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The Human Thing and Soy Cubana

Ed Rampell: From the beginning, in terms of form and content, much of revolutionary Cuban cinema has eschewed the trite Stalinist notion of so-called “socialist realist propaganda,” depicting brawny proletarians and peasants riding shiny tractors off into the sunset of a future workers’ paradise and the like.
La Cosa Humana

Cuban Films Shine at DTLA FilmFest: Cuba See!

The 8th annual Downtown LA Film Festival, which bills itself as “dedicated to showcasing independent cinema in” America’s movie capital, took place Sept. 21-28, highlighting motion pictures with Cuba tie-ins at the Regal Cinemas L.A. Live in Downtown Los Angeles. The first Cuban film series screened in L.A. since the normalization of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana included at least five fiction and nonfiction, full-length and short works shot on location in the Caribbean nation.

Gerardo Chijona’s The Human Thing (La Cosa Humana) is a very offbeat, original feature made with Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) participation. What LA Film Festival Artistic Director David Ansen said at a 2011 screening of Chijona’s Ticket to Paradise is equally true for his Human: “People under the illusion that Cuba only makes terribly self flattering movies have to see this film.” Indeed, from the beginning, in terms of form and content, much of revolutionary Cuban cinema has eschewed the trite Stalinist notion of so-called “socialist realist propaganda,” depicting brawny proletarians and peasants riding shiny tractors off into the sunset of a future workers’ paradise and the like.

At least as far back as the, 1964 Soviet-made, shot-in-Cuba epic about the 1959 Revolution, I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba), using exceptionally creative camera movements, angles, editing, etc., in both form and content, the emerging Cuban film industry was often highly cinematic. (See I Am Cuba’s opening here. And check out this extraordinary two and a half minute tracking shot of a rebel’s funeral procession.) By 1968’s unforgettable Memories of Underdevelopment, written by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, arguably the dean of Cuban cinema, some features made after the Castro Revolution revealed a nuanced, ambiguous, philosophical sensibility, as opposed to the simplistic, straightforward, bombastic black-and-white propaganda portraying smiling workers cranked out by Stalinist hacks.

Chijona and The Human Thing - a crime drama with a literary subtext - are in the tradition of this more enlightened aesthetic that permits depictions of paradoxes. First of all, as in his Ticket to Paradise (Boleto a Paraiso), Human actually rather extensively shows violent crime in contemporary Cuba, including a burglary and train robbery. (Ticket, which also depicted AIDs, prostitution, drug use, suicide, sexual abuse/incest, homosexuality, graphic nudity, sex acts, homelessness, dumpster diving, alienated youth, underground heavy metal concerts, Cuba’s counterculture, etc., was screened in 2011 at the 15th annual Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival and LAFF.)

In Human, Enrique Molina - a veteran actor, including in many Chijona films, including Ticket - portrays El Suave, a crime lord who references The Godfather and Tony Soprano (and, perhaps, his Cuban compatriot in Scarface). But this being Cuba - where one of the Revolution’s first acts was to dispatch teachers to the countryside to teach campesinos how to read and write, and where education remains a high priority (free education through university with no student debt!) - El Suave has a penchant for quoting literature. (Although how this Cuban Don evades the vigilant Committees for the Defense of the Revolution is beyond this moviegoer?)

Indeed, the picture’s protagonist, Maikel (Hector Medina, also a Chijona alum) is a longhaired, bearded burglar and train stickup man. But perhaps like Jean Genet and Eldridge Cleaver before him, this member of Havana’s lumpenproletariat has literary aspirations, which is actually the lynchpin of the plot for this quite original film with more twists and turns than the road to Hana, Maui. When the crudely masked Maikel and his repeat offender brother Sandokan (Carlos Enrique Almirante) break into the home of the writer Justo Morales (Vladimir Cruz, who appeared in Steven Soderbergh’s 2008 Che, The Argentine), a member of Havana’s intelligentsia, they steal his computer and a manuscript.

La Cosa Humana

The latter is an unpublished, handwritten novel and Human’s story centers around it and efforts to secure prize money and stature, as Maikel enters it in a contest, trying to fob it off as his own creation. The theft triggers other complications: Shatila (Miriel Cejas, another Chijona regular), a redheaded beauty at least 20 years younger than the married Justo, is the police lieutenant assigned to crack the crime. She seduces Justo and they embark on an affair with some fairly explicit sex scenes, including an S&M vignette where Justo is tied face down on a bed and sodomized by a vibrator-wielding, scarlet lingerie-clad Shatila in a scene that would have pixilated puritanical USSR cultural commissars. (This ain’t your granny’s socialist realism!) In yet another indication as to how cultured contemporary Cuba is, even the policewoman Shatila has literary pretentions, as she writes erotic poetry. (It seems worth pointing out that in 1982 Lebanon’s Shatila refugee camp was the site of a massacre of Palestinians.)

To further complicate matters, Justo’s cheated-upon wife, Yenisei (Amarilys Nunez), is a professor who teaches computer use. Maikel enrolls in her class - presumably to learn how to use the computer he stole from Yenisei and Justo’s home. BTW, minus his computer Justo hauls out a gargantuan old electric typewriter model, which may symbolize what happened to Cuba in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of its longtime Soviet benefactor during the so-called “Special Period” of hardship.

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However, unlike Chijona’s earlier Ticket to Paradise, Human is not set during that era of shortages, but rather, presumably in today’s Cuba. If Human has any old style propaganda meant to favorably show off and showcase Cuban society to the outside world, it is that Havana appears to be quite comfortable, if not outright well-off. But the possible propagandistic nature of this is more than offset by the movie’s grim portrayal of Cuba’s criminal underworld, where Scarface’s Tony Montana would have felt right at home. Rather than presenting a one dimensional image of Castro’s Cuba (albeit Raul’s and not Fidel’s per se), The Human Thing is quirky, unpredictable, extremely ironic, sexy, violent - you know, sort of the way we humans are.

La Cosa Humana

This full-length, narrative movie was preceded by a screening of the 17 minute Soy Cubana, a documentary about a quartet of female singers in the city of Santiago de Cuba that may cleverly take its name from the aforementioned classic. But instead of the 1959 Revolution, Soy Cubana focuses on the a cappella group Vocal Vidas, who perform traditional Cuban and African-American music, including gospel songs.

This American-made short co-directed by Jeremy Ungar and Ivaylo Getov was shot almost entirely on location at Santiago de Cuba. Soy Cubana is very heartfelt, as it shows the individual chanteuses and how they work and create as a team. Their popular ensemble makes beautiful music together, which enhances the overall experience of watching/hearing this lovely film. At one point a government administrator explains how the state supports this singing group - if Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence sums up American idealism, the Cuban functionary, in so many words, expresses Marxism’s magic words from The Communist Manifesto: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” (Although here, perhaps, it would be more precise to exchange “his” with “her.”) See Soy’s trailer here:

Soy Cubana: Trailer from Jeremy Ungar on Vimeo.

With The Human Thing’s literary leitmotif and Soy Cubana’s joyful musicality, the picture emerges of Cuba as a highly cultured society. But other films screened at DTLAFF demonstrated other sides of this Caribbean David which has, for 60 years, stood up to the Yanqui Goliath - and the price Cubans on both sides of the great divide have paid. According to DTLAFF press notes the Festival’s other Cuban films included: The Pathways of Aissa “explores the heartbreak of a family split apart by immigration” and is directed by veteran award winning Cuban filmmaker Rolando Diaz, who has made narrative and nonfiction films and worked extensively with the renowned ICAIC (see: Aissa screened on a double bill with Cuban-born, Miami-raised director Maylen Calienes’ documentary short Domino, about “the famous Domino Park en la Calle Ocho in Miami where we learn how the game of Domino is played by some of the characters that hang out there.”

Nicole Di Rocco’s 117 minute, cleverly titled Pastport Cuba, A journey Back Home deals with a designer influenced by 1940s’-style Cuban swimwear who is the daughter of exiles and “the return of a Cuban-American in search of her roots”. Jordan Allot’s Oscar’s Cuba is a 117 minute biopic about the anti-Castro “Dr. Oscar Biscet – a well-known human rights activist whom the Cuban government unsuccessfully tried everything it could to force him to leave their country, including imprisonment” for 25 years (see here).

Some of Soy Cubanas’ filmmakers attended the DTLAFF screening at the Regal Cinemas, where producer Robin Miller Ungar said their short is currently making the filmfest rounds. Ending the embargo once and for all will be, among other things, a boon for film fans. If moviegoers with a palate for foreign, more out-of-the-usual film fare get a chance to see it or The Human Thing, take advantage of the opportunity. To paraphrase that old slogan: “Yanqui go! Cuba see!”

For more info on The Human Thing, go here.

Ed Rampell

For more info on the Downtown L.A. Film Festival:

Ed Rampell