Martí: The Eye of the Canary, a paean to dignity / Dimas Castellanos

Photo by Dimas

“It is always good to be, even in serious cases, as least hypocritical as possible.”

April started off with good news for Havana’s lovers of the seventh art. I refer to the exhibit in the Charles Chaplin cinema of Martí: the Eye of the Canary, a fictionalized feature-length film, passionate and emotional, that successfully explores the inner world and character building that shaped the historical significance of José Martí; a purpose that evokes the theory of the father of Cuban pedagogy, José de la Luz y Caballero, who asserted that the processes that found a people are require as a premise for their accomplishment the preparation of historical subjects and the basic moral foundation, a mission that Luz devoted his life to. He accumulated all that is valuable of the most celebrated men of his time, which he enriched with his wisdom and handed to his students, among them Rafael María de Mendive, the maestro of our José Martí.

The tape — divided into four interconnected sections which are condensed decisive events in the childhood and adolescence of the young Martí: bees, arias, birthdays and bars — is the first of a series that will feature films from Uruguay, Mexico and other countries in the region. It was produced by a professional group at the highest level, led by Fernando Perez as director and screenwriter, with photography by Raul Perez Ureta (National Film Award 2010), art direction and scenery by Erick Grass; the soundtrack by Edesio Alejandro, Rafael Rey on production and the interpretation of the main roles by professionals Broselianda Hernández (Leonor Perez), Rolando Brito (Mariano Martí), Manuel Porto (Don Salustiano) and Julio César Ramírez (Mendive), together with the successful performance of Damian Rodriguez and Daniel Romero (Martí children and youth, respectively), and Eugenio Torroella and Fernando López (Fermín Valdés Domínguez young child).

The critics are dealing with and will have to deal with this film for a long time, for that reason, and because I am not a specialist in the field, I will make just three points that I consider of great interest: the characteristics of its director, the figure Marti and the message it contains.

The Director

Fernando Pérez Valdés, the Cuban filmmaker most emblematic of the decade of the nineties of last century and winner of the 2007 National Film Award 2007, is considered among the best directors in Latin America. Celluloid caught Perez in the networks of images and sounds from the impression received as a child by one of those timeless films, I refer to The Bridge over the River Kwai (1957), directed by David Lean film, which chronicled the construction of a railway bridge by prisoners of war, in which there were cultural differences and similarities of feelings between captives and captors. Driven by this perception, the author of Martí: the Eye of the Canary, entered the ICAIC in 1962, an institution that played a large role in his education: production assistant and management (1971-1976), Noticiero ICAIC (1979-1981 ); and in parallel he studied Hispanic Art and Literature at the University of Havana (1965-1972).

The influence of prominent Cuban and foreign filmmakers in his development cannot be ignored. Among the former, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, who brought rigor in his relentless pursuit; Santiago Alvarez, founding figure of documentary filmmaking was his cinemagraphic “father”; Manuel Octavio Gómez, director of the first educational documentary of ICAIC; Manuel Herrera, co-founder of the Experimental Motion Picture Association of Santa Clara (1959); Sergio Giral, director of the feature film The other Francisco (1975), a film that explores the true face of slavery; and José Massip, director of the documentary History of a Ballet (Yoruba Suite) (1962), First Gold Dove Award at the Short Film Festival Leipzig. Among the latter, it suffices to mention the Polish director Andrzej Wajda, director of classics such as Ashes and Diamonds (1958) and Landscape after Battle (1970), reflecting the passions, tensions and hopes of the generation of Poles who emerged from the ruins of World War II, films that enter into the moral problems that triggered the conflict between individual choice and political action; the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, author of Before the Revolution (1964) and The Conformist (1970), who was notable in the film adaptation of classic literature, concerned with the political and sexual themes and the characters’ inner world; the British-American Alfred Hitchcock, master of suspense, author of The Pleasure Garden (1925), also made several series of short stories with television hits such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1959-1962) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1963-1965), highlighted by the use of psychological elements and visual impact to bring spectators to the climax.

With this knowledge, Fernando began a rich production of documentaries that range from Chronicle of a Victory (1975), co-directed with the late Jesus Diaz, to the best of them, Omara (1983), from where he jumped to what most appealed to him, fictional film — or more specifically realistic fiction — with his finest work, the feature-length Clandestines (1987, a story of love set in the battle in the cities during the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista; Hello Hemingway (1990), small personal short stories; the medium length Madagascar (1994), a film that explores the human condition, expressed in symbolic language able to communicate a state of subjectivity for which the words become insufficient and that masterfully closed Cuban cinema of the last century; Life’s Whistle (1998), where, from an imagined future, he tells a history that coincides with our present, to address the pursuit of happiness through inner freedom, truth and social communication; Suite Havana (2003), reflecting the dreams and aspirations that strengthen the will and make you see the future more clearly by turning out contradictory reality into an inexhaustible source of inspiration from love and from inner freedom: a love of one’s neighbor and of a city that despite its state of abandonment and destruction is full of beauty and possibilities; and Madrigal (2006), a mixture of artifice and reality, a philosophical reflection about time that lies in the future, with a script that is a kind theater play within the theater, an action that begins in Havana to end in a city of the future. All of these are vital parts of the Cuban cinema, and winners of many prizes inside and outside our borders.

Fernando was also influenced by Georges Melies — a cinema pioneer, who, after attending an exhibition in 1895 of Antoine Lumière, immediately perceived the possibilities of the new technique and conceived of film to produce illusions — whose concern about political reality led him, in his first feature, The Dreyfus Affair (1899), into the magical world from fantasy to history, to discover that film is a new way of seeing, interpreting and shaping the reality according to the will of the artist. Fernando, for his part, has highlighted the potential of film to promote critical thinking among Cubans, a practical demonstration of complex social problems that concern everyone, especially the intellectuals, and aesthetes of change, critical of our shortcomings and sources of connection between our traditions and universal knowledge.

According to the filmmaker himself, in an interview TV interview on Friday December 9, 2005, he is a filmmaker, but above all a moviegoer who relies more on questions than known answers, who prefers the image to the word to express concepts resulting from his investigations. Filled with love, respect and concern for others, Fernando is living expression of the human, a Habanero for whom the most important are his children, film and Cuba. His creativity emanates from these qualities, experiences, desires, frustrations and dreams, a combination of architecture and poetry that is expressed in a symbolic language through the construction of images and sounds. From these traits, the choice of childhood and adolescence of Martí at the heart of his latest work, does not seem casual. The son of a low-income postman and a homemaker, Fernando received at home what he calls the upbringing of respect, which enriched his concerns and his relationship with the world of cinema, an ethics expressed in the pursuit of one’s own happiness together with that of others, beginning with the family and extended to teachers and students, bosses and subordinates, friends and acquaintances.

The Figure of Martí

José Julián Martí Pérez, the son of a soldier and a housewife, both of limited education, became a prominent politician, historian, writer, speaker, teacher and journalist. A transformation originating from his intelligence, the love of his mother, his father and righteousness of his relationship with the director of the Boys’ School in Havana, Don Rafael Maria de Mendive, who put him in touch with the most valuable of the torrent of political and cultural ideas that had formed inside and outside the colony.

The great work of Martí begins after his political imprisonment for the critical apprehension of the preceding thought, including the mistakes made by the Cubans in the Ten Years’ War, to form a modern republic, based on the full dignity of man; a goal yet to be realized. His thinking, synthesis of love, virtue and civility, is not outdated. Marti established a genetic relationship between party and logic, war, independence and republic. Guided by the maxim that in the hour of victory only the seeds sown in time of war bear fruit, and delineated the functions of the latter so that in it were the seeds of true independence and a republic conceived as equal rights for everyone born in Cuba and free space for the expression of thought, so that each Cuban would be entirely free politically. Definitions topped with that ideal still as distant as it was then: I want the law of our republic to be the granting to Cubans of the full dignity of man.

The dignity of the human being, one of his greatest, if not the greatest, concerns, expressed itself in practical action. He made every effort to achieve a change in the mindset of the military leaders. For this reason he broke from the Gómez-Maceo Plan and wrote the Generalissimo in 1884: “What a shame to have to say these things to a man whom I believe to be sincere and good, and in whom there are the outstanding qualities to become truly great. But one thing is beyond any personal sympathy that you can inspire in me, and even all reason of apparent opportunity: and it is my determination not to contribute in the least, from blind love to an idea that I am living my life to bring to my country a regime of personal despotism that would be more shameful and unfortunate than the political despotism which is now supported, and is more serious and difficult to eradicate, because it would be excused by certain virtues and embellished with the idea embodied in it, and legitimized by the triumph.”

In Maestros Ambulantes he condensed his aspirations into the following words: “Men have to live in the quiet enjoyment, natural and inevitable, of freedom, like they must live in the enjoyment of air and light.” Fernando presents this Martí during his formative time. One who, as recounted in the film, published his first political article in el Diablo Cojuelo, a newspaper edited by his friend Fermín Valdés Domínguez, who, the day after the Havana Volunteers attacked the Theatre Villanueva, wrote the dramatic poem Abdala which, at such a young age, gives a beautiful definition of homeland: he who, when the teacher Mendive was arrested and imprisoned, he frequently visited him in prison; he who, together with Fermín Valdés Domínguez, wrote the letter to his classmate Carlos de Castro y de Castro on October 4, 1869, where he said: “Have you ever dreamed with the glory of apostates? Do you know how in ancient times apostasy was punished? We hope that a disciple of Sr. Rafael María de Mendive will not leave this letter unanswered.” In the judicial process when he was asked, “Was it you or Fermín?” the answer was firm and manly: “I was the one who wrote it!” For which he was sentenced to six years imprisonment with hard labor.

The Message

The efforts in the search of economic efficiency, in addition to the obligatory taking into account of the interests of the producers, will fail it they do not simultaneously proceed to perform an ethical reset of relationships from the family to the public. in this sense, it imposes a joint labor,m where art is called upon to play an important role, a role that begins with the rescue of human dignity, the value inside, vital and irreplaceable possessed by each human being, and which constitutes an indispensable tool to accept ideals, reject or form new ones, a force that allows people to feel free, even in conditions of oppression, as demonstrated by the Apostle in his youth. And Marti, The Eye of the Canary, is a hymn to the dignity, that is, from my point of view, the main message of the film: an appeal to the rescue of dignity, from the emotional as a way to reflect and change. The agreement between the Cuban present and the contents of the tape, seems to respond to the Marti thesis to do at every moment, what is needed in that moment. Thank you, Fernando!

Originally published in Issue 15 (May-June 2010) of the online magazine Convivencia. “Marti, The Eye of the Canary”, by Fernando Perez, will be competing in the Feature Films category in the 32nd New Latin American Film Festival. It was recently awarded the Colón de Plata award for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography at the Latin American Film Festival XXXVI. A good opportunity for blog readers who have not seen it.

December 1. 2010