‘Land Without Images’. The Absent in Cuban Cinema

“What defines the archive is its omissions, its hollowed nature”.
Georges Didi-Huberman, Arde la imagen [The Image Burns]

“If we were to put together all the lost parts,
we would make an inventory of the absence of man.”
Juan Carlos FLores, La excavadora en la mina [The Excavator in the Mine]


In the beginning, was the verb. The verb to censor. And its reason, a film.

Which is like saying a thin, tiny skin.

A membrane of lights and shadows.

The history of censorship in revolutionary Cuba (the act of twisting and vulnerating an epidermis) begins with P.M. (1961), by Orlando Jiménez Leal and Sabá Cabrera Infante, a visual poem about the end of the night: that trance that, in Havana now and then, precedes the most diurnal and absolute darkness.

Orlando and Sabá went in search of the reverse, the underside of the luminous, militant island. They went into the darkness of the meridian past and found a feverish Cuba of music and dance among the dim and dirty light of the bars around the port.

A decadent country, but more real than that of the propaganda.

The sweaty nation of the poor.

Which is the same as saying, of the specters.

In the face of the morning horror of a guarded square, the night of P.M. rose like a wet dream. It meant a return to the verses of José Martí (not to the verses of the national hero but those of the poet):

“Two homelands I have: Cuba and the night —or are they both one?”[1]

This vision of the insular night as the homeland ended up being discussed in an assembly.

“Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution nothing. […] No rights” (Castro, 2011), were the “words to the intellectuals”.[2]

Fidel Castro defined the Havana night as counterrevolutionary.

P.M., our first banned film, was also our first independent film. The first film that challenged the Revolution’s absolute monopoly on the homeland; on its possible forms, and its transfigurations.

The new Cuba and its official cinema had been designed as a concentric prison. Independent cinema committed the original sin: it crossed the line that made the effectiveness of the panopticon discontinuous.

In 1961 it was the night strip.

“The Maximum Leader announced that a U.S. invasion was just around the corner. Cuba entered a state of permanent war. All radio and television stations were put on a sort of network (which curiously was called the network of freedom) to broadcast patriotic programs and heroic newscasts […],” Orlando Jimenez Leal tells us in El caso PM: cine, poder y censura [The PM Case: Cinema, Power and Censorship]:

“I immediately made a four-minute report where I drew a parallel between the militiamen who installed cannons on the Malecón and anti-aircraft machine guns on public buildings, and the people who danced and had fun in the bars.”[3]

The people of P.M. were trying to reconcile “their historical responsibility with the rumba:” “In response to Castro’s official slogan of Motherland or Death, I heard a mulatto woman snigger one night in a bar as she sashayed from table to table, ‘Chico, and why not Motherland or Slight Injuries’?”

In the cinema of a country where everything is seen, blindness is always voluntary, convenient.

As in that Julio Cortázar’s story where the real became indistinguishable from fiction’s illusion, our cinema rehearsed an early continuity of the parks, bringing an epicenter of intramural Havana closer to the quietest meadows of exile.

Without being aware of their communion, Orlando Jiménez Leal and Fernando Villaverde shot, barely a year apart, the first and second reels of the same film.

In the park (1962, dir. Orlando Jiménez Leal) and El parque [The Park] (1963, dir. Fernando Villaverde) are the A and B sides of a city forked by the ghosts of ruin and exile. Which, in the end, is the same ghost, for what is exile but displaced divided ruin?

Orlando captured the emigrants in Miami’s Bayfront Park. Fernando recorded the regulars in Havana’s Central Park. Both films portray decadence: the myth of the greatness of a country in decline.

“Through images that seem distant, the loneliness of the old people, and despite the beauty of the landscape and the joy of the children playing, the sadness of exile is perceived”,[4] says Orlando of his first film in the United States, where he was stranded after P.M. was censored.

In the images one breathes a terminal atmosphere, the Republic is palpable: empty ceremonies of a country that tries to recover itself amid the stupor and sleepiness of a Sunday in exile. Orlando, perhaps without knowing it, inaugurated a subgenre.

In the park is perhaps the first great film of the Cuban diaspora.

“Exile,” according to Ricardo Piglia, “is utopia. There is no such place.”[5]

The first great film about a place that does not exist.

As illusory and at the same time as painful and real as the homeland.

This symbolic park holds nothing but impossibility and sadness. It welcomes those who do not belong, who only have one happy place that completes them, even though that place only dwells in their mind.

That is why a common scene becomes apocalyptic: an airplane flies by and faces freeze in the gesture of looking at it. The plane can be heard, but the camera does not look up. It rather concentrates on the mannerisms of this theater of exile. On longing as a reflex action.

Six decades later, In the park has never been screened in Cuba.

In this film, not only the gaze touches the viewer but also the words. Its morose narration, written by filmmaker Miñuca Naredo, Fernando Villaverde’s partner and collaborator, is a sort of poetic correlation to the images of Central Park, the one with the statue of José Martí in the center, although the camera never travels up to look for it.

Fernando is more interested in the statues of the listening nymphs.

And the beings that resemble living statues.

Amid the revolutionary fervor, The Park longs to inhabit another time, to capture a cadence that is slowly fading away. It focuses on those who built nothing and could not be integrated into the new society. Those who are rather a vestige or a remnant.

The camera turns its eye to the elderly, who live in their impassive limbo. It sits next to them in the shadows.

Trying to decipher the eyes of these defeated beings could be a ploy to remain outside of time. To be out of time becomes at times something desirable in an age so consumed by history. It is easy to turn our heads and look at where things happen. It is easy to disdain the inconsequential.

An entire country could become intoxicated with effervescence.

Stop maturing and go from naivety to decline and death.

The Park was barely spared from censorship, because in Cuba, according to Fernando, “it is exhibited as little as possible, as an accompanying documentary to the films of the communist countries that empty theaters”.[6]

It was selected for the 1963 Leipzig Festival, along with other Cuban documentaries produced by the official film institute. After its screening, Soviet filmmaker Roman Karmen asked the organizers to withdraw it from the festival for being “pessimistic”, among other sins.

The Park also marked the beginning of a subgenre of sorts.

That of the cinema that looks at the country from the outside, although it is born well inside.

A distanced cinema, which takes a step back, perhaps from a sort of exile.

Fernando Villaverde and his wife Miñuca, a couple of years and censorship later, would join Orlando in exile. His early works glimpsed the germs of failure, doubt, and uneasiness. They were also premonitions of the future country.

This Cuba of today, aged and immobile, where young filmmakers have begun to film the old to attest to the shattering of a dream. From vivisection, we move on to autopsy. From witnessing the “utopia” to dismantling it.

It is not a country for young people, when before it seemed not to be a country for old people.

In his essay Arde la imagen [The Image Burns], Georges Didi-Huberman writes:

“It is no longer possible to speak of images without speaking of ashes.”

Paraphrasing this, we could say:

It is not possible to speak of Cuban cinema without speaking of its vetoed or lost films.

“If, for example, we wanted to write the history of portraiture in the Renaissance,” Didi-Huberman clarifies, “[…] it would not be possible to understand anything of this major art without taking into account the nothingness left by the mass destruction, at the time of the Counter-Reformation, of the entire Florentine production of wax votive effigies, set on fire in the cloister of the Santissima Annunziata […]”[7]

The Cuban film archive, hegemonically ruled by official institutions since 1959, is a compendium of censorship and omissions. The result of endless purges and persistent bonfires. If we wanted to write its history, it would not be possible to understand anything without taking into account its absences.

Not to mention films such as The Park, In the Park or P.M.

Just three examples among countless others.

Three sharp splinters of a broken image.

According to Cuban creator and theorist Julio García Espinosa: “a country without images is a country that does not exist”.[8] A paranoid reading of his words would support the attempt to annul certain ideas or versions of the nation by controlling and kidnapping a significant portion of its imaginary.

A country that I do not film is a country that does not exist.

It was not by chance that García Espinosa, a filmmaker as well as an official, was responsible for some of the most traumatic cases of censorship in the history of Cuban cinema. Ironically, his dual role as artist and censor did not keep him safe from bans or from being removed from his position as president of ICAIC after defending a blackballed film.

Cuban intellectuals, according to Che Guevara in El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba [Socialism and Man in Cuba], committed the original sin: not having participated directly in armed struggle means “they are not authentically revolutionary.”[9] This guilt is dragged by some artists and leads them to contradiction and ridicule.

The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) was the first cultural institution founded by the Revolution, just a few months after its triumph. Like Lenin and Hitler, Fidel Castro considered cinema the most important art and art the most efficient propaganda.

Alfredo Guevara, a Jacobin dandy, served as his tropical Goebbels.

This czar of sugar cinema, an old-fashioned neorealist, promoted a cinematographic model with a strong orientation towards socialist realism; a tendency that quickly became a rigid, schematic mold, like the cultural policy he represented. The discursive demand became an aesthetic hegemony. Any difference was an immediate reason for censorship and marginalization.

The perfect revolutionary cinema is a pure programmatic formula.

Anything that is not complimentary is left out of its field of vision.

Both the film genres and the dreamlike, existentialist cinema of the European avant-garde were considered harmful influences for the new filmmakers since they came from a bourgeois or capitalist conception of culture. Even styles that worked directly with reality, such as cinema verité and free cinema, were condemned for offering a spontaneous, that is, an uncontrolled vision of reality.

The official Cuban cinema fluctuates between the comedy of manners, the social melodrama, and the historical-didactic pamphlet. Any attempt at experimentation and innovation must fall within the limits of popular and naturalistic discourse, easily consumed by an indoctrinated spectator. The official “uncomfortable” cinema negotiates with power, but it shuns the essence, the real cause of conflicts.

The “uncomfortable” element in it is an appearance.

A truly critical gesture must be neutralized.

For many decades, the almost absolute monopoly over the means of production and the repeated suffocation of dissent allowed ICAIC to produce a distorted image of the island. Every divergent or anomalous vision was purged. Every heresy got its punishment. In a process of autophagy that is now cyclical, filmmakers who do not conform to the norm are condemned to jail, ostracism, or exile.

Their films, the ones that survive, become an object of neglect and oblivion.

The breakthrough, though outlawed and precarious, resides in independent cinema.

A movement that they systematically try to suffocate, but always finds new ways to subsist and reorganize itself. It often operates on the margins of the law, under harassment, absolutely unprotected. Its consolidation since the ‘90s of the last century and, above all, in the 2000s, is one of the most remarkable acts of resistance in contemporary Cuban culture.

“The archive,” returning to Didi-Huberman, “is almost always grayish not only because of the time that has elapsed but also because of the ashes of everything that surrounded it and went up in flames. When we discover the memory of the fire in each leaf that did not burn, we manage to relive the experience of a barbarism documented in each document of culture […]”.

Tierra sin imágenes [Land Without Images] explores “the memory of fire”.

Following the steps of Michel Foucault, it proposes a sort of archeology.

It wants to look into the hidden zones of the Cuban audiovisual in the last sixty years, into what we could call its repressed unconscious, its catacombs. Not only those uncomfortable films that were barely saved from the totalitarian inquisition but also the vestiges of those aborted works, all sadly lost.

Works such as El mar [The Sea] (1965), by Fernando and Miñuca Villaverde, confiscated from their authors in the editing process, mutilated, and disappeared. It is a melancholic film about two young lovers discussing their future (to leave or stay) while walking along the beach of a ruined town.

Like Buena gente [Good People], a script by Nicolás Guillén Landrián about a man whose only flaw was his desire to kill a political leader. Nicolasito, who had already suffered electroshocks and internment, was removed from that project in a trial. Any script in Cuba, rather than a movie, could become incriminating evidence.

Like Un día cualquiera [Any Given Day] (1991), the performance piece by Marco Antonio Abad and the group Ar-De which led a prosecutor to ask them to be sentenced to fifteen years for their “insulting and offensive remarks about President Fidel Castro”.[10] A seized film, perhaps unfinished, that remains buried in the archives of the State Security —in Cuba, the Counterintelligence archives are better than those of the Cinemateca.

What would have become of Cuban cinema had it been able to produce these films?

If censorship had not intervened to frustrate and distort so many others?

What would have become of our imagination if we had been able to include the cinema from exile?

If Fresa y chocolate [Strawberry and Chocolate] (1993, dir. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea & Juan Carlos Tabío) and Improper Conduct (1984, dir. Orlando Jiménez Leal & Néstor Almendros) had coexisted in our theaters?

Tierra sin imágenes attempts to answer these questions, not from lamentation or speculation, but from the praxis of a restitutive experience.

Poster for ‘Land Without Images: The Absent in Cuban Cinema’, retrospective of independent alternative Cuban cinema.

It is not a complaint about what was not done or what remains to be done.

It is the act of doing it.

To bring all these films together in the same space.

To start a dialogue between them, facing each other as in a game of mirrors.

To also think about their gaps, their empty spaces.

If we were to envision the face of the island, in a sort of aleph, of total or definitive vision, we would have to include these veiled images, these mutilated or lost icons.

We invite you to a movie seance.

To the cinema as a sort of seance.

To rediscover the country from its absence, its ghostly dimension, its negative.


[1] J. Martí: Dos patrias [Two Homelands], Ediciones Vigía, Matanzas, 1971.

[2] F. Castro: Palabras a los intelectuales [Words to the Intellectuals], Ocean Sur, Havana, 2011.

[3] O. Jiménez Leal & M. Zayas: El caso PM: cine, poder y censura [The PM Case: Cinema, Power and Censorship], Editorial Colibrí, Madrid, España, 2012.

[4] O. Jiménez Leal: “This film closes our enthusiasm with free cinema”, interviewed by M. Zayas, July 31, 2016.

[5] R. Piglia: Respiración artificial [Artificial Breathing], Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona, 2001.

[6] J.L Aparicio: “Últimas imágenes del parque” [Last Images From the Park], Rialta Magazine, 2020.

[7] Idem.

[8] J. García Espinosa: “Necesitamos que nos acaben de descubrir” [We Finally Need To Be Discovered], interview by T. Molina, & A. Cruz, April 14, 2006.

[9] E. Guevara: El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba, Ocean Sur, Havana, 2011.

[10] The true cause for Marco Antonio’s imprisonment was that he documented the act of repudiation to poet María Elena Cruz Varela in El tiempo [The Time] (1992). They asked for 15 years of prison for authoring the anti-castroist video El tiempo.

* These words are the introduction to the exhibition Land Without Images: The Absent in Cuban Cinema, a retrospective of alternative / independent Cuban cinema, curated by José Luis Aparicio as part of the presence of the Hannah Arendt Institute for Artivism (INSTAR) at documenta fifteen, one of the most significant contemporary art events in the world, held every five years in the German city of Kassel.

José Luis Aparicio Ferrera (Santa Clara, Cuba, 1994). Filmmaker. Studied film directing at the Universidad de las Artes de Cuba. His short fiction and documentary films have been screened at festivals in Cuba, the United States, Spain, Germany, Mexico, Argentina, Panama, Guatemala and Chile. His film El Secadero (2019) won Best Fiction at Panama's Bannabáfest and Honorable Mention at Cinema Ciudad de México, as well as Best Production and Audience Award at Muestra Joven Cuba. His documentary Sueños al pairo (2020, co-directed with Fernando Fraguela) was censored by the ICAIC, but received great critical and public acclaim. In 2020, he created the initiative Cine Cubano en Cuarentena (Cuban Cinema in Quarantine). He is a member of the editorial staff of Rialta.


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