Interview with Humberto Solás 2

On history and architecture

Alvear: You mentioned that when you took time off from, film work, you began studying history. I thought that you were more interested is architecture as a possible career.

Solás: I began studying architecture in 1957, but I had to interrupt my studies because of my participation in the insurrectionary struggle against Batista. I was a member of a section of the 26th of July Movement [3] known as Acción y Sabotoje (Action and Sabotage). I was an urban guerrilla. It was a very unstable time to try to study. Either Batista closed down the university, or we did.

With the triumph of the Revolution, I became interested in film, and I couldn't combine working with studying at the university because at that time there were no night classes in architecture. Filmmaking became a concrete possibility once ICAIC was founded. At the time I didn't have a very rational explanation for why I changed from one profession to the other. Afterwards, when I began to think about it, I realized that I didn't feel frustrated as a filmmaker; I consider myself to be a little bit of both. When I have a little time at home, I design architectural projects or work on my own plan for the reurbanization of the commercial and administrative center of Havana.

I think that cinema and architecture have a lot in common. They both require sociological research. They are both industrial arts. You work in groups; you need a substantial budget; your creative concepts do not take shape independently but rather in constant confrontation with those of other people. And you can also link the structure of the film image with architectural spaces and structures. The image isn't everything in film; it is an aspect which you handle in conjunction with content. The same thing happens in architecture, where need corresponds to narrative content in film. But in architecture the image is a more absolute fact; it has a value in and of itself. Whereas in film there is a whole series of elements — acting, sound, etc. — which participate more or less at the same level.

I have a tendency to make films in the vein of the Italian Mauro Bolognini's LA VIACCIA (1961), for example. Another film I like a lot is 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) by Stanley Kubrick, whom I consider to be as extraordinary director. This is his most visually experimental film, but unfortunately the visual aspects dominate the flow of ideas. The story line at times becomes rather naive, merely a pretext for visual tricks — an approach I don't approve of. But in architecture this doesn't happen, because image is everything, or at least the most important factor.

During this time off from filmmaking, I became very interested in historical problems. But my career as a student of history is not an end in itself; it has a real connection with my work as a filmmaker. My study of history has provided me with a bibliography and a set of files. It has taught me to organize my research so that I lose less time when working on a historical theme for a film script. I do not intend to become a fulltime researcher, nor a history professor, although I would be interested in teaching history as a political activity, like a lot of compañeros who give courses to their fellow workers in the union.

My plan in to get my degree is history within a year and a half. [4] Then I intend to re-enter the School of Architecture since they now have night sessions. One of my goals in life is to have my plan for the urban renewal of Havana approved. I realize that it's going to be a little difficult. I'm thirty five now. I'll be thirty seven when I get my degree in history. Studying architecture in sight school will take me at least ten years … But this isn't a joke, really. It has been an obsession of mine for years. And I'm going to do it.

Political cinema, revolutionary cinema

Alvear: Moving from the personal realm to more general issues, how would you define political cinema?

Solás: I should state first of all that I consider all films to be political, though I certainly don't consider all films to be revolutionary. I have a certain concept of what film is, and it is shared by millions of people around the world. It's not at all original. I think film is a means of cognition, a way of discovering reality. Cinema takes on a revolutionary character to the extent that it becomes a weapon of struggle. As I see it, film offers very concrete possibilities for contributing to social change throughout the world.

I was saying that I believe all films are political: a Walt Disney movie, a film by Francois Truffaut, a Hollywood musical … The kind of film which seems furthest from any sort of ideological debate is always the expression of a political position. It is always defending a certain set of beliefs and privileges, a certain class position. On the basis of this principle, I don't believe that there is such a thing as film for film's sake. That is a hoax. Ideology is the expression of culture's self-awareness; all artistic expression represents an ideology.

While I was in India two months ago, I remember talking a great deal about these things with a student there who insisted, after a trip to the Taj Mahal, that I concede that the monument was devoid of any ideological dimension. She said that it was art for art's sake, a play on forms and a pretext for visual pleasure. I insisted that it had an ideological dimension because a man had built it as a monument to one of his many women, his favorite, and in the construction countless thousands of workers died. If they cut off the architect's hands so that he couldn't duplicate the work, it was certainly not art for art's sake or anything of the sort, but rather an expression of princely prerogative.

Alvear: How do you differentiate a revolutionary film from a political one, then?

Solás: A revolutionary film, in my opinion, must begin with a Marxist conception of reality, be it conscious or intuitive. This concept must be expressed in combative terms, with an eye to actually transforming a situation. I believe that the revolutionary is unable to simply bear witness in a passive way. He or she is always trying to find a solution to difficulties, to transform reality.

Since my recent trip to India is still much on my mind, let's take the example of Louis Malle's CALCUTTA (1969). It is a very Manichaean film. There are the evil bourgeois who go to the horse races and spend ten thousand dollars on a single sari and the vast majority of have-nots with nowhere to live and nothing to eat. When you see CALCUTTA, you're inclined at first to think that it is a revolutionary film because the director is apparently dissecting the society and showing the way things are. But when you actually see the city itself, you realize that the film is a very passive document and, what's more, a reactionary one. Calcutta is the capital of Bengal, the Indian state with more intense political life than any other, where the leftwing parties continue to make new inroads in the Congress at each election. From an economic point of view, the poverty stricken sectors of the population are very sensitized to existing social problems.

I found something surprising in Calcutta: a street called Lenin Avenue, which is nothing less than the second major artery in the entire city, with its statue of Lenin in full view. It was at the insistence of the workers of Calcutta that the avenue was named after Lenin and the statue put there. What does this signify? That Louis Malle's CALCUTTA is only a weak, partial, petty bourgeois vision of a society in which people are dying of hunger in the streets. A genuinely revolutionary film would make an analysis of that society, looking for the contradictions, showing the intensity of the ongoing class struggle, exploring all aspects of that reality, demonstrating that it is neither static nor beyond hope of change. On the contrary, if the beginning of a revolutionary process could take place anywhere in India, it is in Bengal.

A film like CALCUTTA is made with a lot of … well, glamour. It is technically perfect. It gives you the impression of exposing the real situation, but in fact it does not give any information. Rather than leading to a greater understanding of that reality, it obstructs it. It offers instead a vision of a hopeless society where the rich feed off the poor, and the poor have no will for change. This is both untrue and defeatist, an expression of impotence.

I don't believe that a single movie is going to transform society. I think that this was one of the errors of the first neorealists, like deSica, who eventually became terribly frustrated because they overestimated the possibilities of film and its potential for changing society. In the first place, they had no way to transform it. Though their films were very beautiful, at times extraordinary, they were also only passive testimonials about the good and the bad, the rich and the poor — nothing more. They didn't give people the tools that would enable them to make use of the opportunities offered by political life itself in order to change society.

Alvear: This is clearly a problem that you've had to face in your own work. For example, how to end CANTATA DE CHILE without being completely defeatist.

Solás: We ran the risk of becoming inscribed in the defeatist tale of the Chilean drama that you are constantly reading about in the international press. Some intellectuals on the left commit the same mistake. I think that Allende's government was a step to a higher stage of revolution. The situation is very difficult now, but we must try to see things in an historical perspective. We have the tendency to limit the history of humanity to our own life span, which makes us susceptible to such mistakes.

Alvear: What role do you see for revolutionary film in capitalist and in soc1ialist societies?

Solás: The question is a bit difficult. I believe that these are two totally different situations. Therefore, the purposes and ways of approaching reality are different. For me, revolutionary political life in a capitalist country is insurrectionary activity. A revolutionary film would thus be one that is capable of becoming the equivalent of an insurrectionary act. If a revolutionary film in the capitalist world becomes an explicit political action, it can be as effective as the action of a guerrilla commando group. A true revolutionary film is one that succeeds in raising consciousness, one that advocates insurrection in so far as insurrection is the correct path. Very few films in the capitalist world would meet this criterion. There are prestigious films which offer a leftist analysis, and there are many others which are simply exposés.

In the socialist world, a revolutionary film is no longer the equivalent of a guerrilla action. Instead, it must present the revolution as a permanent fact, on ongoing process which nothing can reverse. Such a film must regard every point of arrival in the revolutionary process as a point of departure. It must use the medium to destroy whatever bourgeois concepts persist on either the administrative or the individual level, for I believe that in a society which is in transition — as all socialist societies are — many bourgeois traces remain, and the individual can become the personification of all these archaic aspects. I believe that in this context the revolutionary must constantly struggle to destroy all that  creates untenable contradictions. It is without doubt a process which tears you apart. Every day you are forced to make choices. You must choose in the knowledge that you may eventually criticize yourself for having made that particular choice.

History and contemporary life

Alvear: So you see the role of cinema in a socialist society as pointing out the contradictions which still exist?

Solás: You have put your finger on an important problem. During the past we at ICAIC have been inclined to deal with historical themes. It is as if we have made a rather clumsy practical division of cinematographic activity leaving it up to the documentary to deal with all aspects of immediate reality. But the documentary is limited when it comes to approaching problems of a more subtle nature since it can't determine characters or dialogue.

Because our history has been filtered through a bourgeois lens, we have been compelled to live with terrible distortions. We lacked a coherent, lucid, and dignified appreciation of our national past. This accounts in large part for our decision to take up historical themes. When Enrique Pineda Barnet made MELLA, he undertook some historical research, which will probably be published. Even though Julio Antonio Mella was an extremely important figure, there wasn't an adequate biography of him available anywhere. If this is the case with Mella, imagine how it is with historical figures and events of lesser importance.

This is the reason there are so many films on the history of slavery. I feel that THE LAST SUPPER (Tomás Gutierrez Alea, 1977) is a very important film because it offers a very complex vision of slave society. All sorts of slaves with their contradictions and their particular problems are represented there. We would also say that in the early years of the Revolution, we indulged in a romanticization of the slaves and the dispossessed, which we are now correcting.

In our determination to carry out a rigorous dialectical investigation of all aspects of our history, we have given insufficient attention to contemporary themes. We are now beginning to get closer to concrete issues of contemporary life. There are problems which we have been contending with in our seasonal lives, in our union activity, in our political life from the local to the national level. But perhaps it is only now that we have begun to deal with these issues on an artistic level. [5]

Originally, perhaps, because of the high political content of our daily lives, we did not feel the need to convey contemporary reality through our films and instead felt freed to undertake the historical investigation necessary to discover our roots and to find out who we really are. But there is no doubt that we must also deal with contemporary themes. Currently, of every three projected screenplays, two are linked to issues of contemporary life and in a very acute and penetrating way.

Alvear: Do you have particular projects in mind along these lines?

Solás: I have several. One is to do a film with various narratives on contemporary themes, referring to different sectors of the population. Though I don't believe in vast differences between generations, I think that the issue of generational discrepancies might be one way to structure the film. I'm not really very far along on it.

Alvear: Can you give us an idea of the storyline?

Solás: Well, I don't like to simply tell the story, but it involves a study of how the Revolution takes shape in various sectors: in the big city (inevitably Havana), in the small cities of the interior, and in the countryside.

Alvear.: Do you have other projects which are more historical in theme?

Solás: I am considering one which involves a North American experiment in colonization here in Cuba at the turn of the century. They founded colonies in Camaguey, on the Isle of Pines, and in the northern part of Oriente Province. The fact that the Yankees were planning to annex the island is well known. Despite our War for Independence from the Spanish, despite the fact that the national will was to the contrary, they persisted in their attempts at annexation. As a way of strengthening their plan, they located large groups of North Americans in the three areas I mentioned, with the idea of spreading the American Way of Life. This was a long-term policy aimed at creating the subjective conditions in the Cuban population for the eventual takeover of the territory. But this annexation idea never got anywhere because the conditions did not exist for this type of socioeconomic structure. So they instituted a neocolonial policy, which began with the expansion of the sugar industry.

But what happened with the annexation strategy is very interesting. The North Americans who came to settle in Cuba were poor farmers who were hoodwinked by the rhetoric of manifest destiny into thinking of themselves as great pioneers about to colonize a virgin paradise. They dedicated themselves to agriculture and became small landholders. When the neocolonial expansion hit, the premium was put on the large sugarcane plantation, so those Americans who had come thinking that they would become grandes señores in fact became the exploited. They were obliged to go to work for the large sugar companies. Before our very eyes the North American companies began exploiting U.S. workers here in Cuba. The myth of manifest destiny was destroyed by a structural change of policy.

One company in particular, the Cuban Land Company, was especially atrocious. When the small farmers refused to turn over their lands or sell them, they were burned inside their houses. Such repression raised the consciousness of those U.S. farmers. The majority returned to their home country, confused and frustrated, but a small group remained to integrate themselves into national life in Cuba. This happened at the beginning of a period of great mobilization involving the farm workers' struggle for land in the very same zones where the North American settlements had been. It was a long process, which began in 1898 and climaxed in the thirties.

Alvear: Are the descendants of those North Americans still living in Cuba?

Solás: Very few. Most of them left in the forties and fifties. But some stayed. There's a biography of one of them in which he narrates all his experiences. The idea of the film came in part from that book. The ones who remained integrated themselves beautifully into national life in the sense that they came to understand that they were as exploited as the Cuban farmworkers whom they considered inferior. It would be very amusing to make a film about the contradictions engendered by the capitalist system which takes place in Cuba and uses North Americans to convey the class struggle in all its intensity. There are certainly progressive U.S. actors who might be interested in this kind of role.

Alvear What do you have to say about freedom of expression as it exists at ICAIC?

Solás: Freedom is a very subjective thing. Revolutionary freedom involves the freedom to produce revolutionary art, whereas petite bourgeois freedom entails the possibility of presenting an anguished criticism, one which is often arrogant and seldom productive.

We here at ICAIC have had very intense discussions about this with foreign visitors, who usually come with a very liberal concept of what creative freedom is all about. We do not accept such a liberal stance. We accept a certain society. We live within it and belong to it; we defend it and we want to enrich it. Because of this, our critical attitude is very different from that of someone who lives and works in an environment which he considers hostile and alienating. These are two totally different situations.

I can say that I feel completely free as a filmmaker because my interest lies in making revolutionary cinema, and here in Cuba I have the conditions which enable me to do that.


1. Solás reappropriates this song form and the performer who made it famous (Joselíto Fernández) in Part III of LUCÍA.

2. Also known as "The Aesthetics of Hunger," this essay was published in Revista Civilizacao Brasileira 3 (Rio) (July 1975) under the title "A Estética da Fome."

3. The name of Fidel's revolutionary party, in commemoration of the abortive attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago on this date in 1953, the event from which the Cubans date their revolution.

4. Solás did in fact receive his degree on schedule in June of 1978 (J.B.).

5. Some recent films in this category are: USTEDES TIENEN LA PALABRA (NOW IT'S UP TO YOU, Manuel Octavio Gomez, 1974), DE CIERTA MANERA (ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, Sara Gomez, 1974/1977), AND UNA MUHER, UN HOMBRE, UNA CIUDAD (A WOMAN, A MAN, A CITY, Manuel Octavio Gomez, 1978).