Editor's Note: The second of the transcripts of the introductions to the Cinema Reborn 2019 program. Sylvie Le Chezio (below) is a producer (ALLIES and THE COCA COLA KID among many), festival director and a patron of film culture in Australia. She has recently published with John Lyons "A Balcony Over Jerusalem". Her introduction to MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT was coloured by her friendship with the film's director Tomas Gutierrez Alea.
Luciano Castille, a historian and critic who was also the director of ICAIC (Instituto Cubana del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos/ the National Institute for Cuban Cinema) speaks of the 1968 feature Memories of Underdevelopment as the Cathedral of Cuban cinema. He also said that the film was one that was shot yesterday for an audience of tomorrow.
It still resonates today.
In 1974, Memories of Underdevelopment won a National Society of Film Critics award in New York which carried a $2000 prize. A big sum in those days. The director, Tomás Gutierrez Alea, was invited to pick up the prize but his visa application was declined and a US Treasury official advised the Critics Society that anyone who received the prize on his behalf would be arrested. Such were the relations between Cuba and the US at the time.
Tomas Alea actually said that he thought the ban to be ironical given that one of the issues that the film confronts was the issue of disinformation between the US and Cuba.
Perhaps I could tell you a little about Tomás G. Alea, the director (above).
He was a friend. I met Titón, as he was called by everyone, in the late 70’s. I was lucky to meet him a number of times over a decade and many visits to Cuba.
After meeting him and a few other Cuban directors, I was approached to do a Cuban Film Week in Sydney. The film week was held in 1981 at the opera House and Titon was one of two filmmakers who attended.
Titón came from a privileged family in Havana. He studied Law at Havana University. He then decided to study cinema in Rome and was quite influenced by Roberto Rossellini. He came back to Havana just before the revolution and was to make the very first film feature film of revolutionary Cuba – Stories of the Revolution (1960).
Before that, he had made a number of documentaries… these were the days when political documentary was at its height with filmmakers like Pennebaker, the Maysles Brothers, Joris Ivens, Jean Rouch, Chris Marker etc… but even then Titón was conscious of the importance of films in forming ideas and said to his colleagues “all attempts to portray reality while avoiding judgement on it, are problematic, Sometimes this leads to half-truths, which can be more immoral than a complete lie”.
He talked about the responsibilities of the filmmaker. He talked about creating an active audience as opposed to a passive audience and wanted cinema to be an instrument to help the audience develop a critical sense of their own reality. This objective is realised in Memories of Underdevelopment which is a stylistic tour de force and a subtle and complex study of an uncommitted intellectual from a bourgeois background who is swept up in a vortex of revolutionary change during the Cuban nuclear missile crisis.
To place Titón in post-Revolutionary Cuba, Supporter but critical.
Alea was supporter of the revolution but he was also critical of the realities of post-revolutionary Cuba. Alea always kept a balance between his dedication to the revolution and his criticism when he felt that his idealism had been betrayed.
The late 70’s and 80’s were difficult time for him. His daughter had left in the Mariel Boatlift with the hundreds of Cubans fleeing the country’s economic difficulties. By the time Titón came to Sydney in 1981, it was difficult for him to make films via the Cuban Film institute. He said that he would have to go directly to Fidel to get the OK. He did make many acclaimed films — including the Oscar nominated Strawberries and Chocolatein 1993, three years before his death.
When in Sydney, Titon visited a number of hardware stores, and kept saying there is no reason why we can’t have this in Havana; it is just a failure of the bureaucracy. He was always pointing out the pretensions and contradictions within Cuban society. For example, Cubans' aspirations to be like Americans.
In Havana, he would show me the long lines of people waiting for a bus, and said they thought it was beneath them to ride a bike, so they’d stand in long queues for an hour instead of taking a 10-minute bike ride. He would also talk at length about how fabulous the medical system was, one of the very best on the world at the time, an incredible achievement of the revolution, but he would add “but when there is no toilet paper, it becomes personal”.
He was supportive whilst never averting his critical eye in the hope of promoting change.
He was a fascinating man, a totally international man despite living in a country so completely blocked off from the world. He lived in a modest house, full of art and music, and a beautiful view. As my friend Linda reminded me, under his balcony ran a small river which sometimes delivered gorgeous wooden ceremonial objects from a voodoo or Santeria ceremony -- one of those was a wooden turtle which he had in the living room.
He was an extraordinary man, a talented, wonderful filmmaker.
I hope you enjoy the ‘Cathedral of Cuban cinema”