New Cuban movie

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Nov 2 11:58:22 MST 1999



FEATURE-Cuban cinema pokes fun at tough reality

By Andrew Cawthorne

HAVANA, Nov 1 (Reuters) - It is a far cry from your average
multimillion-dollar Hollywood set, but the ramshackle old bus station on
Havana's outskirts is a perfect location for Cuban cinema's latest
tongue-in-cheek look at daily life on the Communist-ruled Caribbean island.

Rusting hulks of vehicles gather moss outside and peeling walls enclose a
shabby waiting room. Communist propaganda exhorting domestic stringency
adorns notice boards next to warnings to passengers not to spit or lean on
the walls.

It could be any provincial transport depot across Cuba during the severe
recession suffered since the 1990 breakup of its longtime economic sponsor,
the Soviet Union. But this is in fact an old casino, abandoned for 40 years
after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, then made into a bus terminal to film
"Lista de Espera'' (''Waiting List''), the latest offering from Cuba's
well-rated if cash-strapped film industry.

The new comedy, like recent internationally acclaimed predecessors such as
"Fresa y Chocolate'' (''Strawberry and Chocolate'') and "Guantanamera,''
promises to be another gritty but affectionate portrait of daily hardships
here.

SOCIAL SATIRE TOUCHES NERVES

Due to be released in early 2000, it follows a group of Cubans'
interminable wait for public transport -- a familiar problem for most of
the island's 11 million inhabitants -- and the ensuing personal dynamics
that develop between them.

The biggest audience draw will be the reuniting of two of Cuba's best-known
cinema stars, Jorge Perugorria and Vladimir Cruz, for the first time since
the Oscar-nominated "Strawberry and Chocolate.''

"Waiting List'' is sure to touch some raw nerves by mocking Cuba's
inadequate transport system, but its makers are eager to stress it is just
as much human drama as social satire.

"It's an optimistic story, a hopeful story, a film which proposes, among
other things, that problems can only be resolved in a collective way, not
an individual way. ... Solidarity over rivalry,'' director Juan Carlos
Tabio said during a break in filming on the set.

That is a familiar message of sorts in a nation that has vehemently
preached socialist solidarity ever since rebel chief Fidel Castro came down
from the hills to take power in 1959.

Tabio, one of Cuba's top directors, co-directed "Strawberry and Chocolate''
in 1993 and "Guantanamera'' in 1994 with the late Tomas "Titon'' Gutierrez
Alea, the dominant figure of local cinema for decades until his 1996 death.

The 1993 film, the story of a gay artist's friendship with a Communist
youth, was considered a bold venture by Cuba's state-supervised cinema
industry and won wide plaudits abroad.

"Guantanamera'' satirised both state bureaucracy and transport problems in
a hilarious but telling portrait of one family's ordeal bringing a dead
relative's corpse from one side of the island to the other for burial.

The film, named after a popular Cuban song about a girl from Guantanamo
province, was well-received by moviegoers at home and abroad but may have
cut too close to the bone, prompting a public rebuke from Castro in a 1998
speech.

His comments annoyed artists and intellectuals on the island and, in a
highly unusual move, the president partially retracted them in a private
meeting. Not surprisingly, it is hard to get a copy of the film in Cuba now.

SMILES AMID BITTERNESS

Perogurria, who acted in both films, said the new movie, "Waiting List,''
was an attempt not to stir political controversy but to ease Cubans' daily
lot.

"Our aim is that after people see the film, when they find themselves again
in a situation against their will like this, it should be less painful. At
least they can say 'This reminds me of the film' and smile amid the
bitterness,'' he said.

"I believe that if cinema helps us to live a bit, we'll have achieved a
fair amount. Because through cinema you can't do much more. If you want to
change a nation, you have to make a revolution, but we make films.''

Defenders of the local movie sector, controlled by the state's Cuban
Institute for Art and Cinema Industry (ICAIC), say it has a vigorous
tradition of social criticism and independent thought since its foundation
months after Castro's revolution.

They point, for example, to the late director Gutierrez's acclaimed 1966
movie, "La Muerte de un Burocrata'' (''The Death of a Bureaucrat''), which
satirises officialdom. >From then until now, "Cuban cinema has insisted on
its vocation of tackling Cuban reality in a reflective, critical way that
encourages thought and also tries to move people,'' Tabio said.

Critics, particularly foreign opponents of Castro and the ruling Communist
Party, argue the Cuban cinema industry is inevitably muzzled to a certain
extent by state control. But movie industry analysts recognise that local
films push back the thresholds in a closely controlled society.

"The perception outside Cuba is that cinema, with music perhaps, is the
most liberal and least censored of media coming out of Cuba,'' Latin
American film and television expert Andrew Paxman said. But he noted that,
for all the social irony, Cuban films never touch "the biggest question''
-- Castro himself.

Cuban actor Carlos Cruz, who played a state bureaucrat in "Guantanamera,''
painted a grim picture of the local film sector after announcing his
decision to seek political asylum in the United States during a trip to
Miami this month.

In an interview with the anti-Castro newspaper El Nuevo Herald, Cruz said
artists in Cuba were abysmally paid and under constant pressure from
authorities.

"There are dozens of Cuban artists living in deplorable conditions,
physically weakened,'' he said, giving as an example his $300 earnings from
a leading role in "Guantanamera.''

"Cuban cinema is under enormous official pressure. People are afraid of
reawakening The Customer's anger with a critical film,'' Cruz said, using a
joking name for Castro. (''He is 'El Cliente' because he is always right,''
the joke goes).

OVERCOMING CENSORSHIP

Perogurria, a friend and colleague of Cruz, defended Cuban cinema's "social
commitment'' but, with a candor permissible in public here perhaps only for
someone of his status, he admitted artists have sometimes had to struggle
against censorship.

"Cuban cinema is not a cinema which deceives anyone, it's a cinema where
people see themselves well-reflected. That doesn't mean that in Cuba there
are no films which have been censored, that it has not been difficult for
some creator to put a project into practice -- impossible at times,'' he
said.

"All that has been true. As Titon said, 'Censorship exists, as it exists in
any other place,' but for me the merit is in the quality and talent of the
creator to be able to overcome that censorship, and that has been possible
here.''

Over and above politics, the Cuban cinema industry maintains a healthy
reputation for producing consistently good films under difficult economic
circumstances.

"Historically, Cuba has always had a special place in Latin American cinema
because, despite its small number of productions, it has maintained a
consistently good-quality body of film,'' said Paxman, who is also a former
Latin American editor for Hollywood- based Variety magazine.

He added, however, that the success of "Strawberry and Chocolate'' had not
really been repeated. Cuba's most recent high-profile film, "La Vida es
Silbar'' (''Life is Whistling''), took the main prize at the prestigious
annual Havana Film Festival in December 1998 but had a mixed reception
abroad.

Since Cuba plunged into recession with the Soviet collapse, the ICAIC has
increasingly had to look outside for financing, resulting in
co-productions, especially with Spain. "Waiting List,'' for example, with a
budget of about $1.5 million, has Spanish, French and Mexican involvement.


Louis Proyect
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