Cubano chant 

One of the first acts of the Cuban socialist revolution was the 1959 founding of the Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry. Embracing Fidel Castro’s dictum, "within the revolution, everything; against it, nothing," a small group of dedicated revolutionaries, most with little or no experience as filmmakers, came forward and forged a national cinema of astonishing sophistication, intelligence and power.

Seeking what director Julio Garcia Espinosa called "a cinema which although it has imperfections is essentially much more consistent with real human needs," the Cubans eschewed technical mastery for its own sake in favor of sensitivity to their audience. With their goal nothing less than cultural decolonization, these filmmakers saw their job as creating a cinema that would demystify itself while also demystifying Cuban history, performing a cultural intervention that would result in changes in individual consciousness and in society. That the resulting films manage to avoid the heavy-handed didacticism usually associated with socialist-realist art is the legacy of this remarkable group of filmmakers.

Pastor Vega’s Portrait of Teresa (1979) is a feminist film that addresses the persistence of machismo in Cuban society. Teresa is a young mother, a textile worker, a member of a labor union and a leading member of the union’s cultural committee. Her husband, Ramon, is anything but supportive, refusing to pick up the slack on the housework and demanding that Teresa cut back on her activities. The beauty of this film is in the naturally graceful way it unfolds, illuminating the rhythms of daily life and gradually laying bare the fault lines in this marriage while demonizing no one. When Ramon takes a lover, it is understandable why he does so, even as we understand Teresa’s decision on the ultimate fate of their marriage.

Tomas Gutierrez Alea is Cuba’s most renowned director. His 1968 masterpiece Memorias de Subdesarollo (Memories of Underdevelopment) begins right after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, in which a CIA-backed group of Cuban exiles was defeated by Castro, and ends 18 months later during the Cuban missile crisis, when Kennedy and Khrushchev had each other backed against a wall, each ready to pull the nuclear trigger, while the rest of the world held its breath.

Against this extraordinary backdrop, the film follows a businessman named Sergio, who seems unable to find his moorings in postrevolutionary Cuba. The film begins as Sergio’s wife and parents, like so many of the so-called Cuban bourgeoisie, choose to leave Cuba after the revolution.

As Sergio drifts through his days, we are privy to his inner world – memories, fantasies, self-loathing, harsh judgments against others of his class, judgments about women. As we drift and muse with Sergio, collective memories and thoughts intrude upon the narrative in the form of documentary footage, televised images, billboards, newspaper excerpts, political analysis and even court testimony. This unusual structure and its constantly shifting juxtapositions – featuring a literary conference and tour of Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban residence – refuses any fixed point of view, providing only questions without predetermined answers.

In marked contrast to this intense questioning is Alea’s comedy Death of a Bureaucrat (1966). When an exemplary worker dies (chewed to death by his own invention, a machine which churns out busts of the nationalist hero José Martí), his family buries him with his worker’s card as a tribute, so it may "serve as ID in that eternity of creative work where his proletarian soul will dwell."

When his wife is unable to receive her pension without the card, officials inform the bereaved family that the only person able to obtain a copy is the worker himself, who in this case happens to be dead. The nephew realizes the body must be exhumed and the card retrieved. Unable to cut through the red tape for permission to do so, he bribes some cemetery workers who become frightened and run off before the job is done, leaving the nephew no choice but to take the body home. When he attempts to have his uncle reburied, he is informed it cannot be done since the man was already buried two days ago. Think Kafka as realized by Laurel and Hardy for a sense of the flavor of this film.

Despite their brilliance, Cuban films have never been widely accessible in this country. The most recent film out of Cuba to briefly grace local screens is German filmmaker Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club (1999), a documentary celebration of traditional Cuban music and song, orchestrated by American guitarist Ry Cooder.

But films such as Manuel Octavio Gomez’ The First Charge of the Machete (1969), about the Cuban uprising against Spain in 1868; or Espinosa’s The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin (1967), a picaresque tale whose hero is alternately a farmer, altar boy, circus performer and bullfighter until finally becoming a thoroughly radicalized revolutionary; or Humberto Solas’ Manuela (1966), about a peasant girl who joins a band of guerillas in the Sierra Maestra mountains are difficult, if not impossible, to find.

This situation undoubtedly is a result of the embargo, for the United States, in the words of historian J.R. Adams, has always "looked down on Cuba the way an anteater regards a particularly fat ant," and has never forgiven the left-wing revolutionaries who dared take Cuba for the Cubans.

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