Political Aesthetics in
Contemporary Cuban Filmmaking:
Fernando Pérez’s Madagascar and La vida es silbar
During the nineteen-nineties and most recently, international filmic productions have framed Havana and the Revolution era as motifs of numerous representational discourses based on Cuba. These fluctuate between diverse utopist representations, while others offer dystopic ones. Havana and ideology have become the most visible and tangible notions within the repertoire of traits attached to the myths of the Cuban nation. Many of these myths also approach themes of racial and ethnic identity, dance, music, religious syncretism, Cuban character, and most surround the social and cultural repercussions pertaining to Cuba’s dealings with its ideological and economical circumstances. Most recently the film documentary Balseros (Spain, 2002) by Spanish directors Carles Bosch and Josep M. Domenech was nominated for best documentary in the 2004 United States Academy Awards although it did not win. Its distribution will most probably shadow the success of Wim Wender’s Buena Vista Social Club (United States, 1999) among the run of Cuban-themed cinema of the late-nineties that globalized the situation in Cuba. (1) Many of these films portrayed the island through a variety of discourses: as a mystic place lost in time, as a proud pioneering socialist nation continuously battling capitalism and consumerism, a frozen dystopic post-Cold War victim of the socialist state, and even a nostalgic space of a wide range of ideologies from that of exilic nostalgia to those that demonstrated the difficult situation of the socialist state. One thing is certain, Cuba appears to fancy the gaze of not only the Western viewer but of the world.
In this essay I recapitulate and analyze recent filmic production that frames discourses on Havana and the Revolution within the frame filmmaking in Cuba. It analyzes two films by Cuban filmmaker Fernando Pérez, who is a representative of Revolution era production in Cuba. Pérez is only one of many Cuban filmmakers working in Cuba, the premise found here is that of an analysis of his films, Madagascar (1994) and La vida es silbar (1998).
Havana and Revolution in the Films of Fernando Pérez
These films have created the latest vision of the complexities of ideological rhetoric and real life drama pertaining to the present day Revolution era. The films utilize techniques of the cinema style of different periods of Cuban cinema and create metaphors for the traditionally appropriated national allegories of Cuban identity. Perez demonstrates a neither here nor there format in his films, as they are escapist and encompass metaphorical and metaphysical junctures that allow for expressions of the worlds of Cubans living on the island and those in the diaspora. The experiences of the Cubans that are still living within the territorial confines of the island are exemplified by experiences of living in an abyss of loss, separation, and isolation. These experiences are connected to the island’s geographical insularity yet more abstractly connected to the Revolution’s grip on the lives of Cubans. Perez’s audience identifies the nomadic experience expressed in his salient themes that connect the loss of home and homeland, even while still living on the island. The meaning of exile for Pérez acquires the texture of escape as expressed by his surreal techniques and abstract conceptual aesthetic.
Throughout the Revolution era, cinema has had various political roles. It has served as a didactic instrument to promote and explain the Revolutionary movement and its new social and political policies. In order to accomplish this promotion many of the documentary and feature length films have focused on viewer responses as a means of strengthening the Revolution’s hold. Beat Borter in his "Moving to Thought: The Inspired Reflective Cinema of Fernando Pérez" within Framing Latin American Cinema claims that "Pérez’s primary intention as a filmmaker is to create a cinema that provokes human and aesthetic emotions, moving a viewer to reflection" (Borter, 149). Much like the Imperfect Cinema movement of the early Revolution, Pérez strives for a response- oriented cinema that can allude to a neo-didactic evolution of the original goal of that cinema movement. However, as scholar Oscar Quirós has argued in his "Critical Mass of Cuban Cinema: art as the vanguard of society" found in Screen (37, 1996) more recent cinema of the Revolution markets a more "Perfect" Cinema that demonstrates an evolution of Marxist traditions in Cuba within a filmic mode that sides more along the lines of Hollywood rather than the Imperfect cinema style of the early Revolution era. In the two films discussed here viewers can observe elements that combine both Imperfect and Perfect Cinema style qualities. Pérez’s filmmaking focuses on reflection yet it is not shy in making use of the techniques that were avoided by the codes of early Revolution rhetoric.
In his previous productions, Clandestinos (1987) and Hello Hemingway (1991), Pérez already combined elements from both Imperfect and Perfect Cinema, an early accomplishment. He documented and allegorized the themes of the young Revolution by situating Havana during the sixties. In Madagascar and Life is to Whistle (La vida es silbar) however, there is a move from advocating, explaining, and touting the 1959 Revolution (more visible in the earlier films) onto a feeling of breathing, and deconstructing the day to day realities associated with life within Revolutionary Cuba. Beat Borter explains it as a move or shift:
Thus there is a shift from razonar to absorber, from arguing collective causes in order to mobilize people’s political consciousness to taking in, expressing, and reflecting on what is there and going on, prepared to see and express contradictions between the public and private, encompassing both political awareness and personal preoccupations, both emotions and individual reflection (Borter, 153).
With this accomplishment Pérez possibly creates a process that goes from mystifying to demystifying the Revolution as he personalizes through the recourses of character development and narrative structure. In both Madagascar and Life is to Whistle the characters have a deep relationship with the figurative representation of the Revolution. For the Laura characters (mother and daughter) in Madagascar and for most of the characters in Life is to Whistle the Revolution is symbolic of something personal and internal, experiences relevant to childhood and growing up.
In Madagascar (1994) the public and private spaces of daily life fluctuate from home to work, inclusive of the social responsibilities of civic consciousness tied to Revolutionary responsibility. Laura, the mother, fluctuates between the work space, the university, and the home space demonstrating an uncertainty about life relevant to ideology, family and personal journey. The three women in the house, Laura the main protagonist, her mother, an elderly woman, and Laurita, an adolescent daughter are seeking catharsis or life-changing experiences. These are presented through escapist imagery that is at times aerial and at others aquatic. The home is the site of a personal world in the lives of these three women living in contemporary Cuba. The work space, on the other hand, is an abyss of old rhetoric, repetition, obligation, and stagnation. In both spaces the metaphoric Cuban island and the city appear as wasteland. This world however, is complemented by an individual spiritual world which each holds inside, one that provides the catharsis necessary for daily survival.
This change or metamorphosis seen in both Laura and Laurita given their embrace of a new life is correlated to a need for change, possibly an impossible reality given their apparent impotence in terms of the political and civic repression. This metamorphosis takes the shape of a personal journey seen more clearly in the scenes of Laurita standing on top of the buildings of her neighborhood with open arms. The metamorphosis is also generalized by the replication of the same movement within the scene by dozens if not hundreds of citizens on top of other buildings, all chanting "Madagascar". A similar corollary will be analyzed later within the film Life is to Whistle, one in which the characters have fainting spells as they face specific events in their day to day routines.
In terms of cinematographic locations Madagascar relies on interesting movements within the exterior and interior locations of Havana. Streaming from the narrative the characters move from house to house; an apparent connection to the escapist metamorphosis mentioned above, but one that can also be connected to the reality Cubans face as they access the activity of permutar (house trading) in order to better their living situation. The home space in the film is usually illustrated by darkness and light; a focus on the location of windows and balconies is in opposition to the stagnant lives of the characters. These allow escape routes leading to rooftop spaces which permit views of the Havana cityscape, an act of freedom. Meanwhile the interior of the university is the darkest and most closed off; there seems to barely be a presence of life beyond the daily routine of sitting at the faculty conference room table and finishing the menial tasks at hand, within a dark and stuffy atmosphere. The trajectory of either moving (mudanzas) or daily movements for work or school is usually connected to industrial scenes of railroads and buses presenting a scorching picture of the devastated state of Havana’s surroundings. These exteriors are symbolic of potential movements, departures and arrivals to other places, possibilities within the escapist realm. They are significant of the destinations that relate to the insularity of places such as Cuba or Madagascar.
Pérez’s call to reflection, a directorial call for catharsis is one of the highlights of his filmmaking style. In scenes such as the blurry opening of Madagascar in which the viewer cannot distinguish the objects within the cinematic scope, later realizing that they are bicyclists riding through Havana, the director uses visual tension in order to draw the depiction of everyday life in Cuba. From the unclear and blurry to the translucent depiction of bodies, personal and collective spaces, Pérez’s filmic style utilizes sensorial experiences in order to have the viewer approximate life in Havana within the Revolution. (2)
Scholar Ann Mary Stock in her work argues time and again for a post-national consideration of Latin American Cinema and specifically situates the narrative within Madagascar as one in a perpetual state of migrancy. Although the film is national by definition, Stock argues that "Pérez jettisons historical chronology and territorial location. In doing so he challenges notions of identity as fixed, of cultures as authentic or inauthentic, and underlines instead the post-national state of migrancy" (Stock, 24).(3) Stock’s argument supports my analysis of exilic discourse seen through Pérez’s narrative use of migrancy within the film. Stock, however, does not propose that the theme of migrancy pertains to the exilic nature of Cuban culture (Pre and Post Revolution) nor ties it directly to the overbearing length of the Revolution. I propose that Pérez’s film postulates a post-national effort, yet it is one innately connected to the extra-territorial parts of Cuba, the diaspora. Furthermore, I would argue that Pérez’s narrative also establishes the existence of an interior exile for many Cubans living within the confines of the island, one based on nomadic feelings of homelessness and loneliness. This interior exile is directly correlated to the discourses that Pérez presents on the Revolution as seen through the dramatic recourse of the plot in Havana.
In Life is to Whistle (1998) the theme of migrancy again takes effect within Pérez’s reflexive style. The three protagonists Mariana, Elpidio, and Julia are bound by the unspoken sense of solitude within their personal journeys which is juxtaposed to the collective state of homelessness within the Havana cityscape, potentially symbolic of an interior exile. All characters are orphaned either as children or as a parents and this is demonstrated by feelings of homelessness connected to a sense of loss pertaining to parenthood, most times related to materhood. This is the case of the character Julia, a middle-aged woman who is suffering from sleeping and fainting spells. Mariana, a young ballet dancer has intimacy problems while striving for her dream role in a production of Giselle. Elpidio deals with the absence of Cuba Valdés.
During the initial sequence at a surreal orphanage school Cuba Valdés, (who later viewers realize is Elpidio’s mother) receives an abandoned child. The child, Bebé, establishes the symbolic silbar or whistling, a leitmotif representative of the freedom of expression. After her arrival as an orphan baby (proctored by Elpidio’s mother Cuba Valdés), Bebé develops a unique whistling pattern as a substitute to speech communication. This pattern simulates a worded expression, only understood by an adolescent Elpidio who communicated with Bebé through a similar whistling pattern that he learns. This opening sequence inside of a post-modern orphanage is completely set apart from the rest of the narrative that takes place in the cityscape of Havana. The site is contained within a multileveled warehouse which is empty and where echoes, sharp sounds, door slamming, and footsteps create an inquisitional style holding-cell atmosphere. It is reminiscent of a prison ward and more in line with an experimental lab, possibly alluding to the indoctrination of children under the Revolution.
Instruction at the orphanage school seems fun and light; mostly concerned with learning about "Cuban Culture" through a format which approaches devoting days to different cultural figures such as Bola de Nieve and Beny Moré. The theme that is spelled out during these lessons is "Igualdad" or equality. Children learn to spell "Igualdad" and repeat it incessantly. This reference to the indoctrination of ideology during the Revolution is based on the political factors of racial politics which Pérez alludes to in reference to racial and educational equality within the Revolution’s manifesto. Concurrently, Bebé’s whistling becomes a non-correctable communication problem, and she is separated from the other children. Her impossibility to adjust to the norm, in terms of the spoken word, creates a non-acceptable status for her. Her removal is parlayed into the opening sequence by having one of the assistants carry Bebé on her shoulder and descend in an open industrial elevator to an unknown. The depth of this scene observed through a dramatic descent is indicative of the general withdrawal or even elimination of non-acclimated citizens. Viewers later deduce that the omnipresent narrator which comments upon the storyline of all three main characters is Bebé. Her voice speaks from a position of exile, symbolic of the traumas associated with voices of counter discourse within Revolutionary Cuba.
Following the opening sequence the main storyline begins with the narration by the omniscient (Bebé) character. The three storylines are setup; Bebé’s voice speaks in a monologue and claims: "Estoy sola, La Habana también está sola". This statement is repeated throughout the film and makes allusions to the loss and homelessness of the characters. The narrative continuously jumps between the three storylines of Mariana, Elpidio, and Julia. In the first, Julia is introduced as a caretaker of the elderly working in one of the social centers for the aged in Havana. As she receives an award for her years of civil service, she undergoes sporadic attacks of yawning and sleeping spells. Julia’s yawning and sleeping spells, later complicated by fainting spells, become reason to see a psychologist. There is a parallel between both of the symptoms that overtake Bebé and Julia, a mother-daughter connection in the form of physical and non-controllable expression. For Bebé a unique natural form of communication leads her to have non-conformist status within the regulations of the totalitarian strands of the school/orphanage. In the case of Julia, previous events of her life lead her to demonstrate the uncommon psychosomatic reactions. Interestingly, as the doctor claims, these reactions: fainting spells, excessive sleepiness, and yawning are now common within Havana. Meanwhile, Elpidio as an adult lives in Havana doing menial jobs in order to survive. Immediately there is allusion to his trauma pertaining to Cuba Valdés’s (his mother’s) absence. There are two female tourists: one who partakes in efforts by Greenpeace and falls in love with Elpidio. By presenting stereotypical characters and repetitive situations, Pérez renegotiates the established Cuban allegories of the past in order to allow a more complicated reflection of the state of Cuban affairs.
Through these figurative narrative techniques there is a purposeful commentary on the status of the citizens of Havana under the rhetoric of the Revolution. Pérez presents the disruptive psyche of characters that are inserted into the Revolution era of the Havana drama, interestingly presented in what can be deciphered to be a touristic or travelling narrative. This narrative not only points to the tourism economy as a basis for Cuba’s day to day survival but also situates a nomadic discourse that situates the encounters of visitors and Cubans, sometimes developing relationships that encompass both cultural and economic exchange. By including an ensemble of secondary characters that are tourists or visitors (and are connected to the primary characters), Pérez not only shades the discourses pertinent to the state of the nation within a cultural touristic economy but also allows for a representation of the impressive transnational encounters that arise given Cuba’s political situation. Pérez presents the concept of jineterismo or hustling, a common practice in Special Period Cuba since the beginning of the dollarization (jineterismo’s meaning has expanded beyond a sexual and monetary exchange), as a part of the cultural imaginary. These encounters for Pérez not only represent the economic exchange but also portray the emotive weight of Cuba’s position. Following suit to his call to filmic response, Pérez represents everyday life in Havana under the light of catharsis, one nuanced by the components of the Cuban imaginary: religious syncretism, ideological exchange, friendship, and dealings with personal and collective trajectories.
Rather than offering solutions or developing a storyline with a specific conclusion, Pérez creates expectation for a grand scheme climax yet doesn’t present a cathartic climax but rather allows for reflection by bringing together the three characters who had never met. At their meeting site, the Plaza de la Revolución, none of their corresponding counterparts arrive, just leaving them with an encounter of their own pasts and therefore their futures. A symbolic crucifix that Mariana carries makes both Elpidio and Julia realize that they share a past connection. Elpidio’s reaction is to re-enact the communicative whistling which draws to a shared experience of conflicted child-parental relations or what I would argue is a perennial state of orphanhood.
The three primary characters are also charged with detailed characterizations that are pertinent to their analysis within the social-psychological. In order to receive the main role of the ballet Giselle, Mariana keeps a spiritual promise of abstaining from sex and love. Elpidio, meanwhile, tries to remove the ghost of his mother from his life by finally letting go and pursuing his love for the tourist. Elpidio is finally able to despojarse or shed off (in an Afro-Cuban religious sense) his ties to his mother. These were existent given Elpidio’s difficult time understanding his mother’s abandonment. One of the allusions that Pérez presents for the mother’s exilic disappearance is his lack of adherence to the ideals of the Revolution’s ideology of the hombre nuevo. Cuba Valdes’s abandonment or escape plays an abstract role in the symbolic of the film, one that may or may not be connected to Elpidio’s moral. Cuba Valdes’s exile can be read as a national exile, a city exile, or a maternal exile yet all under the exilic discourse of Cuban identity. Julia, on the other hand, works on breaking away from her repression based on her socially responsible life and the abandonment of her child. Through music and dance, presented under the light of comedic relief with a tinge of neo-surrealism, she finally begins to deal with the issues of intimacy related to "sex" and "love", words she could not previously hear without fainting.
The most interesting combination of scenes are the two climactic moments of the film, each different in its own way and possibly related to a call for reflection on behalf of Pérez. The first is a final encounter that Julia has with the psychologist during which he explains that she is not the only one suffering from the fainting and sleeping spells. He informs that Havana is suffering from this symbolic affliction, a Cuban dilemma. As Julia tries to escape from his explanation, the psychologist follows her through the streets of Havana while screaming the truths or nuestras verdades about the common maladies affecting the Cuban people. As he screams out these words pertaining to the Cuban psyche a sea of fainting people begin to appear within the cityscape of Havana. This is representative of the collective psychological trauma which Pérez indirectly connects to life under current day Cuba. Pérez plays with the population’s collective unconscious culpability. The traumatic words that create this affliction include libertad, doble moral, oportunismo, and verdad. It is interesting to consider that Pérez’s film uses the doctor’s outward burst of radicalism pertinent to his counter-discourse toward the "official" Revolution discourse as one that may cost him the suspension of his license to practice medicine given his openness of personal opinion.
The second climactic moment of the film is the final encounter of all three characters at the Plaza de la Revolución. The location of the scene is an important geographical and urban representation of the Revolution’s permanence on city landscape. This sequence is begins with Elpidio’s reactionary despojo of the relationship with his mother that is staged in the apartment in front of a shrine he has built typical to Afro-Cuban spirituality. As he finalizes the despojo and decides to journey to the Plaza de la Revolución for his meeting with the female tourist, there is a climactic change of musical rhythm which indicates a forthcoming resolution to the film plot. Interestingly, throughout the film Elpidio is transposed to the severed relationship he had (and continues having) with his mother. This relationship is represented by music, specifically through the remembrances of the music of Bola de Nieve she played when he was a child. At this moment, however, the rhythm changes beat as symbolic of the separation from his mother’s wrath and as a demonstration of his new call to action. Rather than the allegorical melodies of Afro-Cuban characterizations portrayed by Bola de Nieve, they encompass reactionary drum beats and spiritual movements more in tune with the African nature of Cubanness. Interestingly, the rhythm is the means to arrive at the Plaza of the Revolution, a metaphor for the Revolution itself. It may be considered symbolic that Afro-Cuban culture again is placed as the instrument of change in Cuba.
Pérez acknowledges the use of staging of black Cuban culture within popular culture at the beginning of this sequence. He establishes this by having Elpidio leave his home (after the despojo) and begin his journey through Havana en route to the Plaza de la Revolución. Yet as he runs through the streets there is a strong African beat in the background; he then arrives at a crossroad that has a solar or a tenement alley where Afro-Cubans are congregated having a descarga or a jam session. This aside, filled with black and mulatto musicians and dancers is charged with an extreme Afro-Cuban sensuality and is reminiscent to the many representations of this kind. Among them the scenes from P.M. (Pasado Meridiano) and the literary ones that have been observed in Carleton Beals and Cabrera Infante. As Elpidio journeys and stops to observe the scene there is an acknowledgement of the apparent "staging" of black Cuban culture within the Cuban cultural imaginary pertinent to Havana. This acknowledgement by the character is also symbolic to Pérez’s insertion of this "staging".
By utilizing these techniques Pérez situates the thematic of
Revolution era Cuban filmmaking, specifically those themes observed in
the cinema of the nineties, particularly in reference to director Tomás
Gutiérrez Alea’s Fresa y Chocolate (1993) and Guantanamera
(1995). Beyond this, Pérez also creates a space for the appearance of
some themes that appear within the trajectory Cuban filmmaking: a
Havana-centric aesthetic, the comedic style of choteo,
allusions to the style of Imperfect Cinema, the tradition of
melodramatic style, the juxtaposition of ideological discourses and
counter discourses, and a focus on highlighting the Afro-Cuban among
the racial and ethnic imprints representing the traits of Cuban
nationalism as a metaphor of Cuban identity.
(1). The Balseros documentary was acquired by HBO-Cinemax Documentary Films.
(2). Beat Borter offers further explanations about narrative interpretations of the film in his essay, "Moving to Thought: The Inspired Reflective Cinema of Fernando Pérez".
Borter, Beat. "Moving to Thought: The Inspired Reflective Cinema of Fernando Pérez". Framing Latin American Cinema. Minneapolis: U.P. Minnesota. 1997.
Stock, Ann Marie. "Migrancy and the Latin American cinemascape: towards a post-national critical praxis". Revista Canadiense de estudios Hispánicos. V.20, (1, Fall, 1995).