Raúl Pérez Ureta

Saddened by the news this morning of the death of the great Cuban cinematographer Raúl Pérez Ureta. Raulito, as we knew him, was the cameraman on Havana Report, the film I made in 1985 with Holly Aylett on the Havana Film Festival for Channel 4. The film was the result of an invitation from Julio García Espinosa, then President of the Cuban film institute, the ICAIC, which ran the festival, and it gave us the chance to work with a Cuban film crew instead of bringing a crew from home, as I’d previously done. From the very first shot, Raúl inspired confidence, taking on board immediately the challenge of working with a pair of directors who themselves were working together for the first time amid the hurly-burly of the festival. I cannot remember it without thinking of a line from a Paul Simon song, ‘it’s four in the morning and the plans have changed’, because we never ended the evening knowing quite what we were going to film the next day. Raúl took it all completely in his stride, of course, having spent almost twenty years as a newsreel cameraman. His renown as a cinematographer would come later when, the year after Havana Report, he turned to fiction, where he began develop a distinctive visual style exemplified in Papeles secundarios (Orlando Rojas, 1989), which became the hallmark of a number of films he then made with Fernando Pérez.  An exquisite sense of composition which never falls into aestheticism, always respects the mise-en-scène, and perhaps above all, his masterly control over the notorious difficulties of photographing in the Cuban light, all of which come together above all in Pérez’s extraordinary documentary, Suite Habana (2003).

In this photo of the crew of Havana Report, Raúl is on the extreme left. In the centre, with Holly and me on either side, is Fernando Birri. The photo was taken by Chuck Kleinhans, who had tagged along with us, immediately after we wrapped the shoot after a final interview with Fernando. Raúl now joins Chuck and Fernando in the photo-album of my memory, where they all still live and breathe.

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Waiting Game

This is a time for sitting quietly, waiting (for the winter to unfold, and your turn for the vaccine), watching (remotely, because the action is all going on somewhere else), listening. To the pain which comes across in brief snatches in the television news from health workers and smitten families, lives interrupted and lost. Listening carefully to what the scientists say. Sceptically to pundits. And as for politicians, these should be heard with active mistrust, because they constantly tell lies, and if by chance they utter something half-true, it’s always the wrong half.

How long should we expect to wait? What actually are we waiting for?  Continue reading

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‘High-profile figures criticise university’s plans for large cuts to arts and humanities…’

As one of those referred to in this report by Times Higher Education (20.11.20) on cuts at Roehampton as having already taken voluntary redundancy, this new round of cuts (and more voluntary redundancies – I already know of some) is deeply disturbing. You might say I made a timely decision, but it was a personal one and I didn’t think I was leaving a sinking ship. Any university that shoots itself in the foot in this way will go on hobbling for a very long time.  Continue reading

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Paul Leduc In Memoriam

Latin American cinema has lost one of the foundational figures of the radical film movement which flourished fifty years ago, when the two avant-gardes, the aesthetic and the political – were conjoined. Paul Leduc, who died in Mexico City on October 21st at the age of 78, was the most maverick of filmmakers, in a continent that’s full of them. His public persona was reserved but in private he was far from austere, always an engaging conversationalist with an irreverent sense of humour. I shall miss our periodic meetings, sometimes over a meal in Mexico City, but I cannot now mourn his passing on a personal level without also lamenting his neglect in English-speaking circles. Even his great masterpiece, Frida, Naturaleza Viva (1984), is little known amongst us, and instead of Ofelia Medina’s magical personation of the painter, the screen image of Frida Kahlo is that of Salma Hayek in Julie Taymor’s far inferior biopic of nearly twenty years later.  Continue reading

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Reflections on Cuban Cinema

Reflections on Cuban cinema, in answer to questions from the Havana Glasgow Film Festival, ahead of this year’s festival which opens on November 10th with ‘Cuba: Living Between Hurricanes’. 


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On packing up my library

Walter Benjamin wrote his delightful talk ‘Unpacking my library’ when he recovered his books after two years in storage. I turn to re-read it as I prepare to pack up my own far less impressive library in readiness to move house. The reason for the move is that I’ve given up my job as a part-time professor, and the reason for that arises from the calamity of coronavirus, not directly on myself but on the university.  Continue reading

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“Some compare what’s coming with a category 5 hurricane.”

Jean Stubbs writes about virtual screenings of ‘Cuba: Living Between Hurricanes’ during the pandemic. Read it here:


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Going Viral: A Coronavirus Diary

Coronavirus brings globalisation into focus by forcing attention onto the different layers of interconnectedness in our twenty-first century world. As the virus spreads around the planet in waves, the pandemic impinges on different social and economic sectors each according to its own rhythm, throwing them out of joint one by one. The synchronisation which normally keeps the whole system running harmoniously breaks down. It is precisely at the moment the system breaks down that we realise how interconnected it is. What is normally hidden because, as we used to say, it functions like clockwork, is exposed. We discover that while our clocks are nowadays calibrated atomically, public time is not at all uniform but constituted by the superposition of many different tempos.

Free Associations 78, 2020

Read it here:

Chanan 334-1265-1-PB


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Cuba in times of coronavirus

In the face of coronavirus, Cuba is proving to be thoroughly humane, in stark and vivid contrast to the stance taken by the impeached president in the White House. Coronavirus was late reaching Cuba, where it arrived with Italian tourists, but, soon after it did so, Cuba nevertheless gave safe haven to a British cruise ship which other countries (including the US) had refused permission to dock because it was carrying several confirmed cases and numerous other passengers showing symptoms. (Those who could travel were quickly flown home, the others being treated in Cuba.) 

A few days later, a group of 37 Cuban doctors and 15 nurses arrived in Italy to lend support to the crisis of care, a moment caught in a strangely moving piece of video of the medics descending the aircraft steps and one by one elbow-touching the official who greets them. It almost looks like a scene from a sci-fi movie where social customs are subtly different; you start by smiling but then, as they also greet the camera with an elbow, a wave or just a look, it brings you back down to earth. (A single shot lasting a full two-and-a-half minutes, the effect is cumulative.)

Continue reading

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Remember six degrees of separation – the theory that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else by a maximum of six steps? Also known as the six handshakes rule. Welcome to the world of coronavirus. This morning a healthy young friend who was due to come round this week emailed to say he won’t. He is self-quarantining because a friend of his who stayed overnight had begun to show symptoms.

On Friday I attended a workshop at the University of Leicester, where numbers were slightly depleted by two or three non-arrivals due to understandable reluctance to travel from abroad; two of them gave their contributions via internet – is this how things will now shape up?

We are living in an accelerated world of multiple forms of connectedness, which feed off each other and borrow each other’s imaginaries. Computers become infected with viruses too. 

Phone conversations with fellow members of the elderly-at-risk category. We agree that travel on the tube is to be avoided.

The media are busy generating a whole series of imaginary scenarios, stretching from the scientific to the fictitious. There are plenty of models to draw from. It seems that in France, sales of Camus’ The Plague have risen sharply. Perhaps we should all be reading Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. But as Covid-19 gets closer, the feeling I have is of an impending disaster movie which is still in script stage, and with various options under consideration. Meanwhile the globalised world economy is already in serious trouble, and our idiot politicians don’t know which way to turn.

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