Letter from Cuba

by Michael Chanan

San Antonio de los Baños, 18 January 2003

Dear friends,

The International Film School in Cuba has a new director, Julio García Espinosa, filmmaker and author back in 1969 of “For an Imperfect Cinema.” At Julio’s invitation, I have arrived here in January 2003 to give a couple of talks on film music, and hopefully to set up one or two collaborative projects. It’s the time of year when the weather is just a little chilly, and the first year students are shooting their first 3-minute exercises.

The students are from all over the continent as well as a few who come from Europe. Behind their quiet intense activity, and among the teaching staff – who are also drawn from several Latin American countries as well as Cuba itself – there’s a certain expectation of change. In recent years the School has built up a reputation for technical excellence while losing something of its original inspiration, which came from the politically committed cinema of the movement known as el nuevo cine latinoamericano. Perhaps this is not surprising since the movement itself lost its impulse and identity sometime ago, which in turn was the inevitable result of larger changes in the world in which the movement tried to make its way.

Perhaps also the school was only responding to the altered aspirations of its students. They are a new generation who belong to a continent emerging from a dark period of military dictatorships. Those repressive regimes were provoked (with Washington’s proactive support) by what might have seemed to the students’ generation as a hopeless if not excessive revolutionary zeal – although Cuba itself has always retained a great deal of sympathy across the continent. But the world has changed again, for both better and worse.

These large scale changes register differently in different places. As always, l find that a visit to Cuba puts me in touch with the rest of Latin America simply because of the escape from the media’s occidental bias back home. (As you know, “back home” for me is England; if it were the United States, one would have to speak of a different kind of bias, that of rampant isolationism.) So merely turning on the television news in Cuba (which by the way includes material supplied by CNN) is to discover that not only Brazil but also Ecuador has a new leftist president. Or in Venezuela, the “historical oligarchy” which is trying to hold the Chavez government to ransom is being solidly repudiated by huge popular mobilizations, and indeed it seems that a process of radicalization is underway there. In short, as an Argentinean student put it in a conversation late one evening: in global terms, with the threat of war against Iraq and the unresolved situation in the Middle East, we are living through very dark times, but Latin America, he thinks, is probably the sanest part of the world—even if his own country is living a nightmare of capitalist collapse.

At all events, Julio’s appointment represents a powerful reconnection with the best and least dogmatic aspects of the earlier period, and among the teaching staff there is a feeling that the school is returning to its rightful heritage.

My activities are not limited to the film school. Invited by the journal Revolution y cultura to participate in a round table discussion on Cuban cinema with a group of local film critics – including the excellent Rufo Caballero, I discover critics express a good deal of disquiet about the state of affairs at the Cuban Film Institute, ICAIC. ICAIC failed to present any new films at last month’s Havana Film Festival, although there are currently four films in postproduction and another three slated for production this year.

The problem was not originally of ICAIC’s making but stems from the economic collapse at the beginning of the 90s. Financial need forced ICAIC to enter the market for co-productions with foreign partners that had a predilection for treating Cuba as an exotic background for genre pieces. (One of the only directors able to ride this situation was the sadly missed Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.) But the media critics’ feeling is that ICAIC has not yet learned to adapt in such a way as to support independent low budget domestic production. (Low budget is of course an entirely relative term, since even ICAIC’s most costly films are very low budget compared to Hollywood.) Three years ago, a documentary by a student graduating from the audio-visual department of the ISA (Instituto Superior del Arte) – Cuba’s other film school—portrayed the crisis at ICAIC in no uncertain terms.

Coincidentally (or rather, in one of those coincidences which, as Adorno would say, is not entirely a coincidence) ICAIC‘s president, Alfredo Guevara, resigned shortly afterwards to concentrate on running the international film festival, and his successor, Omar González, provided hope of a fresh start. Indeed ICAIC has made efforts to bring some of the graduates of the ISA under their wing, but so far without success. This is partly, l gather, because ISA filmmakers’ preoccupations do not coincide closely enough with ICAIC’s ideas of a national cinema capable of international projection. Perhaps this would not be such a problem if ICAIC, which has control of the country’s film distribution, would at least open up the cinemas to these new wave films – or rather, the videotheques, because these pieces are made on video not film. The videotheques were introduced by García Espinosa in the 1980s when he was in charge of ICAIC, but now they mainly serve to allow the exhibition of films which would be too expensive for ICAIC to acquire on 35mm. (Interestingly, in the convergence between film and video, Humberto Solás recently shot ICAIC’s first digital feature, Miel para Ochún, and is now planning a second.)

The result is a curiously paradoxical situation. A series of factors have conspired to produce a growth in independent video production. These include the economic reforms introduced during the 90s (involving a degree of liberalisation) and the arrival of new video formats, together with the need for new personnel for television and commercials which is fed by the ISA. This situation, incidentally, confirms that despite the U.S. blockade, Cuba is no way a pre-postmodern country, let us call it, any more than anywhere else in Latin America.

Other factors include the tradition of radicalism in the plastic arts, which in the late 1980s got the artists into trouble with the Communist old guard, and the development of an atmosphere in intellectual and artistic life in general which has seen the end of the old hard-liners’ influence which held back the expression of political difference. A new trope has entered the vocabulary which distinguishes between political critique (legitimate) and ideological opposition (unacceptable). In other words, Cuban socialism has opened up to renegotiating political life while remaining firmly dedicated to socialist principles. What this means. in terms of film and video production, is that many criticize ICAIC for apparently wanting to stick with the epic past while the new generation’s preoccupations lie in quite different directions.

For some young Cubans the problem lies even deeper. I was also invited to give a talk at the ISA. There, one of the most interesting questions I am asked is about discourse. The stance of the question seems very postmodernist, namely, “Why should the viewer trust the discourse of the documentary?” My answer is probably too long and expansive; at the end the questioner responds by effectively repeating the question in another key. “That’s all very well,” he says, “but why should I believe your discourse?” There is a complex subtext here, but the long and the short of it is this: The question represents the situation of the young Cuban intelligentsia. They are unable any longer to accept the old discourse of the Revolution, but perhaps unable also to accept that of the outside world which is derived from quite different kinds of experience.

Meanwhile, everyone tells me that if there is one new piece of work I should see it is Video de familia--Family Video by Humberto Padrón, made with ICAIC’s assistance as a graduation piece for the ISA. (To give ICAIC its due, this work at least received a commercial screening.) The video’s scenario is one of those simple but inimitable ideas which provoke the response, “Why didn't someone think of that before?” A family has gathered together to make a video to send to the eldest son who has quit Cuba for the United States—father, mother, grandmother, and the absentee’s two siblings. The sister lets slip that her absent brother is gay, provoking the horrified repudiation of the father’s old-style communist homophobia.

The power of the piece lies largely in its superb acting, including by some veteran actors (the mother is played by Veronica Lynn). And it also gains power from the fact that half the time the characters address themselves directly to camera in the appropriate manner of the home video, thereby drawing the viewer into the family’s private space in a peculiar way not normally open to fiction. It’s a very clever work indeed, which l am tempted to read in the kind of Lacanian terms favoured by Slavoj Zizek. That is, the response of the father, who of course represents the big Other, is to declare his absent son persona non grata in the family home, in other words, to banish him from the symbolic order. It’s a somewhat redundant gesture, however, since the absent son has done that already by removing himself to the United States. In sum, the theme is not new in Cuban cinema, but its expression here is fresh, funny, and moving.

I have set myself up for some kind of conclusion to this missive, so here goes. As for the big Other who rules the country, and who stands as guarantor of its symbolic order, I can only say that it would be a mistake to suppose that without him the current order of Cuban society will necessarily collapse. A few years ago, the political scientist and editor of Cuba’s most interesting intellectual journal, Temas, Rafael Hernandéz, remarked that to wake up in Cuba in 1991 was to wake up to a permanent nightmare. On my last visit here two years ago I already felt that the Cubans had woken from this nightmare to discover that they were still there, and as a result, they had recovered their balance and joie de vivre.

Another friend suggests that behind the outward tranquility of Cuba in January 2003, the peaceful social orderliness of the country, the population is gripped by an inner anxiety. While I cannot doubt his testimony, I also find too much political intelligence, too much of people’s concern to discover new ways of adapting to changing conditions, to suppose that Cuba is simply living the last days of a tired socialism, and that a collapse back into the chaos of capitalism is a foregone conclusion. So as I leave Cuba at the end of my visit, I can only sign off,

Yours in hope,


P.S. A new edition of Michael Chanan’s history of Cuban cinema is on its way.