The Double Morality of Cinema

By Julio Garcia Espinosa

Translated by Michael Chanan

Julio Garcia Espinosa was one of the founder members of the Cuban Film Institute, ICAIC, and later its head. He recently gave up the post to return to film-making. His latest work, just completed, is called The Shot. Filmed in video because of the current economic difficulties in Cuba, it deals with the coincidences and divergencies between a professor in film school and his students.

To analyse a film is like stripping it bare. But this is a strip-tease which reveals that the clothes are more important than the bare body. That cinema today is full of nudity does not mean that reality shows itself as it is. While the actors take their clothes off more and more, the characters increasingly put on disguises.

The search for a popular cinema has been the life, passion and death of not a few film-makers throughout the world. The search for alternatives in the face of the mass entertainment industry, in the face of falsely seductive technologies, in the face of negative drama, in the face of implacable structures which block the circulation of ideas, in the face of artistes whose masks go far beyond the demands of make-up – is a hazardous journey to find clean water in an increasingly contaminated sea.

From the start, cinema was accompanied by hope for the real democratisation of culture. It carried with it a chance to overcome the dichotomy between two cultures, intellectual and sentimental, that is, between high culture and popular culture. But the modern Phoenicians adopted private enterprise with an aggressivity worthy of better causes. They not only declared themselves impotent to overcome the division of culture, but offered dazzling trinkets to the natives of every continent in the world. They managed, through their unfortunate control of the market, to treat the average spectator in Paris. They turned us all into a kind of brotherhood of thankful fools. In their eagerness to respond to a continually growing demand, cinema flooded the most fertile lands. Once there were national cinemas, authentic personalities, pluralism on the screen. Today the frontiers have disappeared and we have been converted not into world citizens but world spectators.

Cinema will soon celebrate its first 100 years and Latin America still does not have solid and stable film industries. Almost 100 years ago it began calling out in the wilderness, declaring its right to make films. The only thing to have happened is that after 100 years Western Europe also declares its right to make films. Today it turns out that an English film is just as exotic as a film from Ecuador. Today Europe is trying to assert its nationalism through international means, to recover its own markets, reclaim economic autonomy and fight for space on the screens of the world. The same as Latin America asked for Europe’s solidarity. It still does, but it also offers solidarity to Europe.

Latin America has been trying to make films ever since film was invented. Brazil has just celebrated 90 years of film-making. Cuba has been involved in cinema since it started: images of the war of liberation from Spain, which started in 1895, were filmed for the first newsreels. And today we are still treated more as subjects of information than of culture.

Confronting colonialism

In the 40s, three Latin American countries established film production industries. Mexico, Argentina and Brazil managed to demonstrate that a Latin American cinema was capable of appealing to Latin Americans. The formula was simple but effective: music, Creole comedy and melodrama. I wasn’t bad to start with. Above all, it makes nonsense of the stale old argument that new cinemas cannot prosper because they don’t appeal to their own audiences. In those years European cinema too developed its own strength and several countries created authentic national styles. For a time it seemed as it everyone in the world might be enriched by films from everywhere in the world. But while European cinema became an undisputed part of film culture in Latin America, in Europe the cinema of Latin America scarcely made a mark.

As for the Americas, in the year 2000 the Latin American population will reach 800m, with more than 400m Spanish-speakers, including 25m in the US. Will we remain separated, as now? Should not a culture with shared origins become a motive for union? Is this only economic union? Could there be conciliation between cultural and economic affairs?

In the 60s, Europe gave us the shoulder. Not through ignorance. On the contrary. Its critics, intellectuals and film-makers celebrated the rise of the New Latin American Cinema. Festivals and special seasons created a space where these films were seen and sensed to be part of a whole cultural movement. We emerged, fundamentally, from Italian neo-realism, and felt that this feedback enriched everyone. But if there was a cultural opening, the economic doors remained closed. Political doors even more so. For what happened was not just a matter of cinema.

The 60s were a turning point for the whole globe. They were years which demonstrated that reality was capable of transformation. The colonial system collapsed, impeding the smooth passage of neo-colonialism – a system which changes nothing. Asia, Africa and Latin America all produced stunning examples of how it was possible to become free of old and anachronistic forms of dependency. Once more the poor of the earth contributed to global renovation. The will to change also shook the pillars of post-war social projections. Workers, students and minorities in the most developed countries came together with the forces of imagination and liberation. Briefly, the silent majorities ceased being so. The world breathed afresh.

In those years Latin American cinema appeared an authentic option of the vanguard. Artistic films were also popular in cinema in the 60s. Never was there seen in Latin American cinema such a shared spirit, so much variety, so many different opportunities, so much genuine pluralism. Cultural significance could be found equally in a well-made Brazilian feature and a technically limited film from Bolivia, documentary as well as fiction, contemporary themes and period films. Self-expression was the product of real necessity; the objective was not success but the renewal of communication, conscience was not confused with self-censorship, the search was never simply formalist, the film-maker engaged in struggles both internal and public. Cinema in Latin America occupied a place alongside the political vanguard, along with tendencies which demanded the definitive liberation of our countries and which confronted every type of colonialism, including, of course, cultural colonialism.

In Cuba, the Revolution produced wonders. The spectator stopped being part of a captive public, hegemony retreated and the screens were nourished by films from everywhere. National production enjoyed the encounter with its natural audience. Latin American cinema discovered a place in the world where it could confront other cinemas as an equal. Cinema spread throughout the country, no longer the cultural privilege of the big cities. And it never ceased to surprise us that such basic things should cause us surprise.

But the world, as usual, did not march forwards in a straight line towards the future. It was more like a spiral out of control.

For some, the 60s were not years of joy but of panic. The tide soon turned. The Fausts of this world (and there are not a few) sold their souls. Not even to regain their youth but just the appearance of it. Appearances won out. The economies of the rich countries recovered their growth only by divorcing themselves even more from human need. To be or not to be was not the problem. To have or not to have was the question. It was as if reality entered a mirror and what came out was only its image. Everything in reverse. The spirit of retrogression took on the appearance of the spirit of change. The road to privatisation was lit up with fairy lights. The right started talking the language of radicals. The artistic pretensions of advertising became more refined. The first reaction was scepticism. Then brazen cynicism set in.

Since then, our intelligence has come to be tested by our readiness to surrender. The cultural colonialism of the supermarket tries to present itself as liberation. The audiovisual household has grown and imposes the implacable uniformity of old and new illusions. The renewal of old habits becomes the only survivor of the revolution. Fashion becomes essence and the essential becomes fashion. Not to take on this world-in-reverse is to decline contemporaneity, to renounce modernity, to refuse to be citizens of the 21st century.

Diversity as uniformity

In truth, Europe was in no condition to look this way. In the 60s the North American film corporations closed the transnational circles they began long before by setting up branches to look after their own exhibition. Soon these subsidiaries began to offer their services as international distributors to European producers. The eagerness for these ready-made facilities was decisive in the loss of initiative and autonomy of European cinema. Already in the 60s the transnationals determined production and stories, even produced films using European capital.

Logic is logic. There were good reasons: defence of freedom of expression, of human rights, of indispensable pluralism. But the law of capital is the law of the jungle in disguise. Latin America watched in amazement how in the 70s and 80s European film industries which had enriched our lives collapsed. Today we are witnessing the unexpected, as the problem of national culture ceases to be a concern only of Third World countries. The multiplication of the media – colour TV, video, cable, satellite – more than enough to expand the cinema as the extension of multiple but particular realities, all this has served to promote, with ever increasing mockery, the double morality of cinema.

The diversity of channels is no more than a disguise for uniformity of programming. Technological innovations serve to simulate innovations in language. Populist cinema wears the mask of popular cinema. Cinema as art feigns ignorance that it is sustained by a pile of manure. It only appears to be cinema, when it is merely a cheap novel, a vaudeville act, an itinerant circus. High art and popular culture were never so far apart.

The best North American cinema has also fallen victim to this limitless voracity, this economic dynamic which benefits one very small per cent of artistic talent and the work-force. Hollywood is living a fatal dead end, a total incapacity to make adult films. Hitchcock used to say, ‘Cinema is not a slice of life, it’s a piece of cake’ and, according to Sam Goldwyn, ‘Messages are for Western Union.’ It would be possible to compete with such simple entertainment if it didn’t condition every corner of our lives. But sex, action, stars and special effects are the indispensable recipes for success. The cry goes up: ‘Failed film-makers of the world, unite!’

An African film-maker has said, ‘Since we don’t have a film industry, we don’t have to make commercial films. Since we don’t have a state film industry, we don’t have to make propaganda films. The problem is, we don’t have any cinema.’

It’s true that freedom of expression can be suffocated by the state, but no less true that in private enterprise this freedom belongs to the enterprise, not the individual. Why do much triumphalism about private enterprise and so much intellectual terrorism about state intervention?

The first problem is to make films with economic autonomy and their own artistic personality. This is the most basic and concrete right. Joaquin Pedro de Andrade died without shooting the film which had cost him seven useless years.

Entire countries are waiting to make their first feature film. Private, state-funded or in a mixed economy, no matter. What matters is that the debate should not be restricted to the majors, and the fate of millions of viewers should not be disputed only among superpowers. There is talk about the fourth age of cinema, when the majority of countries still have only the most modest levels of production. The 100 years of cinema must not be lauded with technological frenzy, but for its capacity to enable the whole world to see and make films.

Waste and regressions

Perhaps Europe, our cultural cradle, can become more sensitive to these realities today. Perhaps Europe, which has never suffered underdevelopment, is beginning to understand its humiliation and dependency a little better. Perhaps film-makers in Europe, Latin America, everywhere, are beginning to think more of cinema than themselves.

The rotation of the world does not depend on electronics, but on the definitive liberation of the peoples of the Third World, and access to cultural and economic improvement by the 4,00m inhabitants of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The hamburger comes from Hamburg. According to Armand Mattelart, the hamburger, which appeared in the Middle Ages, was imported to the US by German emigrants. Today it returns to its homeland impregnated with an image of modernity and universality. Thus do the transnationals hand back to people their own traditions wrapped in cellophane.

It is said that the new generation aspires to an international culture. Here, too, disguise must give way to reality. There clearly exist conditions for true and legitimate interdependence. But international culture must not be confused with transnational uniformity. If the enrichment of universal culture cannot be achieved through the impoverishment and disregard of national cultures, neither can these become enriched through subjugation and hegemony by no particular culture at all.

There are two problems often ignored. One is the culture of waste, known as consumerism, which infiltrates our lives to the point of no resistance. It is known that the culture of waste is creating serious and irreversible ecological problems in the world; that this type of consumerism is incompatible with satisfaction of the basic necessities of many nations; that it has to do with external debt, with unequal terms of trade; that it is the real drug of the 20th century. This is known, but there also endures a suicidal inertia towards the problem. And double morality allows its daily celebration. The social project which impoverishes us is presented as the future image of our very abundance.

The other problem, in this sad story of save-yourselves-those-who-may, is that we have moved from self-deprecation to self-destruction. In effect, nobody now needs to destroy us, the means of our destruction are in our own hand. We are being increasingly conditioned both to wipe out our historical memory and to decline the effort to understand true contemporaneity. Cinema, the press, the media in general, are all complicit in this culture regression, shamelessly flying the flag of double morality.

There is talk of a free press when in realty the press is the slave of advertising, which means the transnationals. Talk of the brilliance of advertising when the reality is a hamburger to beat all hamburgers. Of the free flow of information when information flows unequally. The real flow is from a few industrialised centres out to the rest of the world. The volume of information transmitted from Latin America to the US is insignificant compared to the reverse. It is in the countries of the Third World where this inequality is most obvious. Worse still, what information there is about our realities is distorted, twisted, minimised. Who does all this benefit?

Yes, the boundaries of the periphery are being broken down, the world is growing more off-centre, we are not alone in the growing banality. European magazines which previously dealt with human values now give entire editions over to laughable reports and shameless joking about high society. In North America, equipped with the most powerful media of communication in the world, the people are the most ill-informed in the world. Nor is it the image of the North American people which encircles the world, but that of a life style invented by the transnationals.

The economic consequences have become insupportable. Countries have had to change their diet for the benefit of transnational food giants; or abandon traditional medicine for the benefit of the drug companies. The World Health Organisation has had to intervene to stop the advertising of certain baby foods in countries which have no supply of drinking water.

What freedom? Freedom to speak but not change anything? There are statistics about it all, data of every kind, hundreds of books, endless meetings, seminars, discussions. All of it comprises a form of cultural domination which impedes action in the field of high culture as much as popular culture.

Nevertheless it is possible that the hands of clock are not going backwards. That cowardice and impotence are retreating. That scepticism and sarcasm are going out of fashion. There are certain social conditions. The new international economic order is inevitably accompanied by a new international information order and a new international information order and a new international culture. The world is for everyone else or no solutions are possible.

Film-makers pledged to these utopias do not stay hooked on success. They know that a popular cinema is today a minority cinema. They know that a small public today is the only guarantee of having an adult public tomorrow, free and possessing inalienable self-respect. They know that the search for a popular cinema is today the possibility of putting an end to double morality in cinema and in life.