With the passing of Fidel Castro and the recent easing of the Cuban-American trade embargo, it’s a perfect time to explore Cuban film history.
Waiting For Fidel
Michael Rubbo is an interesting, if undeservedly little-known filmmaker. The Australian-born filmmaker at one point worked for the National Film Board of Canada, a unique institution with a mission of creating films that affect social change.
In the 1970s, Rubbo, along with Joey Small, former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador along with a media mogul named Geoff Stirling went to Cuba to meet with and interview Fidel Castro. As the three wait for the appointment with Fidel, they start to discuss the pros and cons of the Cuban revolution and the free-market vs. the socialist system.
The meeting with Fidel never happens. But the film that emerges, Waiting for Fidel — which Facets released on our label — is, in some ways, much more interesting. It is a true inquiry into the unique position that Cuba occupies in the Western Hemisphere, and where the Revolution led by the now-late Fidel Castro, succeeded and failed.
Nestor Almendros was one of the greatest cinematographers
Though born in Barcelona, Almendros emigrated to Cuba to join his exiled anti-Franco father when he was 18. There, he wrote film reviews, went to Rome to study film, and after the 1959 revolution, returned to Cuba to make documentaries.
After two of his short films were banned, he left for Paris, where he became a favorite collaborator of Truffaut and Rohmer. He was a great cinematographer, shooting many films for Truffaut, among them The Wild Child, Two English Girls, Story of Adele H., The Last Metro, The Man Who Loved Women and Confidentially Yours.
He collaborated with Eric Rohmer on Chloe in the Afternoon, Pauline at the Beach, and Perceval, with Barbet Schroeder on Koko: A Talking Gorilla, and Maitresse. Almendros even came to Hollywood where he served as Director of Photography on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, on Kramer vs. Kramer, and Sophie’s Choice.
Almendros also never forgot how he was treated by Castro’s regime, and so he independently made two documentaries about human rights abuses in Cuba: Improper Conduct (available at Facets only as VHS, never released on DVD), which interviews Cuban intellectuals and homosexuals persecuted under Castro’s regime, and Nobody Listened, which focuses on the brutal methods used by the police in Cuba in their repression of freedom.
A more immediate take on gay life in Cuba
Facets released Free Havana, a 2012 documentary by Eliezer Perez Angueira, which presents a vivid picture of what it is like to be gay in present-day-Cuba through the lives of six gay and lesbian individuals.
Our own Waiting for Fidel
Cuban cinema had a tough time emerging through tough censorship, which is why the films of Tomas Gutierrez Alea, when first shown, were such a revelation. Memories of Underdevelopment and the later The Last Supper signaled a new aesthetic emerging from the then-called Third World, in new cinema movements in Brazil and Argentina, and socially-committed filmmakers coming from Mexico, Bolivia and elsewhere.
Alea’s one commercial success was Strawberry and Chocolate, which tells of a chance encounter over ice cream between a middle-aged gay man and a young believer in Cuban Marxism.
After the premiere, Alea was given a U.S. visa, came to the U.S., and was scheduled to come to Facets for a retrospective. A week before the event, the trouble started. Alea, then in California, started waffling about when, and ultimately whether, he would make the trip to Chicago. He never made it. Supposedly Alea was ensconced on Francis Coppola’s ranch, and refused to make the move.
So we only know him from his films, which have been increasingly hard to get — due perhaps to a lack of interest in Cuban issues and the Cuban embargo. The works of other filmmakers – for example, One Way or Another, by Sara Gomez, who died at the age of 32, has never been released. But among other Alea films which we’ve managed to get for the Facets Videotheque collection are Up to a Certain Point, Adventures of Juan Quin Quin, Death of a Bureaucrat, and Guantanamera.
Cuba: An African Odyssey
This fascinating French documentary by Jihan El-Tahri deals with the very little-known history of Cuban involvement in Africa. As the Soviet Union and the U.S. battled for influence in Africa and for access to Africa’s natural resources, Fidel Castro sent Cuban guerrillas to aid in the struggle of African nations for independence. Che Guevara battled in the Congo, but the struggle for control of Africa ultimately led to the guerrilla’s defeat.
Where did Cuban Cinema come from?
In 1964, the well-established Soviet director Mikhail Kalatazov came to Cuba to make I Am Cuba, which combines four stories about the Cuban people and their struggle for liberation from the Battista regime. Kalatazov directed one of the 1960s Soviet films about love in time of war, which went on to become an international hit, The Cranes Are Flying.
For I Am Cuba, a Soviet-Cuban co-production, the Cubans supplied the stories, with the Soviets handling the directing and filming. And though the plot reads like a standard Cuban version of their revolution, Kalatazov turned it into poetry. The making of I Am Cuba had a significant after-effect — it trained a young generation of Cuban filmmakers who would develop their own signature cinema in the 1970s.
Author: Facets Executive Director and Worldview film critic, Milos Stehlik takes us on a tour of film history each week with our Member newsletter. Get VIP access by becoming a Facets Member today.