Spectacle and Revolution: Cuba’s “Imperfect Cinema”

Age of Revolutions is happy to present its “Art of Revolution” series. You can read through the entire series here as they become available.

By Éric Morales-Franceschini

In the essay, “Socialism and Man in Cuba” (1965), Ernesto “Che” Guevara insisted that the Cuban Revolution could not thrive solely on economic or juridical reforms; so, too, was it necessary to cultivate a new consciousness and ethos in its citizenry, one that embraced solidarity, vigilance, sacrifice, and a robust work ethic.[i]  To that end, the revolutionary government would reform the educational system to one that was universally accessible and in which technical skills, Marxist social science, and civic service were stressed.  The other key was the arts. 

And so it was that new arts emerged to emotively arouse and ideologically arm the people in their historic struggle to create a sovereign and more socially just Cuba.  This included nueva trova music, with its folksy acoustics and poetic lyrics; nuevo teatro or, especially, the Escambray theater, with its open-ended scripts that called on audiences to formulate solutions; and the “testimonial novel,” with an emphasis on oral history and the subaltern subject.[2]

Arguably, however, the most critically acclaimed and influential was Cuba’s “imperfect cinema”—let alone its accompanying poster art.  As part of the Third Cinema movement, Cuba’s was a cinema that defined itself against not just Hollywood cinema (First Cinema), with its cult of the celebrity and escapist fantasy, but also auteur or art-house cinema (Second Cinema), with its clever mockery of the bourgeoisie but a notoriously unintelligible, if not elitist, aesthetic. Third Cinema was to be a cinema that dignified the dispossessed and elucidated revolutionary possibilities.[3]

Julio García Espinosa’s “For an imperfect cinema” (1969) was tantamount to the manifesto for Cuba’s new cinema.  Against the technically polished aesthetic of Hollywood, Cuban filmmakers would embrace their poorer quality sound and visual aesthetic as a more authentic cinema, one attuned to the lives and needs of the rebellious Third World.  An “imperfect” cinema was, thereby, an “interested” cinema.  It could not afford the luxury of art for art’s sake.  A truly “perfect” cinema was that which was made by the people and for the sake of sheer aesthetic enjoyment.  Cuba’s cinema would, however, have to be politically invested, a cinema that enlisted the masses in the revolutionary project and hoped to see, eventually, the “artist” and “art” (like the “capitalist” or even the “worker”) wither away into anachronisms.  As García Espinosa said, “Art will not disappear into nothingness; it will disappear into everything”—the communist utopia, that is, of comrades who aren’t workers or artists inasmuch as freely associated humans who work and create.[4]

How this would play out in the interim was less clear and subject to improvisation as much as disagreements and controversy.  It was no secret that cinema (like television) was a strategically vital industry, not least for its capacity to reach mass audiences.  Indeed, within very short order a Cuban Film Institute (known by the initials ICAIC) was created (March 1959).  But what cultural policy would orient the Revolution’s arts was, at best, ambiguous.  Fidel Castro’s discourses at the José Martí National Library in 1961, Words to the Intellectuals, could be read more or less permissively.  Was it that the State would tolerate artistic freedom insofar as it did not callously slander the Revolution, or that the State expected all art to be militantly committed to the Revolution?  Either way, if “constructive criticism” was welcomed and “artistic freedom” to be tolerated, it was left to functionaries and Party cadre to interpret whether an artist or artifact met such criteria—and whether, accordingly, they would be rewarded or censored.[5]

That said, as Michael Chanan has pointed out, ICAIC was administered by filmmakers and enjoyed relative autonomy to create works that did not amount to crude propaganda.  Drawing on a variety of resources—from Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and Italian neorealist Federico Fellini to French New Wave and Brazilian Cinema Novo—Cubans put forth “an exhilarating and infectious experimentalist challenge to the hegemony of the culture industry headquartered in Hollywood.”[6]

At first, it was documentary shorts and newsreels that predominated.  Reality and world affairs were themselves so rich that, in a sense, it sufficed to bear witness to the euphoria and hope of contemporary events.  In the hands of Santiago Álvarez, though, such documentary shorts and newsreels took on an avant-garde aesthetic.  Relying heavily on montage, syncopated sound and music, and agitprop-style imagery, Álvarez’s works were as zany and irreverent as they were pedagogical.  Unapologetically anti-imperialist, his works celebrated emancipatory struggles like Black Power in the United States (Now, 1965), Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam (79 Primaveras, 1969), and Allende’s Chile (De América soy hijo y a ella me debo, 1972), among others.  

Within due course, feature-length (fictional) films started to appear.  One of the early trends was to look back to Cuba’s past and rewrite its history—and, thereby, its national identity.  No longer would it identify as a “republic” of enlightened (white male) liberals and bourgeois institutions inasmuch as heir to Black liberation soldiers (mambises), populist workers, and rebellious women.  Directed by Manuel Octavio Gómez, La primera carga al machete (The First Machete Charge, 1968) looked to the onset of the nation’s wars for independence in 1868 and its multiracial coalition for a Cuba Libre (Free Cuba).  Albeit set in 1868, the film’s anachronistic use of an off-camera interviewer, on-site sound, and hand-held cameras all brilliantly rendered the past and present synonymous, with a similar call to defend the nation’s sovereignty.  

Film poster for "First Charge of the Machete" featuring a hand holding the hilt of a machete.
French film poster for “The First Machete Charge.” Source: dvdplanetstore.dk.

More ambitious was Humberto Solás’ Lucía (1968), which retells the nation’s epic history via a woman’s gaze.  Composed of three “episodes,” each set at a key historic moment (1895, 1933, and 196?) and each focused on a protagonist named Lucía, the film articulates the longue durée of Cuba’s fight for liberation.  Noteworthy is the fact that each episode has its own aesthetic (i.e. baroque, melodramatic, tragi-comical), that Lucía’s class and racial identities “evolve” (i.e. from white aristocrat to mulatta campesina), and that the Revolution is not depicted as a consummated utopia, but a work-fitfully-in-progress.  

One of few Black Cuban filmmakers, Sergio Giral’s trilogy—The Other Francisco (1974), Rancheador (1977), and Maluala (1979)—de- and re-constructed the nation’s rebellious history as indebted to enslaved and marooned Africans.  Based on an abolitionist novel, The Other Francisco was particularly celebrated for its hybrid docudrama-style, wherein fiction, reenactments, and a narrator immersed in sociological analysis all amount to a viewing experience as moving as it is informative.  While set in the past, such films were in dialogue with Cuba’s racial justice campaigns, both on and off the island (not least Angola), but they also were symptomatic of a tendency to not talk about contemporary racism in Cuba—as if socialist reforms had eradicated subtler forms of anti-black racism still existent in school curriculums, media portrayals, and the workplace.[7]

Other works did take on contemporary issues, however.  Sara Gómez, a rare Cuban woman filmmaker, directed De cierta manera (One Way or Another, 1974), an exceptionally nuanced look at petite bourgeois and male chauvinist prejudices as well as lumpen proletariat dispositions that defy the Revolution’s values and stymy its progress.  The film is likewise a hybrid docudrama, which via a didactic narrator, real life actors, and a love story dramatizes the difficulties of leaving behind the vices of “marginality” (i.e. hustling, individualism, absenteeism, truancy, promiscuity, etc.) for the revolutionary virtues of discipline, valor, comradery, love, and women’s equality.  This latter issue was forthrightly explored in the films Portrait of Teresa (1979) and Up to a certain point (1983), each of which critiques the double standards (and double shifts) to which revolutionary women are subjected due to resilient sexist prejudices.  While women were now scientists, doctors, factory workers, and members of the national assembly—and while they enjoyed access to maternity leave, day care centers, and reproductive rights—there were still revolutionary strides to be made.[8]

No other Cuban filmmaker of this era was, however, as critically acclaimed as Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, [JP3] lovingly known as “Titón.”  Best known for his intellectually oriented Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), Alea’s aesthetic proclivity was for dark social comedies.  The Twelve Chairs (1962), Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), [JP4] The Last Supper (1976), and The Survivors (1979) are mischievous parodies of capitalist greed, socialist bureaucracy, religious hypocrisy, and bourgeois respectability. Alea’s humor is not, to be clear, self-righteous.  There is a generosity and self-reflexivity to it that renders his work an ode not to the stoic revolutionary hero but to human folly and fallibility.

Cuban film poster for "Death of a Bureaucrat" featuring a hand pointing upward in place of a man's face
Cuban film poster for “Death of a Bureaucrat.” Source: Imbd.com.

With his pupil and colleague Juan Carlos Tabío, Alea continued to make socially relevant and aesthetically enjoyable films into the post-Soviet era, namely Strawberry and Chocolate (1993) and Guantanamera (1995).  But by this time, with the loss of Soviet subsidies and renewed American hostilities, Cuba’s film industry (like the Cuban economy writ large) was stifled and institutionally reorganized.[9]  Now films, what few were made, had to be co-produced with international partners and finance.  This, alongside the hardships and disillusionment that reigned in the so-called Special Period (early 1990s to early 2000s), stimulated a new generation of films and filmmakers, of which the dystopian and surrealist works of Fernando Pérez stand out.[10]

Cuban filmmakers continue to make constructively critical works attuned to their new realities and contradictions in a world of neoliberal austerity and globalized capital.  And while it no longer looks or feels quite the same, the legacy of (im)perfect cinema lives on, not least in the annual festivals and schools for Cine Pobre (Poor Cinema), which screens low-budget films made from all over the world.  Created under the auspices of Humberto Solás in 2003, Cine Pobre celebrates the ability to exploit digital technology and make high quality films on small budgets, films not beholden to state apparatuses or commercial motives.[11]  Like García Espinosa’s hope, it is a democratized art but still politically invested and in need of venues and publicity.  For the world still desperately needs an art that can portray the beauty and dignity as well as the trials and tribulations of emancipatory politics.   


Éric Morales-Franceschini is Assistant Professor of English and Latin American Studies at the University of Georgia. He is the author of The Epic of Cuba Libre: the mambí, mythopoetics, and liberation (University of Virginia Press, 2022) and Autopsy of a Fall (Newfound 2021), winner of the Gloria Anzaldúa Poetry Prize. 

Title Image: Movie still from Humberto Solás’ Lucía. Source: imbd.com

Endnotes:

[1] Ernesto “Che” Guevara, “Socialism and Man in Cuba,” 1965.  https://www.marxists.org/archive/guevara/1965/03/man-socialism.htm

[2] On music: Robin D. Moore, Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba (University of California Press, 2006); on theater: Laurie A. Frederik, Trumpets in the Mountains: Theater and the Politics of National Culture in Cuba (Duke University Press, 2012); for the exemplary Cuban testimonio: Miguel Barnet and Esteban Montejo, Biography of a Runaway Slave (Northwestern University Press, 2016); on testimonio as politico-aesthetic genre: John Beverly, Testimonio: ON the Politics of Truth (University of Minnesota Press, 2004).  

[3] The movement’s “manifestoes” included Brazilian Glauber Rocha’s “The Aesthetics of Hunger” (1965) and Argentines Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s “Toward a Third Cinema” (1969). Translations can be found in New Latin American Cinema: volume 1, ed. Michael Martin (Wayne State University Press, 1997). Exemplary films include: Solanas and Getino’s three-part documentary, The Hour of the Furnaces (1968); Bolivian Jorge Sanjines’ Blood of the Condor (1969); and Patricio’s Guzmán’s three-part documentary The Battle of Chile (1975, 1976, 1979). 

[4] Julio García Espinosa, “For an imperfect Cinema,” trans. Julianne Burton, Jump Cut (1979) https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC20folder/ImperfectCinema.html

[5] The 1961 meeting of intellectuals was convened, in fact, because of the controversial decision to censor an independently produced documentary, P.M.  Other consequences could be or were much harsher, including demotion, harassment, imprisonment, labor camps, and/or exile.  Fidel Castro, Word to the Intellectuals (1961), in Fidel Castro Reader, ed. David Deutschmann and Deborah Shnookal (Ocean Press, 2008). 

[6] Michael Chanan, Cuban Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 6. 

[7] On the history of twentieth-century racial politics in Cuba: Alejandro de la Fuente, A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba (University of North Carolina Press, 2001). 

[8] On women’s empowerment in revolutionary Cuba: Lois M. Smith and Alfred Padura, Sex and Revolution: Women in Socialist Cuba (Oxford University Press, 1996). 

[9] For a judicious and comprehensive discussion of post-Soviet Cuban reforms: Helen Yaffe, We are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World (Yale University Press, 2020). 

[10] Fernando Pérez’s noteworthy works include Madagascar (1992), Life is to Whistle (1998), Suite Habana (2003), Madrigal (2007), José Martí: eye of the canary (2010), and Last Days in Havana (2017). The other noteworthy development is an emergent independent film scene: Anne Marie Stock, On Location in Cuba: Street Filmmaking during Times of Transition (University of North Carolina Press, 2009). 

[11] For Cine Pobre’s manifesto: http://ecuadmin.ecured.cu/Festival_Internacional_de_Cine_Pobre#Manifiesto_del_Cine_Pobre

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s