‘In Cuba Your Mind Cannot Advance Because You Are Focused on Your Survival’

Journalist Náyare Menoyo, director of the documentary ‘Leonardo Padura, a Squalid and Moving Story’, which won her the King of Spain International Journalism Award. (EFE / Zipi)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yaiza Santos, Madrid, 20 June 2021 — Náyare Menoyo (Baracoa, 1995) created Leonardo Padura, A Squalid and Moving Story as a graduation project from the University of Havana, where she studied Journalism. She did it, she tells this newspaper, “alone, alone, alone,” with a camera her faculty lent her and the help of her cameraman friend, who did the work for free.

The documentary, premiered out of competition at the Havana Film Festival in 2019, has just received one of the King of Spain International Journalism Awards, the Television Award, among whose recipients is also Don Quixote, won by another Cuban, Carlos Manuel Álvarez, director of the independent magazine El Estornudo.

“It has the value of being a television piece presented by the Havana School of Communication in which things are said that cannot be said in Cuba,” the jury said in its ruling. “It is a work with limitations that reflects remarkable height and elegance.”

Menoyo, who lives in Madrid and will be starting a Master’s degree at the Complutense University in the fall, spoke with 14ymedio about the award and her projects.

14ymedio. How did you approach Padura to make the documentary?

Menoyo. I first encountered Padura as a writer, because I started reading his books, and the more I read, the more I liked them. Later, studying journalism, despite the fact that he is a writer who has little visibility within the Cuban State media, the professors always set him as an example, not of a good writer but of a good journalist, and recommended many of his texts.

About halfway through the run, we put together a magazine as a final project on emigration, the subject and the issue we were presenting, and it occurred to me that we could interview Padura, because the film Return to Ithaca was being aired, for which he was a screenwriter. That was my first personal approach.

Padura is not on television. If it is announced that an interview is going to be broadcast, ultimately on the day that it is going to be shown it is not aired. They state there were technical difficulties, the show was lost…

I searched the Etecsa phone listings and called him. I apologized for calling him at home but I had no other way to contact him. With tremendous Cubanness, he responded that I should not worry, that it was OK, that he worked at home, where he met with people and that I should come over. He was granting me the interview.

From there, my career continued and I discovered that I really liked television, so I said: I’m going to graduate with a documentary and it’s going to be about Padura, because this is the only time I would be able to do a documentary about this writer and decide as many things as possible I want to say about him. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do it at any other time in Cuba, much less when I finished at the university, when I would have to do my social service commitment. I was not going to be able to.

It also made me very angry that a sector of the people who direct Cuban culture were so unsympathetic towards him. Despite there being the Padura National Prize for Literature, and despite his being a world-renowned writer, his books are rarely taken to the Book Fair, his presentations are not scheduled, and it is almost impossible to find any of his books in bookstores. Padura is not on television. If it is announced that an interview is going to be broadcast, ultimately the day that it is going to be shown it is not aired. They state there were technical difficulties or that the show was lost… Fifty thousand stories. My contribution was to make his work visible.

I also wanted, more than presenting the award-winning writer, to make a documentary with a biographical cut, to bring him closer to those readers who know him and who know who he is but who are not able to see him anywhere.

Obviously, it is not a documentary that attacks the Government, it is not a documentary that speaks directly about anything political

14ymedio. You complained bitterly a few days ago that no representative of the Cuban Embassy was present at the awards ceremony and that no official media has sought you out about the award. However, the documentary does not talk about politics at all and, if there is any reference, it is veiled. What explanation can you find for the officials to ignore the documentary and the award?

Menoyo. What can I tell you. It’s nonsense. The stubbornness of some people who run Cuba and that is why things that are so bad and it is difficult for them to change. Obviously, it is not a documentary that attacks the Government, it is not a documentary that speaks directly about anything political. It’s not that I wanted to make the things he says subtle for any reason, but that they came out that way. My goal was not to make a political memorandum, but a personal portrait of Leonardo Padura.

In the Communication Faculty they have a program, transmitted through the Havana Channel, to publish the students’ work when they graduate so it doesn’t remain mere university work, and it includes a prior interview with the director. They interviewed me, we commented on the documentary, everything was good, and it was going to be broadcast to coincide with the news of the award. They announced that it was going to be put on, everyone was waiting, but the documentary did not air. Did anyone call me to explain why the documentary was not shown? No one. Has the documentary been played after three months? It has not. A friend, who was not the person assigned to call me, told me that it had technical failures. A lie, it had no technical flaw, it is pure and hard censorship.

Now, with the award, there are those who say that it may be because Carlos Manuel Álvarez was first, who is a very talented journalist but “has a discourse against the Cuban regime,” but that is also an excuse, that is also a lie. Because when the documentary was mentioned at the Trieste Festival, it didn’t appear in any media either, nor did anyone call me to interview me.

A friend who was not the person assigned to call me, told me that it had technical failures. A lie, it had no technical flaw, it is pure and hard censorship

14ymedio. And what was the reaction when it premiered at the Havana Festival?

Menoyo. Supposedly the documentary was going to be shown only once, not in a competition but at the exhibition. But at the premiere it was full, people had to sit on the floor, there were people who were left outside, and they put it on again. The second time there was Padura and, the same, the room was full, full. In the end we ended up doing three projections. I was very happy. From what I expected when I made the documentary, with the resources that I had, versus what happened, it has been fabulous.

14ymedio. Why did you decide to come to Spain, what are you doing in Madrid, what are your dreams from now on?

Menoyo. It is a complicated question. I am in Spain because the economic situation in Cuba did not satisfy me. In Cuba, one can spend a lifetime working, honestly and hard, and never have a home. Or have five or six jobs and, in the end, have the money, but there is no chicken or oil [to buy]. Wages had risen when I left Cuba, and mine was the equivalent of about 180 euros. But the State paid me in one currency and the food and basic necessities stores only accepted MLC (freely convertible currency). Though I worked on television and had a salary, I could not buy things because the State paid me in Cuban pesos and I did not have relatives living abroad who could send me foreign money.

In Cuba, it is not that you die of hunger, but you do not eat what you need to live and you do not even eat what you want to eat and what you like; it’s what you can. A survival. I didn’t want to live my whole life like that. I used to say: “Well, now my parents are young, but when they get old, how will I support them? How do I give them what they need to live? And professionally, you can always do things that you feel proud of, but those things are accomplished through a lot, a lot of work, a lot of wear and tear, and in the end, you are so tired that you take the wheel and you do the same thing you said you were never going to do again. Because if you have to have five jobs but you are full of worries, that you don’t have the money to pay the rent, that the house is in bad shape, how can you buy a pair of shoes. If you have that in your head, you cannot think. Your mind cannot advance, you cannot focus on a project, because you are focused on your survival.

It seemed to me that Spain was a good country to go because of the culture, because of the language, because if I could do journalism somewhere, it would be here, because of the cultural similarities. I want to work on Spanish Television! [laughs] I want to do the whole migration thing. I don’t want to be in Spain writing for a Cuban medium because it is like being there in the middle of the Atlantic. I want to do journalism but I want to do it in a Spanish medium. That’s where I am.

Translated by Norma Whiting


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