The Sleepless Screen: A Brief History of Cuban Cinema. (Features: Cuba)

By Rios, Alejandro | Hemisphere, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The Sleepless Screen: A Brief History of Cuban Cinema. (Features: Cuba)


Rios, Alejandro, Hemisphere


The Cuban passion for film traces back to the nineteenth century, specifically, Havana in 1897. That year brought the visit of Gabriel Veyre, a representative of the French studio Lumiere, who traveled to Cuba from Mexico to demonstrate the invention of the cinematograph. Havana then was a cosmopolitan city, enjoying the newest trends in modern life and entertainment, but surrounded on all sides by the fierce battle for Cuban independence.

Many circumstances have affected the development of the art of film in Cuba since. Somewhat artificially, historians have divided the evolution of Cuban cinema into three periods: silent, republican and revolutionary. The latter periods, the most important for this discussion, are characterized by paradox.

The revolutionary phase, which began in 1959 under the aegis of the Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry (ICAIC), sought a definitive break with the narrative forms that preceded it. ICAIC attempted to move away from the successful US model in favor of the experimental approach of the European vanguard. Pointedly left out was anything to do with the country's own past and traditions. No more rumbas, Virgins of Charity, or old-fashioned films like Casta de robles or Siete muertes a plazo fijo: It was time to wipe the slate clean and start all over again. The new films retold history in a different way and in support of a predetermined thesis. The nationalism of Marti was usurped by a Marxist internationalism. The Socialist bloc had added the pearl of the Antilles, en oasis of green in a gray system, annexed by force to Eastern Europe thanks to en enormous war effort by the new mother country.

But epic and experimental fervor was soon replaced by institutional caution. The ideological requirement was a heavy burden for films to bear. The first act of censorship, involving a documentary about Havana nightlife, cut short the honeymoon between artists and the powers that supplied them with their plots and a space for production.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, these same artists never dreamed that part of the rubble would fall on their heads. They have had to learn how to compete in a wider market through co-productions, mostly pedestrian comedies about local scamps and clueless foreigners and unredeemed by aesthetics or any deeper philosophy.

This could count as the revenge of the earlier protagonists of Cuban cinema. It wasn't until the 1980s that the late Hector Garcia Mesa, director of Cubas Cinemateca, had the courage to host a program of Cuban movies from before 1959 at a film archives congress in Havana. And in 1990, the Pompidou Center in Paris presented the largest retrospective of Cuban films ever shown outside the island. Organized by Brazilian researcher Paulo Antonio Paranagua, the program featured 16 pre-revolutionary productions.

Early Cuban Cinema

Scholarly interest has focused on salvaging this fragment of Cuban culture. El cine silente en Cuba, by Raul Rodriguez; La tienda negra. El cine en Cuba (1897-1990), by Maria Eulalia Douglas; and Guia critica del cine cubano de ficcion, by Juan Antonio Garcia Borrero, all owe a debt to Arturo Agramonte's earlier work, Cronologia del cine cubano, published in 1966.

Not much is known about the formative period of Cuban cinema. For the most part, only bits and pieces of silent films have survived, along with two complete works, including Ramon Peon's La Virgen de la Caridad. Numerous commentaries in the press of the time show that Cubans were very interested in the emerging art of film and the quest for balance between commercial and artistic considerations.

The first Cuban filmmakers, of whom the most original included Peon and Enrique Diaz Quesada, must have faced many challenges in beginning their careers in an entirely new field, with no established traditions or infrastructure. Why then is it so easy to criticize the films of the republican period, with their stereotypes, naiveties and rambling dialogue, while turning a blind eye to the kitsch, pretentiousness, dogmatism, paternalism and pedantry of so many ICAIC projects? …

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