Cuban Cinema On and Off the Screen

By Enrique Colina

Translated by Michael Chanan

Enrique Colina, documentarist, film critic and television presenter, writes from Cuba.

In 1994 Cuba entered its fourth year of the so-called Special Period, a pious euphemism employed by the Cuban political leadership for the sad and frightening journey through the Stygian sea of defeated socialism and the mortifying rise of an ineluctable capitalism. In a broken-down boat, the journey has involved crossing a sea of public disquiet previously unknown to the peaceful and domesticated orderliness of Cuban socialism. Amid the free circulation of the dollar, inflation, the black market, the failure of the sugar harvest, the sinking of a sequestered boat, the stealing of others, and the riots in Havana during the ‘Hot Summer’, which provoked the authorisation of a massive exodus and the tragedy of the boat people, the year ended with a series of economic measures intended by the government to guarantee a controlled transition towards a market economy preserving what are called the ‘Conquests Of Socialism’, namely, public education and healthcare.

It is obvious that for a reality lacking the most basic necessities, cinema is in no way a pressing priority. In any case, the Cuban public has hardly been going to the cinema since this nightmare started. Lack of electricity, the bad condition of cinemas and the want of both foreign and home-made films has resulted in the closure of 80% of the cinemas throughout the country. To this can be added the scarcity of transport, which obliges people to remain at home, reducing their entertainment to the poor fare provided by the national television channels, watched on old black-and-white sets of obsolete Soviet technology.

Decolonisation of the screens – the ideological premise of the revolutionary cultural politics of cinema initiated by Cuban film institute ICAIC and its productions – which for years allowed varied international programming has been substituted today by dark auditoriums or the surreptitious recolonisation of Cuba by North American films, which are not subject to commercial controls because of the blockade, and which appear on television or circulate on video.

Nevertheless, ICAIC has managed to survive by providing services and co-producing with Europe and Latin America, which has made possible a number of feature films and short documentaries. We are clearly in crisis but can still say of Cuban cinema, borrowing the words of Galileo, that like one of those patched-up old crocks on the pot-holed streets of the city, ‘and yet, it moves!’

Editor’s note: Three new Cuban films have been seen in London in the past year, but only the extremely assiduous will have seen them. There was T.G. Alea’s Strawberry And Chocolate, which ran in London for only a few weeks but is now out on video (in Paris and Madrid it ran for six months or more); and for a few screenings each in the Metro’s Latin American Film Festival in September, there were Juan Carlos Tabio’s The Elephant And The Bicycle and Reina And Rey by Julio Garcia Espinosa. Let us hope we get a chance to see Alea’s new film, Guantanamera, which was shown at the Venice Film Festival.