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

Los inundados, which later included co-workers Jorge Trinchet and Ivan Oms, began with a series called Ojo (Eye). The first episode was a tour through Havana's shopping district, telling the story of the city through the articles (or lack of them) on display in store windows. That inaugural show was broadcast on schedule, but the second episode, a critical look at the state of theater in Cuba, was censored. Station heads did not permit the team to complete filming a third program, which set out to explore once-splendid buildings in Havana that are now abandoned and crumbling.

"We didn't even get to the editing room on that one," recalls Llanes, who has lived in Miami Beach for the last year. "They'd just say, 'It's not the right time for that, the subject isn't right just now.' They'd censor the programs immediately because of their themes, and because it was a popular program that they knew reached a lot of people. Television in Cuba is a medium of propaganda for the party, and anything else is secondary and susceptible to whether it's approved or not."

One program that made it on the air was a short documentary Dalton made in 1990, the story of American cars in Havana. Si vivo cien a*os, cien a*os pienso en ti (If I Live a Hundred Years, a Hundred Years I Think of You) starts with a flashy commercial for Buick's 1957 models. Using a technique similar to the one he employed to tell the story of Los Zafiros, Dalton cuts to the present, to the same cars, now rusted and weary, in their current role as gypsy cabs in Havana. The taxi drivers, whose survival depends on these cars, talk about the vehicles' present incarnations as transport trucks and moving vans. They also explain how their alternative taxis have been "Cubanized" over the years, the cars' American parts replaced little by little with whatever could be scrounged up. Dalton has edited in footage of the ostentatious auto shows in which the cars originally were offered to the Cuban public. He found the prerevolutionary clips stored in the house of an elderly man who used to make commercials for the Havana branch of a U.S. advertising agency.

Dalton chose a quote by the Cuban poet Eliseo Diego as the film's preface: "The important thing is not to not forget, but to know how to remember."

"The visual memory of Cuba has been put away in archives and it's become taboo," says the director, talking loudly over a hysterical moment of Family Feud that comes on-screen as he fast-forwards through a tape. "There's been a lot of prejudice toward this cultural history of Cuba. There's this belief that everything that came after 1959 is valid, and of everything that came before 1959, very few things are valid."

Santiago Feliu, a stringy-haired apocalyptic bard in a stained satin bathrobe, strolls down a dirty apartment hallway brandishing his guitar. His band members, in soiled vintage clothes set off by bare flesh, are playing in a nearby bedroom. A neo-baroque barrage of scenes flashes by as Feliu sings: A girl wrapped only in the Cuban flag beckons provocatively; an obese woman climbs into a bathtub full of blood; a couple copulates fiercely on a bare mattress; the singer hangs himself; the members of the band take turns laying inside a coffin. Urban streets, movie scenes, and Castro's face float by on a screen on the bedroom wall.

Ernesto Fundora's video of Feliu's song "bs. as. Muerte del '92" ("bs. as. Death of '92") is stylishly edited, with the studied decadence frequently seen on MTV. Although technically it rivals clips shown on the music network, it is doubtful that an uncut version of "bs. as. Muerte del '92" ever would make it into rotation. The video's rebellious, self-consciously messy aesthetic is typical of Nineties alternative rock, but its emotion goes beyond mere teenage histrionics. Made surreptitiously by conspiring friends in an apartment in Havana, Fundora's video reeks of a society's rot. Next to Feliu, Soundgarden's Chris Cornell looks about as grungy as Jerry Seinfeld.

Of course, Fundora's video cannot be shown openly in Cuba, although copies of it have circulated among a certain artsy Havana crowd. (It can been seen Saturday at Miami-Dade.) But other works directed by the 27-year-old Fundora are broadcast on Cuban television. He often is asked to make videos for popular groups who record on the state's Egrem and Art Color labels. These are festive dance productions that feature luscious babes wearing short dresses and flawless makeup, filmed in discos that in real life are the province of tourists and teenage prostitutes. The quality of these videos is as good as -- or better than -- most salsa videos made with much bigger budgets in Miami. In fact, they look as if they were shot in Miami. The fancy clothes and gleaming cars are more likely to be found on Ocean Drive than the Malecon, Havana's oceanside avenue.

The differences between Fundora's officially sanctioned works (with their overtly capitalistic production values) and his underground videos (with their decadent settings and dissident messages) provide drastic, visual evidence of his double life as a filmmaker.

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