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

These subjective images of contemporary Cuba, captured by young Cubans, are particularly revealing for Miami audiences, whose picture of the island often alternates between alarming news photographs and nostalgic ruminations. In Havana, American movies have been shown continuously since the revolution, and pirate antennas can pick up Miami's many cable TV stations. But while the United States that some Cubans dream of reaching is one fabricated by Hollywood, many Americans' picture of Cuba has remained the same for over 30 years. The steamy tropical paradise depicted in the 1941 musical Week-end in Havana with Carmen Miranda is still put forth in such films as Havana, the 1990 critical and box-office flop that starred Robert Redford and Lena Olin, and adaptions of Ernest Hemingway novels such as 1977's Islands in the Stream. There has been little visual material with which to replace these obsolete stereotypes.

"Here in Miami, I've met older people who say to me, 'But what do you mean you work in television? In Cuba there's no television,'" Dalton says with a sigh. The 33-year-old filmmaker, the son of the late revolutionary Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton, grew up in Cuba from the age of seven. (Roque Dalton had been imprisoned in El Salvador, and in 1960 was sentenced to death for his leftist views. However, he was freed when the dictator-of-the-moment was toppled only four days before the order was to be carried out. The family went into exile in 1965, living in Mexico and Czechoslovakia before settling in Cuba in 1967. The poet returned to his homeland to fight in the civil war, and was assassinated in 1975 by a member of a militant faction of his own left-wing political organization, the Ejercito revolucionario del pueblo.)

Jorge Dalton is a short, compact man with dark eyes, straight black hair, and a long nose, all characteristic of his Central American ancestry. But his accent, gestures, and his culture are Caribbean, and he considers himself Cuban. Dalton started working for the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT) in 1986. He is best known in Cuba as the creator of A capella, an innovative music-video program.

"They [people here] say, 'With Fidel Castro, there's no art, there's no music,'" Dalton laments. "Existing fallacies like these have to be discarded, because that has not been the case."

Since the Sixties, television has been an active participant in world history, making politics a media event. And as much as Vietnam was a televised war, Castro's reign has been a televised regime. The revolution has used TV as an important propaganda tool, creating a media nation dominated by el comandante's talking head.

Even while staple commodities are scarce and luxuries nonexistent for the average Cuban, TVs are common in homes, mostly old black-and-white Motorolas, the Russian Rubin 206 model, and the national Caribe sets (made with Soviet parts) awarded as incentives for industrious workers in the country's better economic days of the Sixties and Seventies. ("In Cuba, the cupboards may be bare, but there's always a TV," Dalton claims.) Fidel's intrusive presence on the two state television channels -- he appears on them simultaneously -- is so frequent that members of his captive audience often jokingly refer to him as "the test pattern."

Part of the generation that grew up with the revolution, Dalton and his contemporaries have questioned the cinematic status quo in a significant way. In documentaries with a critical edge, video art, allegorical music videos, and frankly dissident works made secretly with camcorders, they have been the first filmmakers to challenge the manner in which history has been represented in Castro's Cuba. This has been largely an underground effort, because the government's most frequent response to alternative points of view is censorship.

Dalton, whose work for Cuban television was censored on numerous occasions, still managed to work within the system while exploring what previously had been considered forbidden territory.

"I've specialized in the social theme of rescuing lost subjects that haven't been touched in Cuba in a long time," Dalton explains as he loads a video into the VCR at a friend's Miami Beach apartment, where he's been staying since he arrived here a few weeks ago. "For example, finding out what's happened to people who were once important but who have been forgotten, people who there's no interest in remembering. It's a reflection of the alternative culture that exists in Cuba. These are things that are part of our culture, and there's no reason why they should be abandoned. There's no reason why they should have been thrown aside."

Dalton's interest in Cuba's past was shared by two friends who also started working for the ICRT in the mid-Eighties: Jose Luis Llanes, a director and actor in experimental theater in Miami, and Camilo Hernandez, who currently lives in Venezuela. They formed a production team called El taller de los inundados, adopting the title of a film by Fernando Birri, an Argentine director who had worked in Cuba and served as a mentor to the young filmmakers. Because los inundados means "the flooded ones," the name was cryptic enough to keep people guessing about its meaning. And the fact that they had formed what was in essence (if not in reality) an independent production company within the state-run network was sufficient reason to put officials on guard.

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