Forget literary allusions to magical realism, psychoanalyses of Fidel Castro, or policy studies assembled from the comforts of a plush Coral Gables office. If you really want to understand the arts world in Cuba, simply consult the lyrics of The Rocky Horror Picture Show's theme song: "It's just a jump to the left -- and then a step to the right." Creating meaningful art in Cuba today, particularly for filmmakers, requires navigating not only the ever-shifting, often ambiguous official orthodoxies, but also carefully fording the waters of international finance now crucial for funding such projects. The end result is the curious sight of Cuba's most talented directors dancing as fast as they can -- feinting to their ideological left, then weaving to their right -- all in the hopes of realizing their individual visions.
Such a spectacle played itself out in the weeks leading up to the FIU Miami Film Festival's presentation of Cuban director Fernando Perez's Life Is to Whistle. Although much was made in South Florida's media of the film being the first island-produced feature ever to run in the festival's seventeen-year history, Life Is to Whistle carried an equal amount of symbolic baggage back in Havana, where for many it had come to represent the very future of Cuban cinema itself.
The 1996 death of famed auteur Tomas Gutierrez Alea seemingly left the world of Cuban film in a state of crisis. Gutierrez Alea's Strawberry and Chocolate and Guantanamera! had put Cuba back on the international cineaste map, landing high-profile American distribution, wowing critics, faring well at the box office, and in the case of Strawberry, even earning an Oscar nomination. Yet with Gutierrez Alea's passing, no figure seemed prepared to carry on his aesthetic torch, a point dramatically underscored when the 1996 Havana Film Festival failed to present even one homegrown feature-length production. The problems ran much deeper than a case of mass writers' block.
"The pressures aren't only political; they're economic as well," explains director Javier Echeverria, who helped finance his most recent documentary, To Be or Not to Be Eduardo, by selling off much of his furniture. "You can't rent a camera for $300 when you only make $20 a month. It's economic censorship." The solution seemed to lie with foreign investment, particularly with eager production firms in Spain. Although Echeverria currently is applying for political asylum in Miami, several of his colleagues are still attempting to finesse such unions. He adds, "You have to negotiate a lot of the content when working with both Spain and Cuba, but it's a little door you can open."
Such was the backdrop to Life Is to Whistle, a coproduction of the ICAIC (Cuba's film institute) and Spain's Wanda Distribution, further boosted by a $150,000 grant from Robert Redford's Sundance Institute. Yet even with such backing, Perez was forced to be a hands-on director in the most literal sense: A Swiss video documentary titled Life Is to Film captures Perez in action, revealing set conditions to be more akin to indieland than Hollywood. We see Perez dashing out from behind the camera to help erect teetering platforms, move cranes, or push props into position. A shot involving a taxi cab plowing into a fruit stand becomes just that: With no money for stunt doubles or computerized special effects, a car is simply driven headlong into a fruit stand, actors onboard and all.
The film's content was just as raw. Audiences at its premiere at the Havana Film Festival in December 1998 may have been expecting a veiled critique of present-day Cuban society. What they got instead was an avalanche of metaphors that are anything but subtle: A psychologist runs into the street hollering phrases such as "opportunism!", "false morality!", and "freedom!", with passersby fainting because "they fear to face the truth." The film's response to this notion isn't to suggest internal reform. Rather, it presents one character crying out for his mother (coincidentally named Cuba), who abandoned him when her dreams of his maturing into a "better man" (i.e., Che Guevara 's vision of socialism's New Man) were dashed by reality. His eventual conclusion? Emigration. Elsewhere a cabbie stares glumly at three snails -- an obvious stand-in for gusanos, Castro's bitter denegration of Miami exiles as worms -- and observes that they're living in a state of perfection. Since snails carry their shell-homes with them, "they're the only creatures who could live abroad without being homesick." By the time Perez closes the picture with a brief image of a man carrying an inner tube-cum-raft, it's almost overkill.
Government officials seemed unsure of what to make of all this, particularly considering Perez's credentials as a solid leftist and his many years of work within the ICAIC; a scathing review in Granma, the Communist Party's official paper, clearly revealed discomfort in several quarters. Still, buoyed by firm support from other figures, Life Is to Whistle grew legs, and this past January Perez jetted to Spain to accept that nation's prestigious Goya award for Best Foreign Film. From there it was on to India, where Life opened that country's film festival, and Perez spoke warmly to a New Delhi reporter of proudly carrying on Gutierrez Alea's work. New Yorker Films agreed. Following Sundance that distribution house (the premier independent outlet for foreign films seeking to find their way into American art houses) picked up the film, clearly hoping to capitalize on the post-Buena Vista Social Club resurgence of Cubanophilia.
Then, in early February, Perez disappeared from public view. Trips to present his film in Portland, Oregon, and here at the Miami Film Festival suddenly were scratched, and the interviews New Yorker Films was hoping would prime the American market were cancelled. Perez himself refused any foreign contact, sending only cryptic notes through third parties. The official word was that he was tending to a sick family member, but a source in Havana cited more sinister reasons for the director's lowered profile: Once again the political winds had shifted, with government officials now deciding Life Is to Whistle was an embarrassment to the regime.
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Such flip-flops are hardly rare. Alea's Strawberry and Chocolate may for the moment be viewed as a classic, but it was harshly condemned by several government figures while in production. Pepe Horta, ex-Havana Film Festival head and currently the Café Nostalgia maestro, asserted his championing of Strawberry was a major factor in the state harassment that eventually led him to move to Miami. Upon the film's actual release, however, it was widely lauded throughout Cuba. Then, during a televised eight-hour marathon speech in March 1998, Castro lambasted the ICAIC's head, Alfredo Guevara, for ever allowing such an insidiously "counterrevolutionary" film to be made. Yet only a year later, during an interview with New Times, Cuban Minister of Culture Abel Prieto would hold Strawberry aloft as proof the system there could not only tolerate, but celebrate self-criticism. Even in death it seems, Cuba's filmmakers are still being forced to zigzag right, then left again.
The decision of Miami-Dade officials to cite the county's trade embargo against Cuba and pull $50,000 in funding from the Miami Film Festival if it showed Life Is to Whistle is simply the latest dance step in this comical cycle. Local television news broadcasters dutifully played their part, breathlessly predicting throngs of Cuban exiles picketing the Gusman. On the night in question, however, not a single protester turned up for the sold-out screening. Perhaps el exilio sensed the irony in decrying a work now coming under fire for its suspect politics back in Havana, or perhaps, as one on-site policeman suggested to Kulchur, they were otherwise preoccupied over on South Beach, attending Ocean Drive's model-clogged Volleypalooza shindig.
In fact the only altercation of that entire evening occurred during the subsequent screening that night of the Danish film Mifune. As the picture unspooled, one woman chose to ignore the directive to turn off all cell phones. Instead she answered a call and began blithely chatting away. No doubt inspired by the day's earlier milieu of Cubanismo, a gentleman sitting nearby made a grab for the woman's phone, evidently intending his own guerrilla action. What followed was a flurry of blows between the two: she wielding her phone and a mean open-palmed left hook, he utilizing what one onlooker described as a tub of popcorn. During the screams, calls for the police, and general pandemonium that followed, it was hard not to wonder if Miami wasn't witnessing the opening salvo of an altogether new moral struggle.
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