Despite hard times, Cuba’s spirited arts scene is thriving
N.M. in HavanaJanuary151996
'The joint is jumping
Despite hard times, Cuba’s spirited arts scene is thriving
Never mind the heat. Austrian screen star Klaus Maria Brandauer is dressed in his customary black as he sips a drink on the palm-lined patio of Havana’s tony Hotel Nacional. He is in town for the 17th annual Latin American film festival. Malcolm X’s daughter Quibilah Shabazz shows up at an exclusive luncheon the next day to promote Spike Lee’s U.S. epic about her father. Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s current star, Victoria Abril (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!) flutters along a grand stone balcony where Montreal director Léa Pool and several other members of a Quebec film delegation savor this moment in the sun. The sunglasses, the ritzy airs, the chirp of different languages, the Canneslike chic: could this be grey, censored, Communist Cuba?
Like much of the island’s culture, the film festival—held every mid-December—shatters the usual outside image of artistic life behind the coconut curtain. No Eastern Bloc repression in sight. “The joint is jumping,” says Helga Stephenson, former director of the Toronto International Film Festival and a regular visitor to Cuba since 1975. Along with new economic reforms have come art markets, trendy bistros, jazz trios and slick CDs by pop musicians successfully marketing themselves. The worst of times appears to be over as hundreds of U.S. dollar-paying youths crowd into the Palacio de la Salsa each evening, a virtual altar to the Caribbean propensity to pump and grind. Power outages are now less frequent and there is a new energy in the air.
But Stephenson and other observers say Cuban culture has always flourished—complete with criticisms of society rarely stifled by the regime. “It’s not an explosion of culture. It’s an explosion of outlets for the culture,” says Stephenson. No crisis was ever great enough to dim the lights of Havana’s emblematic Tropicana nightclub, she adds. “In the old days, the tights were a little tattered. But the Tropicana never stopped and Cubans never stopped going.”
State support bolstered Cuban arts from the early days of the 1959 revolution, fostering an impressive stream of virtuoso musicians and a populace that knows and reveres its painters. Havana has long been a hub for Caribbean music and Latin American film, and has stood out for documentaries. The film festival’s heyday came in the mid-1980s, fuelled by the aura of a forbidden land as well as a regional film school set up by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, then a close friend of President Fidel Castro. “It was the height of the Cold War,” remembers Ramiro Puerta, a Colombian-born Canadian film-maker who has been going to Havana for 10 years. “Americans sat beside Soviets, West Germans beside East Germans. Canadians in the middle.” With the financial crunch of the past five years came a shortage of funds that has hurt many in the arts, leaving most of the work to a small influential clique. “The film industry has become leaner and meaner,” says Puerta, who heads the Latin American section of Toronto’s film festival and sat on the jury at Havana's. “They craft the scripts more judiciously because there are fewer films being made. But they are better.” The surprise result has been a crop of superior movies such as Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s 1993 Academy Award nominee Strawberry and Chocolate and his current release Guantanamera, a road movie poking fun at the foibles of Cuban life. The two are in the tradition of comic irony that runs through a society whose cultural trade-
mark is its sense of humor in the face of adversity. Strawberry and Chocolate also marked a breakthrough by exposing to a mass audience Havana’s irreverent gay scene. Says Puerta: “It was the first time a homosexual has been portrayed with humanity. It’s a sign of the times.” Festival director Alfredo Guevara, influential head of Cuba’s Film Institute and himself gay, says Strawberry and Chocolate marked the maturing of Cuban cultural expression in a place where the eradication of illiteracy over the past three decades has created “a more enlightened citizenry.” Guevara, 70, has long been at the core of the Cuban arts elite, a friend of Castro’s since university days who introduced the
Cuban leader to the writings of Marx. From the start, he says, Cubans never adopted the Soviet model of socialist realism, having learned from the dismal experience of artists in the Eastern Bloc. “They were forced to find forms of expressions that were masked,” he says. “This was not the case for us. Our greatest aspiration is to write the truth, even if we don’t like it” Still, Guevara believes the role of artists is “to insert themselves into the revolution,” using the conflicts inherent in the socialist struggle as the conflicts driving their work.
For those who find themselves outside the consensus of Havana’s arts establishment, expression in Cuba is hardly so simple. There is no free press, no private publishing or broadcasting. Journalists who try to operate independently have been imprisoned. Those writers who do remain in Cuba succeed by mastering the subtleties of how best to say what they want to say. Direct censorship has rarely been necessary, as Guevara quite candidly explains: “Here funding comes from state coffers. Things must be approved. They are either financed or not”
Now, as film, music and other arts open to more private investment, the free market may put its own commercially driven stamp on expression. But Cubans, much like Canadians, will continue to seek ways of ensuring cultural autonomy. “We either disappear under the influence of American culture that floods us through the media—or we find ourselves,” says Guevara. For those who have the money, that search is thriving.
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