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.

Play
‘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.

Play
‘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.)

Play
‘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.

Play
‘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.

Play
‘Scarface’ (1983).
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.