This week Alfredo Guevara, the father of revolutionary Cuba’s film industry, died of a heart attack at the age of 87. The N.Y. Times obituary was refreshingly honest about the role he played:
A committed Fidelista, Mr. Guevara nevertheless insisted that art should not be subservient to politics.
“Propaganda may serve as art, and it should,” he was quoted as saying. “Art may serve as revolutionary propaganda, and it should. But art is not propaganda.”
Filmmakers credit Mr. Guevara with fending off censors and overseeing films that criticized Mr. Castro’s Cuba. He was at the center of fierce debates between artists and communist ideologues, clashing with Blas Roca, a powerful member of the Communist Party leadership, in the early 1960s in a public row over the role of culture in politics.
“He had to confront a lot of polemic,” Mr. Pineda Barnet said. “And if a polemic didn’t find him, he went looking for it.”
Despite such films as “Lucia”, “Memories of Underdevelopment”, and “Strawberry and Chocolate” that defied characterizations of Cuban cinema as propaganda machines, there is still a tendency to lump Castro’s Cuba with Stalin’s USSR, as if the typical Cuban movie was about a sugar mill meeting its quota. While one would naturally expect this from the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, it is disconcerting to see the same sort of reductionism at play in the writings of one Samuel Farber, a Cuban-American professor emeritus at Brooklyn College and a self-described socialist.
His new book “Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: a Critical Assessment” paints the picture of a totalitarian dungeon where young people were not permitted to listen to the Beatles and where “socialist realism” was imposed on all the arts. He had a big problem with the “police novel”, a genre I was not familiar with that supposedly made Cuban cops the heroes who save the day. But I am more familiar with Cuban film, an area that can be described as a lacuna in Farber’s work—to borrow a word from an MLA Convention.
The other night I got an eye-opening view of the kind of movie being made in Cuba today that has little to do with Farber’s heavy-handed Cold War demonization. The wife and I were surfing around Netflix and HBO On Demand looking for a good movie and we stumbled across something called “Juan of the Dead” (Juan de la Muerte), a joint Cuban-Spanish production that sounded right up our alley. We are both fond of horror movies, a shared passion that has helped to keep our marriage strong just as much as our hostility to Wall Street malfeasance.
It was described as a Zombie movie in the “Shawn of the Dead” mold, a film we very much enjoyed. What can be better than watching a hero sinking a machete into a zombie’s skull while making wisecracks?
We weren’t prepared, however, for the biting social satire that is far more subversive than anything seen in “Strawberry and Chocolate”, the 1993 film that took aim at homophobic attitudes among the Cuban middle bureaucracy.
Directed by the 34-year-old Alejandro Brugues, it stars Alexis Díaz de Villegas as the eponymous Juan, who participates in what economists call the “informal economy”. In the opening scene, Juan and his sidekick Lazaro (Jorge Molina) are out spearfishing in the waters near Havana but not having much luck at it. Since the fish will be sold in the market, coming up empty-handed presents economic problems. When Lazaro tells Juan that they should go to Miami to have a better life, Juan replies: “No way, I’d have to work in Miami”. That’s the first sign of a film that dares to depict life as it is in Cuba today, rather than some socialist realist tract.
Juan adds, “I am a survivor. I survived Mariel, Angola and the Special Period.” When I heard this, I sat up and took notice. Even someone like me who is used to Cuban filmmakers pushing the envelope could hardly believe his ears.
Once Juan is back at his apartment building, he runs into the elderly Yiya who prevails upon him to help her bring groceries up to her apartment. When the elevator gets stuck between floors as it does customarily, Juan helps her climb up from the elevator car. This was a pointed reminder that Cuban apartment buildings are not in the best of shape, something that somehow eluded the Cuban censors that were supposedly biting at the bit to put directors like Brugues into jail and then throw away the key.
A little later when Juan and Lazaro are chatting about neighborhood women they’d like to sleep with, a certain Sara’s name comes up. Lazaro asks, “What does Sara do?” Juan replies that she is a blogger. “Oh,” says Lazaro, “one of those people who write nonsense on the Internet”. One suspects that these slackers might have the same opinion of Yoni Sanchez whose goal seems to be to transform Cuba into Miami.
As Lazaro, Jorge Molina is convincingly debased—a kind of masturbating Sancho Panza. Like the director, Molina is not some kind of cookie-cutter Stalinist even though he studied film in the USSR when it still existed. His thesis film was an anti-Catholic diatribe and his more recent films are filled with sex and violence. There’s a trailer for Ferozz, his latest film, on Youtube that is described: “A young, attractive widow is protected from her vicious mother-in-law, by a male relative who practices Satanism, and lusts after the old woman’s sexy adolescent granddaughter.” Not in conformity with socialist realist principles, is it?
Later that evening, Juan and Lazaro show up for the weekly meeting of the neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Lazaro asks why they bother. Juan replies that he likes the tradition even though the business of the committee is more about putting an end to stealing car radios than training in militias. As the committee chairwoman is going down the agenda, a fierce pounding on her front door can be heard from within the house. The source of the pounding is her husband Carlos who finally smashes down the door and lurches toward the first living body he can sink his teeth into. Juan and Lazaro stop him in his tracks with a well-delivered blow to the head.
We find out from Cuban television what the source of the problem is. The walking dead are manifestations of an outbreak of “disorder” in “social discipline” that will ultimately be revealed as “dissidents” supported by Yankee imperialism.
As the plague spreads and the island begins to look like a weekly episode of FX’s hit series “The Walking Dead”, Juan and Lazaro—denizens of the informal sector—decide to launch a small business. They will kill zombies for a modest fee on behalf of those families too emotionally attached to the undead relative to strike their own blow.
When asked by the Little White Lies website bout problems with censorship, Brugues replied:
It’s always been relaxed. I think there’s an image of Cuba that’s not exactly what my personal experience is. It’s never been like that. It’s not like the authorities will see my film and tell me what they think, nothing like that. Well, that hasn’t happened to me yet. It might have happened to somebody else… I’m pretty sure it has, but it’s not my experience. I don’t know… they read the script before I shot it and didn’t say anything.
Victoria Burnett, the N.Y. Times reporter who write the fair-minded obituary for Alfredo Guevara, had this to say about “Juan of the Dead” when it first came out in 2011:
“Juan of the Dead” is by no means the first Cuban film to examine the darker aspects of life on the island or to poke fun at Cubans’ hardships. Several feature films produced over the past two decades, with or without state sponsorship, have critiqued issues like homosexuality, exile and social inequality.
But Juan’s gleefully mischievous pot shots at Cuban sacred cows, from government-controlled media to Fidel Castro himself, are unusually risqué, reflecting a growing cinematic freedom in a country where open criticism of the political system is barely tolerated. Because they are embedded in the constructs of a popular action genre, the film’s cheeky gags are ensured a broad audience.
The shifts in Cuba’s film industry mirror the broader reality on the island, where President Raúl Castro has gradually reduced the role of the state, cutting subsidies and public-sector jobs and opening space for private enterprise in a bid to salvage the economy.
Filmmakers and moviegoers said the zombie film, Cuba’s first, reflected an emerging diversity in Cuban film as less-expensive digital technology has allowed an explosion of independent movie production. It also signaled the coming of age of a group of filmmakers who grew up during the post-Soviet era, when the destitute Cuban state lost its near-monopoly on Cuban cinema.
While “Juan of the Dead” is merciless when it comes to bureaucratic modes of thinking and behavior in Cuba, there is little doubt that the director and the cast are committed to living there and making the country more attuned to the needs of a new generation.
While there are certainly insights to be gained by portraying Cuban socialism as ossified in the manner of the walking dead, I doubt that the country would be served by adopting the full-scale zombie economics of the capitalist system so dear to the heart of Yoni Sanchez. Ordinary Cuban people have as much of a vested interest in preserving their social “safety net” as we Americans do. Furthermore, the one thing that will stand in the way of the country going the route of China or Vietnam (now suffering a deep economic crisis) are those CDR’s that were the target of Brugues’s gentle mocking. When push comes to shove, they will be just as capable of forming militias as they are of halting the theft of car radios.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.