Cuba in Aberystwyth

Welsh hills covered in snow as the train snakes across country on the way back from Aberystwyth. Went there for a symposium on Cuban cinema, with scholars and filmmakers over from Havana, and other participants mainly based in UK universities; although these were not necessarily Brits, because after all, the academic world is thoroughly international. Indeed our intellectual culture (such as it is) benefits enormously from the attraction that Britain seems to have for scholars from all over the world (which becomes a problem when a Government starts playing political games with student visas).

However, academia is carved up by language barriers, so that most study of Latin American cinemas in the UK goes on in language departments rather than mainstream film studies; and although academic life thrives on small group face-to-face exchange, like this symposium (ably convened by Guy Baron), this fragmentation can still be frustrating, especially when the particular cinema under discussion is also itself marginalised. Yet Cuban cinema has continued, against the odds, to produce striking films that articulate the country’s changing social climate, and independent video production is expanding across the board, from small scale experimental work to feature production, which is no longer concentrated exclusively in the hands of the state film institute, ICAIC.

There is no film studies as such in Cuban universities; the Cuban scholars attending are cultural historians from the University of Havana, along with two filmmakers, Gerardo Chijona, and Juan Carlos Cremata, who belong to the second and third generations of Cuban directors respectively: Chijona, a ten-year-old when the Revolution took place, joined the ICAIC in the 1970s, and followed the institute’s regular pattern of serving an apprenticeship in newsreel and documentary before moving on to features. Cremata is a child of the Revolution, born in 1961, who began his career in theatre and then studied film at the international film school, EICTV, at San Antonio de los Baños.

Both have had to adapt to the new conditions brought on by Cuba’s near economic collapse after the fall of the Soviet Union, in which film directors have been obliged to learn how to leverage foreign funding, and yet make films which the audience at home can still recognise and value as authentically Cuban—too many co-productions suffer from scripts designed to feature an actor from Spain or wherever, or satisfy the co-producer’s requirement for exoticism. It isn’t easy, and setting up a production takes a long time, and neither of these directors has a large output. Both have taken part in script workshops at Sundance, and both brought films to Aberystwyth which are strongly rooted in Cuban society and imagination. But the two films are as different as could be. Chijona’s Boleto el paraíso (Ticket to Paradise, 2011) is a dark and tragic story of Cuban ‘freakies’, or punks, set in 1993, and the ravages of AIDS. Cremona’s Viva Cuba, which took the Cannes Children’s Film Prize in 2005, is a comedy in the shape of a children’s Romeo and Juliet, who run away from home to avoid being separated when the girl’s mother decides to leave Cuba. Both films are miles away from the kinds of subject matter that typified Cuban cinema in its revolutionary heyday.

Boleto el paraíso secured funding from Ibermedia; Viva Cuba had a French co-producer (Cremata recounted wryly how he had to fight with them over the music, when he discovered that they didn’t know the difference between Andean pipes and a Cuban conjunto). Chijona remarked that the destination of the film as far as the coproducer was concerned was invariably television. This is what determines the meagre budgets they offer. It also explains why these films rarely get seen here in the UK: because they don’t get cinema distribution without a television sale, and television here has stopped showing subtitled movies, even late night, almost completely; and without that they’re unlikely to get out on DVD either.

The symposium ranged across contemporary Cuban film culture, covering topics like the character of the national audience, history and memory, digital film-making, different musics, and more. Apologies for not mentioning everyone by name (the abstracts are here) but only speak about the contributions of the Cuban guests. These held special interest as the perspective of historians, looking at the representation on the screen of a history in which they are situated themselves, and for which they have their own construct, reading Cuban films as historical narratives, whether the subject belongs to the past or the contemporary moment—because cinema has this double capacity of on the one hand, bringing history alive, and on the other, historicising the present. Edelberto Leiva Lajara spoke of the problematic of folkloric and religious imagery in a number of key films of historical reconstruction, a subject matter where official attitudes have evolved considerably. Oscar Loyola Vega’s paper, ‘Six Characters in Search of a Director’, noting that the biopic is not a characteristic genre of Cuban cinema, asked about the biographical treatment, or its absence, of a number of key figures in Cuban history. Antonio Álvarez Pitaluga asked a question that was on everybody’s lips — where to situate recent Cuban cinema in the space between historical continuity and rupture.

Cremata spoke of the feeling of living in a state of permanent crisis as the background of everyday life in Cuba for over twenty years (which is now also becoming the common experience in the capitalist metropolis). But the Cuban condition also has another dimension, that of permanent transition, an always unfinished process of unsettling change. The shifting pattern of film and video creation is evidence of the changes that have already taken place, but ever a country of paradox, the expanding video scene is cut off from effective internet access, and they have to find roundabout means to get their work posted on the web. There was an amusing moment, in a session which I shared with the two Cubans, where I was showing on the screen how the web now serves as a crucial tool for an independent documentarist like myself, and to demonstrate, I did searches for both the films of theirs we’d just watched. Up came pages of video clips, trailers, and even complete copies of the films online. For a moment, they were both open-mouthed in surprise at what they saw. Neither had any idea all this stuff was there.


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