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

Making a video like Fundora's interpretation of Feliu's song is a complicated process, involving ingenuity, guts, and a network of accomplices located both abroad and at home. In Cuba Dalton has taught many of his younger colleagues the techniques of working without resources or creative freedom.

"It's important for people to know that these film- and videomakers survive not because they have state support, but through their own initiative," he emphasizes. "They create possibilities, because there are no possibilities. And as the situation gets more difficult, the role of these artists will get more difficult and a lot riskier. They are there because they've decided to fight.... They're going to stay in Cuba no matter what happens. In Cuba the question of being an independent film- or videomaker is nonexistent. To establish yourself as an independent entity isn't possible, and above all, doing work that is a little different than what the state is promoting is impossible. But you do have the possibility A if you create it for yourself A to do your own work. You can't tell anyone and you have to figure out how to get materials."

Materials can be obtained from overseas contacts, but using expired rolls of film or discarded snippets from official productions is more common. In fact, Manuel Marcel, the third director on the Miami-Dade film program, has made this an art in itself, a genre he calls "garbage cinema." Marcel draws on pieces of old film to create a sort of arte povera -- or improvised -- animation.

Although film stock is hard to find, the editing process can be even more daunting. The directors employed by state institutions can secretly edit their own work during the hours they are allotted each week for editing official productions. Or they can borrow editing time from colleagues.

"If I got five hours of editing time each week, I'd use maybe three hours myself, and then I'd give the other two to somebody who didn't have access to the facilities in a state institution," recalls Jose Luis Llanes.

A lot of this clandestine work goes on at the facilities of the International School of Cinema and Television in San Antonio de Los Banos. The school was created by a group of important Latin American filmmakers and intellectuals, with Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez playing a prominent role. This institution maintains a certain degree of autonomy because it is only partially funded by the government, but like everything else in Cuba it is now experiencing financial difficulties. Class size has dwindled from over a hundred to a few dozen students because of shortages and blackouts. But its opening in the late Eighties attracted a prestigious faculty of international film directors, as well as students from all over Latin America and Spain. Some of those students, from such countries as Chile and Argentina, already had experienced their own battles with repression, and they helped their Cuban friends discover the power of video as a tool for change.

"We found that film and video were more efficient as a subversive media than painting," explains Juan Enrique Gonzalez (known as Juan-Si), a dissident painter and performance artist who left Cuba in 1991. "You only film small parts at a time, so no one can see what you're doing until it's edited. Only three or four people know about it, and by then you've already made ten copies, so it's too late -- it can't be destroyed."

At one time the Cuban government made available a forum for young directors. A film and video festival called the Muestra de Audiovisuales was organized by the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz, the most liberal cultural association in Havana. Starting in 1988, it was held annually for five years. Although economic reasons were given for the cancellation of 1993's festival, there had been prior indications that the government had picked up on the subversive implications of what the artists were doing, and wanted to put a stop to it.

In 1991, videomakers Marco Antonio Abad and Jorge Crespo were sentenced to fifteen years in prison, charged with enemy propaganda and "contributing to the campaign to discredit...President Fidel Castro and the Cuban Socialist State." It marked the first case in which someone was sent to prison for possession of such material. The offensive homemade video, Un dia cualkiera (A Day Like Any Other), included images of Abad masturbating intercut with Castro orating. Gonzalez, who appeared in the tape naked and painted with the colors of the Cuban flag, smuggled a copy out of Cuba when he defected to Costa Rica months before Abad and Crespo were imprisoned (thereby escaping his own fifteen-year sentence). Gonzalez organized an international campaign to free his two colleagues. Letters were sent to Castro from a group of international directors that included Louis Malle, John Sayles, and Oliver Stone, and the two men were released after serving two years. Abad, now 30, and Crespo, 34, currently live in Miami.

"If the government can get these people to leave, it's better for [the government]," concludes Dalton. "When [the filmmakers] are there, they're a problem. When [officials] find out that they've left the country, they say, 'Good, we're free of that problem. This kid was going around making complicated little videos.'"

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