art and politics

Art over revolution? Also, is ‘La Dolce Vita’ appropriate for the Cuban working class?

Filmmakers and curators navigated through choppy ideological waters in the early years of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

On January 17, 1922, the Narkompros, or the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, received a note from Soviet leader Vladimir Illyich Lenin. Titled “Directive on Cinema Affairs”, the note exhorted the department to “organize the supervision of all programmes and systemize this matter”. It further urged that special attention be paid “to the organization of cinemas in the countryside and in the east, where they are novelties and where, therefore, our propaganda will be particularly successful”.

A month later, Lenin would famously tell Anatoly Lunacharsky, the influential head of the Narkompros, “[O]f all the arts for us the most important is cinema.”

Taking a leaf out of Lenin’s little red book, one of Fidel Castro’s first acts in the wake of the success of his Cuban Revolution in 1959 was to set in motion the founding of what became the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). While Lenin had Lunacharsky, Castro turned to Alfredo Guevera (no relation to the legendary Che). The son of a railroad engineer, Guevera had studied with Castro at Havana University – he studied philosophy, literature and theatre, while Fidel studied law – where they both cut their teeth in politics. Imprisoned and tortured by Batista’s forces prior to the Revolution, Alfredo Guevera was also, according to a New Yorker profile, “the preeminent homosexual in a Communist regime where, during the early years of revolution, being gay was regarded as a sign of decadent individualism, and homosexuality was brutally suppressed”. It fell upon Guevera to forge the Cuban Revolutionary Cinema.

A poster for a commemoration of Cuban cinema in 2009.
A poster for a commemoration of Cuban cinema in 2009.

The seeds of this new cinema had, in fact, already been sown in 1955. Then, Alfredo Guevera had worked on a documentary about charcoal workers in Cuba. El Megano was co-directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Julio García Espinosa, crucial figures in the coming years. Both Alea and Espinosa had studied at the famed Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome (where their colleagues included Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then harbouring a dream to become a filmmaker, and Fernando Birri, now considered the father of the New Latin American Cinema). It is not surprising therefore that ICAIC’s initial projects, helmed by Alea and Espinosa, were influenced by Italian Neorealism. A case in point is Alea’s Historias de la Revolución (Story of the Revolution, 1960), an episodic film that dramatised three key moments during the Cuban Revolution. Espinosa similarly followed up with El Joven Rebelde (The Young Rebel) the next year.

The ICAIC was not only responsible for producing films, documentaries and newsreels, but also for building the infrastructure for their distribution and exhibition. A delightful short film from that era, Octavio Cortázar’s Por Primera Vez (For The First Time Ever), follows a mobile cinema crew as it heads out to a remote village in the mountains of Baracoa. There, the inhabitants have their first encounter with cinema in the shape of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.

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‘Por Primera Vez’ (1969).

Nineteen-sixty two was the year of the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis. It was also the year when Maurice Halperin came to Havana at the invitation of the more illustrious Guevera. An American scholar who had left his country in the wake of accusations of being a Communist spy, Halperin had met Che Guevara in Mexico. In Havana, Halperin started teaching at the University, a job that seemingly afforded him enough time to watch movies and also keep a close watch on the political goings-on in the country. Halperin writes in his memoir that 1962 was a year of movie drought “during which people lined up to see beat-up American films pulled out of archives while Bulgarian, Czech, Russian and Chinese features played in empty houses”. In 1963, however, the situation changed dramatically:

Whether this was in part a reflection of “ideological” independence following the October missile crisis, or of the rising price in sugar, is difficult to say. In any event, a considerable number of Italian and French films were imported, some of them prize winners of recent vintage, as well as a sprinkling of Japanese, British, Spanish, Argentine and Mexican pictures. In addition, some lively unorthodox Polish and Russian films were added to the repertory…Box-office receipts skyrockteted. For the sophisticated moviegoer of any ideological persuasion, 1963 was undoubtedly a banner year in Havana.

— Maurice Halperin’s The Rise and Demise of Fidel Castro: An Essay in Contemporary History.’

The impact of these films can be seen on the cinema that came out of Cuba from the mid-1960s onwards. Italian Neorealism was jettisoned and the aesthetics of the French New Wave and cinema vérité embraced, as evidenced by Alea’s landmark film Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) and the films of directors like Santiago Alvarez. But these developments were still in the future. Before that, Guevera and Co. had to navigate through some pretty choppy ideological waters.

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‘Now!’ by Santiago Alvarez (1965).

Among the imported pictures that Cuban audiences got to see in 1963 was Federico Fellini’s celebrated film La Dolce Vita. On December 12, an editorial in the Party’s official newspaper Hoy (Today) asked whether films like La Dolce Vita could be considered appropriate for the Cuban working class. In response, 10 filmmakers from ICAIC wrote a scathing article that was printed in the rival newspaper Revolución, in which the position of Hoy was likened to that of the Catholic Church and Hollywood’s Hays Code and pronounced to be a “deformation of Marxist-Leninist philosophy”. An intellectual slugfest ensued with Hoy’s editor Blas Roca, a powerful Party member, and ICAIC head Alfredo Guevera going head-to-head in a spate of articles published in the rival newspapers.

How did Fidel Castro respond to the battle of La Dolce Vita? Castro’s response, writes Halperin, was “quietly to put an end to it without any pronouncement, but not to remove the film or any other capitalist import from the movie circuits”. A pronouncement did come, three months later, when Castro declared, “The true revolutionary artist is the one for whom the socialist revolution is more important than his art.” (This was later echoed by Julio Garcia Espinosa in an influential manifesto titled For An Imperfect Cinema.)

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‘De Cierta Manera’ (1977) by Sara Gómez, the only female filmmaker in ICAIC and one of only two black directors.

On June 25, 1971, Fidel opened at a small cinema in New York City. Directed by activist and filmmaker Saul Landau, who had been given unparalleled access to the President as he travelled across Cuba, the 96-minute film sought to “de-demonize” Castro. No untoward incident was reported in the first four days. But on the night of June 29, display windows were smashed and paint smeared on the film’s posters. Two nights later, the visitors returned, this time armed with a pipe bomb. The management promptly decided to replace Castro with another smoker, Humphrey Bogart.

Three decades later, another American filmmaker traveled to Havana to make a documentary on Castro. Oliver Stone’s Commandante combined newsreel footage and conversations between the filmmaker and his subject filmed over three days in Havana. Co-produced by HBO, the documentary was pulled out two weeks prior to its release in 2003 due to “pressure”. Stone, lest we forget, is also the one who created the most famous Cuban in cinema history.

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‘Commandante’.

In April 1980, Castro decreed the port of Mariel open, allowing Cubans who wanted to leave the country to freely depart for the US. The next six months saw a veritable exodus as an estimated 125,000 Cubans arrived on American shores. The American press initially dubbed it the Freedom Flotilla. But their enthusiasm tapered off when it turned out that the boats weren’t just ferrying families and political prisoners. Castro was using this opportunity to export Cuba’s social undesirables – criminals, homosexuals, the mentally ill. Castro’s cynical move, it is argued, led to a long-standing law-and-order problem in the state of Florida and the stigmatisation of immigrants in America.

It was against this backdrop that Stone, then struggling with a cocaine problem of his own, set the story of what became Scarface (1983). Tony Montana, memorably played by Al Pacino in Brian De Palma’s cult film, is a Marielito, a refugee who arrived by boat from Cuba. As were presumably many among those who came out and danced on the streets of Miami when news of Castro’s death on November 25 filtered out.

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‘Scarface’ (1983).
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.