By Mike Gonzalez
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Imperfect Cinema

This article is over 11 years, 10 months old
Death of a Bureaucrat, directed in Cuba by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, opens on a factory where a worker creating busts of José Marti (leader of the Cuban independence struggle of the 1890s and icon of the 1959 Revolution) is killed in an accident. The last bust to emerge is the worker himself.
Issue 351

What follows is an extremely funny and pointed film about the inflexibility of bureaucracy. After his burial his son realises that his identity card has gone to the grave with him. Without it, his widow cannot collect her pension. But getting the body disinterred proves to be a nightmare of paperwork and permits. It is a satire, of course, and representative of a deeply creative moment in the culture of post-revolutionary Cuba.

The new “Viva Cuba Collection” of seven DVDs (RRP £30) brings together some of the best products of Cuba’s golden age of post-revolutionary cinema. It was a time of creative freedom that would be more restrained and controlled as the 1960s came to an end.

Although some 80 feature films were produced in Cuba before the 1959 Revolution, they were almost entirely light commercial films linked to the entertainment and sex industries that were Cuba’s main source of foreign earnings after sugar. Fidel Castro was quick to recognise, however, the importance of cinema in promoting and consolidating the revolution. In 1960 a short film about Havana’s night life, PM, was banned on the grounds that it showed a corrupt and decadent world that did not reflect the new reality. A new cinema institute was formed to create a revolutionary cinema.

In 1964 the newsreels of Santiago Álvarez began to be shown. Among them was Now, about the black civil rights movement in the US. His films were fast, urgent montages of photographs, fragments of film, speeches and testimonies set to a background of contemporary music.

Juan García Espinosa, the first director of the Cuban Film Institute, made Las Aventuras de Juan Quin Quin in 1967. This, in his own words, was “imperfect cinema” – authentic, experimental and popular cinema. Juan Quin Quin is a kind of poor man’s Don Quixote, moving cheerfully around Cuban society with a mix of insolence and wisdom. It is a celebration of a Cuba that until then had never appeared on cinema screens.

Los Doce Sillas (The Twelve Chairs), made by Gutiérrez Alea in 1962, is a farce in which a dying wealthy woman whispers that she has concealed her diamonds in one of 12 chairs. It is not hard to imagine what follows.

The first generation of revolutionary filmmakers were trained in Italy in the neo-realism that produced masterpieces like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. They knew and admired the French New Wave as well as British post-war cinema. Most importantly perhaps, especially in the case of Álvarez, was their enthusiasm for early Soviet filmmakers like Eisenstein and the Vertovs.

Like them, Gutiérrez Alea and García Espinosa were irreverent and satirical. Revolution, in this first decade, meant creative freedom – “Within the revolution, everything,” as Fidel Castro put it in 1961.

But just as it did in the Russia of 1917, the artistic atmosphere changed radically at the end of the first decade. In 1971 a cultural congress set out rules and limitations on artists and their work. In all aspects of culture, the next 20 years or so were conservative and cautious, avoiding the arguments that the early films encouraged.

Humberto Solás has three historical films in the collection. Cecilia, based on Cuba’s most famous 19th century anti-slavery novel Cecilia Valdés; Amada (Beloved), a love story set in Havana in the early 20th century; and Un Hombre de Exito (A Successful Man), which unfolds against the background of the Spanish Civil War.

In the 1990s Cuban cinema began to recover its critical spirit. Alea’s Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) (1993) was at best a very cautious questioning of Cuba’s oppression of gays. He had made a much harder critical film, Conducta Impropia (Improper Conduct), in the late 1980s, which was never shown. But his last film, Guantanamera, made in 1995, returned to the theme of suffocating bureaucracy with wit and insight.

As in every area of culture, film suffered from a state control which saw art only as propaganda and ideology, and not as liberation of the creative spirit. Yet as García Espinosa wrote in 1970, revolutionary filmmakers should “demystify cinema for the entire population; work, in a way, against our own power; reveal all the tricks, all the recourses of language and dismantle all the mechanisms of cinematic hypnosis”.

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