Shadow Plays

Full of dark truths, new Cuban films and videos raise the shades on the island's past, illuminate its present, and -- maybe -- predict its future

In the early Sixties, in the spring of the Cuban revolution, five slim young black men who wore sharkskin suits and sang like Smokey Robinson were all the rage. Friends from a Havana neighborhood with no professional musical experience and not much else to do, they formed a finger-snapping group of suave crooners, calling themselves Los Zafiros (the Sapphires). Like a Latin version of the Platters, they sang soft harmonies in Spanish while sashaying to a rumba beat. Women swooned. Los Zafiros were a sensation on Cuban television, and in 1965 the quintet toured Europe, with stops in Warsaw, Berlin, and Paris, where they performed at the Olympia Theatre a week after the Beatles appeared on the same stage.

After their return to Cuba, the group was banned from television for reasons that were never fully explained. Things got worse. One of the young singers died suddenly, and the next year another became ill and he, too, passed away. The three remaining members were devastated by the loss, and Los Zafiros never were heard from again.

In 1992, Jorge Dalton, a filmmaker who at the time worked for Cuban television, met Eduardo Hernandez (known as "El chino" -- "the Chinaman" A because of his Asian-like eyes), one of the surviving Los Zafiros. Both the director and the former singer were living in Cayo Hueso, a neighborhood in Old Havana where many of Cuba's great musicians were born. Today Cayo Hueso is one of the city's most run-down barrios, the setting for recent violent anti-Castro demonstrations that were captured on video and broadcast repeatedly on Miami's evening news shows.

Herido de sombras (Wounded by Shadows), a 26-minute documentary about Los Zafiros that Dalton completed earlier this year, begins with a montage of Sixties footage: shots of Carnaval in the streets of Havana; big, shiny American cars; artist Wilfredo Lam in his studio; stores stocked with books; socialist-realist murals; and a storm of slogans ("A Child Who Does Not Study Is Not a Good Revolutionary"). Cut to the present: A bony man with a cast on his arm walking down a street named Soledad (Solitude), where people are standing around talking or just looking tired. Then cut to the man, Eduardo Hernandez, telling the story of Los Zafiros as he sits in an armchair in his spare, ground-level apartment. The film flashes back to the group's television appearances, the kind of staged, choreographed performances that were, in a sense, early forms of music videos. In one high-kitsch clip members of the group sing through the telephone to a beehived teen queen, who lays sighing on the bed of her French colonial room. Dalton found this material in the Cuban national film archives, along with standard concert footage of Los Zafiros that he also included in his documentary.

The images of Los Zafiros's young, handsome faces are bittersweetly juxtaposed with those of this gentle man, old beyond his 50-odd years, his hair dull and matted, his glasses bottle-thick. During one of their off-camera interviews, Hernandez told Dalton that he didn't remember how to sing any more; even his speaking voice became labored after he suffered a heart attack. In the film he is sometimes unintelligible to the extent that the director felt compelled to add Spanish subtitles. In the last scene when the retired performer gamely lip-synchs to a Los Zafiros tape, gesturing grandly, and starts tracing the dance steps of his old routines, it is both hilarious and heartbreaking.

Herido de sombras was edited this year in Mexico while Dalton was teaching film and video production at the University of Guadalajara. The half-hour film was scheduled to be shown at the Havana Film Festival this fall. That's up in the air now. Dalton is currently in Miami. So is Pepe Orta, former director of the festival, who had selected Herido de sombras for exhibition. "I completed the film program before I left," says Orta, who quit the festival and Havana in June when he defected to Miami while on a business trip. "But who knows what they're going to do with it."

The documentary will be shown tomorrow (Friday) at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson campus auditorium, part of a two-evening program of short films and music videos by Dalton and two young directors still working in Cuba, Ernesto Fundora and Manuel Marcel. This trio is part of a small group of filmmakers who in the mid-1980s began to challenge Cuba's official visual language with alternative -- often polemical -- ways of seeing.

"I think it's important that people know that the artistic avant-garde in Cuba does not only include visual art," asserts Alejandro Rios, who organized the screenings at Miami-Dade. The films and videos will be presented in Spanish without subtitles, but most have only a minimum of dialogue. An art critic who emigrated from Cuba to Miami two years ago, Rios also put together last year's extensive festival of work by young Cuban film- and video-makers, some of whom now also live in Miami. "The work of these artists has been one of the only ways in which the contemporary reality in Cuba has been recorded," he stresses. "In this case a picture really is worth a thousand words."

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