A Cuban film about gay repression pulled from festival. Was it censorship?

The feature film by Carlos Lechuga, Santa and Andrés, has garnered praise at international festivals.
The feature film by Carlos Lechuga, Santa and Andrés, has garnered praise at international festivals.

Cuban filmmaker Carlos Lechuga has pulled an acclaimed film, based on repression against gay writers in the early years of the Revolution, from an upcoming presentation in New York after festival organizers banned it from official competition and instead categorized the screening as a special presentation.

“Santa and Andrés,” which was recently shown at the Miami Film Festival, will no longer be screened at the Havana Film Festival New York next week, following days of social media controversy in which filmmakers accused festival organizers of censorship and organizers declared that the film was no longer worthy of competition due to “political gossip” surrounding the film.

“After being confirmed in more than 30 film events worldwide, the decision whether or not to screen our film in a festival that does not consider us worthy of joining the list of select titles in its main competition slate is totally ours to make,” Lechuga said in a joint statement, according to a report by Variety.

When the decision to exclude “Santa and Andrés” from competition was made, Lechuga made his complaints public via social media, denouncing the awards ban as censorship and blaming the decision on pressure by the Cuban government.

“Under nebulous circumstances I have learned that Cuban authorities have tried to get my film out of the festival,” Lechuga posted in Spanish on his Facebook page. “At this moment the film has been removed from official competition, again being excluded because of its political tone.”

The film has made the rounds in the international circuit of film festivals. Recently, it was shown at the Miami Film Festival and its leading Cuban actors, Lola Amores and Eduardo Martínez, were honored with awards for best performance, an accomplishment that has not been publicized by official press on the island.

The film was already censored in Cuba and was not included in the Festival of New Latin American Cinema last December, despite the fact that its script was awarded in the competition run by the same festival two years ago.

Carole Rosenberg, executive director of the Havana Film Festival New York, told el Nuevo Herald recently that the removal of the film from official competition was not due to pressure from Havana.

“It has nothing to do with that,” said Rosenberg, who explained that she decided to withdraw it “due to the political tones of what has been posted on the internet,” without giving more details about the problematic posts.

“I do not know how to explain it to you, but our mission is to build bridges and we have always stayed away from the politics of either country. We do not get into political gossip, it’s not how we operate. And all of the sudden this erupted. I simply felt that I did not want to be part of this,” she said in a telephone interview.

“It would be inappropriate to have it in the competition,” Rosenberg added, “because it really does not fit the mission of our organization.”

The Havana Festival began in 2000 as an initiative of the American Friends of the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, a nonprofit organization that supports the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, described by festival organizers as “an autonomous cultural and artistic nongovernmental institution and nonprofit organization in Havana, founded in 1995.”

American Friends points out that it has “built cultural bridges between the U.S. and Cuba” and offers “unique cultural travel programs to the island that exposes American travelers to Cuban cultural riches while generating significant personal connections.”

The Havana Film Festival New York — to be held in that city from March 30 to April 7 — is sponsored by the New York Film Academy, various media and travel agencies, as well as public funds from the state and the city of New York. The festival also collaborates with the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana “to present outstanding and emerging filmmakers to its audience.”

Film critic Alejandro Ríos said the elimination of the film from competition for political reasons is an act of unprecedented censorship.

“By not including it in the competition, the organizers are becoming part of the Cuban censors. It is incredible that the arm of Havana reaches so far and that the cultural bridge serves to discredit the work of a director,” said Ríos, who also is part of the press team at Miami Dade College, which sponsors the Miami Film Festival. Last year, Lechuga was a judge for entries in that festival.

Cuban intellectuals and critics also denounced the censorship of “Santa and Andrés” on the island. The film is set in the 1980s but is based on the lives of several homosexual writers such as Reinaldo Arenas, René Ariza and Delfín Prats — the latter still lives in Cuba — and whose dissident positions during the 1960s and 1970s cost them ostracism, exile, internment in agricultural labor camps known by the Spanish acronym UMAP, or even prison terms.

“Almost 50 years following those events, ‘Santa and Andrés’ proposes a kind of rehabilitation, on full screen, for all those, like Delfin, who paid with silence and prison terms the price for what they were allowed to express artistically,” wrote Cuban critic and essayist Norge Rodríguez.

“That the writer portrayed in the film is also homosexual, puts another stone against his name in a country that has not yet properly reorganized its memories of repression against gays and lesbians,” he added.

The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) — which controls the screening of films throughout the island — has a long history of censorship, from the documentary “PM” (1961) to “Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas” (1991). More recently, the award-winning film “Melaza,” also by Lechuga, languished for a year without being screened in Cuba.

Roberto Smith, the current director of the ICAIC, justified the censorship of “Santa and Andrés” because “it presents an image of the Revolution that reduces it to an expression of intolerance and violence against culture, makes irresponsible use of our patriotic symbols and unacceptable references to comrade Fidel [Castro],” he wrote in a public letter.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres