Interview with Humberto Solás
"Every point of arrival
is a point of departure"

by Julianne Burton and Marta Alvear

from Jump Cut, no. 19, December 1978, pp. 32-33
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

Born in December of 1942 into a middle-class Havana family of very modest means, Humberto Solás joined the insurrectionary movement against the Batista dictatorship at the age of fourteen. He made his first experimental film in 1959, the year of triumph of the Revolution, at the age of seventeen and became a member of ICAIC that same year. He spent his first two years at the Film Institute working on Cine cubano magazine. In 1961, he directed his first film in collaboration with Hector Veitia and under the supervision of visiting Dutch documentarist Joris Ivens. He subsequently worked as a producer of documentary shorts while directing portions of the Latin American Newsreel and the Popular Encyclopedia series.

His early films were highly experimental and somewhat hermetic. Only the medium-length feature MANUELA hinted at the masterpiece he would produce two years later at the age of twenty-six. The three-part LUCÍA is remarkable for the dialectical complexity of its narratives and the virtuosity of its three different visual styles. In his two most recent films, SIMPARELE and CANTATA DE CHILE, Solás has worked extensively and effectively with tableaux, choreography, minimal scenography, and expressionistic lighting in an attempt to integrate various modes of popular culture into film. He is currently working on an adaptation of the nineteenth-century Cuban novel, Cecilia Valdés.

  • 1961: CASABLANCA (documentary short)
  • 1962: MINERVA TRADUCE EL MAR, co-directed with Oscar Valdés (dramatic short)
  • 1963: VARIACIONES (documentary short); EL RETRATO (dramatic short)
  • 1964: EL ACOSO (dramatic short)
  • 1965: LA ACUSACIÓN (documentary short)
  • 1966: PEQUENA CRÓNICA (documentary short); MANUELA (medium-length dramatic)
  • 1968: LUCÍA (dramatic feature)
  • 1972: UN DÍA DE NOVIEMBRE (dramatic feature)
  • 1974: SIMPARELE (interpretive documentary)
  • 1975: CANTATA DE CHILE (interpretive documentary)

The preceding interview was conducted by Marta Alvear in Havana in March of 1977 and subsequently translated and edited by the interviewer with Julianne Burton's collaboration.


Alvear: In an interview for Cine cubano magazine (nos. 52/53, 1968) you stated that you can no longer identify with any of the films you made before MANUELA (1966). Can you explain why?

Solás: I was referring to all of the early films, especially MINERVA TRADUCE EL MAR (MINERVA TRANSLATES THE SEA, 1962) because they do not, in my opinion, have any lasting validity. They belong to a very special moment in history, to the beginning of the development of our national cinema.

ICAIC was born out of the victory of the Revolution. The situation was very difficult for the group of compañeros who founded it. It is well known that there was no filmmaking tradition worthy of imitation here in Cuba prior to the triumph of the Revolution. The situation was not the same for writers or musicians, for example, since these fields succeeded in producing expressions of an authentic culture with democratic and even socialist characteristics even before the Revolution. Our leading national poet, Nicolás Guillén, a musician like Harold Gramatges, a novelist like Alejo Carpentier, and a painter like René Portocarrero are examples of this.

Those of us who were about to attempt to found a national film industry from scratch faced a set of problems which we had to resolve immediately. Our problem was a basic cultural dichotomy, as in Lenin's thesis on national cultures. We had an elitist cultural tradition which represented the interests of the dominant class, and a more clandestine culture which, through such examples as Nicolás Guillén, had received wide exposure and already demonstrated extraordinary quality. One had to choose between these two forms of cultural expression.

But in fact the choice was not that simple because the clandestine culture had been permeated for decades by the influence of elitist forms, and there was a tendency to convert all cultural expression into products of a consumer oriented culture. There came a point, for example, when you really didn't know the extent to which folklore was still a valid and authentic expression of the "folk," since it was being used in radio soap operas, in toothpaste commercials, and so on. Originally genuine forms of cultural expression had reached a point of total degeneration. To give you a concrete example, the musical form which we know by the name "Guantanamera," originally an authentic folk form developed by the Cuban guajiros (peasants), had been adopted by a national radio program, which came to be called the "Red Chronicle," in order to broadcast the more sensationalist and bloody news items of the day — This kind of program helped build up an immunity to such forms of popular expression. [1]

Because this phenomenon was so widespread, because elitist culture and this ersatz popular culture were so intimately tied, because petty bourgeois consciousness and influences from Europe and North America were so dominant, our general cultural panorama at the time of the Revolution was in fact a pretty desolate one.

So what happened? We either had to make a choice between these two rather decadent cultural tendencies and work to analyze and expose their shortcomings or passively accept the model which the artistic vanguard of the developed world held out to us. This was during the sixties, when the most important film movement was the French "New Wave." Films like Alain Resnais' HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR (1959) or Michelangelo Antonioni's L'AVVENTURA (1959) marked most of the subsequent decade.

The legacy which the imitation of these trends left with us here at ICAIC was, to a large degree, a harmful one. First of all, because these influences alienated us from our indigenous cultural forms and from a more serious search for a kind of cultural expression consistent with national life, with the explosive dynamism of the Revolution and its goals for artistic culture, we adopted certain models from the so-called European avant-garde in a very passive way. Yet, this was also a path we clearly had to travel, and so in another sense the experience was a very useful one. It allowed us to assess and purify our own criteria.

Anyone who picks up the tools of artistic activity for the first time is going to be vulnerable to outside influences. This was almost inevitable for us at that time, especially in light of the inferiority complex stemming from underdevelopment and our related fascination with everything that arrived with a North American or European label.

As it progressed, the Revolution began, through a very natural process, to eliminate the more inauthentic expressions of popular culture. Subsequently, spontaneous movements began to spring up, like popular iconography reflected in the graphic arts or a primitive and genuinely popular theater sometimes enriched by the participation of such first-rate actors as Sergio Corrieri (MEMORIES OF UNDER-DEVELOPMENT, THE MAN FROM MAISINICU, etc.). The development of a wide range of activities in all cultural spheres provided the impetus and the frame of reference we needed for our own development as filmmakers. The process was unavoidable. It was not a matter of simply saying, "O.K., we'll start right away to make films that are a coherent expression of this new social structure we live in." Instead, we had to go through a long period of experimentation. It was very painful at times, so these early films often represent a good deal of frustration.

To Europe and back

Alvear: What happened to resolve this frustration in your own case? You want to Europe and things changed?

Solás: Of course. These things happen to the Latin American, the Asian, the African; it's inevitable. I had never been outside my country, so in 1964 I decided to sea the entire European continent. I left in a cargo ship without a penny. It was the kind of trip one has to take before turning thirty. It was an attempt at complete demystification. For the most part, I stayed in Italy, though I did visit the major cultural centers in Germany, Franca, and several other countries.

Alvear: Did you feel closer to Cuban culture when you returned?

Solás: Naturally, because such a trip is actually the discovery of your own personality. You go to the premiere of Antonioni's RED DESERT (1964) and you realize how little the film has to do with the real problems facing Italian society in the sixties. Seeing RED DESERT in Havana is not the same as seeing it after six months in Italy. You develop a critical perspective. European society seams drained, culturally crippled. I don't behave that one can escape from the fact of a universal culture. I confess that the early films of Visconti — LA TERRA TREMA (1948), OSSESSIONE (1942) — did have a formative affect on me. Of course, I try to maintain a critical perspective on them and to extrapolate only what is consistent with my own particular interests. I can tell you that the later Visconti, from VAGHE STELLE DELL'ORSA (SANDRA, U.S. title; OF A THOUSAND DELIGHTS, U.K. title, 1965) and his subsequent films, does not interest me in the least. In this sense, one is aware of one's own maturation.

Between 1968 and 1970, I want a bit overboard in my rejection of foreign culture. I was too impassioned, too irrational, not reflective enough. I think the ideas of the Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha (BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL, 1964; LAND IN ANGUISH, 1966; ANTONIO DAS MORTES, 1969) expressed in his essay "The Aesthetics of Violence" [2] had a lot to do with this. I remember being absolutely unable to watch a European film at that time. It seamed degrading, useless, obsolete. I closed my eyes to all forms of artistic expression which came from the developed world, and this definitely limited me. As a continent, we had begun to recognize our own voice, our own image, and though our response to this discovery was somewhat extreme, it was also a necessary stage in our development.

But it was a beautiful time, nonetheless. The whole continent was reasserting itself. It was the time of the big student movements in Latin America and the rest of the world as well; of social unrest in Mexico and Brazil. It was also a time when Latin American culture reached a high point because of this favorable atmosphere: the "boom" of the contemporary novel, the Cinema Nôvo movement in Brazil, the Grupo Ukamau (BLOOD OF THE CONDOR, 1969) in Bolivia, Miguel Littín and THE JACKAL OF NAHUELTORO (1969) in Chile. We in Cuba, impregnated with the social transformations at home and throughout the continent, were able to create vary vigorous, fresh, and passionate works.

I now think that our attempt at a complete rejection of European culture was obviously immature. In fact, one cannot live detached from the theoretical advances taking place in Europe. The generous allocation of resources there for just such kinds of inquiry enables a large number of intellectuals to pursue serious theoretical research in areas like theater, film, the fine arts, and so on. Political and economic limitations make this kind of research impossible on our island. So I think, to summarize, that we should strive to preserve our own image and personality while at the same time keeping our ayes open for the achievements of writers and filmmakers who are working in different contexts.


Alvear: Could you give us some background on the genesis of MANUELA?

Solás: It began in 1965. By that time, there were already a substantial number of compañeros at ICAIC who were qualified and ready to move from the documentary to the fiction film. But our material base has always been modest and it was thus impossible for everyone to try their wings at once. So someone came up with the idea — actually, I think it was a collective decision — of a contest for the best screenplay, based on the theme of guerrilla warfare. It was a theme that had not been particularly developed by Cuban films up to that time. I submitted my script, was lucky enough to have it chosen, and proceeded to make the film. It's the first picture where I really recognize myself, where I feel that I'm expressing the interests of the collectivity of which I am a part, where I'm making a real contribution.

Alvear: How is MANUELA a product of the particular social and historical conditions of the period in which it was made?

Solás: At that time, in 1966, the guerrilla struggle, though still cherished, was past history for us here in Cuba, but it was an immediate reality on the rest of the continent. It was the era of Che in Latin America. So it was very stimulating to make a film about guerrilla warfare; you felt that you were making a film with continental relevance. It was thus a very intense and impassioned activity for me and for the whole crew.

But I was also pursuing another objective in MANUELA, attempting to meet another kind of challenge. As far as I was concerned, up to that point the mise-en-scene of Cuban cinema had not yet succeeded in expressing the idiosyncrasies of our particular situation. I was most aware of this shortcoming in the handling of dialogue and in the actors' performances. These are a product of a theatrical conception combined with a personal style, in turn the product of the actor's own research and reflection. Let's say that there was a preference for the character actor over the personality actor.

I was extremely interested in making a film in which the Cuban personality would for the first time be conveyed more spontaneously. So I decided, very intuitively, to make improvisation the basis of my work with the actors.

I can't take it when actors recite the script from memory. In the first place, because I have little faith in the script, since I've written it myself. Second, it's obvious that their lines have been memorized, so I prefer them to say the same thing in a different, more personal way. In fact, often I won't discuss the actors' suggestions for revising their part. I simply start to film and they start to talk, giving me for the first and only time an original script. And if we have to repeat the take for technical reasons, or because the improvisation has deviated too much from the original concept, then I ask the actors to make up new lines. I give them very little time to do so in order to force them to practically live the situation. They must think and act at the same time. This sets up a dynamic relationship between the actors and the script.

It is the only way I know to achieve something I strive for in film acting: the moment of truth for each take. Sometimes we miss the mark because the actors lack sufficient imagination or because my relationship with them didn't make it possible. But my task essentially consists of creating just such a relationship with the actors, providing them with circumstances in which they feel comfortable enough to create a vivid portrayal.

In MANUELA, there were only two professional actors; the rest were nonprofessionals. Because of this, direction was difficult; I had to proceed in several different ways. Sometimes I would work separately with different actors in a single scene. Often I used techniques which involved surprise so that the actors — and in particular Adela Legrá, who played the female lead — would express spontaneous personal feelings. It was exhausting.

I worked very hard on this aspect, and one can see it clearly in the film. MANUELA helped resolve certain conceptual problems of staging. And from that point on one can see more spontaneity in the acting, more freshness in the actors and more genuinely Cuban forms of expression in the dialogue. The end result was a closer bond of communication with the public, however distant this might seem from the somewhat cold and cerebral concept of mise-en-scene.

Alvear: To what extent did you employ similar techniques of improvisation in LUCÍA (1968)?

Solás: Of the three segments of the film, Part I contains the least amount of improvisation. The cast of LUCÍA 1895 was made of highly professional actors, like Raquel Revuelta, who directs her own theater company. Naturally, she has her own particular work style, yet she was still very helpful in proposing changes in the script, which gave freshness to the work. In this sense, there was a degree of improvisation even in this part of the film.

Alvear: Do your most recent films continue to depend on such a high degree of improvisation in the acting?

Solás: Absolutely! It's all improvisation. My last film, CANTATA DE CHILE (1975) is in fact the one I rehearsed the least before the actual shooting. I really never decided more than an hour before filming how to handle the staging. The actors began with a script because in order to organize the work you have to have a text.

As much as 90% of the cast were nonprofessionals, Chilean compañeros in exile in Cuba, who worked on the film as a political activity for the liberation of their country. Under such circumstances, I could never demand that they memorize the script, nor would I have wanted to. In fact, it was up to the lead actor, Nelson Villagra (THE JACKAL OF NAHUELTORO, THE PROMISED LAND, THE LAST SUPPER) to adjust himself to this rather unusual procedure. The whole film was made in this improvised way, calling for very long shooting sessions, many hours of exhausting work at a stretch, and a great deal of uncertainty. Furthermore, it's just not the same to improvise with 100 actors as it is with three. Given the size of its cast and the ambitiousness of its mise-en-scene, CANTATA DE CHILE is certainly not an example of cost efficiency.

Alvear: Going back to LUCIA, you once stated that you personally identify most with the segment which takes place in the thirties. Why is that?

Solás: Primarily for very personal reasons. In LUCÍA 1933, I am reflecting a family experience, particularly the story of my father — a man who participated in the insurrection against the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado. He didn't die a violent death then, as the character Aldo does, but he "died" as a vital human being — a sort of death by frustration. When I was born, I was surrounded by all those ghosts, by a failed revolution, by a man whose course in life was interrupted by this collective failure.

That segment of the film grows in part out of the need to express this experience, which, though not directly mine, touched me deeply. The fact that I joined the revolutionary insurrection against Batista when I was very young, given my lack of ideological orientation at the time and the spontaneous nature of my actions, must have had a lot to do with my desire to resume my father's interrupted trajectory.

It is also true that the thirties was a very attractive period, a time of extraordinary richness in Cuban ideological life, which had not yet been touched upon in films. After the war for independence from Spain at the end of the last century and the rise of a revolutionary poet and thinker of the stature of José Martí, there came this second period where the interaction between political ideology and artistic activity proved extremely fruitful. There were new movements in painting and poetry; Carpentier began to write his first novels. There was a political activist of the stature of Julio Antonio Mella, whose life story has recently been the inspiration for a feature film by Enrique Pineda Barnet (MELLA, 1975).

We speak of the frustrated revolution of the thirties, but in reality the thirties served as an indispensable foundation upon which the Revolution of the fifties was built. Without the previous experience, we would not have been capable of bringing the Revolution to victory in such a short time.

In this sense the thirties were both a step forward and a great setback. They marked the nation's subsequent cultural and political development. I would like to deal with the period again in a film. For instance, there is a theme which I think would be fascinating: the founding of the people's university which appears in one of the episodes of MELLA. The creation of a workers' university in the thirties is to me a remarkable accomplishment for that period and one which anticipates educational policies which have been implemented since the Revolution on a broad scale.

Alvear: How would you relate the first segment of LUCÍA to the situation in Cuba in 1967 and 1968 when you were making the film?

Solás: At that time, were celebrating what we called "The One Hundred Years of Struggle," the century-long search for genuine independence which began with the Grito de Yara (the call to secede from Spain) and continued with the Revolution which began in 1959. I wanted to view our history in phases, in order to show how apparent frustrations and setbacks — such as the decade of the thirties — led us to a higher stage of national life. This was the underlying principle.

But whenever you make a historical film, whether it's set two decades or two centuries ago, you are referring to the present. In LUCÍA 1933 as well as in LUCÍA 1895 there are aspects of the plot which are tied to the most immediate contemporary realities. For example, in the 1933 segment, there is the whole struggle in the final part between the opportunists and the genuine revolutionaries. This struggle occurs in every revolutionary process. Certain aspects which appear there could be linked to opportunism and sectarianism in certain areas of national life at the time the film was made — problems which were later resolved.

Alvear: Having chosen to make a film about historical transformation and the revolutionary process, why did you choose to cast a woman as the central figure rather than a man, a couple, or a group?

Solás: As you well know, women are traditionally the number-one victims in all social confrontations. The woman's role always lays bare the contradictions of a period and makes them explicit. There is the problem of machismo, especially apparent in the third segment, which undermines a woman's chances for self-fulfillment and at the same time feeds a whole subculture of underdevelopment.

As I've had to argue many times, LUCÍA is not a film about women; it's a film about society. But within that society, I chose the most vulnerable character, the one who is most transcendentally affected at any given moment by contradictions and change.

Alvear: You also cast a woman as the central figure in MANUELA.

Solás: For exactly the same reason. My point of departure was the same premise, that the effects of social transformations on a woman's life are more transparent. Because they are traditionally assigned to a submissive role, woman have suffered more from society's contradictions and are thus more sensitive to them and more hungry for change. From this perspective, I feel that the female character has a great deal of dramatic potential through which I can express the entire social phenomenon I want to portray. This is a very personal and a very practical position. It has nothing to do with feminism per se.

Audience response in Cuba

Alvear: Have you perceived changes in the Cuban filmgoing public since you began making films?

Solás: Certainly, and the more acutely you feel this, the more it demands from you as a filmmaker. You might have noticed that we have the custom of having public discussions of films, in the boarding schools in the countryside, for example. The Cuban public is very sharp, very aware. This does not mean that they are immune to the attractions of purely commercial cinema. But when they see a film like JAWS, they view it from a very critical perspective. They can be highly entertained by the movie and recommend it to their friends, but behind their response there is always an intelligent commentary.

Alvear: Since the Cuban film audience was so thoroughly conditioned to Hollywood standards of film language, how have they received ICAIC's attempts at developing a new film language?

Solás: There seems to be a very curious phenomenon operating here. Despite the formative, or rather "de-formative," influence Hollywood has had in the past, Cuban cinema is very well received at home. Even very experimental films like THE FIRST CHARGE OF THE MACHETE (Manual Octavio Gomez, 1969) have received the kind of broad audience acceptance which would have been absolutely inconceivable in the fifties. It is certainly true that a lot of hard work lies behind this fact: television shows like Enrique Colina's "Twenty-four Times a Second" and José Antonio Gazález's "History of the Cinema"; debates which take place in schools and workplaces after film screenings; and so on. The activities have encouraged our film-going public to become very active and sophisticated.

Alvear: Do you have a particular kind of audience in mind when you make a film?

Solás: Absolutely. I think in terns of a very vast audience. Who makes up an audience? It is really a difficult question. Unfortunately, we don't have as scientific a conception as we should of what an audience is, though we have taken the first steps towards a systematic study of this. Unfortunately, we don't have a group of sociologists who can dedicate themselves exclusively to this kind of inquiry. We know that our film public is heterogeneous and that it contains many diverse interests.

Making revolutionary cinema is very risky. There is no certain way to predict how your work will interact with the audience. For example, I had hoped that CANTATA DE CHILE would be more successful in Cuba than it was.

The members of the crew were convinced that we were working on a very illuminating film, one which clarified a lot of complex issues. But perhaps because of the high degree of political development of the Cuban film audience, because of the amount of information they have access to and the amount of debate which goes on in schools and work centers, the clarifications which the film offered came as no surprise to the Cuban public. The film turned out to be more appropriate for other sectors of Latin America where the issues raised by the Chilean experience are still confused and distorted.

Those of us who belong to the first generation of Cuban filmmakers, facing the task of creating a new cinema, have had very disconcerting careers. My own is a case in point. LUCÍA was extremely well received by the public. According to conventional expectations, I should have turned this success into a "formula," as a director in a capitalist context would be inclined to do. Instead, after LUCÍA I made A DAY IN NOVEMBER (1972) in a totally opposite vein, as a kind of antidote.

I haven't been particularly interested in having the film screened in Cuba, because I consider it to be a failure, and I think that despite the costs involved, a director should have the right to keep a film more or less under wraps if he wishes. I wasn't able to prevent its exhibition outside the country. It got excellent reviews in Venezuela and in Germany, but I haven't wanted it shown in Havana. I don't want to receive the criticism that I know would come out of its screening here.

I think that the film reflects many of our anxieties during the period between 1969 and 1971, but I expressed them poorly. Some of my compañeros warned me that the script was a little green. I think I shot the film prematurely. There was also the problem of my selection of the male lead. He was not an actor but a university professor, and I did not handle him well. All the weight of the film falls on him. I was frustrated because he found it so difficult to work as I like to with actors, encouraging them to enrich the script on their own. And I didn't have the courage to stop the filming. It was a big mess.

Then there's the case of CANTATA DE CHILE, an experimental film in all senses, where I sought to achieve a convergence between formal and ideological components. But it seems that again I lost touch a bit with my audience. I expected them to derive tremendous enjoyment from this particular type of visual experimentation, from the allegorical mise-en-scene, not on the basis of the fact that it is my invention but rather because it derives from a tradition of popular theater and iconography. But it seems that I was not able to bring it all together. I did not achieve the level of communication with the audience which I had hoped for. That caused me to feel that I had reached a crisis point in my work. I had a horrendous sense of failure.

But now I am aware of the important role which the film has been able to play in other countries, and I realize that it was an important film to make. We Latin American nations, and other underdeveloped countries as well, all have similar histories despite secondary differences. I believe that the points I wanted to clarify with CANTATA DE CHILE were apparent for any country which has passed through the stages of colonialist and neocolonialist domination. For example, the film was extraordinarily well received in India, where they have also passed from the colonialist to the neocolonialist stage.

Alvear: You experiment a lot with the time factor in CANTATA in contrast to the much more linear structure of a film like LUCÍA. Do you think that this might have been one of the reasons why the film was not more successful in Cuba?

Solás: Probably, though I have no doubts about the Cuban audience's capacity to enjoy the film from a formal point of view, for the uniqueness of its language and visual expression. But the play with time and space in CANTATA did little to enhance this communication. The fact is, however, that I had used the same kind of experimentation is a medium length film called SIMPARELE (1974). This interpretive documentary about the history of the people's struggle in Haiti was a kind of prelude to CANTATA. In spite of a similar kind of spatial and temporal experimentation, it was extremely popular. The film was full of constant ruptures. I combined politically committed poetry and song with other popular art forms. I even incorporated and evoked primitive painting, creating a mixture of all these elements. And yet the film met with extraordinary acclaim. So I think that it is somewhat premature for me to make a final judgment on this because these two experiences were very similar and, nevertheless, one was very favorably received while the other was not as successful.

Alvear: I see what you mean when you say that your career is very disconcerting. Does this explain some of the long intervals between films?

Solás: After the tremendous success of LUCÍA, a film with great international repercussions, came the disaster of A DAY IN NOVEMBER. Consequently, I went through a crisis. I began to doubt my talent as a filmmaker and attempted to work in other areas. I went through a period of rather utopian theatrical work, which never really amounted to much. There were certain periods when I was totally inactive. I dedicated myself to studying; I wasn't interested in making films. I decided that I had lost the ability to be a filmmaker and that I would have to realize myself politically through other kinds of activity. I wrote some theoretical pieces on film and theater, which I don't think are worth much now. I began to study history.

I was free to do these things here, though in another country I would have had to work at something else in order to survive economically. But here I could allow myself the luxury of taking some time out, until I was ready to make SIMPARELE, a highly motivated film, which grew out of the desire to concretize some ideas about formal experimentation.

It has consistently taken me a long time to find the proper form to empress my ideas, a form which is avant-garde and at the same time not avant-garde. What I found most frustrating with A DAY IN NOVEMBER was the fact that I had made a film which was avant-garde in content but which had a traditional, even archaic form. But I eventually found an answer to that impasse.

[Continued on next page]