Films offer a glimpse into `real Cuba'
In class, focus is on fictional media giving factual account of island life
BY ELAINE DE VALLE
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
newspapers, the radio, TV -- cannot serve their function and have been replaced
by movies,'' says Ríos, who also directs the Cuban Cinema Series, which has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
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.
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,''
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
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
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
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
said. He also wanted to leave room for films that had not been as widely received,
``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
and include Argentines, Peruvians and Cubans.
Although many have already seen some of the films, the discussions
give them a
``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.''