Social Criticism Widespread in Cuban Films / Dimas Castellanos

The 32nd Festival of New Latin American Cinema, which ended in Havana last December 2, showed that the seventh art is on the upswing in Latin America and that Cuba is no exception.

Among the over 500 participants, the Cuban films–independently of their themes, of their directors’ degree of success, and of the quality of the actors and scripts–for the first time all critically reflected the social reality of the country. This is proof that culture, even if it is subjected to being a prisoner of ideology, as is our case, by its nature and functions transcends even such a negative imposition. A short review, limited to the four fiction-category feature films that participated in the competition, is evidence of this.

Casa Vieja (Old House), by Lester Hamlet, based on the theatrical work of the same name by Abelardo Estorino, uses the narrative of an individual case, the return to the heart of the family of a Cuban after 14 years of living abroad, to reveal the negative effect the Cuban political system has had on the economic and moral penury in which society finds itself trapped.

According to its director, “it is a film that speaks about who we are and how I see Cubans’ life from the point of view of the affective compact”. With that vision, with heavy emotional weight, he delves into one of Cuba’s many current problems. The film, which had received the Grand Prize for the Best Feature Film Fiction Book at the VIII Pobre Humberto Solás International Film Festival, this time won the popularity prize, the Cybervote Prize of the Latin American and Caribbean Film and Audiovisual Portal of the New Latin American Film Foundation and the Jury Mention for Fiction.

Larga Distance (Long Distance), by Esteban Insausti, gives us the story of four friends who, because of the deep crisis produced by the disappearance of real socialism in Eastern Europe, could not keep their oath to never leave each other. Ana, one of the four, on reaching the age of 35 and no longer having friends to celebrate her birthday with, throws an imaginary party, evoking memories of old friends.

From a sociological point of view, it is a critique of the impact of emigration on Cubans’ lives, due to the inability of the Cuban system to provide opportunities inside the country. The life of her parents shows the persistence of problems through generations and the complete failure of the project to create a New Man in Cuba. In the end, social malfunctions resulting from the system have triumphed over resistance in return for the impoverishment and moral ruin of a considerable number of the sectors of society.

Boleto al paraíso (Ticket to Paradise), by Eduardo Chijona, was inspired by accounts of real events that happened in 1993, collected in the book Confesiones a un médico (Confessions to a Doctor) by Jorge Pérez Avila. The film tells the story of several adolescents who, as a result of their families’ material and spiritual poverty, link their destinies to run away from home in search of a non-existent paradise and end up getting infected with the AIDS virus and “enjoying” life in a sanatorium–a simultaneous pact of love and death.

Afinidades (Affinities) by Jorge Perugorría and Vladimir Cruz, with script by Cruz, goes into a facet of the administrative corruption of civil servants relating to the management of mixed (public/private) businesses, which is nothing less than the expression of the general decline of Cuban society since a salary stopped being the principal source of income; in it this sector is bureaucratic and invested with powers that allow it to enjoy privileges denied to the average Cuban, thanks to the almost absolute government institution of “property of all the people” under the control of a few. A benefit that leads to sentimental transgression and aggression against dignity, the deliberate manipulation of one’s fellow man. Although the film deals with a problem of contemporary life, in Cuba it is inseparable from the Cuban structural problem, caused primarily by contradictions inside the country.

Martí, el Ojo del canario (Martí, Eye of the Canary) from prize-winning director and scriptwriter Fernando Pérez, is a film inspired by the infancy and adolescence of the Apostle, the result of the search to answer the question, “How, in full Colonial times, was it possible for such a brilliant and high-minded figure as José Martí to have been created?” In my opinion, it is the best film of the festival, a combination of the sensibility, ethics, love and quest that define its director.

It is precisely Fernando Pérez who, with his concept of cinema as a way of seeing, interpreting and forming reality, has shown the potential for critical cinematography to promote critical thought among Cubans; a practical demonstration of intellectuals’ responsibility as aesthetes of change, critics of our deficiencies and sources of connection between our traditions and universal knowledge. The principal message, among the many this film offers, is an appeal to rescue our dignity.

The film has already won the Colón de Plata Prize for Best Director and Best Photography at the Huelva Film Festival. It just won the Coral Prize for Direction and the Artistic Direction Prise for Erick Grass and the Best Poster to Giselle Monzón. In addition the Alba Cultural Latin America First Copy Grand Prize (Ex Aequo); the Film, Radio and Television Prize of the Association of Cuban Artists and Writers; Prize of the Cuban Association of Cinematographic Press; El Megano Prize of the National Federation of Film Clubs; 2009 Caminos Prize of the Martin Luther King Memorial Center; Roque Dalton Radio Prize from Radio Habana Cuba; Cined Prize from Educational Cinematography; Vigía Prize from the Matanzas branch site; and UNICEF Prize.

Social criticism, which has been present in the history of Cuban fimmaking for several decades, has evolved from isolated appearances to becoming a general critical current, which doubtless has much to do with the critical conscience that is steadily gaining strength in our society and which is even beginning to be reflected in the most recent, but still weak, signs of changes in the circles of power.

Translated by S. Solá

(Published in on December 27, 2010)

January 3 2011