Towards Impossible Cinema: Documentary Film and Avant-garde in Cuba

Hand in hand with the radical political changes that swept Cuba in the 1960s and in the spirit of the relentless opposition to the cinematic politics and aesthetics of Hollywood, a new cinema was born, with documentary film at its core. The retrospective programme Cuban Revolutionary Film, curated in association with Cinemateca de Cuba in Havanaand the renowned connoisseur of Latin American cinema, professor Michael Chanan, provides a cross-section of the Cuban new wave, with an accent on its documentary filmmakers – such as the iconic Santiago Álvarez, Manuel Octavio Gómez, Julio García Espinosa and the first Cuban female director Sara Gomez. It also features a selection of the pivotal titles by foreign filmmakers who fostered an intense relationship with Cuba during the turbulent sixties (Agnès Varda, Chris Markerand Joris Ivens). After the revolution in 1959, the national film industry clustered around the newly established ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos). Despite the pressures to ideological conformism, the post-revolutionary Cuban films remain spared of the numbingly rigid socialist realism typical of the Stalinist period in Eastern Europe, engendering one of the all-time most innovative and socially committed cinematic movements.

The most subversive among the represented filmmakers is definitely Santiago Álvarez, a passionate documentarian and the founder of the Cuban Film Institute, a chronicler of Cuban and American culture to which Jean-Luc Godard dedicated the second chapter of his magnum opus Histoire(s) du cinéma. His technique of ‘nervous editing’ and collaging found footage such as clips from old Hollywood movies, animations and photographs are a precursor to contemporary video art and music videos. Another is Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, whose Memories of Underdevelopment opened the edition of Subversive Film Festival dedicated to a tribute to 1968. This essentially fiction film also abounds in documentary footage, newsreel clips, censored recording and materials made by a hidden camera. From the first to the last, 10thanniversary edition of Subversive Festival, we drew a ‘Caucasian chalk circle’ (to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht), examining the fate of socialism, pacifism and internationalism in the neoliberal cacophony that is our life, analysing film not as a mass consumer product or a pure aesthetic artefact, but rather as a powerful tool for raising awareness and changing the dominant social, economical and cultural status quo.

The Cuban retrospective embodies this vision centred on conscientização, a popular educational and social concept based on the post-Marxist critical theory designed and developed by the Brazilian pedagogue and education theorist Paulo Freire (see: Pedagogia do Oprimido, 1968). The films we screen are not only important historical documents providing shrewd socio-anthropological insights, but also powerful, innovative artistic pieces covering a broad spectrum of subject matters pertaining to the Cuban revolution: from the excitement and hope of a young socialist nation, through fierce struggle, to a satirical take on the legacy of the revolution.

The titles in this retrospective delineate the turbulent history of this island state, from the War of Independence, to the rebellion against general Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, to the failed American invasion in the Bay of Pigs, to Che Guevara’s revolutionary activities. The films can be read in their contemporary context as well, in the light of Fidel Castro’s recent death, making the future of Cuba as the final bastion of communism in the global neoliberal quotidian utterly uncertain. Beyond agitprop, a belief is reflected that cinema is the best art to convey revolutionary ideas which refuse to subscribe to a dogma or an ideology. All the represented authors ignore the sanctions of the past and the current regimes, by juxtaposing the strategies of memory (counter-memory), ideals and the courage of truth (parrhesia) to contemporary necro-politics and the tireless murmur of the speech of death.