Sunday, 6/30/2019

The Power of Antithesis: Cuba

Latin American Cinema at FILMFEST MÜNCHEN

The Power of Antithesis: Cuba


Latin America is undergoing political change at an alarming rate. As if wanting once again to do justice to its historical role as imitator and "backyard" of the United States, a neoliberal and right-wing populist rollback is sweeping the continent. This phenomenon is most striking in Brazil, but in nearby countries such as Chile and Argentina, an era of left-leaning government has also suddenly given way to thriving platforms of solidly right-wing politics. The effects have been felt immediately in the cultural realm and in cinema in particular. This is distressing news, but it's also good news, since the continent's filmmakers are coming together to form an effective counterforce that instills fear in the powerful.

Cuba: Leaving Behind the Relics of Utopia

Against the backdrop of increasingly radicalized scenarios, one small country — Cuba — manifests itself as a steadfast relic from a different era of utopian beginnings. Coinciding with the 500th anniversary of the founding of its capital, Havana, this country is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its victorious socialist revolution this year. And even though its historical leaders, Fidel and Raul Castro, no longer manage the affairs of state, the pangs of upheaval appear at first glance to be distant from the reality of Caribbean socialismo tropical. Nevertheless, there's an indication, particularly from the island's filmmakers, of the extent to which the old structures are undergoing profound changes. This year, FILMFEST MÜNCHEN is showing three films from Cuba that form a kind of triptych about the island's past, present, and future.

Cuba and the past: Twenty years after his cult film LIFE IS TO WHISTLE came out, Fernando Pérez is showing his period transgender drama DEFIANT SOULS, which he made with young Swiss co-director Laura Cazador. This film tells a true story from the 19th century. Swiss physician Henriette Faber arrives in Cuba disguised as a man, campaigns against the continuing practice of slavery, and even marries a Cuban woman. The revelation of Faber's identity was one of the biggest scandals ever to hit Cuba's society and justice system. At the same time, this story of a distant past also reveals consistently racist, homophobic, and patriarchal attitudes that, in spite of official rhetoric about equality, still subtly influence the present.


Cuba and the present: The documentary TO WAR by young Argentinian director Francisco Marise is the psychological profile of a generation that sacrifices its youth to the goal of establishing a new society and gambles their lives in service of the ideals of the Cuban revolution. Ex-soldier Mandarria has fought in two wars on the international mission of Cuban socialism and even now is preparing day by day for a possible American invasion. The fact that this fighting machine of old is now an aging veteran motivated only by memories of his former comrades in arms, while the young generation has already forgotten their efforts to build a better world, amounts to a tragic portrait of a lonely warrior.

Cuba and the future: In THE EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY OF CELESTE GARCÍA, his whimsical first film as director, young scriptwriter Arturo Infante introduces us to an aging former schoolteacher who's had to take a job as a guide at the local planetarium, and extraterrestrials who have lived among the local population. Suddenly the boundless expanse of intergalactic capitalism collides head-on with everyday socialist bureaucracy. Not even the future and science fiction can offer any other prospects than a return to the eternal condition in this earthly human comedy.

The fact that three films that are so fresh and that are able to include several generations of filmmakers can be made in today's Cuba has mainly to do with fundamental changes in the way that films are being produced. Until recently, the country's entire film industry was controlled by a central state-run film institute; now, however, true independent cinema exists. International artistic collaborations are also leading to a brand-new style of filmmaking. This is a process that also reflects a fundamental change in society, even beyond the film industry, and that provides courage in an age of intensified nationalism and authoritarianism — not only on the last island of bygone utopias.

Florian Borchmeyer