FOR AN IMPOSSIBLE CINEMA: CUBAN DOCUMENTARIES
NOW SHOWING: FOR AN IMPOSSIBLE CINEMA: CUBAN DOCUMENTARIES at BFI Southbank — 01 AUG to 31 AUG 2017.
Sometimes, when you stumble back into the light, you need to sit calmly and assess exactly what happened. Emerging from the jolt to the heart that was Santiago Álvarez’s CICLÓN and NOW − the rousing finale to BEGINNINGS & BATTLES at BFI last night − was just one of those moments.
Formally bold, emotionally shattering and packed with scorching images that command a vivid state of awareness, these experimental “newsreels” (1963 & 1965 respectively) are a million miles away from Victoria Derbyshire. CICLÓN covers the devastating aftermath of a deadly storm, whilst NOW appropriates still and moving images from the USA’s far too numerous civil rights tragedies.
The pair rounded off an evening of pre- (if you discount Castro’s failed assault on the Moncada Barracks) and immediately post-revolutionary documentaries with much of the programme dedicated to works from Cuba’s legendary ICAIC (the Cuban Institute for Cinematographic Arts & Industry).
Fidel Castro’s island nation harnessed filmmaking to promote Cuban culture and as a tool to improve it. Whilst the afterglow of revolution is never far away in these early films − Castro appears in hero shots, directing the action − a trace of propaganda via state patronage doesn’t stop them from being exhilarating art works.
In addition to Álvarez’s films, BFI screened EL MÉGANO* (1955, 25min), CUBA, PUEBLO ARMADO (1961, 35min) and HISTORIA DE UNA BATALLA (1962, 39min) − the latter a fascinating account of Castro’s determination to eradicate illiteracy by closing schools and sending mostly urban middle class youth into the island’s neglected interior to teach and commune.
A word should go to Dr Fehimović for the evening’s opening comments. We normally dread an ‘extended introduction’, fearing the tumble weed of in-crowd jargon and back-slapping self-promotion that normally comes with such affairs, but this was a crisp, clear and compelling account of Cuba, Cuban films and filmmaking. Go figure.
How did we end up here? In spinning the Lazy Susan of (mis)fortune that is working out which moving pictures to see, we played this one by the rules. Namely: #1 WATCH LESS − prioritising films we haven’t seen and filmmakers we know little about; #5 GET SOCIAL − soaking up the stories of documentary filmmaking; and #8 & 10 − savouring the launch of a new season full of distinct global flavours. The result? Further testimony that if you only go and see what you know, you will rarely emerge uncertain of which way your blood’s pumping round your body. Which leaves us with rule #2 − (always) GO HUNTING.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- For more of the same − and please, do get tickets, the audience was far too small for such adventurous fare − dive into any element of BFI’s generous programme. FOR AN IMPOSSIBLE CINEMA: CUBAN DOCUMENTARIES runs at BFI Southbank until 31 AUG (various dates/times).
- BEGINNINGS & BATTLES gets another screening (23 AUG), this time without the splendid introduction from Dr Dunja Fehimović.
- Amongst other voices, there’s a night dedicated to SANTIAGO ÁLVAREZ (8 & 18 AUG). We’ll also be heading to CULTURE (10 & 19 AUG) which covers everything from Cuba’s touring mobile cinemas to its curious cocktail of religions and a visiting international chess tournament.
- If you’re senior (60+), the programme includes a FREE matinee (10 AUG, 14:00): I AM CUBA (aka Soy Cuba) is “a masterpiece of world cinema”.
- Got to Cuba. We experienced the island’s beauty, brilliance and occasional ennui of its people (revolution comes at a price) in 2009. We spent one amazing day hunting down DVDs of Cuban films in their barely-stocked stores. After a very hot trudge through Santiago De Cuba, our local host was disappointed to only find a stack of VAMPIROS EN LA HABANA. We treasure our copy to this day.
*Not to be confused with the Havana cinema (link to Cinema Treasures) of the same name. According to this 2010 review from Havana Times, it sounds like our kind of place:
El Mégano is a cinema in a peculiar neighborhood, Centro Havana, and is patronized by marginalized people of all types: indigents, alcoholics, illegal immigrants, homosexuals, transvestites…
Featured image: NOW (1965).