This video is the 6th in a series of vignettes extracted from a four-hour interview of Rafael Alcides conducted by the filmmaker Miguel Coyula. Below are links to the previous Chapters.
This video is the 5th in a series of vignettes extracted from a four-hour interview of Rafael Alcides conducted by the filmmaker Miguel Coyula. Below are links to the other Chapters.
This video is the 4th in a series of vignettes extracted from a four-hour interview of Rafael Alcides conducted by the filmmaker Miguel Coyula. Below are links to the other Chapters.
A series of videos with Rafael Alcides, by the filmmaker Miguel Coyula, with Lynn Cruz and thanks to Leonardo ds Vinci, Tomaso Albinoni, Alberto Korda
The other videos:
A series of videos with Rafael Alcides, by the filmmaker Miguel Coyula. Music by Ivan Lajardi and thanks to Lynn Cruz and Marta Aquino.
The other videos:
A series of videos with Rafael Alcides, by the filmmaker Miguel Coyula (with Lynn Cruz and thanks to Marta Aquino)
Links to the other videos:
Wild River Review, Judith Zinis, October 2015 — Miguel Coyula, a one-man cinema “band,” writes, films, edits, and does post-production on all his films. Although his work has won awards and been well received in the United States, Europe, and South America, none of his films have been released in Cuba. During several evenings in Havana, we explored his approach to filmmaking and his views on the difficulties of being an artist in both Cuba and the United States.
Mr. Coyula studied film at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión of San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba (EICTV) and has spent extensive periods in the United States as the recipient of a Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute Scholarship, on a Guggenheim grant, and as a lecturer at various universities. As one fan commented on his first feature film, Red Cockroaches, “this film should be shown to every beginning filmmaker.” Made for $2,000.00 and described as a merging of surrealism and science fiction, Red Cockroaches, with its high production values, seems more like a big budget studio film than low-budget independent cinema. Variety described it as “a triumph of technology in the hands of a visionary with know-how….” As Castro once did, Coyula operates outside the system, financing his films through grants and investors who as he put it, “are doing it for the love of art. “
His second feature-length film, Memories of Underdevelopment is based on Edmundo Desnoes’ novel of the same name. Desnoes’ first novel resulted in the iconic 1968 Cuban film Memories of Underdevelopment, adapted by the revered director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. Both the novel and the films trace a character’s unsuccessful attempt to adjust to two differing economic and cultural spheres, the early days of socialism in Cuba, and life in capitalist America. Well received by Cuban critics, presently, the film has no distributer. Like the character in the two Memories films, Mr. Coyula is caught in the middle, a cinema no man’s land. Undeterred, he is presently developing Corazon Azul, a science fiction film.
14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 31 July 2015 — Shy, but with a quick wit and a direct expression, the filmmaker Miguel Coyula (b. Havana 1977) opens the door the room where he works and lets 14ymedio into this creative space in a Vedado apartment. The director of Memories of Underdevelopment is craftsman of the cinema: he films, directs, edits, does the special effects and music, all the while organizing the entire production of the film.
Over coffee, he talks about the obstacles to making films in Cuba and his new project Corazón Azul (Blue Heart), a story set in an alternative reality after an explosion in genetic engineering. In this fictional future, the Cuban government launches the literal creation of its old dream: the New Man.
Luz Escobar: You are immersed in the shooting of your new film, Blue Heart, how far along is the project?
Miguel Coyula: I started shooting the film little by little and, if I can, in chronological order. Every month I am adding one more minute and I can see how it grows. You want to teach the actors, who in the end are working almost for free, and this is a great incentive to see the development of the characters, to see how everything is turning out.
This is out of necessity. It takes a long time because the structure of the production is to treat each scene as if it were a short film in itself. That is, film a scene, edit it and then start the next scene. It is the only way that has worked for me because it is very difficult to synchronize all the actors. They have to do other things to live, accept other projects, and it makes if hard for me to get them all together to film a scene.
Escobar. So it takes a long time?
“Cinema is like vomiting the subconscious in images, trying to eliminate all possible rationality.”
Coyula. It can take me a month to do two scenes. It takes longer because I do the camera work, the editing, the sound design, the special effects… since I don’t have any money, I end up putting in the time. It is the price I pay. I’m thinking something similar to what happened with “Memories of Overdevelopment,” I had 40 minutes of it done when I got a Guggenheim Fellowship and with that I was able to film the missing scenes. This knowing how to find the money is a talent some people have and others don’t. Unfortunately I don’t have it and I do what I do, which is to move forward and make the film grow bit by bit.
Escobar. Where did the idea for this film come from?
Coyula. Blue Heart, and my first feature film, Red Cockroaches, are based on a novel I wrote in 1999 called Red Sea, Blue Evil, which was published two years ago by La Pereza Ediciones in Miami. There will be a third, which is the main story of the book, but I don’t know when.
Escobar. With the kind of film that you do, how difficult it is to find budget or to get into the film festivals?
Coyula. In the European institutions, which often finance moviemaking in that area, they have created a concept they call, “cinema of the Latin American author.” These are profiles which strengthen a kind of filmmaking in which there is a specific social context, a minimalist staging without manipulating the image, the story. There is no room for science fiction in this. In addition, Blue Heart is not pure science fiction, so it doesn’t fit into the film industry models. It is a hybrid of many genres and formats.
Escobar. Auteur cinema?
Coyula. This concept is a bit absurd, like that of the Hubert Bals Foundation in the Netherlands. Seeing the projects they finance, you see that the movies begin to resemble each other. It is putting art into a profile, creating a style, something that has nothing to do with auteur cinema where supposedly one looks for the distinct.
Escobar. Why do you introduce animation into your films?
Coyula. In many of my films special effects and animation have been ways to resolve them. I also grew up watching cartoons, and I really liked the Japanese ones in which each frame of a sequence is in a different plane. Every time there is a cut, each new image is a frame that has not been used before in the scene. I use this in the way I build the visual grammar of my films to escalate the tension in a scene.
”This position of distance and of criticizing everything is very important when it comes time to create.”
I also noticed that the Japanese didn’t have a big budget to do animation at 24 frames a second like Disney, so they concentrated on the most striking visual design, because the animation was very limited and they didn’t have the money to make it very fluid. Clearly, this then became a style.
Escobar. What is your opinion about the aspirations of the G-20 Group which, within the margins of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), is pushing for the implementation of a Film Law for Cuba?
Coyula. I feel good about what they’re doing. Making movies consumes so much of my time that I feel going to meetings in this country is a waste of time. On the other hand, the laws scare me a little. I want more cinema and fewer laws. The fact that this comes coupled with a tax worries me, it could be very harmful to people who are making non-profit films.
They could end up imposing the same tax on a filmmaker who is making a reggaeton video clip as on another who spends years filming a movie that isn’t going to make any money, that isn’t commercial. I attended one of those meetings at the beginning but I haven’t gone back.
Escobar. You are considered an “odd duck” among Cuban filmmakers. How do you see yourself?
Coyula. I try to make films that I would go to see. I don’t see cinema as it was often seen in the ‘60s, as an instrument of transforming the thinking of a country. If it generates dialog, of course that is very good, but I, at least, can’t create with that in mind. Cinema is like vomiting the subconscious in images, trying to eliminate all possible rationality. For example, I write a scene and try not to think too much about what it means. Afterwards, when I am editing, is when I start to intellectualize. But, more than anything, I am looking for the sensuousness of the ideas that come to mind.
Escobar. Do you belong to the generation that was going to be the New Man?
Coyula. Most of us, when we were teenagers and we realized that Cuba would not be a utopia, we became critical of any political system, be it socialism or capitalism. On the other hand, for creativity I think it was good because this position of distance and of criticizing everything is very important when it comes time to create.
“The question is: it’s Fidel Castro, so what? In all societies of the world the rulers serve as an inspiration for artists.”
Coyula. Many have criticized the interpretation of the meaning of the work by the National Council of Performing Arts, saying that Fidel Castro was the central character. It does not take a genius to see a play called The King is Dying, in today’s Cuba, refers to Fidel Castro. The question is: it’s Fidel Castro, so what? In all societies of the world the rulers serve as an inspiration for artists.
Utopia would be to achieve a society where the work is on the playbill and everyone could decide whether or not to enter the theater. Including getting up and leaving if they don’t like it and demanding their money back, as happens in other parts of the world.
Escobar. You lived for years in the United States. How is it to return to Cuba?
Coyula. I won two scholarships in the United States, but came and went constantly. The way I live and make films has been the same in any part of the world where I’ve been. For me, the camera becomes an extension of my arm and the computer the place where I do everything. I isolate myself to make my films, and this could be the same in New York as in Havana, I live for that.
This small video — with English subtitles — is a tribute to Cuban architect Mario Coyula by Eusebio Leal, Havana City Historian. The film was made by Miguel Coyula, the well-known Cuban filmmaker, and Mario’s son.
For the Spanish speakers among you, and others who can enjoy the photos, following is an extract of Mario Coyula’s presentation at the last conference he attended.
Cuba’s Blue Heart courts Indiegogo
5 July, 2013 | By Jeremy Kay
The sci-fi thriller has become the first Cuban project to use the crowd-funding platform as the director and producer launch their fundraising campaign.
Director Miguel Coyula, whose credits include Red Cockroaches and Memories Of Overdevelopment, and Claudia Calvino, who previously produced Juan Of The Dead, have so far raised just under $4,000.
The filmmakers behind Blue Heart (Corazon Azul) have another 14 days in which to reach their goal of $30,000.
The project from Producciones De La 5ta Avenida uses a variety of media including anime, documentary footage, commercials, newscasts and original narrative filmmaking.
Blue Heart takes place within an alternative reality as genetically modified humans use terror tactics to reverse the global order.
“Blue Heart is a film about the individual’s inability to escape its environment, as well a discussion about the violent nature of a revolution and its consequences,” Coyula wrote on Indiegogo.com.
“It is also an exploration of the boundaries of human behavior in a dysfunctional family. This is a foray into a dark future from an uncertain present.”
Commentary by Miguel Coyula starts at about 5 minutes into the video.
The following text is taken from Indiegogo, a crowdfunding site that is supporting Blue Heart. Miguel lives in and works from Cuba.
Miguel Coyula was born in Havana, Cuba in 1977. His work is focused on blending different genres and formats into new ways of storytelling by exploring digital technology. Always working outside the film industry made his first feature Red Cockroaches (2003), for less than $2,000. The film was described by Variety as “a triumph of technology in the hands of a visionary with know-how…” and went on to gather several awards in the international film festival circuit. In 2009 Coyula was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to develop his next film, Memories of Overdevelopment, a follow-up to the Cuban classic Memorias del Subdesarrollo (1968). The film premiered on Sundance in 2010 and went on to gather 20 awards during its festival tour. The International Film Guide chose it as the best Cuban Film of the year.
Blue Heart is a film about the individual’s inability to escape its environment, as well a discussion about the violent nature of a revolution and its consequences. It is also an exploration of the boundaries of human behavior in a dysfunctional family. This is a foray into a dark future from an uncertain present.
I have always been interested in science fiction films that serve as a possibility to explore the strangeness of an alternate reality with specific social and political repercussions that are rooted in real events. This allow for a deeper and more meaningful reflection on the world we live in.
However, political science fiction can incur in a didactic approach. One must never make a film about a subject matter that you love or hate, otherwise it becomes a propaganda film. One must only make the film if you are not convinced 100% in either direction.
Beyond stating ideas with intellectual coolness, the film concentrates on visceral storytelling where atmosphere, and feelings and are the most immediate focus.
The story uses several elements from transmedia storytelling, where the narrative flows in a variety of formats, which include fiction from a variety of genres, newscasts, animation, web-browsing, commercials, documentary. I intend to use the digital medium to full advantage by manipulating every single image. The goal is to work the smallest details, which on a low budget becomes difficult to manage on sets. An open mind to use the world that surrounds you and find a way to weave it into your narrative is a priceless advantage of independent filmmaking. For example the Occupy Wall Street was a real event; which was adapted to the narrative of the film by inserting actors in a documentary environment, plus heavy manipulation of the images and green screen to achieve the right mood.
Dr. Nicholas Fredersen faces a difficult situation after his Human Genetic Engineering project at DNA21 comes to a full stop when the practice is declared illegal in the United States. However Octogenarian leader Fidel Castro, with the aid of Chinese money sets out to build a superior New Man that will transform the crumbling Cuban Socialist system into a model society. A few years later Cuba is ravaged by pollution and acid rains, becoming economically dependent on Chinese Investments of ever-growing oil drilling in the deep seas. Inheriting the worse of communism and capitalism, the country has become a corrupt dystopia on permanent crisis. The New Men turn out to be powerful but uncontrollable and dysfunctional in several ways. Outcasts of the system that created them, they set out to destroy the very fabric of society with devastating consequences. When the US government discovers that Dr. Nicholas Fredersen has been collaborating with the Cuban government in this enterprise. Tensions between the two countries begin to complicate.
This is the world Tomás lives in. He is a widowed, middle aged photo-journalist who lives with his teenage son David, an introverted teenager who escapes into the alternative reality of his drawings. One day, while taking pictures in ruins, Tomás finds Elena, an enigmatic young woman who casts a spell on him. He takes her home and this creates initial frictions with David, who later grows equally fascinated by her. A triangle develops as the tensions between the three characters escalate, in parallel to the national crisis. Gradually they both connect and explode as Elena might be linked with the terrorist group.
RISKS AND CHALLENGES:
We have most of the cast in place and ready to go. A science fiction film of this scale on such a budget is a thrill of a challenge and like any other great adventure, a must do for me. The focus is to complete principal photography within 3-4months of shooting. The rest will be all up to the post-production time. I sometimes take a long time to complete editing, but I have always completed every film project I have undertaken because of patience and obsessive tenacity: Two things to make up for the lack of a larger budget. Time is essential to create a solid film.
I believe that the utopia of truly independent dramatic feature length cinema, doesn’t exist. You are always still dependent on actors, or favors at the very least. It is true that independent production has increased tremendously. But there is a catch. These are in many cases films independent from a economic perspective, but not always in terms of form and content. For many filmmakers Independent Cinema is merely a vehicle to spark interest from an industry they are desperate to be a part of.
For me, cinema is salvation. The only thing in this world I can have complete control over. It is also a relief that my talent lies in the arts and not in politics, otherwise I would probably be a dictator.
Originality is difficult nowadays, but neither is it necessary. What’s important is to absorb so many influences in order for originality to be born, out of extreme hybridism. However fads are still an enemy to be reckoned with. Nowadays some festival programmers of “serious” art house Latin American Cinema seem greatly fascinated by minimalism, (often imported from Asian Cinema) long shots, absence of incidental music and stylization in the image, and contemplative tempo that doesn’t judge the characters. All this is hardly new, almost half a century ago some European films were doing it as well. I believe in being a sponge, but a sponge sucks in everything and mixes it. When I begin to see “Avant Garde” films that look, feel, and breathe alike, over and over, fashionably programmed in festivals that are supposed to showcase the different and unique, it becomes troublesome to say the least. The hegemony of a risk-lacking elitist fad is more dangerous than pop culture in its obscenity. You know what to expect from pop culture — after all there is enough flow of material there to absorb, distort, and recompose — but an elitist fad is a world closed in itself. What is Modern Art then, if the cinemas, galleries and museums that are meant to showcase it (and once upon a time did) are no longer interested in taking risks?
Melodrama for example has been vilified as something akin to television, Hollywood or simply no longer fashionable. Many art filmmakers today discard strong emotions, and sterilize their on-screen feelings, like adolescents fearing to lose the coolness. Political correctness as well, has weathered a great deal of contemporary independent cinema. I’m referring to “Film Festival movies”, many times designed in a calculating way to please the programmers who please sponsors, who often please audiences who want their sense of cool intelligence pleased (but not challenged too much). It is a disturbing sight when directors buy into this game and discuss its terms. Because only one thing counts. If the work is sincere it will always find an audience, whether is small or large it doesn’t matter. Even if its small, you are providing those people with a work that nobody but you would share with them. Independent Filmmakers could be categorized in the following:
1. Filmmakers who make films for a career in the industry and its subsequent notion of success measured in the box office.
2. Filmmakers who make films or a career in Film Festivals and its subsequent notion of success based on awards and reviews.
3. Filmmakers who make films it because they have no choice but to vomit them straight from the subconscious, so that it can be completely exorcized, and then they can sleep at ease with themselves, if only to awake again in a world of eternal torment, which they both hate and love, for it fuels the next film. The smallest group by far.
Some filmmakers manage to be in two of the three categories. I’m not saying festivals or box office are evil, but if it is the main goal we cannot talk in either case about independent film, for its very spirit is dependent.
Many low budget filmmakers appreciate digital format as a cheap alternative to 35mm. Few worship the intrinsic characteristics that make digital different than film. The gigantic depth of field is to me an incredible achievement of technology. The full impact of a face full of pores and wrinkles in the crispness of High Definition glory, while the background is in equally sharp focus, a baroque shot where all its elements are visible, making the audience read as many visual layers which translates into more interpretations that each image can have. Greg Toland was killing himself to achieve this in Citizen Kane. Now 70 years later, digital technology allows it, so people are killing themselves to defocus the background, desaturate the colors, remove the “odious HD sharpness” from the image. And why? What’s the conceptual justification for this? The answer is appalling and I have heard it several times: “It looks more like film” The absurd conversation often continues like this: “I know it looks like film”
This operates the same as racial discrimination. True that most television is dull, a dialogue driven medium that even when it occasionally strives for visual flair, it is usually for copying a movie that has proven itself in the box office. No chances are taken in the way of true experimentation here. But television itself as technology is not evil. What is truly cinematic is how you move the camera, how you choreograph staging, how you frame and where you cut. Using the technology to tell the story. I once saw a horror film shot with the Digital Canon 5D, there was a shot of a girl walking in an empty hallway, the camera was behind there, she was walking into the dimly lit hallway which was completely out of focus. It really worked, not because “it looked like film”, but because not being able to see the background, added tremendous tension. On another note, you are filming a drama having a carefully composed shot with all the elements of the art direction adding information about the character and setting that enriches the meaning of your shot. Why in the world would you want to have it out of focus? Because “It looks more like film”?
Another example, a man is writing a novel on his computer. The foreground has a television with a political leader out of focus. What does it mean? I means two things:
1- The man is so absorbed in the world of his novel that he hardly cares about politics in the real world, hence reality is literally blurry.
2- The images of the television were actually downloaded from youtube, so given that the image was extremely pixilated, having it out of focus was the only way to deal with it. And so the defect becomes an effect. #2 becomes #1. The problem gets a conceptualized solution.
Another misinterpretation, specially early on, was that Digital Video was meant to adhere to a dirty aesthetic, hand held, even auto iris and auto focus. Enough Dogmas.
Nothing is sadder than New Filmmakers making Old Films. Nothing is more irritating that sensing the “Cannes type” or “Sundance genre” in a film. Godard said something that comes to mind now. Culture is the norm, art is the exception. Much more than before that many festivals program films that are more intelligent than the Hollywood norm, true, but hardly without crossing the threshold of truly uncomfortable cinema. A festival’s programming responsibilities today (with a few exceptions) seem to lay more towards assuring a compromise of commercial interest (a big healthy dose of crowd-pleasers with token movie stars), political correctness (to make sure that no specific group or sponsor gets offended). Oh! And last and surely least: A healthy minimal dose of “difficult films” made with “artistic integrity” (To put it simply: unwatchable things.) We’ll place them in a ghetto section called “Avant Garde” or “New Languages and New Aesthetics” in case you want a little punishment. After all it is art, isn’t?
I think the filmmakers are to blame as well. While it is possible to often find audacity in the content, the form is less daring. Frankly uncomfortable subject matters are in some way softened by a serviceable, lazy mise en scene, which operates in auto pilot. As if filmic memory would only operate within the accepted mainstream constraints of the last decade. Hard to find styles that reflect the evolution of film history. The independence of a visual grammar is constantly narrowed by “what works” The core problem still a fear of the images as a narrative drive. Many people are just not trained to have a complex dialogue with images, and resort to the laziest, which is to have the characters tell you the story through dialogue. Like I said, it’s a matter of training, because nothing is more universal than images, and the language that is born of their juxtaposition. But it’s more work for the brain and people fear that. Not everybody, not every filmmaker. But exceptions suffer also from the programmers’ lack or risk taking maneuvers. A different cinema cannot exist if the promoters don’t take the same chances as the filmmakers. There was a time when film critics were more relevant, today reviewers have the upper hand. It’s hard to change that, but one can’t give up. To quote an old Spanish saying: “The letters and words will be carved into the brain through sweat and blood if necessary.”
Will things change? Probably not. Why complain then? Every generation has more or less the same conflicts, which end up repeating themselves in one way or another. It might be that my apocalyptic vision of the world is no more than a creative-defense mechanism for me. I might end up using this text, which was meant to start as an analysis of Independent Cinema, to feed the nightmarish atmosphere I have always needed for inspiration. It might be masochism, but I find beauty in alienation. Could I then say that my movies are escapist fantasies? Maybe. Therapeutic even.
I’m 34 years old and I already sound like a cantankerous old man ranting about the same thing over and over. But I need obstacles, obstacles keep you young even if you are an old soul. The truth is I always loved old movies, and however certain new things bring me the same enthusiasm and ingenuity of a child. I start mixing and putting things together. Its essential in the creative process, the mystery of situations a child cannot comprehend, carve an un-erasable footprint in your brain. Keeping the mystery is a necessity, because your art feeds from it. The moment the answers become more relevant than the questions, it’s over. It means death as a creator. I like movies that continue even after the credits, inside my mind.
I have always thought I live inside my mind, within an alternative universe that has little in common with the physical reality. My concepts and aesthetic principles are so specific that my first impulse is to disqualify anything I do not connect with. I wouldn’t make a good critic for that very reason. It costs me a great deal to be objective and I see no point in giving up my subjectivity. That’s why I make the movies I would like to go see if I were the only person in audience (which sometimes I am). There is no other reason, every movie has been different than the previous, and yet there is no fear of repeating myself.
My first feature took me two years, the second took me five, I just hope the next won’t be ten. It’s hard to work as a one man band. But I’ll do it while I still have any youth left, because it is that what keeps me young. Starting a project is the definitive step, once you start, you can’t stop. I hope I can finish and say I’m still independent. It’s not a very realistic possibility, but it exists.
Realism? I do not expect anything from reality. I’m compelled to distort the world around me to construct my own universe. Everything that happens inside my head is more real than the physical world. All the experiences a person accumulates during their lifetime are destined to disappear with death. That’s why I make films, to preserve ideas, sensations, alternative realities which can only exist as dark fantasies. It is my responsibility with those who share a similar sensibility.
Utopia: Eliminate transmission and translation of a idea from my brain to a crew. From the mind to the screen. It is important not to rationalize the intensity of an idea, it must be a feeling first, you must live it in a visceral way, turn the camera into an extension of your arm, like brush for a visual artist. Meanings always come in the editing room. To break the traditional chronology of the three creative stages: Screenwriting, filming and editing. Yes, freedom to go back out and film an idea that has materialized in the editing room. Truly exploit the aesthetic malleability provided by technology, with actors willing to follow you. Build it with your own hands. Digital Art Direction. Apparently organized chaos. Intuition without borders. Precise imperfection. Multiple interpretations. Utopia? Not always. Sometimes it is possible.
September 2011 / Translated by the author