Independent Cuban movies are fighting to win recognition. At a time when most of the artists on the island have been seduced by the market and many writers maintain a complicit silence, independent movies are not mincing words.
The independent movies are so far ahead now that there’s even a revisionist look at Fidel Castro, from inside the island and using the words of one of his one-time admirers, poet Rafael Alcides.
The documentary “Nadie,” directed by Miguel Coyula with Alcides as its central figure, opens a short series of films Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema titled “Forbidden Fruit: Cuban Independent Film in the 21st Century.”
Alcides says he once believed the tale of a prostitute in a neighborhood brothel favored by poor students in the 1950s. She had to take their money because she worked for others, but she also had them visit her in her home.
That’s how Alcides met her, but he did not see her again until after Castro’s revolution. He says he ran into her in a park in front of the Saúl Delgado High School in Havana, where she was a teacher.
The documentary includes the anecdote to show the faith the poet once had in the revolution. He says the transformation from prostitute to teacher moved him, although the audience may see it as a propaganda story from the era of socialist realism.
But the audience should not lose hope after this start, because the words Alcides uses later to criticize Castro are so true that they prove that only those who are “Nadie” — nobodies — can truly speak to power in Cuba.
“It’s always bothered me that Cuban artists and intellectuals who live in Cuba do not dare to publicly criticize politicians. They only do it in private,” Coyula told El Nuevo Herald. “I think it’s very important that, just as I can openly criticize Donald Trump, I can do the same with Fidel and Raul Castro.”
The director said he’s always been interested in characters who are “unadapted.” In the case of Alcides, he has known and admired him since childhood because the poet is married to his cousin Regina Coyula, an independent journalist and author of the blog, Malaletra.
“At first I just wanted to record his words. My earlier movies are not documentaries. I like fiction better, but I was attracted by his histrionics,” said Coyula. The movie relies heavily on the poet’s words.
“I am very interested in the fact that Alcides despises the figure of Fidel Castro but is still a socialist, the utopia of a system with social justice” he said. “But that romanticism is what attracts me about Alcides’ personality. As well as the fact that he’s not interested in commercial literature. For him, his writing is so sacred that he cannot even approach an agent or publisher.”
His interview with an artist under censorship like Alcides made Coyula become one of them. State security agents last year blocked a showing of “Nadie” at the independent Havana gallery El Circulo.
“Censorship for me is not from institutions and government, but from colleagues who avoid me,” said Coyula. “It’s sad because artists and intellectuals are responsible for mobilizing thought. But a large majority of them have a very clear limit to their criticism.”
Coyula said he does not expect all art to be political. His short film “Psique,” which is also part of the independent movie cycle, deals with the birth of the story about a beauty and a beast. The background includes paintings by censored painter Antonia Eiriz 1929-1995.
Coyula said his efforts to “search for alternative spaces as a way to protest against the silence” put him under suspicion from the arts community.
“Censorship in the case of ‘Nadie’ is, of course, due to the way in which it deals with the figure of Fidel Castro, without any type of filter. He says what he thinks,” he added.
Coyula said he’s also attracted by contradictions, and is aware that the positive side of contradictory characters is that they generate arguments.
“But generating arguments also comes at a price, to wind up totally alone,” he said. “So the most gratifying payment for me is to go to sleep every day knowing that I did what I wanted to do, without bowing to any type of ideology.”
Movie critic Alejandro Rios noted that films in socialist countries often had a double meaning, a metaphoric structure that reached its high point with directors like Andrzej Wajda and Milos Forman.
But Cuba, Rios added, doesn’t have time for metaphors.
“Wajda would die of hunger because there’s a shortage of ethics and morality in Cuba,” said Rios, who co-curated the independent films with Nat Chediak, programming director at the Coral Gables Art Cinema.
The 25 films in the festival, which ends Thursday, March 29, are an urgent call to look at a country in crisis, a society tightly monitored and crazy leaders.
In what other country would its leader embrace a cow that produces so much milk it competes with U.S. cows, Rios asked about Fidel Castro and Ubre Blanca, known for her prodigious milk production in the early 1980s.
The cuddles that Castro showered on Ubre Blanca is the theme of the documentary “La Vaca de Marmol” — The Marble Cow — by Enrique Colina, one of Cuba’s best known filmmakers.
The film, titled after the Wajda documentary “The Marble Man,” about a socialist hero who fell into disgrace, will be shown Sunday and Tuesday, along with another Colina film, “Los bolos en Cuba y una eterna amistad” — The Soviet Drunks and an Eternal Friendship.
Rios said Colina will also present his most recent documentary, “Oferta especial, todo incluido” — Special Offer, All Included — on Friday and Thursday, March 29. The film shows the island as a tourist trap where the most popular merchandise is the revolutionary iconography of photogenic leaders.
Chediak, founder of the Miami Film Festival who spent years programming the foreign films shown in Miami, said this is an important time for independent Cuban films.
“In the mid-1980s, when I started the Miami Film Festival, the movies from Eastern Europe were proof of the unease that eventually led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Ten years later, Iranian films dazzled with their transparency and drive to tell simple stories with deep humanity,” Chediak said.
The inspiration for the cycle at the Coral Gables Art Cinema is the recent showing at MoMa in New York of the series “Cuban Cinema Under Censorship,” which accompanied an installation by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera.
“That show made me think about independent Cuban films and how — with the ingenuity that characterizes us — those movie makers who have no official backing have managed to reflect Cuban reality, without winking and with a lot of talent,” Chediak said.
Eduardo del Llano has the honor in the recent history of Cuban movie-making of having provoked the most cathartic reflections through humor with short films featuring the fictional character of Nicanor O’Donnell.
Interpreted by one of the most popular actors on the island, Luis Alberto Garcia, O’Donnell allows state security agents into his home and tells them where to put their microphones in the 2005 short “Monte Rouge.”
Del Llano’s most recent shorts will be shown Saturday and Wednesday.
Other taboo subjects, such as prostitution and the Maleconazo riots in Havana in the summer of 1994, are taken up in “Sexo, historias y cintas de vídeo” by Ricardo Figueredo and “Afuera” by Vanessa Portieles and Yanelvis González.
One session dedicated to women will feature “Abecé” by Diana Montero, “Mater dei” by Eliécer Jiménez Almeida and “Todas iban a ser reinas” by Gustavo Pérez Fernández and Oneyda González González.
Director Manuel Zayas, who lives in New York, will present his film “Cafe con Leche” about documentary maker Nicolás Guillén Landrián, who sparked controversies with his films “Los del baile” in 1965 and “Coffea Arábiga” in 1968.
Zayas also will present his “Seres extravagantes” on Saturday and Monday about the persecution of gay men, focusing on the late author Reinaldo Arenas and including interviews with his mother.
The complete schedule for “Forbidden Fruit: Cuban Independent Film in the 21st Century” is available at www.gablescinema.com