carry out a devastating criticism of the contingencies endured by the queer body, which is still a traumatic entity to the symbolic matrix regulating hetero subjectivation. The key, when watching the films, is to realize the ways in which the representation of multiple psychosexual profiles contributes to abolish power and disturb hegemonies.

I want to propose three films in which the aesthetic experience is concerned with capturing the socio-cultural imbalance that continues to censor the legitimacy of queer voices today. They also exemplify the political caliber through which cinematographic language zooms in on this area of contemporary Cuba.

Batería (Damián Sainz, 2016) is, in my opinion, one of the most relevant audiovisuals of the independent Cuban production in recent years, due to the intelligent way in which its director handles both the formal resources and the political scope of the film’s discourse. In Batería [Battery], a camera moves around the interior and surroundings of a former military fortress located on the outskirts of Havana, now remodeled into a meeting place for the gay community. While exploring this space, there is a voice-over of several people commenting on their experiences there, and volunteering other anecdotes related to their sexual lives. As the camera shows the corridors and walls of the old battery, which sports graffiti, erotic drawings, denunciations of the police and tips to avoid sexual diseases, one hears, for instance, the following confessions: “I came here for the first time because I needed a place to go with the boy I liked, since I couldn’t find any other place in Havana to be with him completely, without it being an issue […]”, “everyone has their own gestures, their own defining traits, when it comes to hooking up. Generally, the one who’s a hundred percent homosexual, he immediately leans against the wall, takes out his cock, and he doesn’t discriminate who comes his way, as long as it’s another pájaro [pansy]; now, those you see walking around, selecting, and looking you up and down […], hands down he’s pájaro or a full-blown homosexual”.

The anthropological value of the oral testimonies and the metonymic character of images are very significant here. Contrast between space—the materialization of a cultural memory—and voice-over narratives offers an account of the regulations imposed on these subjects by the socio-political order, showing their capacity to redefine themselves out of these impositions: the battery is not only a space to satisfy a sexual hunger, it is also a means of liberation, a place created by these individuals to let their identities, their desires, their selves exist. The space’s appalling hygienic and sanitary conditions and its location on the periphery of the city are a metaphor for the social position still assigned to the gay community, deprived of a real legal protection and exposed to multiple acts of violence.

In 2012, filmmaker Juan Carlos Calahorra produced another documentary that also stands out for its uniqueness to explore the life of a transsexual. El Evangelio Según Ramiro [The Gospel According to Ramiro] shows the impossibility of scaling down the world to a pair of concepts: masculinity/femininity. The film challenges all forms of coercion over the social expression of a subject’s identities, for, while exposing the affective and social environment of this individual, it stresses the person’s capability to re-signify reality and re-arrange the material world according to their existential fulfillment.

While a voice-over narrator reads passages from The Gospel According to St. Luke, the camera follows the daily routine of Ramiro, a transsexual living in Guanabacoa. The biblical story is not at all gratuitous: Ramiro is a devoted Christian, a faith that for him constitutes a kind of escape which, paradoxically, allows him to live in a certain spiritual abundance, even amid the hardships of a marginal context and the economic crisis. The documentary limits itself to portray, almost discreetly and with few stylistic marks, the existential circumstances of this individual. Ramiro lives with extreme simplicity, his house’s shabbiness attests to his precarious living arrangements; his days are divided between work hours in Communal Services and domestic chores at home, together with his partner, a security guard, and his elderly mother.

The documentary exposes the existence of a subject still marginalized by the privileged laws of culture. Representing Ramiro’s daily life is a way in for these subjects, a possibility to carve their own space in the cultural discourse. This claim of recognition enforced by El evangelio según Ramiro speaks of the strength of other sexualities to oppose the norm. Few films, I think, are as powerful as this one; the way this character articulates himself to “the human”—insofar as he is not considered such by certain privileged people—verifies the arbitrary nature of the heterosexual politics that condemns him.

Verde Verde [Green green] (Enrique Pineda Barnet, 2012) is a film that develops its dramatic and visual narrative through a total immersion in the coordinates of what queer is. Carlos and Alfredo, its main characters, meet in a bar frequented by whores, transvestites, bodybuilders and strippers, all of them caught up in an atmosphere of sexual energy and intoxication leading to a complete release of desire. Alfredo, who is openly bisexual, gets Carlos to accompany him to his apartment, where they both plunge into an erotic game that ends in tragedy and death. Of course, the important point here is not so much the homoerotic ambiance the director teases us with, but the final blow dealt to the male hegemonic pattern.

There is a scene where the antagonists are urinating side by side in some corner of the apartment. Carlos, who has been all along reaffirming his masculinity, shoring up his macho image, is impressed, fascinated, by the size of the naval nurse’s penis. Right away, the plot ventures into the sexual encounter of the bodies: it goes without saying, the sailor manages to penetrate his object of desire. And the latter, while confessing to the enormous pleasure he has experienced, continues to swear by his manhood. When they finish, Carlos is assaulted by the repressive force of the heteronormative spectrum, to such an extent that he feels compelled to murder Alfredo and cut off his penis.

Carlos mutilates Alfredo because he placed him at the very opposite of his masculine identity, and let himself be overcome by everything execrable. Lethal aggression is his way of controlling and eliminating anything that either soils or destroys his sexual ought-to-be. Unable to come to terms with his desire for the body of his fellow man, Carlos is doomed to conceal any sign or trace that would publicly expose him. Alfredo’s death is, therefore, a manifestation of the anomaly he signifies to the male sexual economy; it is the consequence of giving free rein to one’s divergent erotic appetites. Alfredo’s sin is so great in the face of the norm that he must die.

Heterosexuality, in its eagerness to assert itself as “the natural” order, abjectifies anything that disrupts the machinery of its sexual economy. The constructions of sexuality cannot continue to operate within cultural formations where hetero hierarchy completely disregards otherness. Cinema could be (has been) the space to empower these abject domains, to the point of subverting and reinventing the terms of culture and the discourses encoding our social bonds. It is clear that “different” behaviors continue to be frowned upon, and that sexual preference still shakes the rest of life’s foundations. Cinema is a means to discuss these problems and effect a change in the fabric of existence.

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ÁNGEL PÉREZ
ÁNGEL PÉREZ
Ángel Pérez (b. San Germán, Holguín, Cuba, 1991). He has a degree in Art History. His articles and essays are published in books, anthologies, and both national and international magazines. Together with Javier L. Mora, he compiled and prefaced the volume Long Playing Poetry. Cuba: Generación Años Cero (Casa Vacía Publishing House. Richmond, Virginia, 2017), and with Jamila Medina the anthology Passport. Cuba: Poetry of the Zero Years (Catafixia Publisher, Guatemala, 2019). He is the recipient of the Caracol Prize for film criticism and essays granted by the UNEAC (2017 and 2019), the International Essay Prize from the magazine Temas (2019), as well as the Dador Creative Scholarship (2018), and the Pinos Nuevos Essay Prize (2020), both awarded by the Cuban Book Institute. He is the planner of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, and a member of the Rialta staff.

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