Monthly Archives: January 2009

The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin (Cuba 1967)

Julio Garcia Espinosa and Julio Martinez (Juan)

Julio Garcia Espinosa and Julio Martinez (Juan)

This extraordinary but enjoyable film was made by one of the leading figures in post-revolutionary Cuban Cinema, Julio García Espinosa (born 1926). He was one of the few Cuban directors in 1960 to have been formally trained and became one of the founding members of ICAIC, the Cuban Film Institute. In 1969 he wrote a famous essay on the concept of ‘imperfect cinema‘. Up until his retirement in 2007 he was the Director of the International Film and Television School in Cuba. There is a useful Jump Cut essay by Anna Marie Taylor that analyses the film in terms of imperfect cinema. This is quite a detailed essay and so here I’ll just try to introduce the film in relatively simple terms. It is now available on both Region 1 and Region 2 DVDs. My comments refer to the Region 2 disc from Network, a company specialising in archive UK TV material, but presumably with a deal covering material from the old East German studio DEFA as well as ICAIC.

The film opens in Black & White CinemaScope and immediately made me think of Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) with small groups of horsemen riding over rolling hills in long shot. But instead of Barbara Stanwyck in leathers we eventually get introduced to Juan and his sidekick Jachero. With some interesting graphics in the title sequence and a score by the leading Afro-Cuban musician Leo Brouwer, my first guess was that this was some kind of Cuban take on the ‘spaghetti western’. It takes a few moments to realise that it is not going to be a linear narrative as we switch between several different ‘adventures’ with the same three or four central characters in each (Juan and Jachero, the heroine Teresa and the moustachioed villain). There are also mismatches between sound and image, jump cuts transforming characters and objects etc.

I watched it with Nick and we were both puzzled for a while until we got into it and began to deconstruct the film. Clearly we have a traditional Spanish hero and his partner – a kind of peasant version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza or perhaps the Cisco Kid and Pancho. The sequences are shown out of presumed chronological order, but we are offered Juan and Jachero in various situations in which they are forced to challenge an oppressor (the same villain) in the role of police chief/mayor/sugar mill owner etc. as well as stand up to the Church. Eventually they will join the revolutionary guerillas and take part in the capture of a village (in a sequence offered as a training film – even though our heroes are sometimes quite inept). The situations are typical of a colonised culture (staging a bull fight) and the presentation modes act as a critique of conventional genre films (including a kind of spoof James Bond, complete with ‘oriental villain’). But overall the film remains a comedy and we laughed on several occasions. According to some commentators this was the most successful Cuban film of the time attracting 2 million admissions – a very large figure given the population of Cuba (around 10 million) in the 1960s.

The concept of imperfect cinema refers to the need to steer revolutionary film away from the ‘perfection’ of Hollywood cinema and its ‘closed’ narratives with conventional genres and character types. It is better for audiences to have to do some work to ‘finish off’ the story, providing their own insights. This is similar in some ways to the ideas behind Brecht’s approach to theatre. ‘Imperfect’ does not imply, as detractors might claim, an impoverished and amateurish low-budget cinema. ICAIC budgets were not large, but the films were well-made and looked and sounded fine. Taylor’s essay suggests that Juan’s adventures might have proved popular, but that they were unlikely to have had the political impact that Espinosa called for two years later. (She suggests Espinosa’s 1970 film about Vietnam was more successful in these terms – but it is not available on DVD.)

Another Jump Cut resource is this translation of Espinosa’s essay on imperfect cinema by Julianne Burton.

Quite a good overview of different periods of Cuban film is available on FilmReference.com

Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale France 2008)

Mathieu Almaric, as Henri, disrupts Midnight Mass

Mathieu Amalric, as Henri, disrupts Midnight Mass

The French Institute in South Kensington, possibly the most ‘French’ part of London, has recently renovated its cinema (unsurprisingly called Ciné Lumière). Catherine Deneuve reopened the cinema earlier this month and she leads an all-star cast in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. It seemed to me like a perfect choice – a rich mixture of French bourgeois relationships simmering and brought to the boil over the ‘festive’ season. Readers of this blog will know that we are wary of the bourgeoisie as a subject, but here I think there are reasons why the film is both enjoyable and worthwhile. I confess that I struggled for the first half hour or so in an overheated cinema (with comfortable seats and lots of leg room) at the end of a long day. The opening introduces a host of family and friends through sometimes elliptical sequences. Gradually, I managed to figure out who was who and the last half of the film was very rewarding as realisation of what some of the narrative strands might deliver slowly seeped in. The whole film is 150 minutes, but I’d watch it again, if only to try to hear all the the wide variety of music extracts and to puzzle out the literary references and those parts of the plot I still didn’t understand.

In genre terms, it’s a classic family melodrama (I think calling it a comedy/drama is quite misleading – there are comic moments, but it is all about relationships). It’s also an ‘ensemble piece’ in formal terms, with the multi-stranded narrative that implies and finally it could be assigned a tighter generic repertoire based on the timespan across a particular festive period. I think the film would probably be tough for younger students (and it’s too long for classroom use), but older students could find it both engaging and useful. It cries out to be compared with Hollywood and with similar films from China/Hong Kong and Japan. The first major difference may be that the film was not marketed in France as a ‘Christmas film’ (it came out in May). However, in America, its limited release was around Thanksgiving – possibly a more relevant American festival with the convention that family members try to return to the family home for the Thanksgiving dinner. The other odd dimension of A Christmas Tale is that although many of the aspects of a French Christmas are depicted, nobody is really seen cooking or eating to any great extent. The only (quasi-) American Thanksgiving film that I can remember is Gurinder Chadha’s What’s Cooking (2001) which features several families from different ethnic groups in Los Angeles trying to cook and get through the dinner. It did occur to me that A Christmas Tale is almost a provocation to American audiences. Those critics who respond to French Cinema have named it as one of the films of the year – various ‘users’ on IMDB have called it one of the most boring films ever made! I can’t really see the boring criticism, but I’m not surprised at bafflement.

The central family is the Vuillards – three generations of the French middle class in the town of Roubaix in the North East, situated between Lille and the Belgian border. It’s the director’s home town and, I noticed in doing the research, twinned with my nearest UK city, Bradford. This isn’t so surprising since the two locations have wool textile manufacturing as central to their history. (As an aside, it’s a shame that we don’t see more of the town.) Abel Vuillard, the paterfamilias played by Jean-Paul Roussillon, is a textile dyer with his own small company. With his wife, Junon (Catherine Deneuve), he has three adult children, played by Anne Consigny (Elizabeth), Mathieu Amalric (Henri) and Melvil Poupaud (Ivan). He also took in Simon, his nephew, played by Laurent Capelluto, who grew up with his cousins. Elizabeth has a son with her husband and Ivan has two small boys with his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve’s real-life daughter). Tragedy has already struck the family twice with the early death of the first Vuillard child, Joseph from leukaemia at the age of 6, and Henri’s wife Madeline in an accident. Now it appears that Junon has a blood cancer and only a bone marrow transplant from someone in the family can give her the prospect of at least a couple of years more. Only Elizabeth’s teenage son and his uncle Henri, the family’s ‘black sheep’, are compatible. But Elizabeth hates her brother and has vowed never to see him again. It doesn’t look like Christmas will be peaceful. Elizabeth’s husband (played by Hippolyte Girardot) flits in and out and the only other two characters who join the party are an elderly friend of Abel’s mother and Henri’s girlfriend, played by the wonderful Emmanuelle Devos.

The American model for the ‘ensemble piece’ might be Robert Altman’s films – possibly The Wedding, but in my view rather more Altman’s last (and under-valued) film, Prairie Home Companion with its thematic of impending death and feuding ‘family’ members. The review in Sight & Sound is by Ginette Vincendeau, doyenne of British based French Cinema academics. She argues that the film is a mix of auteurist cinema and popular entertainment (i.e. in the playing of the star cast), citing the success in France that brought in 500,000 admissions. The genre base does allow a range of other repertoires to be plundered, so as well as the comedy moments, there is certainly romance as well as the possibility of a medical thriller, but overall I think that the auteurist touches predominate. There is so much music of every conceivable genre, references to several films ranging from Funny Face and The Ten Commandments (is this the French equivalent of The Great Escape as the ultimate Christmas movie?) to what I now learn was A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I had assumed it was Cocteau). Others have spotted Vertigo references (which I think did dimly impinge on my consciousness, but there was so much else going on I didn’t really notice). Vincendeau suggests that Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and Renoir’s La Règle du jeu are also referenced, but I thought more about Jane Austen when the children put on a Christmas play. I’d like to find out what the German text was that is quoted extensively from a book heavily annotated in French. I’ve read that it was possibly Kant. 

Throughout the narrative, there are mysteries, some of which are revealed, others not. Letters and photographs, family stories – why does it matter that Henri’s girlfriend is Jewish? One of the strands that worked well, I thought was the attempt to represent the disease which might kill Junon through a metaphor using mythological figures. The chimera, made up of parts from different animals, stands in perhaps for the DNA of the Vuillard clan. But Desplechin denies us narrative satisfaction. The ending of the film is open. I’m certainly willing to have another go at uncovering the different strands and this was one bourgeois tale that worked for me. 2008 seems to have been an excellent year for French films – at least from the ones released in the UK.

Subarnarekha (India 1962)

A longshot of the abandoned airfield in Subarnarekha

 

I was drawn to consider Ritwik Ghatak because of the dedication by Mira Nair at the end of The Namesake, a film I am using again as part of a course on ‘diaspora cinema’. Nair was referring to the ‘Masters of Bengali Cinema’ – with Ghatak alongside Satyajit Ray. But she might also have been referring to a master of diaspora cinema or more properly ‘exilic cinema’. Ritwik Ghatak (1925-76) was born in Dacca, then part of Bengal in British India. Bengal had been partitioned before in 1905, then restored in 1911 after protests. But in 1947, East Bengal was allocated by the British to the new state of Pakistan. Ghatak found himself in the new West Bengal in India and the trauma of partition – the confusion over the identity of ‘home’ – stayed with him, not least in the trilogy of films released in the West of which Subarnarekha is the final offering. (The film was made in 1962, but not released until 1965.)

Subarnarekha refers to the river of that name (translating as ‘golden line’) which runs through the relatively new state of Jharkhand into West Bengal. Into this strange landscape (forests bordering a valley of sandy shores and rocks beside the river) comes a group of refugees from the partition in 1948. Ishwar, an educated man, travels with two children, his young sister Sita and a lower caste boy, Abhiram, whose mother was taken away by thugs employed by a local landowner. Ishwar is fortunate to get a job from an old schoolfriend who owns a foundry in the area. But although economically secure, Ishwar is troubled by a sense of loss about home. Years later he has a form of breakdown when he realises that Abhiram and Sita are in love. He cannot accept the lower caste young man as a member of the family (although he has brought him up as such). The film ends tragically.

Ghatak is not as widely known as he should be (i.e. outside the circle of serious cinephiles and historians of Indian Cinema). He was at least as important as his contemporary Satyajit Ray and in some ways more so, given his brief stint teaching at the FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) at Pune in 1966 in which he influenced future directors such as Kumar Shahani and John Abraham. His fame has spread outside India over the thirty years and more since his death.

It’s perhaps not so surprising that Ghatak’s work is not immediately accessible to audiences. He avoids the populism of commercial cinema, yet doesn’t have a coherent humanist art cinema style like Ray, or even a committed political stance like Mrinal Sen. In the same sequence, he might move from what appears to be a conventional social realist approach to portraying village life/city life to a highly expressionistic portrayal of a moment of emotional tension. On closer inspection, however, his seemingly conventional realist camerawork is often undermined by staging in depth with disturbing angles and compositions. Music is integral to the trilogy of ‘exile’ films (which includes the earlier A Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and Komal Gandahar (1961)). Cloud-Capped Star shares with Subarnarekha a brother-sister relationship in which the woman is a singer of Bengali songs, many written by Rabindranath Tagore (1876-1941), the towering figure of Bengali literature.

There is some very good material on Ghatak on several trusted websites. I would recommend the entry on Subarnarekha by Acquarello (and the debate which follows) and the extensive paper by Erin O’Donnell posted on the Jump Cut website. I’d like to draw attention to just some of the points made in these pieces and add a couple of further observations.

I’m taken by O’Donnell’s analysis of Ghatak’s use of melodrama. She suggests that it comes from drawing on a wide range of other melodrama forms including from European and Russian Cinemas as well as theatre. At the same time Ghatak makes use of traditional Indian stories from Hindu mythology. The result is this very cinematic camera, but an unusual mix of other influences placing the resultant films in this no-man’s land between the ‘social’ films of Hindi Cinema (including the films of Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor) and the art films of Ray and Sen.

The films work by using the family as metaphor for the impossibility of creating ‘home’ out of the despair created by partition and exile. Subarnarekha is contextualised by a series of historical events which mark the earlier part of the narrative – the terrible famine in Bengal in 1942, the successful halt of the Japanese advance into Northern Burma and then Bengal in the latter stages of the war, the partition and the exodus to Calcutta and finally the death of Ghandi. After this and the beginnings of a new life by the Subarnarekha River, the time period becomes less distinct and title cards merely refer to a few months or a few years later marking the period when Sita and Abhiram are growing up. I was struck, however, by the abandoned RAF base (i.e. from where the bombers left for Burma). This is where the children play and where Sita has various adventures. The hulks of abandoned aircraft and the few surviving parts of buildings (from only a few years ago) seem to act as a ‘doubling’ of the signifiers of a life that is no longer possible, of times that have irrevocably changed.

Ghatak’s films are not easy to watch, but they have moments of enormous joy and elation as well as darkest despair and everybody should see at least one of them.

See a very short clip from Subarnarekha on the IndiaVideo site.

The Wrestler (US 2008)

Rachel Evan Wood and Mickey Rourke on a New Jersey boardwalk in The Wrestler

Rachel Evan Wood and Mickey Rourke on a New Jersey boardwalk in The Wrestler

 

The Wrestler is an enjoyable and well-made film. It is rather painful to watch in terms of the damage inflicted on the lead’s body, but the squeamish can always look away. I wouldn’t have chosen to see the film myself, but I was grateful that someone else chose it for me.

The issue here is how an excellent small-scale genre picture like this can receive so much hype over Mickey Rourke’s performance and the film overall. Before I went to see the film, two friends both made this point to me and I can only concur. Note that I’m not putting down the film if I argue that it is ‘just’ a genre picture and if it wins awards, all well and good. Rather I’m observing that during the last days of old-style Hollywood (i.e. in the 1970s) there were films like The Wrestler popping up in circuit cinemas on a fairly regular basis, helmed by directors such as Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich etc. – tough films with grizzled old stars, often set in the more blue-collar areas of the US. It occurred to me that if the current major studios were each to make/fund half a dozen small films like this each year, we could get back to the situation in which grown-ups could go to the cinema every week or so, watch a genre movie with intelligence and have a great night out.

As well as Rourke’s performance, the other standouts in the film are the supporting cast of wrestlers of every shape and size, the great Springsteen song over the closing credits and the revelation (sorry about the pun) that is Marisa Tomei’s performance as a lap dancer. My favourite scene in the film sees Rourke and Tomei singing together in a bar. I could happily have followed them into a road movie-type romance (not something that would have occurred to me as a possibility before the film started).

Che – Part One (France/Spain/US 2008)

Benicio del Toro as Che and Santiago Cabrera as Camilo Cienfeugos

Benicio del Toro as Che and Santiago Cabrera as Camilo Cienfeugos

 

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Che – Part 1 (aka The Argentine). I went overboard a few years ago over Soderbergh at the time of Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight. Then I decided he’d blown it and ignored most of the stuff after Oceans 11 which seemed so ordinary. But there was no way I wanted to miss this. The story of how 82 men aboard the Granma landed in Cuba and fashioned first a military victory and then a revolution is one of the great stories of the 20th century. 

What Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro (who seems to have been the instigator of the project) have achieved is quite remarkable. It hasn’t pleased everyone (with critics from both left and right) and many audiences seemed to have been confused by both the overall approach and the narrative structure which moves between three time periods in this first part of which was originally a 4 hour plus single film. I’ll have to wait until I’ve seen Part Two next month before I can comment on the whole thing, but I was certainly hooked by this half.

The first sequence in chronological terms offers the initial meeting between Che and Fidel Castro in Mexico City in 1955. There is a brief mention of the trip in the Granma, but most of the film covers the period from 1957 until January 1959 in which the 26 July Movement headed by Castro gradually moved towards Havana and the overthrow of Batista. Cut into this is black and white footage of a ‘flashforward’ to 1964 when Che visited New York to speak at the UN. (There is also a brief flashback to Mexico City.)

The confusion arises for two reasons. First, Soderbergh doesn’t give all the information necessary to understand everything that we see (though there is a lot of material that is presented) and second, that he doesn’t offer the familiar tropes of the biopic – or the war combat action picture. He deliberately keeps his distance from Che, keeping him framed much of the time in wide shots and as part of the group. We don’t learn about his back story or about his inner thoughts – we have to come to understand him through what he says and does in his role as comandante. Personally, this didn’t bother me. I knew some of the details of the story anyway, having spent an interesting afternoon in the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. Perhaps more importantly I really like the style, which for me was Rossellini and possibly a little of Pontecorvo. Thinking about it now a few hours later, the Roberto Rossellini film that might be in the back of my mind is Viva l’Italia! (Italy/France 1961). I have seen it just the once thirty years ago but it made an impression. Like Che, it is essentially about a revolutionary leader, Garibaldi, leading his men to victory and liberation. The Rossellini method is about representing history using realist aesthetics. It’s interesting too that Rossellini developed his own camera focusing device to enable him to shoot more easily in long takes. Soderbergh on Che is supposed to have used the RED digital camera, shooting the film himself under his pseudonym ‘Peter Andrews’. (The film’s credits also mention an Aaton Super 16 camera, so I’m not absolutely sure which technology was used for which scenes.) The ‘problem’ for audiences used to mainly mainstream cinema is that this approach doesn’t favour a close identification with individual characters. Without this emotional attachment and faced with two hours plus of subtitled (but very clearly articulated) Spanish, it might be a struggle. Having said that, Benicio del Toro is in nearly every scene – but we rarely see him with his guard down. Mostly, he is teaching his compadres (and us) what we need to do to succeed in the campaign. Which is fine by me.

Perhaps I’m too easily pleased. In Sight & Sound, January 2009, Michael Chanan, the leading British writer on Cuban Cinema, tears into the film in a short piece titled ‘Rebel Without a Point’, referring to a “lacklustre script”, “odd omissions and a flat pace”. He suggests that the script “has as much depth as a Cuban primary school textbook and is rather less exciting” and wonders why Soderbergh bothered in the first place. It’s tempting to turn the tables on Chanan and ask what he really wants to do in his article. He goes on to say that the film makes no historical gaffes, that there are incidental pleasures and that the translation of Peter Buchman’s script into demotic Cuban speech is pretty good. The problem is surely that for Cuban film and history experts like Michael Chanan, there is no way that Soderbergh could have adequately ‘covered’ the military campaign and the political dealings necessary to bring the anti-Batista forces together in five hours, never mind two. I’ll grant that the film is not as ‘exciting’ as it could be and that it could certainly take more passion. But, I quite like its fairly low key, distanced stance. I really enjoyed all the talk of the need for education and discipline. From what I’ve seen of Cuban education materials, they are pretty good, so if audiences get only a primary school introduction to the road revolution, I think that will be an achievement. And as Chanan concludes, the film might just help to prod a new US President into thinking about the “irrational economic blockade” of Cuba that has lasted for almost 50 years.

I’ll certainly go and see Part Two, although I’m not really looking forward to Che’s demise. Like many others, I’d like Part Two to focus on Che’s problems in Cuba post the revolution and I’d be intrigued to see something about the Congo expedition. More please! 

If you want to see how the film’s characters are represented in comparison with the official photographs of the time, you can browse a large collection of images on the website of Ediciones Aurelia (and buy postcards and posters).

Fidel in the mountains, an Alberto Korda image from Ediciones Aurelia.

Fidel in the mountains, an Alberto Korda image from Ediciones Aurelia.

Viva Cuban Cinema

Death of a Bureaucrat Unknown (dir Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Cuba 1966)

Death of a Bureaucrat (dir Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Cuba 1966)

January 2009 marks 50 years of the Cuban Revolution – an anniversary worth celebrating for many reasons and not least because it allows us to applaud the successes of Cuban Cinema in a post-colonialist, post-imperialist world, albeit one in which Cuba has had to steer a path around the obstacles of an American blockade and the uncertainty and then complete loss of Russian support.

The following notes (written by Keith Withall) were compiled for an event on Cuban Cinema held in Bradford in 2006 when a package of Cuban films toured the UK.

Selective Chronology of Cuba and its Cinema
Columbus landed in Cuba in 1492. By the end of the 16th century almost all traces of the indigenous Amerindian population had gone. Subsequently the tobacco and sugar industries were developed, largely dependent on imported African slave labour. Cuba was a Spanish colony throughout the 19th century, even as other peoples in South America gained independence. In 1898 the USA engineered a war with Spain. The US military occupied Cuba and a constitution was enforced which awarded nominal independence. For the first half of the 20th century Cuba was dominated by the US and was used as a research market for the North American communication industries. It also became a centre for tourism and US gangsters.

  • 1952   Batista overthrows the government and becomes effective dictator.
  • 1953   Fidel Castro leads a failed attempt to overthrow Batista’s government.
  • 1956   Fidel Castro and followers begin a guerrilla war.
  • 1959   The guerrilla campaign of the 26 July Movement forces Batista to flee. Fidel Castro becomes Prime Minister. There follows the transfer of land from large landowners to those who work it. The government expropriates US-owned sugar mills and plantations.
  • 1960   ICAIC founded. The mass literacy campaign is launched in rural areas. Soviet economic mission.
  • 1961   USA suspends purchases of sugar and severs diplomatic relations with Cuba. 1,500 Cuban exiles, trained by US military instructors, invade in the Bay of Pigs; an expected rising fails to occur and the invaders are killed or captured.
  • 1962   Cuban missile ‘crisis’, withdrawal of Soviet ‘offensive weapons’.
  • 1967   Revolutionary Che Guevara executed in Bolivia.
  • 1975   New constitution, ICAIC reorganised.
  • 1979   The International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema.
  • 1980   Mariel exodus to USA, prompted by disasters in the sugar and tobacco harvests.
  • 1985   Foundation and Film School.
  • 1990   Special Period in Times of Peace.

Cuban Film
A travelling Lumière cameraman screened films in Havana in January 1897. There were both early silent and sound films made by Cubans. However, the film audience was not really large enough to support indigenous productions: the Hollywood Studios dominated the distribution and exhibition industries. There were a few co-productions with the much more substantial Mexican film industry during the 1940s and 50s.

There were regular indigenous newsreels, but these were almost a form of ‘vanity publishing’, as the companies made their profit, not from admissions but from charging the individuals and groups that were featured. There were also occasional alternatives, including several editions of a newsreel by the Cuban Communist Party.

More significant was a continuing alternative film culture. There were numerous amateur ciné-clubs on the island. The University of Havana set up a Film Studies department in the 1940s. And there were vigorous and dissident cultural and film forums based there, which participated in the resistance to Batista’s police state.

In 1950 a key cultural group connected to the Community Party, ‘Nuestro Tiempo’, was formed. Its members included a number of names that were key in filmmaking after the revolution: Alfredo Guevara, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Julio García Espinosa and Santiago Álvarez.

Several activists with a keen interest in filmmaking travelled to Italy to study at the Centro Sperimentale where they encountered the ideas and practices of Neo-realism. On his return Espinosa directed a film in the neo-realist mould, El Megano (1956). This was a documentary that exposed the miserable conditions among the charcoal burners in the Zapata Swamps. The film was seized by Batista’s police and then banned.

Batista’s regime collapsed before the popular revolution led by Castro. The Liberation forces made extensive use of the media, with their own illicit radio station in the mountains. They also set up a Military Cultural School, which started work on two short films. And the first major cultural act in 1959 was the setting up of ICAIC (Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos – Cuban Institute of Film Art and Industry) with Alfredo Guevara at its first director. From its inception the Institute had a fair degree of autonomy, whereas the State authorities closely controlled Press and Radio. There were a number of competing sets of values; between those who supported the old society (many of whom emigrated) and those who supported national independence; and between groups who were in favour of a socialist system, including the Communist Party, who looked to the Soviet model, and more liberal groups, like ICAIC, in favour of experimentation and difference. They argued from Fidel’s maxim, “dentro de la Revolución todo; contra la Revolución, nada (within the revolution, everything: against it, nothing).”

The equipment for the Institute and the experience of its new cadres was uneven and extremely limited. They did receive assistance from visiting filmmakers, who in the 1960s included the French directors Chris Marker and Agnès Varda, and the Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens. After the rupture with the US and the arrival of economic assistance from the USSR there were several co-productions with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The most famous is Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba, 1964 Mosfilm), directed by Mickhail Kalatozov. However the Cuban themselves were fairly critical of the representation of their country in this film.

From its inception, ICAIC produced a series of documentary films and newsreels. These varied from shorts to feature length films, and ranged over the educational, the informational, celebratory, didactic and overt propaganda films. Several films dealt with the important and groundbreaking literacy campaign in rural areas that was launched in 1960. The films dealt not only with the Cuban revolution but international issues in the non-aligned movement and anti-imperialist camps.

The key figure in documentary and newsreel was Santiago Alvarez. His output and style is large and varied. But he is particularly noted for his use of montage, in the sense used by the classic Soviet directors.

Hanoi martes 13 (Hanoi Tuesday 13th) was filmed by Alvarez in Vietnam during a visit in 1966. The attack by US warplanes took place on 13 December at 2.50 p.m. The film also counterposes ordinary life in North Vietnam and an explosive montage of US President L.B.J. and US prisoners of war.

The score for Alvarez’s film is by Leo Brouwer, a key composer in ICAIC. He had made his debut in Cine-Club Vísion, sited in a working class district of Havana. The development of Cuban music was another arm of ICAIC. There was also the Graphics department were artists were encourage to experiment and develop the dazzling posters that advertised Cuban film. And there was a skilled and creative animation section.

For the first two decades ICAIC produced an average of about 40 documentaries a year. New or inexperienced recruits developed their skills first in this area. There were also feature films, averaging about five a year. The early examples celebrate the revolution in a neo-realist style. But as ICAIC developed other influences encouraged experimentation, especially the French Nouvelle Vague and associated Left Bank Group. A number of directors worked on important features including Espinosa and Alea.

Memorias del subdesarollo (Memories of underdevelopment, 1968). Based on a novel by Edmundo Desnoes the film’s main plot is set between the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. It studies a bourgeois man, Sergio, who cannot bring himself to leave Cuba for the US like his family, but also is unable to commit himself fully to the Revolution. The film uses a complex range of narrative and cinematic devices, some reminiscent of the Nouvelle Vague. It created an impact both in Cuba and internationally.

Another important film from that year is Lucia, directed by Humberto Solás. It deals with stories about women; gender along with ‘race’ remained a key contradiction in Cuban Society. There were important films addressing these issues by several filmmakers, including the black director Serge Giral (who later emigrated) and Sara Gómez, who sadly died at the end of filming her first feature.

Later films that confronted such contradictions were Retrato de Teresa (Portrait of Teresa, 1979) directed by Pastor Vega and dealing with marriage and machismo. Alea directed two films that dealt sucessively with machismo and then gay sexuality.

Audiences
In 1956 box office takings were 22 million pesos spread over about 500 cinemas, about 120 million admissions. Roughly this figure was maintained in the 1960s, though it fell in the 1980s to around 86 million. Ticket prices remained at about the same level over this period.

However, there was also a thriving 16 mm exhibition circuit, comprising mobile cinema vans, cultural clubs, schools, colleges and similar where admission was free. In the 1980s video salons replaced this circuit.

A number of films from ICAIC garnered audiences of over a million in both the 1960s and 1970s. These included films by Alea, Espinosa and Peréz also Vega’s Retrato de Teresa and Solás’ Lucia. In the 1980s three films achieved over two million, including Tabio’s Se permuta (For Exchange or House Swap, 1983).

In 1989 The International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema was instituted in Havana. This was followed by an International Film School and Foundation for Film. The title of New Latin American Cinema had arisen in two film festivals held in Chile in the late 1960s. It included not only Cuban film but important movements in Brazil (Cinema Novo), Argentina, Bolivia and Chile itself. There were frequent contacts and discussions and whilst the movements each had a distinctive approach there were also clear influences between them. There were also manifestos for this new political Cinema, the most famous being ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in Argentina.

ICAIC had developed its own journal in its early days, Cine Cubano. It included reviews, discussions and theoretical articles. Two seminal articles were Espinosa’s ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’ and Alea’s ‘The Viewer’s Dialectic’.

In 1980 Humberto Solás directed Cecilia, an adaptation of a well-loved 19th century Cuban novel by Cirilo Villaverde. The film, a European co-production, was far more expensive than other ICAIC productions. The adaptation of the novel was disliked and heavily criticised; the film lost money. Following this Guevara was sent as ambassador to Paris and Espinosa became the director of ICAIC. This was a difficult period, apart from the large migrations; the Cuban economy was suffering from its restricted nature and the effects of the US boycott. However, co-productions with other Latin American countries helped maintain a fairly high output of films, both features and documentaries.

Alea’s Hasta cierto punto (Up to a point, 1983) directly addresses contradictions in the revolution by looking squarely at the problem of machismo. Filmmakers are planning a film and research it among the Havana dockworkers. Alea filmed actual dockers’ meetings on video as part of the research for the film and then incorporated them into the final production.

Younger directors were making a mark in ICAIC and there was a relatively new approach using comedy to both criticise and laugh at the problems of life under siege.

!Plaff o demasiado miedo a la vida (Plaff!, or Too much Fear of Life, 1988), directed by Juan Carlos Tabío, is an anarchic film both a parody anda film that  “allegorises the nation through their female characters. In this comic reduction of the nation’s problems to the conflict between mothers and daughters-in-law . . .”

The extreme changes in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s created severe economic and social problems in Cuba. There was a revival of private enterprise, the appearance of major international companies and a return to the dollar. Almost at the same time there was a crisis when an ICAIC film became the object of severe criticisms. Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas (Alice in Wondertown) directed by Daniel Díaz Torres won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival. But it scandalised numbers of people including senior members in the Communist Party. The film was withdrawn from exhibition and it was proposed that ICAIC should be merged with Cuban Television. The united opposition by ICAIC members prevented this but Espinosa resigned and Alfredo Guevara once more became director.

Filmmaking in the 1990s was difficult and parsimonious. Reputedly ICAIC could not afford to print some films up on celluloid and they had to be viewed on video. There was an increase in International co-productions, which generated income. Lista de espera (The Waiting List, 2000) directed by Tabío, is a Cuban, Mexican, German co-production. But a number of artists and craftsmen had to leave ICAIC, and often Cuba. In the 1980s ICAIC had generated some $7 million from international sales and services. Now, when subsidies had ended, they only managed under a million in one year. Even so, as can be seen in this Cuban season, ICAIC and Cuban filmmakers are still producing interesting and distinctive features. And there is a growth in amateur and independent film using video and digital formats.

Resources

The Cuban Image by Michael Chanan, bfi Publishing 1985. A detailed study of Cuban cinema in the first two decades after the revolution.

Twenty-five Years of the New Latin American Cinema, edited by Michael Chanan, C4/BFI 1983. This includes a brief overview and includes some of the important manifestos from the movement.

Links

www.cubacine.cu/ (in Spanish)
www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc46.2003/chanan.cuba/index.html (‘Letter from Havana’ by Michael Chanan)
www.umass.edu/complit/ogscl/cubancinema/cubancinema.htm#icaicstore

Over the next few weeks, we’ll try to cover as many Cuban films from the last fifty years as we can.

Dogs and critics: Danny Boyle in India

Azharuddin Mo Ismail as Salim in Slumdog Millionaire   

Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail as the youngest Salim in Slumdog Millionaire

I really enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire which was all I hoped it might be. I’m not going to write a review because there are already so many out there, it would be pointless to repeat the same comments. I’m more interested in the hype that preceded the film’s release in the UK and the storm of comment that has followed the film’s box-office and awards ceremony success. The UK media have been referring to the Golden Globes wins for the film all week and the Guardian, in particular, has found a new angle for a feature virtually every day (today’s being a feature on Vikas Swarup, the author of the original novel). But the controversy that has really got the bloggers into a spin was the statement by Amitabh Bachchan on his own blog. I was sucked into the argument by quotes and references on other sites, all of which suggested that the ‘Big B’ had criticised the film. This was followed up by a Guardian Film Blog by the ‘bad boy’ of young British-Asian writers, Nirpal Dhaliwal, who gleefully tore into Bachchan with the Guardian web subs presenting a Boyle v. Bachchan face-off. When I last looked, there were over 200 comments on the blog.

slumdog3

The Guardian Film Blog's headline

If you go back to the Big B’s blog (which other major stars publish anything like this?), it’s clear that he isn’t criticising the film as such, but instead making several cogent comments about how the film has been received in the West and in the Indian Press (it hasn’t yet officially opened in India) – and why some Indians have taken against the film. Of course, this isn’t as interesting a story as “The Big B slams Slumdog“. Maybe not, but for me this whole controversy is potentially like the first boulder breaking away from the dam – eventually the whole thing will burst and there will be much more understanding about Indian Cinema, both inside and outside the country.

It’s worthwhile reading through Dhaliwal’s entertaining but ill-informed rant and then through the comments, many of which are very well-informed and show what a sophisticated audience exists for a diverse range of Indian films that unfortunately are not well distributed in India or internationally. So, instead of a review of Slumdog, I’m offering here a collation of some of the ideas about how Slumdog works as a film narrative and how it engages with other Indian films. (I don’t claim these as original comments, but as selected from the current discussion.)

1970s/80s Bollywood: The general story ideas in Slumdog are not dissimilar to those in a host of Bollywood films, including many starring Amitabh Bachchan. I can’t remember the titles, but the idea of two brothers growing up in the slums, one of whom will become a gangster and one a police officer/novelist/entertainer etc. is a conventional Bollywood (and Hollywood) narrative idea.

Contemporary Bollywood: I haven’t seen many recent Bollywood films, but the camerawork and lighting from Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002) struck me immediately on watching Slumdog with its tilted frames in many scenes. Wikipedia has a useful little summary of Varma’s work, including a reference to Danny Boyle’s own statement about how he took ideas for the depiction of Mumbai’s underworld from Varma’s films. Varma’s work also involves Amitabh Bachchan and A R Rahman. This leads into another link since Rahman has been responsible for the scores of many Mani Ratnam films.

Mani Ratnam and Tamil Cinema: It seems inconceivable to me that in his Indian Cinema research, Danny Boyle would not have dug out (or been told about) the films of Mani Ratnam, who for me is the popular Indian Cinema director most likely to interest Western cinephiles. The communal riot scenes in Slumdog evoke the similar scenes in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1994), a commercially successful film in Tamil and then a controversial, but influential, film dubbed into Telugu and Hindi.

Music influences: A R Rahman scored Bombay and I wondered how he and Boyle worked together on Slumdog? He answers that question in a Screen International interview (16/1/2009). Perhaps not surprisingly, he didn’t get involved until a rough cut was ready. So, he didn’t in any way influence the shooting style, but he does say that he thinks that Slumdog “has a heart and soul that is very Indian”. Music and sound design are important elements of any film and are too often ignored. A R Rahman won his Golden Globe and I hope he gets the Oscar too. It’s interesting that Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting was successful in the UK for its music soundtrack as much as anything else. Indian commentators are already suggesting that sales of the Slumdog soundtrack will help drive audiences into the cinemas across India.

Mira Nair and Salaam Bombay: If I didn’t know that Slumdog was based on a novel, I would have been tempted into thinking that Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle had just lifted ideas wholesale from this wonderful film and then re-worked them in the style of Boyle’s UK films and the Indian films discussed above. Salaam Bombay! (UK/India/France 1988) was Mira Nair in her original documentary mode moving into fiction features with a story about slum children in Bombay who do various jobs to survive. A sub-plot includes an attempt by one of the boys to rescue a young girl trafficked into a brothel (which means going against the local criminal boss).  All these ideas turn up in Slumdog.

So, Slumdog‘s originality is not in its narrative material, but in the way that it is put together – by combining ideas from different types of Indian films, from Hindi Cinema past and present, from ‘regional’ cinema (I hate that term!) and from the diaspora cinema of Mira Nair with its European/North American shooting styles (Film Four was a producer on both Salaam and Slumdog). I don’t think anyone’s done that before. Gurinder Chadha made Bride and Prejudice (UK/US 2004), which I haven’t seen, but as far as I can tell it only used contemporary Bollywood ideas – am I wrong? Slumdog appears to me to be a genuine fusion film with elements from different Indian Cinema blended with British/Hollywood aesthetics. 

The proof will come with the Indian release on January 23. As I understand it, the English/Hindi soundtrack will be on prints for major urban areas, but there will be a Hindi dub for smaller towns. The Hollywood studio Fox is involved in the distribution and I hope they make Telugu and Tamil dubs as well. Much as I think Dev Patel does a good job as the lead character, he is definitely very English! One final point, Slumdog also makes excellent use of the new ideas for ‘subtitles’ – except now they are not necessarily ‘sub’ and pop up all over the screen – wherever they make more sense in the overall composition of the image.