OLPL visiting the home of the Edmundo DesNoes, novelist of “Memories of Underdevelopment.”
Translator’s note: Edmundo Desnoes also wrote “Memories of Overdevelopment,” which was made into a film by Miguel Coyula.
12 May 2013
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
Miguel Coyula (a jury member for the exhibition) on the resignation of Fernando Pérez from the presidency of ICAIC* Young Filmmakers Exhibition:
I understand and respect Fernando’s decision. Beyond whether it was artistically accomplished or not, the short-film Despertar [Awaken] deserved to be shared with the public.
I hope that Exhibition continues to move forward, but it won’t be the same after having been stomped on. I believe in resigning. I have been antisocial since I was a child; it’s a question of my personality. But I have not resigned from making films, from creating. It is the only thing over which I can have absolute control in life. Political systems, religions, structures of power, movements, leaders, they all end up disappointing us because those at the top always make decisions that leave us disappointed and helpless, especially when our interests are distant from those of the majority.
Sacrifice? No. Not for anything other than creation.
I also believe in individuals, in friends, but never in the masses because they have always been manipulated throughout the history of humanity. In my case, there is nothing new to be said. I am not going to wrap it up with a lot of verbiage to soften the message: of course that I am fed up with the censorship in my country. This is the result of a political structure that is rotten to the core, which IS NOT GOING TO IMPROVE, NOR WILL IT BE REPLACED BY A BETTER ONE because the mutilation suffered will last for several generations, and nor does there exist in the rest of the world, another humanist alternative implemented with an effectiveness that seduces me.
I know I am apocalyptic.
That is why I make films and not politics. I have no vocation for the second, and if I had, I would surely be a dictator. I prefer to be an apathetic in the physical world, instead of screwing over people’s lives. Experimenting only within a screen of images and motion. Living closer to the hermit, creating an inner world of imperfect universes with freedom of a totalitarian subjectivity. An improbable mix of cynicism and romanticism but, at least for me, it has been the only way to sleep peacefully.
*Cuban Film Institute
Source: Tension Lia
Translated by Chabeli
Miguel Coyula is seeking funding for his next feature film, BLUE HEART, through Yagruma crowdfunding: Please link here to contribute.
Cuban Science Fiction Feature shot guerrilla style, mixing documentary and fiction through heavy use of digital manipulation. Currently seeking funds for its completion.
After the boom in Human Genetic Engineering, octogenarian leader Fidel Castro 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 off-shore drilling. Inheriting the worse of communism and capitalism, the country has become a corrupt dystopia on permanent crisis mode. The New Men turned out to be powerful but uncontrollable. Outcasts of the very system that created them, they are out to destroy the very fabric of society with devastating consequences.
In tradition with my style of filmmaking this is being shot guerrilla style as a one man crew, mixing documentary with fiction through heavy manipulation of the images in postproduction. I Expect to complete Principal Photography with a budget of 25,000 Euros.
If you decide to invest 10,000 dollars you’ll get Executive Producer credit as well as a percentage of the profits if the film gets distributed. For more details you can contact me to discuss further.
More information about Miguel Coyula.
Miguel lives in Havana and is celebrated for his feature length film: Memories of Overdevelopment, winner of 20 international prizes (see subtitled trailer below).
In the same way that good collectors poke around in tiny stores with an expert eye, lovers of the art of the cinema chase down Miguel Coyula. With numerous awards for a rigorous and always growing work, Miguel dazzles us now with Memories of Overdevelopment. To conduct a formal interview, I have searched in the extensive bibliography Miguel’s work has already accumulated, with reference to the prizes he has received. But I do not put myself on the plane of the specialists, and here the protagonist is a cousin, who in his 33 years exhibits a solid career. And the best is yet to come. Being related is pure coincidence.
Regina Coyula: As a child you had a great predisposition to literature. Do you think you’ve reconciled this obsession with the development of your scripts, or do you see it as two independent expressions?
Miguel Coyula: Yes, I think that literature was for lack of anything else, I think if I had had a camera from the beginning perhaps I would have turned to that directly. But I do think that any literary work is adaptable in one way or another to the cinema. If you know the tools of the cinematographic language well and are willing to experiment with them, any adaptation is possible. That is, I have always seen all artistic expression through the view of cinema. And I like writing very much, in fact if I suddenly went blind and couldn’t film any more, I’m sure I would write again.
RC: You started making films informally in early adolescence. Did you already know then that this is what you wanted to do?
MC: It was after my first short film Pyramid (1996) that I knew I couldn’t do anything that would give me more pleasure. From that moment I had no doubts. It was my only chance to build a different universe, entirely as I pleased.
RC: What project do you consider your “coming of age”?
MC: That’s a difficult question. For example, before going to the Film School I made two shorts, Pyramid and Light Valve, which despite their imperfections I consider much better than everything I did in school. When I made them I was in a state of pure intuition. In school, no matter how much you resist it, you involuntarily tend to structure everything, and the films it interests me to make could be described as a subconscious vomiting.
Fortunately, after leaving school I recovered quickly and perhaps that’s why I make movies outside of any institution. My first feature film, Red Cockroaches, is — at the performance level — the first movie where I managed the desired atmosphere, controlling the tools of the language to achieve it. My visual language is undoubtedly already formed there, however the structure of the story is too linear for my taste. It is in Memories of Overdevelopment where I now have a language much more akin to the way I think, in fact the language of the movie is like putting yourself in the character’s head, where every kind of idea, memories, fiction, dreams, documentary, animation all come together, all linked with a montage of associations.
RC: The International School of Cinema of San Antonio de los Baños: what is the positive and negative balance that school left in you?
MC: I learned to use a lot of equipment that I otherwise could not have accessed. And I learned, above all, that I’m not particularly interested in working as a team, that I have no other option than to do the filming and editing of my movies to be able to control every detail to the maximum extent, that I don’t ever want to shoot in 35mm, and that I never want to study in another institution. Of course I’m speaking only for myself and for those who think like me. However, I think that for a great share of the students EICTV is very useful.
RC: Director, screenwriter, director of photography, editor, music director … Are you compelled by the budget or is it a decision to maintain control over the production?
MC: Both, or perhaps if I had money I would have more assistants, but the photography, editing, sound design, I could never give those away. Of course you can’t have assistants if you can’t pay them, maybe that’s a good thing… maybe if I had more money I would be a complete dictator with my team, because when everything’s said and done I’m Cuban and we know how that works. It’s a lucky thing I didn’t go into politics.
RC: What collaboration have you received from ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry) in your career?
MC: Apart from showing my films in their Young Filmmakers Exhibition, I’ve never worked at ICAIC, nor have they ever financed any of my movies.
RC: Memories of Overdevelopment: Don’t you fear being left in the limbo of having made a very “foreign” film for the Cuban public, and a very Cuban film for foreigners?
MC: It’s very true, this, but inevitable. There are filmmakers who make movies to make money and others who do it to show their films at the festivals. I do it because I have no choice, I have to get out what’s inside me. Before “Memories”… all my movies could have been set in any part of the world, they weren’t tied to a reality or a political or social context. With “Memories”… I had the opportunity and the need to talk a little bit about my origins, because it’s the only movie where I was probably going to have the chance to do so.
In fact the movie may be Cuban for a foreign audience, but it’s not the Cuba of the Tropicana, mojitos, jokes, the beach and Cohibas that they want to see. It’s not entertainment. It’s a serious analysis of the effects of a political regime on an individual in the last 50 years, and a lot of people aren’t interested in that. It’s a politically incorrect movie for anyone, regardless of their political position, against all flags, against politics (of the left and the right), religion and consumerism. And people have very little tolerance for this kind of film today.
RC: Memories of Underdevelopment: What are the opportunities to participate in Festivals and to get it in the distribution chain?
MC: There are some festivals, I am going to be traveling a lot this year. There is still no distribution, but I don’t have great expectations. From the beginning I knew it wasn’t an easy film, and we’ll see how that evolves.
RC: What would be the movie you’d like to do?
MC: A film without borders, I’m interested in stories about individuals who don’t fit into society, but with universal conflicts. Mystery interests me greatly, to me it’s essential that a movie have “loose ends,” because as a creator I need to have doubts about the universe I’m creating; if not, I lose interest, and the cinema that interests me to make is the cinema that will continue even after the movie is over. I believe that to be a truly independent filmmaker is a responsibility to make something distinct without any interference from anyone.
RC: Would you accept working on a commercial project?
MC: I would accept work on a project where I had a green light to change everything at will. Which is practically impossible within a traditional structure.
RC: What is your next project?
MC: Blue Heart, a movie on the subject of cloning, and the second part of the trilogy that begins with Red Cockroaches. With it I return back to the subject of taboos, of science fiction, to build an alternative reality.