There is a moment in this interview where I tell Luis Alejandro Yero (1989) that Cuban censorship has seen a Molotov cocktail in his latest film, “Calls from Moscow,” which premiered earlier this year in the Forum section of the Berlinale. And that’s why nothing is more natural—in Cuba—than to prohibit it from the screens of the Havana Film Festival.
I then ask him to attempt a minimally reasoned ranking of the ingredients that, in his opinion, make up this small terrorist artifact in the eyes of the Censor… And I immediately make the impertinence of suggesting some active principles of the formula.
Yero responds that I have already answered. And I realize that there is nothing to order or prioritize in a Molotov cocktail, and it is even less possible—or beneficial—to map the bureaucratic brain of totalitarian power. Moreover, these ingredients are mentioned and elucidated throughout our conversation; they are opportunistically dissolved in it and mixed together.
I will still say that his film is a bold and virtuous one. And that the last sequence seems to be filmed by a magnificent Yero of the future, perhaps just arrived from the orbit of Solaris.
JAM: Your documentary feature “Calls from Moscow” was unjustifiably excluded from the official program of the 44th edition of the Havana International Festival of New Latin American Cinema. I understand from your Instagram message that this was something you saw coming, but still, that you couldn’t avoid the immediate sadness and anger. How do you feel now? Have you managed to put what happened into a certain perspective?
LAY: Two weeks have already passed, the Festival ended, filmmakers and films received their awards, Havana returned to its time of boredom and survival. Certainly, not much has changed in how I felt when we made the announcement public. Yes, sadness and anger, but without letting the emotions paralyze me or drag me into a state of fatalism.
A few days ago in Santo Domingo, in a conversation with a group of newly acquainted people, they asked me how I felt about all this situation. There were Cuban exiles, a Colombian couple, some of my closest friends who are from the Dominican Republic, from Venezuela, a quite heterogeneous group in the nature of their diasporas. And we reached a certain consensus: neither bitterness nor sadness should paralyze us; nor should we become obsessed with the fatalism of exile. The important thing is to turn the expulsion—whether for political, economic, or emotional reasons—into a boomerang, to maintain vitality, the joy of living, because only that vitality will allow us to found the new nation we long for. In my case, the response to everything that has happened with “Calls from Moscow” is to continue extending that network of affections and conspiracies that has emerged around the world, and, from my place, continue doing the only thing I know how to do: making movies.
The team was prepared for more than a month, when my friends received confirmation or rejection emails from the Festival, and we, only a worrying silence. As soon as they confirmed what was happening in secret—the wait for approval from political filters—we knew that our film was already condemned. We just had to prepare to make it public as soon as they announced the program and the absence of “Calls from Moscow” was evident.
We knew that the programming team had immediately included it in the Documentary competition, and that, along with other films, all Cuban or filmed in Cuba, it was awaiting the final approval of the definitive programmers of the Havana Festival: the political censors.
Here I respond to a man named Jorge Ángel Hernández, who wrote an article of utter mediocrity attacking me, accusing me of being egoistic, narcissistic, furious, and resentful, because the Festival had the right to exclude proposals that it considered not of sufficient quality. On the other hand, Fernando Rojas declared—in reference to “Calls from Moscow’’—that they would not accept any film that attacked “the Revolution.” Those have been the only two direct responses I have received so far. Let’s see if their Public Communication advisors organize themselves better. On one side, a man who justifies the exclusion with the festival’s quality criteria, and, on the other hand, the deputy minister of Culture who shamelessly confirms the censorship of the film for political reasons.
So, our reaction was not a sudden outburst, nor did I feel overwhelmed by emotions. None of this surprised me, because my case is one of the many that have happened for decades. Also, what does it mean for them to prohibit the exhibition of a film when they have more than a thousand political prisoners in their prisons? What does the censorship of our film mean when hundreds of Cuban families have been broken by much greater violence, and they await sons, fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers to be released from the prisons they ended up in for demanding improvements during the protests on July 11, 2021? There are much more serious violences happening right now in Cuba. That perspective, which was there from the beginning, would not prevent denouncing censorship because each of these violences must be recorded. The gaslighting of the Cuban government is brutal, and still, many are convinced of its dignity and innocence. Silence and impunity are the greatest triumph of a rapist.
In the end, sooner or later, every person who exercises violence ends up condemned to loneliness.
You have said that you undertook the film to answer the question of what home is. And, well, “Calls from Moscow” offers a sideways, minimal look at the major Cuban migration crisis of recent years, but the film has the virtue of opening up to a multidimensional network of references, themes, and stories that emerge thanks to the connections established by the protagonists through their mobile phones and the Internet. It seems to me that in this way, you manage to document, with equal doses of rigor and lightness, that constant “non-living” that occurs all the time in the “non-place” of virtual networks, which is almost inevitable for the “Migrant of the 21st century—especially, as we see, for these Cubans in Russia. However, I believe that this narrative device is even more important for addressing the general crisis—in the psyche of the characters and, of course, in the events—of the ‘anthropological place’ that is Cuba (the first home).
Why/how do you decide to bring together these characters in a singular point—a rather sterile Airbnb apartment, and a classic divan with phyto-morphic motifs—to narrate, from there, following the escape routes of their own digital interactions?
The film was initially more ambitious. It sought a much larger portrait of the queer Cuban migrant community in Russia, including several trans women. Throughout the year of remote writing and research, we were weaving a story that aimed to become a kind of One Thousand and One Nights of the Cuban exodus. But as soon as I arrived in Moscow, and seeing the impossibilities of access and the vulnerabilities of the desired protagonists, we had to adjust to a simpler film with other production solutions. Filming in the participants’ homes was impossible, either due to their landlords’ prohibition or the refusal of some of the many tenants cohabiting in the same space—up to ten people in one apartment. Filming with them on the street was impossible due to the panic at the likely appearance of the Russian police—one of the most corrupt in the world—which could end, at a minimum, in a bribe doubling their salaries for a whole month.
The film found in its own realization the profound theme that guided it: the absence of home, its meaning, and what turns a space into a home. Our participants lacked a home; therefore, filming in a home was impossible. That’s why we rewrote the original idea—something that happens many times in documentaries; in fact, it’s healthy that it happens that way. We considered renting an Airbnb on the outskirts of Moscow and turning it into a set, an artificial space to represent or host the minimal gestures of a daily life that became epic in its minimal actions. Being gay, an illegal immigrant, Cuban, and with almost no material and cultural capital implies a real odyssey in Russia.
Having found the device that would make the film possible, another question arose to be resolved. We had decided to film them separately, that they never interacted—indeed, none of them knew each other— to intensify the solitary sensation of the migrant condition in a territory as hostile as Russia can be. A very obvious question quickly arose: how do you film someone alone?; doing what? Then came an object very present in their lives: cell phones. They signify their only window to the intimate homeland they left behind: their families, boyfriends, neighbors, friends. And also, their only form of belonging, beyond the Cubans with whom they manage to form small communities in Moscow. Because Russia, with its unfavorable immigration laws and repressive policy towards the LGBTIQ+ identity, makes any attempt at integration extremely difficult.
Beyond the obvious question of the identities of these individuals, how queer is this film (also in aesthetic or generic terms)?
Throughout these ten months that the film has been in distribution through festivals, we have encountered some curious reactions, to put it kindly. While we have been warmly welcomed in some spaces focused on our community, others have told us that “Calls from Moscow” is not queer enough. The term, subject to many debates and reflections, I think can sometimes become a kind of prison. Sometimes I find myself in situations where queerness, which appeals to the unorthodox, the rejection of norms, the dissident, is presented as a mandate of certain ticks and behaviors: the same logic as what it opposes.
I have always understood queerness as synonymous with freedom and finding your own expression, whatever it may be, without seeking the approval of any mandate, whatever it may be. And that expression is not limited solely to your sexual orientation or gender identity. I think it transcends all forms of human expression.
Being a gay man meant a series of rebellions for me. And if “Calls from Moscow” portrays four young gays, if its production team is mostly queer, there is a sensitivity that inevitably unites us all and is transposed to the film: the shared history of our disobediences and resistances. Each of us comes from very different backgrounds, with more or less privileges, but we all had to confront and defend our identity at some point in front of our families, friends, and the world. And that creates a very specific sensitivity that inevitably seeps into the film itself. The fact that the protagonists sing karaoke dressed as women with a red coat only inside an apartment, and not on the streets of Moscow, as we initially desired, already speaks of that dissidence, that resistance to the hostility of oppressive norms.
To say that the film is not queer enough seems, at least, disrespectful to our own stories.
While we see the image of a pink elephant in the Moscow snow, Juan Carlos tells you on the phone: ‘…and to be in Cuba, without a future, without anything, a country that is rotten in need, in misery […], then, nothing, keep moving forward.’ And later: ‘This is a country [Russia] where there is no democracy; here you don’t have the right to freely express what you feel and believe.’ Later, an influencer talks about July 11 and denounces repression on the island, etc. These are just a couple of explicit moments, but I feel that the film has a strong, let’s say, agonistic or bellicose current that travels beneath the more intimate and stylized narrative, like a muted sound, about the alienation of the migratory experience.
Do you consider it a political film? To what extent did you film and edit the documentary with an awareness of its specifically political effects, given the Cuban context?
The film is profoundly political. The fact that its protagonists are in Moscow is a direct consequence of totalitarianism and the collapse of Cuba. The fact that they never appear in the city’s exteriors is due to unfavorable migration policies in Russia. The inability to dress in the streets of Moscow in the red coat that they use so boldly inside the apartment while singing pop songs responds to the deep homophobia of the country, which Putin has turned into the most oppressive laws in Europe. The fact that the few precarious and informal jobs they manage to access have further reduced their possibilities speaks to another totalitarianism, that of Putin’s government and its invasion of Ukraine, which has led to Russia’s isolation from much of the world.
As you rightly say, all of this flows like underground lava beneath the main premise of the film, that exploration of the concept of home. The absence of home responds to all these political issues.
We articulated “Calls from Moscow” with various interlocutors: one more immediate that would identify with the Cuban exodus, the invasion of Ukraine, LGBTIQ+ rights in Russia, unfavorable migration policies, and a more distant reader who can engage with issues that transcend any time and geography: home, belonging, one’s own time as the true foundation of every home.
In ‘La mala memoria,’ Heberto Padilla recounts that he wrote the poems that would later condemn him on the island while living and working, precisely, in Moscow. The circumstances are very different, but you have also brought these images from there… Do you feel that now, finally, someone who, without giving up a critical work, has been in recent years the coordinator of the Documentary Chair of the International Film and Television School (EICTV) and who, for example, won the Coral Award for Best Short Documentary at the Havana Festival five years ago [‘Los viejos heraldos’ (2018)] has been ‘left out of the game’?
I don’t care, because what ‘game’ are you referring to? I play my own game, which is about friends, encounters, generosity, boldness, building affections and new life. I am where I want to be. And I must thank the many friends and family members who welcome and protect me. It is also because of the hard work of these years, which has allowed me autonomy and freedom of movement. The San Antonio school, where I trained as a filmmaker and now coordinate its Documentary Chair, is a space where, for now, I have decided to be. It is a place that has protected me since I was a student and has allowed me to build a family. And, above all, for me, it represents an educational project that has had a gigantic impact on the cinematography of Latin America, and even beyond the continent. Truly, along with my grandmother’s garden, it is the only place I can call home in Cuba.
And I say this with knowledge of the flaws and faults in its operation. Like my own family founded among that garden my grandmother tends to. The school where I work and live for some months of the year—although its character is international, and its members, a community composed of people from many origins, geographies, ideologies, privileges, characters, and cultures—is still an institution that must be accountable to the Ministry of Culture; not only for being located on Cuban territory but also for receiving a part of its income from the national budget.
And I respond to another of the poisoned and ridiculous darts that this gentleman, Jorge Ángel Hernández, threw, describing me as a ‘scholar and employee of the EICTV, whose financing and resources do not come from his mother, of course.’ Well, the resources come from the wealth created by my family and every Cuban who works, and also from all the migrants who support their relatives from the diaspora injecting millions of dollars into a country in ruins, unable to provide the minimum goods to its citizens. Therefore, I don’t have to ask anyone for permission about what to say, do, where to be, or how to behave. Much less to the Cuban political institutions, which barely manage to function as thugs mismanaging and restricting that material, spiritual, cultural capital that we, the Cuban citizens, create.
On the other hand, within the school, there have been and still are—will continue to be—sometimes radical differences among its members, which have brought somewhat infamous episodes that many remember with pain and sometimes anger. But it is the family to which I have decided to belong. Because so far, even when those differences are not always resolved in the best way, there has been the unbreakable principle of free and risky teaching, of trying to build an ecumenical community where everyone can find their place.
It is not always achieved. Every human community always involves a struggle. As Sartre said, ‘hell is other people.’ But precisely in overcoming that hell and trying to build a common ground is the true greatness. The school keeps trying. And that keeps me there. When this no longer happens, as I always do, it will be time to say goodbye.
I am interested in the fate of the protagonists of the film. What do we know, if it is possible to say, about them?
Dariel and Juan Carlos continue in Moscow. They live thanks to the jobs they manage to find, cleaning snow in the streets, working in construction, in markets; one of them sometimes models for Russian brands. They always tell me that, despite the harshness of life, they prefer to be in Moscow than in Cuba. Two of them returned after the invasion of Ukraine. As I tell in the film, I lost contact with Daryl. I don’t know where he is right now. Eldis comes and goes. The last time we spoke, he was in Haiti buying goods to resell in Cuba.
What projects are you currently engaged in? What kind of cinema does L.A. Yero want to make?
I have started the research for a new documentary that continues the search from “Calls from Moscow.” This time I want to film on the border between Mexico and the United States. I spent all last summer living, researching, and giving workshops for queer migrants in Tijuana. We hope to make the second research trip soon and start filming at some point in 2024.
I am also writing my first fiction film. It is too early to speak publicly about it, beyond its title: ‘Las montañas quemadas’ (The Burnt Mountains).
And others, which I am discussing with friends, both as a director and a producer. Through so much self-management in my films, I have developed a skill, still with much to strengthen and learn, in production. Around me, there are friends with incredible sensitivity with whom I want to join forces to create new films. I am interested in creating a film corpus, both as a director and a producer, that manifests a new sensibility: bold, free, generous, risky. Yes, a queer sensibility.
 Except, perhaps, one of those elements: the participation of “Calls from Moscow” in the recent IV INSTAR Film Festival, an autonomous transnational initiative that embodies, in a certain way, the same diasporic material with which Yero’s film works and that has been the target of a discredit campaign by the cultural institutions on the island.