14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 7 December 2016 – He has a Polish last name, a first name of Hebrew origin, and Venezuelan blood running through his veins. Jonathan Jakubowicz is as complex and versatile a filmmaker as the skein of influences that make up his family tree. Born in Caracas in 1978, the director has received both pressure from the government of Hugo Chavez and the most resounding applause from his audience. This December his film Hands of Stone will be shown in Cuba during the Festival of New Latin American Cinema.
The film, based on the story of the Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran, includes in its cast the fellow Venezuelan Edgar Ramirez, in the starring role, and the Oscar winner Robert de Niro in the role of his trainer. Jakubowicz responded to questions from 14ymedio about his expectations on presenting his work to a Cuban audience, and his reaction to the exclusion from the festival of the Cuban film Santa y Andrés, by director Carlos Lechuga.
Sanchez. During the Havana Film Festival of Havana Cubans will be able to enjoy your film Hands of Stone, one of the most interesting films that will be screened in this year. How can viewers on the island inform themselves before seeing the story of the legendary Roberto ‘Mano de Piedra’ Duran?
Jakubowicz. I think that Cubans feel the story of Duran as their own. Duran is the son of an American Marine who was assigned to the Canal Zone and who had an affair with a Panamanian, and then left. The relationship between the boxer known as Manos de Piedra and the United States is complex starting from his birth. But paradoxically it is only thanks to the help of his gringo coach, the character played by De Niro, that he becomes world champion and beats the United States boxing idols on the biggest stages in the world. It is a Latin American epic, filmed mainly in Panama but with Hollywood legends. I am sure Cubans will enjoy it.
Sanchez. You’re aware of the censorship of the film Santa y Andrés, directed by Cuban filmmaker Carlos Lechuga, and even thought of withdrawing Hands of Stone from the Festival, in solidarity with that filmmaker. Why have you kept your film in the Festival line-up? What do you think about the exclusion of the Lechuga’s film?
Jakubowicz. Cuba and Venezuela are sister nations, not only in our history but in our political present. When my first film came out, Secuestro Express (Kidnapping Express), the Chavez government charged me twice and published in the state media all kinds of information to discredit me. Only someone who knows what it is to be persecuted because of his art can understand the pain that means. That is why it affected me so much to read about censorship being applied to this Cuban film.
I felt that going to the Festival to show my film would be a hypocrisy, like when I saw international filmmakers photographing Chavez while I was being persecuted. I was afraid of becoming that dismal figure of the artist who supports the repressor, a very common figure in our countries, and one that has done great damage to our people.
But Cuban filmmakers themselves asked me not to withdraw my movie from the program, because the festival is one of the few windows left on the island to see the outside world, and so I decided to do it. At the end of the day I don’t live in Cuba and the only thing I can to do is help those who do live there.
Sanchez. You’ve experienced first hand harassment within your own country. How do you experience all those pressures?
Jakubowicz. With much anguish and sadness. My film was not even against the government, but was made by people from all social classes in Venezuela, and the success filled Chavez with insecurity, because his power was always based on dividing the population. On attacking us, he attacked our invitation to overcome the problems we have as a society, but also made it impossible for me to continue making films in my country. So I am filled with admiration for Cubans like you, like Gorki Aguila, El Sexto and others who dare to stay in the cave of repressor to do battle for freedom from within.
I just published a book, Las Aventuras de Juan Planchard (The Adventures of John Planchard), showing the corruption of the Chavista revolution in all its glory. It is my grain of sand in this fight. There are people who ask me if I’m not afraid to publish it, and my answer is that if there are people in Cuba and Venezuela who put their lives on the line daily for freedom, the least I can do is support them with my art.
Sanchez. What do you think of the relationship between cinema and power? Between artists and official institutions?
Jakubowicz. Cinema and power have always been related, the problem is when those in power repress some filmmakers, and welcome and support others. There is nothing worse than an artist who collaborates with a repressive government. To put your sensibility at the service of a power that persecutes human beings who want to express themselves like you do is a contradiction which, in my opinion, annuls you as an artist and makes your work into propaganda.
History is full of talented artists who have done that and ended up persecuted by the very machinery they supported. Generally those who remain cozied up to power forever are mediocre, they would have no capacity for transcendence if not for the help they receive as payment for their complicity.
Sanchez. In Cuba, as of more than three years ago, a group of filmmakers has been promoting a Film Law to gain autonomy and protect their work. What would you recommend to your colleagues on the island in that regard?
Jakubowicz. In my opinion they should focus on creating methods for their films to be viewed online. Just as there are now journalistic spaces coming out in Havana and reaching everyone, create spaces for local filmmakers to put their work on the internet. Almost all filmmakers in the world are doing works that are exhibited on the internet.
Even Woody Allen is making a series for Amazon. No one can underestimate the power of the internet as a tool for the distribution of independent cinema of the future. I find it commendable that they are trying to pass this law, but in my experience art cannot beat authoritarian governments with laws. They can be conquered with art. The laws were not made for artists.