14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, December 5, 2019 — A group of elderly men meets in what was once a park, commenting on the news of the day as they recall a bygone era which they refer to simply as “communism.” Each of them is reconstructing a country based on his own personal recollections. The portrait of Cuba that emerges in Eduardo del Llano’s twenty-minute short, Two Veterans, exists only in the minds of old men.
The film is imbued with the spirit of some popular jokes in which a leap into an imaginary future is the narrative device for commenting on the present. The characters parsing their memories are those you would find today working in a bureaucratic office, shopping in a rationed food store or spending hours watching el paquete* in a typical Cuban home.
Their conversations revolve around the past but always from the perspective of a time to which they cannot return. Some look back with pain, some with sarcasm. Their reconstructions involve leaps of memory and acts of forgetting, both voluntary and involuntary. The present they now inhabit is referred to as “democracy.” In their discussions, socialism is as far removed as primitive cave dwellings or feudalism.
“It turns out the the enemy wasn’t the enemy,” says one of the characters recalling the rivalry between Washington and Havana. His words irritate Nicanor O’Donell, played by the actor Luis Alberto García, the group member who most idealizes the past.
Time has moved on but Nicanor still clings to the official language that dominated the public sphere decades earlier. His allusions to the American “blockade” and remembrances of a country where workers did not strike because they had “more awareness” provoke laughter and skepticism among the other pensioners.
In contrast, Rodriguez, played by Nestor Jimenez, has much harsher memories of the communist era. The two men have a heated argument, all the while sharing a bench of what had once been a park but is now the loading zone of a huge shopping center.
With their flaws and inconsistencies, Nicanor and Rodriguez’ competing and divergent arguments reflect the current polarization of political discourse in Cuba. Most members of the group are much more inclined to view the past critically, or they simply act as passive observers in the debate between the two men.
No one discusses how the change actually happened. Details about the fall of the old regime are the least of their concerns. The argument boils down to an imperfect today versus an obsolete yesterday. The most intriguing chapter of the story is ignored or swept aside.
Nicanor’s nostalgia seems to be drawn from the headlines of Granma, learned from state TV newscasts or based on slogans from speeches. His longing bears the whiff of mothballs. It provokes mockery from his companions and an incredulous smile from a spectator, none of whom feel sympathy for the nostalgia in which he wallows.
With his Che Guevara-style beret, criticisms of young people’s use of new technology and annoyance with the huge shopping malls springing up everywhere, even in the Plaza of the Revolution, Nicanor is a future version of the cederista**, a party stalwart from the days when communist ideology was not yet the commanding and determining force on the island.
The only young person who participates in the conversation is Yaquelin, played by Ana Chelys Matos, whose gestures and tone convey the indifference and boredom that led to this discussion about the past. She is present but aloof, occasionally translating the unintelligible sounds of her uncle, an ancient rock-and-roll drummer, brought to life by the actor Carlos Gonzalvo.
Two Veterans is inspired by a story written by del Llano himself and published in his most recent book. This short film marks the end of a fifteen-year-long journey in which the writer and filmmaker captures on screen the adventures of Nicanor, who has become an archetype of the average Cuban, a character trapped in the island’s everyday absurdities.
The most recent episode of the series, which stars O’Donell as Nicanor, can now be seen on YouTube, with English subtitles, and will compete in the short film category at the upcoming Havana Film Festival. The cast also includes actors such as Osvaldo Doimeadiós and Mario Guerra.
It is no coincidence that this saga ends with the a futuristic fifteenth episode. The Nicanor who inhabits this hypothetical world is an outdated leftist who only finds support for his diatribe from a beggar, played by Eduardo del Llano himself, nodding in agreement with the protagonist while rummaging through the trash
Nicanor neither understands nor accepts this Cuba of the future. The country that has emerged before his eyes leaves him trapped in a melancholic delirium, in an homesickness for an outmoded country where everything he stands for has been cast aside. His tomorrow represents the denial of what was. The symbolic vote at the end of the film makes its meaning all too clear: communism is a fossil that only those nostalgic for the past dig up.
*A USB device containing pirated entertainment and news programming from overseas and distributed clandestinely on a weekly basis throughout the country.
* “Cederista” comes from the initials CDR, “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution” — the government-aligned block watch groups that cover the country.
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