The Miami Herald
November 28, 2000

 Films offer a glimpse into `real Cuba'

 In class, focus is on fictional media giving factual account of island life


 For several weeks, a small group of students have spent their Friday evenings in a
 dark room on a college campus watching several noted Cuban films, studying
 scenes and dissecting dialogue.

 They've been looking for truth in fiction.

 Though there are only two documentaries shown during the course -- ``Acting the
 Cuban Reality'' at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Campus -- the
 island's movies weave a more factual history of the past 40 years than do
 traditional records, course instructor Alejandro Ríos says.

 ``What we have seen in Cuba is that the usual forms of communication -- the
 newspapers, the radio, TV -- cannot serve their function and have been replaced
 by movies,'' says Ríos, who also directs the Cuban Cinema Series, which has
 become hugely popular, drawing standing-only crowds to the campus auditorium
 on one Saturday night each month.

 Because state-controlled media is unreliable as a source of news and information,
 Ríos says films have become increasingly critical as an unofficial record of the
 deteriorating conditions in the last socialist bastion of the Western Hemisphere.

 ``Cuban reality itself is counterrevolutionary,'' Ríos says. ``It's a mirror. You put a
 camera in the streets and start filming, and you're going to get things that are
 against the revolution.''

 The films show the long lines in which Cubans must stand to get the few goods
 available to them, the division between those with dollars and those without, the
 lack of freedom of expression or choice, the government repression.


 But they do it mostly with hidden messages and double entendre. In Mayén's
 favorite film so far, La vida es silbar (or Life Is to Whistle), people who hear the
 word libertad -- liberty -- faint. The viewer is left to wonder why. In Pon tu
 pensamiento en mí (or Think of Me), the characters live in an atheist society, yet
 they pray for food.

 ``You have to read between the lines, but the messages are there,'' said Martín
 Mayén, 37, of El Salvador. ``Because there is no freedom of expression, movies
 are being used as a form of expression to say what you can't say on TV or in
 books or even on the street. Film has more liberty of expression using satire and

 Those messages, however, aren't too clear, said Nat Chediak, founder and
 director of the Miami Film Festival, which included the controversial Silbar this
 year even when it meant losing county funding. He said the class is a ``wonderful
 informational tool'' for people to start to learn about Cuba, but, Chediak said, the
 films don't go far enough.

 ``Cuban cinema lags very far behind the kind of films that were being made in the
 1980s in Iron Curtain countries,'' he said. ``Those were bolder, more
 counterculture, more effective of producing change.''

 Actors, directors and other moviemakers in Cuba, he said, are limited. ``They can
 only be critical to a degree, because there must always be a pretext by which it's
 done. By the very fact that it's supported by the state, it is a reflection of what the
 state wants to portray outside.''

 Still, Ríos said that he believes the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand

 Even Fidel Castro knows this, he said. It is why the ICAIC, the Cuban Institute of
 Cinematographic Art and Industry -- the Cuban version of the U.S. Academy of
 Cinematographic Arts -- was the first cultural institution founded by the
 revolutionary leaders in March 1959, two months after overthrowing the

 ``Fidel and the revolution know the power of the image, and they knew they had to
 control that from the beginning,'' Ríos said. ``More than words, more than
 newspapers. Those still had some freedom until about 1961.''


 But although the government eventually lost its grip on creative content and
 directors, they kept control over distribution: Some of the films studied in the
 course were censored on the island. Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas (Alice in
 Wondertown) was pulled from island theaters after three days. El encanto del
 regreso (The Delight of Homecoming) -- the story of a man who returns home from
 the Cuba-supported war in Angola and finds another battle in his homelife -- was
 shown in Cuban theaters one day before it was banned.

 The productions studied in the course were all made in the last decade, or since
 1989. Among them, the recent La vida es silbar and Lista de espera (Waiting
 List), are critically acclaimed.

 More well-known movies, such as the Oscar-nominated Strawberry and
 Chocolate, which chronicles a friendship developed between a gay
 anti-revolutionary and a young heterosexual communist, cannot be shown
 because of copyright laws. That film and many others have been co-produced by
 companies in Spain and other countries.


 ``Cuban cinematographers have been forced to look for foreign investors,'' Ríos
 said. He also wanted to leave room for films that had not been as widely received,
 he adds.

 ``If you can go to Blockbuster and rent it, I'm not as interested as in others,'' he

 This is the sixth semester the class has been offered. The students are diverse
 and include Argentines, Peruvians and Cubans.

 Although many have already seen some of the films, the discussions give them a
 different perspective.

 ``They say, `I have seen this movie, but you put it in context and I understand it a
 lot better,' '' Ríos said.

 ``These have become movies to read, to decipher. The day we have to do the
 story of Cuba, of what happened in the last 41 years, we cannot leave out the
 importance of Cuban film -- in favor of and against the revolution.''