Soya-lism or Death!

By Monica Henriquez

The young man’s enthusiasm was contagious. He was a student from my old university in Caracas on his first trip to Cuba. I felt a little envious: 20 years ago I had been initiated into politics at my somewhat eccentric convent school – nuns in trousers, the first ripples of Liberation Theology. I can still remember me my pals in our school uniform taking flowers to hunger strikers, ex-guerrillas trying to change the world by other means. My generation had come a little bit too late, a product of the Barbie doll, but still heavily influenced by ideas of the Cuban revolution. The student sitting next to me on the plane was younger, far more pragmatic.

We were heading for the Havana Film Festival, leaving behind a bombed city. Only days before Venezuelans had woken up to the rattle of gunshots and Mirages circling the sky; it had been the second coup attempt within ten moths. Travelling to Cuba on the revolution’s 32nd anniversary made us think of our own 33 years’ social democratic wreckage. Was that it?

Corruption, ebt, IMF, social Darwinism and then the inevitable coups? My student friend was strangely more optimistic. Between horror stories of the last few days, he talked of the pencils and teaching aids his group had brought for the Cubans. My own suitcase was filled with dried milk bags, cooking oil, toiletries and a print of my first film.

Havana is a city of car-less streets, a product of the collapse of Soviet aid – euphemistically called the special period. I see the famous bicycles, Cuba’s Chinese-imported solution to petrol shortages. The few buses in operation are overflowing with people, making my own air-conditioned comforts all the more conspicuous. Yet I am relieved that, special period or not, Havana is still a magnificent Caribbean city. The Hotel Nacional has been modernised since my visit back in 1986. The taps now work, American comforts all round, down to the usual hotel toiletries and even a complimentary shower cap.

I deliver the film at the offices of the Cuban Institute of Cinematography (ICAIC), and on my way back to the hotel I think about how, in the midst of this terrible crisis, the still manage to sustain the Festival; a chance for us to meet, exchange ideas and see the work of other Latin American film-makers. Year in, year out, for the last 14 years – such commitment. There is no reason why another richer country couldn’t have done it. Venezuela perhaps? Not a chance in hell... Come on then, stop brooding, there is work to do, posters to hang, leaflets to distribute. Don’t just stand there, talk to people...

It is a smaller Festival in comparison with previous years. Fewer films, fewer guests and no parties every night; a much more subdued affair befitting the new constraints. Many generations of film-makers walk the corridors of the Nacional, the now-venerable pioneers of the new Latin American cinema, their younger colleagues, the hopefuls like myself and the students such as my friend from the plane. Some lived through the Cuban revolution, others had a good go at it elsewhere; the exhausted, the cynical and the ones who just stood by. I was surrounded by this vast continent with all its dreams and its failures. If we are lucky, the films will deal with that.

For visitors, the special period is somewhat distant, meaningless. Cubans talk about it constantly – shortages, shortages, no this, no that. It comes to you in nuances, gestures, but it surely comes. Missing lunch, I grab a toasted sandwich in the bar. I join a group of Cuban film-makers and invite them to a round of drinks. We talk and I pick at my sandwich, forcing myself to eat. An hour later bits of my sandwich remain. From across the table somebody asks me if I am going to finish it. Can she have it? I had assumed they all had lunch, totally oblivious to the fact that in these hotels you need dollars to eat something. I can’t believe my insensitivity, but it is now too late.

I watch the new Eliseo Subiela film El Lado oscuro del corazón (The Dark Side Of The Heart). It deals with love and death interspersed by Uruguayan Mario Benedetti’s poetry. Displaying all the anxieties of a true Sureño (Southerner, for us Caribbean citizens), the main character Oliverio is a tormented poet, a failure by choice. He is in search of a woman capable of beating the laws of gravity, a woman like Ana – a prostitute from a Montevideo bar – who can fly. Meanwhile he exchanges tacky love poems for food and watches a toy train go round and round. In Latin America you can’t move for Oliverios, lost in notions of womanhood of their own making: life, death, mothers and prostitutes... How very tiresome!... And yet, perhaps due to Subiela’s ability to confront his characters, after 128 minutes I am enthralled by Oliverio, by Benedetti’s poems and by Ana’s will to fly – leaving behind charming Oliverio.

The next morning, I eventually triumph over the phone system and get through to the family of some Caracas friends. Would I like to come for lunch? Thinking about the shortages I decline but suggest a meeting in the afternoon. I arrive loaded with shopping bags and place them in a discreet corner. There is no further talk about them, who wants to talk about cooking oil? Despite my efforts, they have delayed lunch for me. The father is an old communist, mother an anti-communist and the daughter somewhere in between. We have a good laugh as they show me the rationing book, the tiny shampoo bottle or the one pair of knickers, part of their yearly entitlement. We talk of the health system, education and, inevitably, the blockade. I sense their own tiredness with those arguments. We talk of Venezuela, we compare and contrast.

The Havana Film Festival is not exactly Cannes. There is a Latin American market, the MECLA, but this year very few foreign buyers are present, everybody agrees that Europe and North America are closing their doors. Nevertheless you are meant to talk to the odd Japanese or French TV representative to try and whip up some interest in your film. They have set interests and slots to fill which on the whole respond to a particular perspective on Latin America. For film-makers who are starting out, the pressure to conform in order to fund future funding is daunting. Inevitably you feel very self-conscious, will this be my first and last movie? I hear myself embarking on a sale and pitch cringe. Tattered egos running for cover – or the bar – are a common feature all around.

For the major league players it is a different story. The Argentinean contingent dominates this year’s Festival. Fernando SolanasEl Viaje (The Voyage) and Adolfo Aristarain’s Un Lugar En El Mundo (A Place In The World) provide different ways of dealing with the stumbling blocks of the 60s generation. El Viaje is a monumental film that follows the travels of a young student from Tierra del Fuego to Mexico. On his bicycle, Martin discovers Latin America, but he also witnesses its destruction. The film is operatic in scope, not frightened of using fantastic characters or crude metaphors: inconclusive Americo, a shit-covered Buenos Aires or the Organisation of Kneeled Countries. El Viaje’s strength is its willingness to tackle the ansurdities of Latin American politics head on. Its anger and refusal to collapse into grovelling hopelessness make the film refreshing.

The dialogue between generations continues in Aristarain’s Un Lugar En El Mundo. Twenty-year-old Ernesto returns to a village tucked away in the Argentinean mountains where he spent much of his childhood. He remembers his first love and his parents’ struggles to keep some integrity to their lives. Heavily involved with the Peronist resistance movement in the 60s, they ended up exiled in Spain. Returning, they no longer try to change the world, just to look for a place in it. It is a film about the defeat of a generation, but also about the ways in which their ideals are passed on to the next.

I am becoming more and more obsessed by shortages and by the huge power that dollar bills grant me. You might sneer at such liberal guilt – after all inequalities and Latin America are synonymous – still I find it difficult to discuss the finer points of film-making with people who perhaps that morning could not manage breakfast. Despite my obsessions, I enjoy a day with some writer friends. By now it’s becoming simpler. What do you need? Toilet paper, coffee, rum?... Fine I’ll get it. Once again a Cuban family invites me to share their weekly ration of rice, beans and a soya-based type of mince – special period replacement for meat. They crack the first joke of the afternoon, Soya-lism or death! and we all roar in laughter. We go through the arguments, but this time I find people who, after a lifelong commitment to the revolution, are now thinking of giving it all aup. The man could make a lot of money in the black market fixing radios, but he doesn’t want to, he wants to write. The woman works as a publisher, but there is no printing paper on the whole island. I want something else for my child, she tells me. I despair.

On my last day I awake overwhelmed with sadness. The night before I had finally decided to ditch the sentimental revolution of my youth; that ridiculous little girl with her flowers. Contenente de mierda! where everything is destined to fail. I have asked Maria, the hotel maid, to come by early. I give her my last bag of dried milk and some toiletries. She tells me, next time you visit Cuba please bring me – I think of lipstick, perfume perhaps? – a book, a book in any language. Her New Year’s resolution will be to learn French or English. I smile and watch my neat counter-revolutionary plan of the previous night crumble. Nothing, after all, is that simple.


George Szirtes

Out of this single moment a window opens
and out of the lens or the gun a sadness spurts
and all the broken glass and the spent cases,
the taps and sinks, loose shutters and other patterns
assume a statuesque pose, turn stone faces
to the present whose silence hurts
because it’s sweet with the smell of distance.

Out of harm’s reach and arms’ way,
perched on the edge of the picture,
the world is full of air,
remaining on display
and yet untouched. Here corpses stare
at the live record and the architecture
of the body rises to a passion at the trigger.

The dead swim through their pictures. Their grey water
soaks our hair as we dream of where we were
while others are still fighting, smoking, posing
before buildings in unexplored quarters
of the city and a shutter keeps opening and closing
to trap them in mere words, but our lips blur
as they meet and there is nothing left to tell.