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."

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.

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.

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.'"

This is Dalton's second visit to Miami. He plans to start work on a series of programs about social issues in El Salvador and other Central American countries in the fall. But he also is looking for backers for a documentary on the life of Cuban singer Beny More. He already has lined up the production team for that one -- old friends from the Cuban film and television industries now living here.

"I think that lately a group of people with common goals has arrived here. This helps create a situation in which in the near future some interesting things could happen here in the cultural realm," Dalton contends. "Miami's becoming the capital of Latin America, and I don't think culture can be left behind. We've just got to figure out how to go about it because economic difficulties are such an obstacle, but the young people who have come here are the ones who have the ability to find the possibility to do creative work.

"I'm sort of in the middle, because it's not as easy for me to live in Miami because my passport is Salvadoran," he continues. "And I don't want to live in El Salvador because there's not much culture A I've hardly lived there at all. I'm still going around the world spreading the word about the work that's being done in Cuba. And maybe that's my mission. More than showing my own work, what's interesting to me is to show that of other people who are still in Cuba. I think this can help to change the mentality that all of the Cubans who are in Cuba stay in Cuba because they're in favor of the regime, and that the possibility for everything they do has been granted by the regime. I think that to live in Cuba today means to survive. The people are surviving in Cuba in their everyday life and they're surviving when they try to carry out their creative work. Art is also a way to survive. Of course, some have incredible official support, which they take with their eyes closed. Those people have very specific interests, which come with their own risks. But certainly not everyone appeals to that sort of a solution. It's not the solution that I know."

Dalton turns back to the TV monitor and rewinds to a music video that Ernesto Fundora directed for rap artist Geraldo Alfonso. Color fades to black and white as Alfonso and a posse of musicians and dancers strut through the streets of Old Havana, coming to a rest in a junkyard.

"Maybe there's nobody left to give advice/Maybe they're hungry like all the rest," Alfonso shouts accusingly in Spanish. His voice softens as he sings the song's melodious chorus. "I don't know why they keep fooling themselves/What can I do now?/Survive/Keep going/Survive/Keep going."

Coopere con el artista Cubano, a screening of short films and videos by young directors, takes place at 7:30 p.m. Friday (tomorrow) and Saturday at Miami-Dade Wolfson campus auditorium, 300 NE 2nd Ave, 237-7482. Admission is free.

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