Havana Film Festival

CONTEMPORARY CUBAN CINEMA:THE PROJECT OF THE CENTURY BY CARLOS MACHADO QUINTELA

The Project of the Century, the second feature film of the Cuban filmmaker CARLOS MACHADO QUINTELA, is a rich, playful, sophisticated postmodern work, a subtle critique of Cuban society viewed though the prism of three generations of men. After a warm reception at Rotterdam Film Festival 2015 where it picked up the Hivos Tiger Award, Quintela’s feature film spent a year on the international festival circuit before it arrived home at Havana Film Festival in December 2015 where it received the Megano Award from the National Federation of Cine-Clubs Cuba.

The following interview with CARLOS MACHADO QUINTELA was taken during Havana Film Festival in December 2015

 Dana Knight:The Project of the Century is a work of great irony, an irony that is sustained by the fragmented narrative and the multiple narrators you deploy. You introduce the story by typing on the screen: “This story takes place in the Electro-Nuclear City in 1980”. Then you immediately jump to 2012. Then you go back and forth between these time frames many times. At some point, the grandfather takes over the telling of the story by introducing other characters: “Mira, Natalia”, Mira, X”. In the courtship scene with Marta, it’s almost as if Benjamin the fish is telling the story, you place the camera behind the fish bowl and we get the fish’s POV! This is a rich, sophisticated, playful postmodern work, a subtle critique of Cuban society viewed though the prism of three generations of men: Otto, the 80-year old grandfather, Rafael the father and his son. You treat your characters with much tenderness but the general outlook is very ironic, can you comment on that?

Carlos+Machado+Quintela+Swimming+Pool+Photo+ylCJeu0IBM0lCarlos Quintela: The irony starts in the title – The Project of the Century – it’s supposed to be a great film because it has this great name. So pretentious, like the project itself! I call it a “radioactive film”, by which I mean an altered state of things, if something is radioactive, it is different, it is an altered state.

At this moment the waiter comes over with a lemonade for Carlos and mineral water for me.

Knight: Is that blue lemonade?

Quintela: Yes, radioactive lemonade!

Knight: So fitting!

Quintela: That’s the meaning of radioactive that I like: something altered, something changed. For example, the engineer, Rafael, the father, he worked in the Nuclear City, he went to study in the Soviet Union and then he returned when everything collapsed. So he has to design his life again: he is an engineer but now he can only find work as a farmer, if he’s lucky. So he is in a way radioactive, he is doing something he is not prepared for. Also the Nuclear City is “radioactive”, although the nuclear plant did not explode like Chernobyl, it is socially radioactive, everything changed, it is a place that is abandoned.

Knight: What was the initial creative seed for this film and how did it evolve from there? Was it the Nuclear City itself that served as inspiration for the film, you wanted to build a story around it?

Quintela: I studied screenwriting at the film school in San Antonio and I have a friend who studied there too. He started writing a script, a story about three male characters who live alone and he developed the first draft but the story doesn’t have a landscape, just three characters in an apartment, the story can work in any place in theory. At the same time, I had a little car and was driving around Cuba and one day I saw the dome of the Nuclear City from a distance. It looks like Taj Mahal! It’s a strange view, an alien view, even in in Cuba!

nuclear city

Knight: So you did not know about the existence of this place until you discovered it by accident…

Quintela: Exactly, there are a lot of people who don’t know about that place, they want to erase it from people’s memory.

Knight: Because its failure is a big national shame?

Quintela: Exactly, it’s a big shame, the big project of the Revolution, of the 80s, when people thought that Cuba would jump to a very advanced technological level. […] And generally speaking, there are a lot of projects that fail in Cuba. The underground in Havana for instance.

Knight: There is an underground in Havana?

Quintela: Yes there is, they built all the tunnels and then they stopped. But the whole structure is laid out. They even prepared the drivers of the trains. That’s another story!

Knight: Maybe the subject of your next film!

Quintela: I don’t know, but it’s a really good story!

Knight: Going back to the Nuclear City, where in Cuba is it located exactly?

Quintela: The Nuclear City is 300 km away from Havana.

nuclear city 2

Knight: Who lives there now?

Quintela: A lot of people still live there. They worked at the plant and they were given state apartments in the city, “usufructo” as we call them. […] When everything collapsed, a lot of people left the City, some left Cuba, a lot of people committed suicide in that place, those who were lucky found a job doing something else. Some people stayed in Russia when everything started to shake. I showed the film in Moscow actually and met some Cubans who stayed there after the collapse of the Soviet Block.

Knight:So you developed a fascination with the Nuclear City, you probably did a lot of research about it…

Quintela: Exactly. This was six years ago. Also while studying at the film school, we had a workshop near the Nuclear City, in Playa Caballos, next to the bay. We stayed there for a week and worked with a theatre group from the Nuclear City. They are the workers who play in the film. And also the fat lady. Well, not the fat lady

Knight: Marta!

Quintela (laughing): Yes, Marta.

Knight: The courtship scene with her is hilarious, with the grandfather asking her how much she weighs out of the blue! I’m curious now, how much does she weigh exactly?

Quintela: Probably 180.

Knight: Then the grandfather was right!

Quintela: Yes he was! And almost all the people who appear in the film, I met them during that week.  It was an opportunity to visit the place every day, to talk to the people who live there.

Knight: So there is a community there, if they even have a theatre group…

Quintela: Yes, exactly. They created that theatre group because there were a lot of people who committed suicide and doing theatre provided a little bit of relief. It’s almost like any other city in Cuba.

the-project-of-the-century-f11 (1)

Knight: How do they live there now, what do they do?

Quintela: There are some people who raise animals in their yards, some people work in the hotel across the bay. Some people work in the cigar factory. Probably the rest work in Cienfuegos, they need to cross the bay every day then take a bus.

Knight: You’re actually showing this commute in the film.

Quintela: Yes, the scene on the ferry.

Knight: So you met these people from the Nuclear City and they told you stories about what is like to live there…

Quintela: Yes, they told me the story of the place, what happened there. Because even if I’m Cuban, I’m like a tourist when it comes to this place, I’m an outsider. That’s why I did not want to work in a realistic register, I don’t know that place, for me it’s surreal. […] So I used the spirit of that place and added in other elements and I made like a milkshake, but I can’t pretend I know what it is like to live there.

Knight: I like the metaphor of a milkshake for your film. It’s a blend of so many things!

Quintela: Exactly, I stole a little bit from everyone!!

Knight: But all the elements go very well together, the film is cohesive despite its fragmented, disrupted nature.

Quintela: I guess so. And it’s a hand-made film. Low-budget. I made it with the machete, cutting everything that I needed to cut. Of course, I’d love to have a machine gun but I don’t have it and I don’t want to wait for the machine gun. But if I continue making films, I’d love to work in comfort some day. If I am to sum up your idea about irony, a lot of irony comes from this way of working. Everything is extremely “naked”, you see everything, you see all the sewing in the film, it’s like a project.

Knight: And there’s also the ironic contrast between the past and the present, the past with its high ideals and the present with its crumbled dreams and low expectations.

obra_grandfather

Quintela: Definitely. And there’s another irony expressed through colour: the past is in colour but that doesn’t mean it’s great!

Knight: The past is in colour yes but it’s a sort of faded colour, a vintage look. Actually the brightest colour you have in the film is the boxing sequence from the 2012 London Olympics.

Quintela: Exactly. The modern time, the time of the film. But it’s different if you see it from the Nuclear City. And it’s in colour because the Cuban boxer wins a gold medal!

Knight: The brightest, shiniest thing!

Quintela: Exactly. But a gold medal that sadly doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t bring any “colour”. And the rest of the film is not completely black and white, it’s like taking a brush, putting it in the can of paint and spraying it onto the canvas, there are some colours there.

Knight: Formally, it is a very challenging film. Immediately after introducing the story, you cut to a small square frame where you show an aerial shot of the Electro-Nuclear City. And you repeat this stylistic device throughout the film. This obviously begs the question: why? I came up with my own interpretation of it.

Quintela: Please, I want to hear it!

Knight: For me, the small square frame represents the ideological discourse of the day, the way any ideological discourse shows you only a narrow portion of the picture, not the entire picture. In other words, the small square frame is the literal, visual translation of the way ideology “frames” reality.

Quintela: That’s a really great interpretation, thanks, I love it, it’s my treasure from this interview because I did not think about that. And it’s probably because I live inside the small square. Of course I can look at it and examine it, I understand the square but it’s in my veins in a way. It’s in my blood, I live in the square so I can only see things from that perspective.

Knight: You use the small square frame for the Cuban cosmonaut who says that his space travel is all due to the Cuban Revolution and to socialism. By the way, is the cosmonaut real or is that mock footage?

Quintela: He’s real, he really went to space, he’s like a star in Cuba, a hero, the only Cuban who went to space! He became famous, imagine, a Cuban in space! That’s why the film starts with him, it’s a huge step, it’s an utopia made possible.

Knight: And it’s all thanks to the Cuban Revolution!

Quintela: Exactly. And he’s not only Cuban, he’s a Black Cuban! Because there were two Cubans they were preparing to go to space, a white Cuban and a Black Cuban. So in the end they chose the Black Cuban because politically it’s more important.

Knight:  It’s a stronger political statement.

Quintela: Yes, a Black Cuban is more “Cuban” in a way. And his mission was really strange, I did not want to talk about that in the film because people would probably laugh: his mission was to prove that in space the sugar could survive! Seriously, you can research this on Youtube. Now he’s in charge with foreign travel, if a military soldier wants to travel, he is the one giving you permission.

Knight: It’s so ironic how things turned out! But going back to the mockumentary idea, you do have mock footage in your film, the interviews with the nuclear plant workers for example.

Quintela (laughing): No, everything is real!It’s true, there’s no mockumentary in the film. People do get that impression but no, everything is real. The footage is edited but it is real!

Knight:But it sounds so perfectly like the official ideological discourse written by someone and given to them to read out and perform!

Quintela: Yes and no in a way. It’s not written by anyone, that’s how they spoke in that day!

Knight: And the women in the Dia de la Muher sequence from 1986? I immediately noticed the 70’s style haircuts and earrings. Those are real women from the period too?

Quintela: Yes. But remember 80s in Cuba is like ’69, ’71 in the States, we are a bit behind!

Knight: How about the last woman in that sequence?She is filmed from behind and her behind introduces us again to the Nuclear City where you resume the film. That is your addition, right?

Quintela: No, that’s also real footage! The cinematographer shot that for Women’s Day! I really love that footage, that’s why I used it.

Knight: This is the big surprise of this interview! I was almost sure that is mock footage, that you mix real footage with fake footage! How did you get your hands on this material?

Quintela: It was tricky! I needed to find someone with access to it, I had to pay for it.

Knight: But it belongs to the national archive, right?

Quintela: No, it’s from someone who has his own place. Probably they have to destroy it. And there is more.

Knight: Footage they never used probably. The rushes.

Quintela: Exactly, they shot it but never showed it on television. The media is a really closed circle in Cuba, that was footage for a meeting probably, to talk about something.

Knight: That’s just amazing. But going back to the stylistic device of the small square frame within the frame, what was your reason for using it?

Quintela: The reason I used the small square is because I could not resize the archive, I couldn’t put it at the same resolution as the rest of the film. Because it would have broken the consistency.

Knight: So basically you chose the small frame because it looked better!

Quintela: Not really. When I work with several materials, at some point I want to use another layer, then I need to find the correct size. I started in black and white, at the beginning the whole film was in black and white. But I changed. Why?

Knight: What’s the answer to that?

Quintela: I changed because I did not want manipulate the archive too much, someone gave it to me and I wanted to use it like that. If the film is The Project of the Century, and I wanted to capture the irony of that, I can’t be afraid of using rough materials.  If I use rough materials I need to use them like that, I can’t polish them and make them more fancy. After that I needed to find the right size, so I tried different sizes and in the end I chose that size. But I never thought of its ideological meaning, I only wanted a difference between the two timeframes, the two narratives. I never asked myself about the empty black space, that it could mean something else, I only thought about what is inside.

Knight: I don’t think I’ve ever seen this device in any other film, have you?

Quintela: I don’t remember, no. I watch a lot of films where everything changes at some point but not the size, no.

Knight: Another ironic element that is totally unintentional I bet is the fact that your three main characters living in the Nuclear City form what is called a “nuclear family”!

Quintela: Yes! The three generations living under one roof!

Obra grandson

Knight: Normally you have the women as well but in your film the women are absent, they all left. It’s still a nuclear family nevertheless. And fertile ground for intergenerational conflict!

Quintela: Yes, that is very common in Cuba!

Knight: So it’s not a coincidence that one of the first scenes in the film is a fight: the young son beats up his father off screen. In other words, the young generation is angry towards the older generation, the Cuba of the nuclear dream!

Quintela: Yes they fight and it’s a symbolical fight. […] But when I write I don’t think of the meaning, I think of the characters and what they go through. But of course their actions mean something. And that fight is meaningful, of course, but for me the son is beating up his father, not what his father represents. But in a way of course, it’s impossible to separate the two. Because what he represents is inside him. That’s why the first line of dialogue of this family is “Sorry, I apologise”. That was a conscious line. The film starts with the “fumigatores” but in the original script the story starts with a fight. And it ends with a fight, it’s like a never-ending story, that’s something that happens in Cuba every day, a lot of families have conflicts like this. I’ve lived with my grandma all my life and although she’s not like the character of the grandfather in the film, we still have a lot of discussions that I would gladly avoid, for example she keeps telling me I’m weak! But it’s impossible to not have these discussions. And in the film the fight scene is really bad, that’s why it’s mostly black.

obra fight.jpg

Knight: However, things become quite funny in the next scene when the grandfather picks up a fight with the grandson and it’s actually the father who comes to his rescue now.

Quintela: Yes, the family dynamics change almost immediately. The grandfather is like many people I met at the Nuclear City, it’s the generation who grew up with the Revolution. Cuba is extremely divided. If you want to know about contemporary Cuban history, you need to know a lot of aspects: Cubans from Cuba, Cubans from Miami. You need to put together a lot of pieces.

Knight: A lot of disparate fragments? The reason why the film is so fragmented I guess…

Quintela: Exactly, a lot of disparate fragments and mix them together. The family in my film is the kind of family who never says directly: I love you, I care about you. If the grandfather wants to say that, he would say it to his grandson and the grandson would say it to the father, everything works like that. Because they are in a battle all the time and it’s impossible for them to escape from that. […] It’s also impossible to understand Cuba in one frame, because one frame is not enough for such a complex country. And neither is a whole film. I think in general families in Cuba are not like the family in my film. The family in my film is like that because it is the result of an utopia. Everything collapses around them and that penetrates the family. And they are becoming that kind of family as a result.

Knight: What is interesting is that the men stayed put, they stayed with the utopia, whereas the women left, the women are absent in this film. The men only allude to the women and there are some insinuations there…Someone says something about the grandmother for instance but the grandfather doesn’t want to talk about her. Also the son doesn’t want to talk about his novia either, the red-haired skinny wife with soft hands whom the grandfather declares “unfit for marriage”! So women are either absent and/or no good in this film!

Quintela: Yes, exactly.  When the film starts with the fumigatores, there is that discussion about the Cold War and how the Russians and Americans were competing in the space race to prove who has the biggest dick. And that’s a problem that men have, they want to prove that all the time! And Cuba is so small but wants to pretend that it’s so big, so good, we are so special. No, we are not so anything, we are just like the other Latin-American countries. And I think compared to men, Cuban women are stronger and they know how to find a way to do things.

Knight: Less conceded with ideals, more concerned with the practical aspects of life.

Quintela: Exactly. And failure for a man is deeper. You can see that in the archive footage, this is “the project of the century” and there are a lot of men working on this project. Women are behind.

Knight: There is no talk of women, no interviews with women in that footage.

Quintela: Actually a lot of women worked on that project too. And there were interviews with women too but I took out that footage.

Knight: To make a point?

Quintela: Yes.

Knight: The soprano’s song was another startling sequence. I interpreted the lyrics “I love you and I hate you but I can’t live without you” as your ode to Cuba, the “you” in the song is Cuba.

Quintela: That’s exactly what it is! And that’s the flavour of the film. Because I feel like that. And I think everyone in Cuba has that kind of love/hate relationship with our country. As a citizen, there are a lot of things that I hate, if I made you a list it would be so long that I prefer not to talk about that at all! But as a filmmaker and screenwriter, I love everything that I hate about Cuba!

Knight: Because that hate and anger feeds your creativity.

Quintela: Of course!

Knight: Going back to the film, I want to talk about the scene with the neighbour who shows up at the door and says: “I want to speak with the owner of this establishment”. Who happens to be the grandfather! I was very surprised by that line, he said “owner”. So what is the situation of private property in Cuba now?

Quintela: Yes he said owner but the problem is that in Cuba, probably like in Iran, there are a lot of layers when you talk. For example, in general, if you’re looking for a job, probably you will take a job not because of the salary, but because of what they call “the search”. The “search” is what you can steal from that place! If I work in a restaurant, probably I don’t need to buy food, because I have access to food. And this person who works in that place survives because of that.

Knight: I understand.

Quintela: They don’t say “steal”, they say “search”. But it is theft, they are stealing from that place.

Knight: But everyone knows and it’s accepted. Or not?

Quintela: There are some people who accept that and there are people who don’t. And that’s connected with the economy and the State and the government: if you don’t pay me, I rob you. It’s like Robin Hood but on a personal level, everyone is a Robin Hood! So when the neighbour says “owner”, he actually means “usufructo”. That means that the State gave you that property to use but it’s not yours. So the State gave them that apartment because they worked in the Nuclear Power Station. Also, the State gives these properties to men but not to women, what do you think of that?There are some women who own private property now but not in those times! And if they get divorced, the woman doesn’t get anything!!

Knight: That’s very unfair because communist societies in general seemed to embrace gender equality!

Quintela: Yes, but only in theory. I think Cuban women are very strong but Cuban society is extremely machista. […]

Knight: Interestingly, you’re subverting this machismo entirely in the courtship scene with Marta. She is the man in that scene, she arrives on a motor bike…

Quintela: She sits like a man…

Knight: Yes and you entirely reverse the scenario: it’s usually the man going to the woman’s house and bringing cake/sweets, no? So you subverted gender expectations in the film deliberately.

Quintela: Yes, she is the only woman in the film and she needs to be powerful. And also she is a relief for Rafael although she doesn’t solve anything. Love is something temporary, like an injection, a drug, but that’s it, after that pain continues. And also she realises during the dinner that he is not so strong and that’s why in bed she wants him to pretend he is Russian. It’s really sad.

Knight: But very funny at the same time!And he takes that really well, I had a lot of admiration for him in that moment!

Quintela: Yes, he wants to pretend to be strong at least!

Knight: The film is full of humour in places you don’t really expect. But going back to the scene with the neighbour, there’s a lot of irony here in terms of outcome, we expect one thing but something else happens. What inspired that scene?

Quintela: The mood of the Nuclear City. When I spoke with Daisy, one of the people who lives there, she said something I really liked and could connect to even if I’m from Havana. She said that the Nuclear City is “a bit alive and a bit dead at the same time”. And I like that idea. Every character in fact has an issue or dilemma they cannot solve, because it doesn’t depend on them: the young son has a broken love relationship that he cannot fix because it doesn’t depend on him, his father, he’s probably the one who suffers more because he belongs to the disappointed generation, I call it “The Generation of Fear”.  The Cubans who stayed in Cuba in general are really kind and resigned and they are unable to say “This is shit”. If they want to criticise something, they don’t criticise openly. They suffer more and they apologise a lot, like the father in the film. It’s really sad. And his problem is that he cannot bring back the Nuclear Power Plant, he cannot do anything. And the problem of the grandfather is that he hates everything, he fights with everyone, probably he’s the honest person in the film, he talks directly with each of them, but his problem is that he cannot die. He wants to die but he cannot die, he returns. […] So his apparent death is more related to the feeling of the Nuclear City.

Knight: How difficult was it to make a film like this in Cuba now?

Quintela: The making of the film was complicated, it is a low budget film and in Cuba you plan for something and then everything changes, every day you have a big surprise! But you need to work with something that doesn’t change. And the film is imperfect but on the other hand it’s not Batman! Also the story and memory of that place [the Nuclear City] is full of mistakes, which means it’s not coherent. So instead of fighting all the mistakes that happened during the making of the film, I started using these mistakes in the film. For example, the grandfather’s calendar from 1986 when Chernobyl happened, the one displaying the image of a pretty Japanese woman: you might have noticed she has a smeared eye in that photo. This was an accident, the guy who was in charge with bringing us that poster smashed it! So things like these. But sometimes it is too much! And the look of the film is the look of a project, the film is a documentary in a way, if it were a film  it would have started with a fight and ended with a fight, but it’s a project, it’s not “done”, it’s imperfect.

Knight: Also the ending is very ironic, you refer to the film as a “cinematic activity”: “This cinematic activity ends here”. At 100 minutes on the dot!

Quintela:That’s very communist, that’s the way communists speak. In Miami it’s the same, it’s very funny. Obviously Miami is very different, the ideology is different but the way Cubans use the Spanish language, the grammar and everything, is very communist-like. And yes, the film is 100 minutes and editors say 90min is the ideal length. If I had more time I would have polished it more. I actually have another version, perfectly done, not like Batman but more Hollywood-like! But I don’t like it, it looks too well-done, it’s the standard size though, 90 minutes. I would love a balance between those versions but I don’t have the time for it.

Knight: What did you take out in the other version?

Quintela:I polished the scenes a little bit more. But the film looks less Cuban. So I prefer this version, it’s more faithful to the story of the Nuclear City, and also to Cuba. And I realised that I don’t need to hide the machete, I don’t need to hide the sewing, I don’t need to hide anything, it’s my world, it’s like that. When you close a door here, it doesn’t sound like New York, it’s a different sound here. Everything in the film is hand-made. The sound designer on the film is not Cuban so I had to explain all these things to him.

Knight: What are you going to do with this other version, is this the one you’re going to show in the US?

Quintela: No, we’ll probably erase it!

Knight: There’s a striking statement that the grandfather makes in the film while talking to his grandson. He says, referring to his son: “All that shit they filled his mind with”. He’s directly referring to communist ideology here.

Quintela: Claro. And he’s also talking about money: you were not supposed to think about money in those times but now everything changed and everyone wants money. To give you an example: I bumped into a teacher from high school six months ago and he told me about some work he did for someone. But he was unable to say what was the price of what he did. He does not know how to say: “You need to pay me this”. Because the mentality is: why should I pay for something if I can get it for free? And the problem with Cuba is: in theory this could work but not in practice. I also supported the Revolution at the beginning, the first 5-6 years. When I talk with my grandma about those times, I realise from the way she speaks that she fell in love with those ideas. And I would love to fall in love with that lie too, at least she had something to believe in! It’s complicated!

Knight: What year were you born in?

Quintela: In 1984.

Knight: Right at the time of the Nuclear Project!

Quintela: Yes, I’m a nuclear child, I used to play football with Chernobyl kids. After Chernobyl a lot of Russian families settled near Santa Maria in Tarara. It was healthy for them to be near the sea but most of the Chernobyl kids died. Now there’s a Chinese city there now, they learn Spanish there.

HAVANA FILM FESTIVAL 2014

As one of the largest showcases of New Latin American Cinema in the world, Havana Film Festival also has a strong international presence.

In 2014 the festival presented a very diverse slate of films from various countries in Europe, Asia, Australia and the U.S. It also held two retrospectives dedicated to American documentarian Eugene Jarecki and Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl.

I found the programming very brave and adventurous, with screenings of some very risqué LGBT films (at the more peripheric theatres, mind you) that made a certain portion of the audience leave the cinema in droves! A festival that challenges its audience – hats off!

Since not all films were subtitled in English, my coverage was restricted to those that were. Below is a selection of interviews with filmmakers who presented their work at Havana Film Festival 2014.

Eugene Jarecki Interview (U.S.)

Dan Halstead Interview (U.S.)

Miguel Coyula InterviewMemories of Overdevelopment (Cuba/U.S.)

Markus Lenz InterviewRuina (Germany)

Ruben Mendoza InterviewDust on the Tongue (Colombia)

Ricardo Restrepo InterviewThe End of the Terrible Night (Colombia)

Colombian Documentary Encounters: Ricardo Restrepo Interview @ Havana Film Festival 2014

I saw quite a few documentary shorts at Havana Film Festival 2014, including the immensely entertaining A Conversation with García Márquez About His Friend Fidel, directed by Estela Bravo (a film that is soon playing at the 16th HAVANA FILM FESTIVAL New York) but Ricardo Restrepo‘s The End of the Terrible Night was by far the one that touched me the most for the rawness of its images and the urgency of its message.

Below is an interview with Ricardo Restrepo taken in Havana,  December 2014 at Hotel National de Cuba.

Could you please introduce yourself and the documentary film you are presenting at Havana Film Fest 2014.

My name is Ricardo Restrepo, I’m a Colombian filmmaker, DP, independent producer, working alongside other independent filmmakers as part of the Colombian production company Pathos . For about 15 years I ran the Colombian Film Academy for Documentary and The International Documentary Encounters. My latest documentary short, The End of the Terrible Night, was selected in competition here at Havana Film Festival and I really think it’s the best place to show it because the film talks about what we call in Colombia our “internal war”. As we speak, in Colombia, in the same city, the guerrilla forces are in talks with the government trying to find peace after 65 years of war. It’s perfect timing.

The End of the Terrible Night is a 25-minute short, it was finished in 2014 and premiered in Cartagena Film Festival. It is a personal film and a political film with social issues. It is made up of archive material shot by my grandfather.

ricardo restrepo havana

Colombian filmmaker Ricardo Restrepo

Talking about that, the footage you’ve got is amazing.

Yes. And I still don’t understand how this medical doctor, which is what he was, could have such an amazing eye for framing. He never studied cinematography. So when you see the footage made between 1939 and 1952, it is just amazing how he frames everything and how he constructs those images narratively. Basically I just found this footage that was lost for 65 years. And some of it was mainly about one specific date that is the most important date for contemporary Columbian history,  April 9, 1948 when Jorge Eliécer Gaitán is assassinated in Bogota. […]. And we haven’t seen one single day of peace in Columbia since this man was killed.

What was your relationship with your grandfather?

Unfortunately I didn’t get to know him, he died very young in 1956. But I read all his books and now I discovered his images.

How did you discover them?

Actually I was looking for them for 30 years. I knew he was an amateur filmmaker, actually I used his camera when I was young and a film student. I still use it. So I was looking for this footage for a long time in my parents’ house. Finally last year when my father had to close his medical practice, we had to put all things in storage. And going through all that stuff, we found these 24 cans of footage shot on 16mm. I decided to digitalise the first one, which was more like a family album. And then I found what I was looking for, which is the first images ever discovered of that event, in colour, and shot by someone who was part of that event. […] 

This is quite an amazing discovery, given that the national archive only had a 15- minute record of that historical event until now.

Exactly, the only footage that exists of that event is only 15 minutes, in black and white. And this footage has been used so many times already, we know by heart what’s on there.  So this is quite an unusual new footage, never seen before. And what we have here is the perspective of a medical doctor during those four days of riots in Bogota. And amazingly, because he’s a medical doctor, he doesn’t film corpses, not even injured people. On one hand he has to do his medical duty, on the other hand he’s making this film.

Why do you think he didn’t film dead people?

My guess is that he stayed very ethical, in the sense of the photojournalism of the time.

However, the footage is quite harrowing. And the voice-over commentary is also very powerful and very poetic.

Yes. The commentary is partly based on his diary and partly my own. He wrote a diary about those events and in the images you can smell death, you don’t need to see it. And yes the commentary is very poetic but because he was a medical doctor he could go into very precise details and it’s very disturbing. So I left that out of the film. But he was very shocked with what we could do to ourselves.

There is this very powerful and beautiful comment towards the end of the film that kind of sums up the entire film:“seeing ourselves in shame as we are and what we represent to ourselves”

Yes and that’s amazing because that was in 1948 and you see Columbia today and it’s the same image, in a way he foresaw the future. He also asks himself in his diary: “I wonder what will happen with this country”. And he was right, we lost track from there. And you can see today, there’s only one guerrilla group left and fighting is spreading all over. He was a visionary man, I think.

How difficult is it to make films in Columbia, considering all the political and social unrest?

Actually it is quite easy. Especially in documentary. We have to talk about what’s happening, what we have in front of us or behind us.

It’s not all about high production values like in the Western world, you actually have a reality to deal with!

That’s right. But that’s a problem also because Colombian people don’t want to see on the screen something that they already see all day long in the streets. So we have this problem with the audience that wants to see only Hollywood films to distract themselves. But we have to try harder to get the audience into the theatres. And the same goes for television. The film was actually shown on Colombian television on the same date, April, 9, 2014, which was the 65th anniversary of the event.

You said that you have a lot more footage than you used in this short. Are you planning to turn it into a feature-length documentary in the future?

Yes,  what is in the short is only 10% of all the footage. In the feature, I want to tell the story of this medical doctor rather than focus entirely on the events of 1948. I want to go deeper into his mind. He wasn’t only a medical doctor, he was a historian, a journalist, a writer, he wrote many books. And he was a very clever political thinker. I want to dig further into his mind because I think I will find not only my grandfather but also the roots of what Colombia is now.

That sounds like a great project.

Yes and I have two more projects that I’m working on now. One of them talks about another member of my family, also a medical doctor, who worked in a prison on an island in the South Pacific at the same time as these other events, from 1948 until 1957. During this time of political violence, the government sent guerrieros to this island where they were tortured. And he was a medical doctor for that island and he worked alongside the volunteers. Their aim was to bring some peace to these prisoners, but they also wanted the prison to shut down. So my story starts there and finishes today, with his son and her son (?) who are now political leaders but from very separate and opposite ways. They want to find peace in Colombia from different angles. And they can’t see each other. […] So I’m trying to put together this film which asks: “Can we talk about peace while these guys for instance don’t understand each other?” One was my parent and the other is my friend, he’s a senator now. How is this going to work?

Can you talk also about your previous documentaries, are they all historical documentaries?

I am lucky to have had parents and relatives who were medical doctors but also fans of the moving image. I inherited that and my films talk about the family’s past but it’s not only about discovering myself through them, it’s also discovering our country through their diaries and images. All my documentaries are most of all about political and social issues while being deeply about all kinds of things, birds and turtles…I hope to be moving along and keep working from my little point-of-view. Colombia is not at peace, it’s not only the cease-fire that we’re looking for, we’re looking for justice in a broad sense. And my films will talk about that.

Social justice has been a big theme in Latin American cinema from the very beginning of that cinema.

Yes it has. And nowadays the situation is worse, with all the multi-national companies and international banks coming for what’s left after the civil wars. There was some gold left! But now it’s all gone, so now they’re coming for the rest of it, the water, all supplies.

It’s a crazy world.

It is a crazy world and we are crazy to live in it!

Where else can we go?

Well, people are thinking of Mars and also the moon!

But if we go there, we’ll exploit and corrupt that environment too! Is this human nature?

Oh yes it is. Mankind is so beautiful but at the same time so raw. It’s hard to understand but if you manage to cope with it, once you understand that, I think it’s up to you which side or path you choose.

Miguel Coyula’s Memories of Overdevelopment and the Cuban Avant-Garde @ IBAFF Film Festival, Spain

Held at the beginning of March in Murcia, Spain, IBAFF Film Festival is an exciting showcase of the paths the current cinematic scene is exploring.

As part of its Caribbean Avant-Garde Focus, this year the festival showed  one of the most iconic Cuban films of all times: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), an adaptation of  Edmundo Desnoes’s famous novel of the same title.

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Actor Sergio Corrieri in Memories of Underdevelopment

In close connection to Alea’s masterpiece, IBAFF also showed Miguel Coyula’s Memories of Overdevelopment, a 2010 film based on a follow-up to the original novel that Edmundo Desnoes published in 2008. In Memories of Overdevelopment, we follow the same character, Sergio Garcet, the disillusioned intellectual who leaves Cuba and its “underdevelopment” behind and emigrates to the US, only to find himself at odds with the ambiguities of his new life in the ‘developed’ world. Miguel Coyula’s film is the first Cuban dramatic feature with scenes filmed both in Cuba and the United States.

I met Miguel Coyula during Havana Film Festival through a New York friend and filmmaker, Bette Wanderman.  The following interview was taken at Miguel’s house in Vedado, Havana in December 2014.

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What first struck me about Memories of Overdevelopment  was the density of the images and the almost collage-way of the composition in the first part of the film. The story and characters are introduced through very expressive close-ups, revealing and mysterious at the same time. The scenes and the movement of actors have a certain theatricality that reminded me of the films of Hal Hartley. The voice-over, the interior monologue of the main character, is highly poetic and his observations are surprising and sharp. Sharp is also the editing style, Miguel is not only writing with the camera, he is “cutting” with the camera which almost functions like a razor – an object that actually features repeatedly in many of the shots. The almost surrealist juxtaposition of objects, text, photographs, all very evocative of Cuban life and Cuban history, corroborated with the ominous presence of the razor in close proximity to, and at some point cutting through, a human eye reminded me of Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou, which Miguel recognised as being one of his influences. But Miguel’s visual style goes beyond that, a unique and mesmerising mix of cinematic influences that gel so well together that it is difficult to distinguish what he borrowed from where.

So I started the conversation asking Miguel about his visual style and his influences…

Miguel Coyula: My influences come from the art house cinema of the 60s and 70s. The Cinematheque is very close to where I live so when I was a teenager I was there almost all the time and I saw Tarkovski’s films, Antonioni, Godard. Also the classic Cuban films of the 60s, the work of Santiago Alvarez, Nicolas G. Landrian and of course Tomás Gutiérrez Alea´s Memories of Underdevelopment. And many other filmmakers. I think that what I do is a hybrid of various influences. I watch a lot of movies and I like almost every genre (except for romantic comedies!). I think it’s very hard to do something entirely original today, it’s more about how you “cook” all these different influences and merge them together to create your own voice.

There’s also a bit of Woody Allen in my film, it’s a mixture of many different things. But even before that, my greatest influence when I was a little kid was Japanese animation, its stylistic choices. Japanese animation never had a big budget like Disney to animate 24 frames per second. They had very limited resources so the animation is sometimes very limited, with only the eyes and the mouth moving many times. But every time they cut they use a different camera set-up so the visual design and the editing is very striking and they use it as a way to convey the story. Every time there is a cut, the next shot is framed in a different way so that it progresses the tension, not only from the point of view of the screenplay but also as a visual grammar. It’s the same principle we find in literature. In literature, when you finish a sentence, you write “period” and you start another sentence, you’re expressing a different idea.  So when you translate that to film, each new cut is expressing a new piece of information.

Dana: This also creates a certain rhythm and a tempo. But I want to go back, I’m interested in your film trajectory. When did you start making films?

Miguel: I went to the International Film and TV School of San Antonio de Los Banos. Before that I had made two short films. I actually ended up in film by accident. When I was 16, I started writing short-stories and drawing comic books. At that time in the 90s, it was very hard in Cuba to get access to a camera. But my aunt from Miami gave my dad when he travelled there a VHS cam-corder and he brought it to Cuba. It was the time of the “Special Period”, which is the greatest economic crisis in Cuba, so my parents were planning to sell the camera. But when I started playing around with it and realised I could combine the storytelling and the comic books into moving images, I said no way and the camera was not sold. And the camera became a way of escaping from the real world and creating my own universe. It was also the time when I didn’t have a computer so again, using this technique of the Japanese animators, I had to conceive my films in chronological order, meaning that I had to write everything down and record with the camera every change in the position of the actors, the camera set-up and continue, so that taught me how to think and plan the whole movie ahead. Which was a good training because later I moved things around all the time. I work with a very low budget, I now work with better equipment but essentially the same way I started when I was 17. I write the screenplay, I do the camerawork, the editing, the sound design, the animation, part of the music. It’s a way of working that is more intuitive, closer to a writer’s coming up with an idea and writing that idea down.  It’s a longer process though, it takes years. And even though there are collaborators, it still boils down to the fact that what you don´t have in terms of budget, you have to make up for with the amount of time you dedicate to the project if you want to make it work.

Dana: The character in the film mirrors perfectly your own writer/director status.

Miguel: In the novel the main character is a writer but I decided that in the film he should also be a visual artist, a photographer, that he should record his own voice and create the language of memories. It’s like going inside the mind of the character, as if the character is directing the film, that was the strategy. Both books are by Edmundo Desnoes, a Cuban writer who now lives in the US. He didn’t write any novels after Memories of Underdevelopment, which was published in 1965.

Dana: Was this because of censorship?

Miguel: I think what happened to him is something that happens to a lot of Cuban writers, once they go into exile, it’s very hard to reconnect, after a certain age and living in a new society. I think he was accumulating a lot of new experiences but he was not able to put it out and took a while to write the last novel. One of the things I liked, both in the original novel and this one is that it doesn’t have a traditional three-act narrative, it is more an accumulation of small episodes that construct a portrait of the character’s mind. This gives me much more freedom to move around and jump in time and create a language where images are more important than words. I like films where you have a dialogue with the images, that is beyond what the characters tell each other verbally. You have one layer of information in dialogue and another layer in images, which, combined, provide many other readings for a scene or a sequence.

Dana: It also seems to me that sometimes words contradict the images and the other way around, the film has this kind of subversiveness to it. Also there’s an ominous tone, maybe it’s the slightly unnerving music and the image of a plane flying over New York, it’s like disaster waiting to happen.

Miguel: Which it does. I like those sensorial elements to plant the seed for what’s going to happen later. And I do that through the use of sound throughout the film. And yes, it’s setting up 9/11.

Dana: How did you go about adapting the novel? Alea said in an interview with Cineaste (magazine) in 1977 that at a certain point the novel “was to be betrayed, negated and transformed into something else”. Did you feel the need to do the same with the sequel?

Miguel: The first version of the script was pretty faithful to the novel and I wrote it rather fast, within three weeks. Then the process of the film took so long, it took 5 years in total. I would shoot a scene and edit it while still coming up with new ideas and write those down, it could be the voice-over or a shot. I have a green screen where I edit so sometimes it’s just about turning on the camera and calling the actor, and doing an insert shot. Or an animation sequence to make a scene connect better with another scene. It’s hard to know when to stop. For me the way to stop was when the rough cut was accepted in Sundance so I said to myself, ok I have to finish. This was in 2010.

Dana: The density of the film is indeed incredible, I think this film needs to be watched a few times in order to be able to absorb everything.

Miguel: A lot of film critics told me they had to watch it several times to be able to write the review. It’s like the movies I like to go see, where the density of the information in film compels you to go see it again. And of course it is better to see it on a big screen rather than on a television set because many of the details are very small in the frame. That’s also part of the strategy, to have within a single frame a lot of visual elements that make you read the image [in different ways]. I could tell you what the images mean for me but I would be destroying someone else’s interpretation. I always want to add as many elements as possible so that the image becomes richer. And to me the different reactions from the audience has been one of the best things about the film.

Dana: Did you borrow much of the imagery from the novel or did you come up with your own interpretation of the book, thus adding your own subjectivity to it?

Miguel: I think it happened gradually. The first biggest change was to make the character younger. In the novel he was Edmundo Desnoe’s age, he is 84 now. The reason I wanted to make the character younger was that I wanted to use him as a bridge between Edmundo’s generation and mine’s. So he had to be in his 50s. In this way I could talk about historical events that were close both to Edmundo and to me. And that triggered a lot of collateral changes, in characters, timeframe and use of archive footage. Archive footage is never used in a pure state, it is always manipulated either through collage or animation. The idea was to construct the film as if the character himself was constructing the film filtered through his very personal vision of the world.

Dana: Did Edmundo Desnoe get involved in the writing of the script?

Miguel: Yes and we had differences. He fist granted me the rights to the novel when I gave him a version of the script that was pretty close to the novel. But subsequently the character changed a lot. When we were talking about casting choices, I remember he asked me if I could find someone who looks like Pierce Brosnan. And I really  saw the character as a misfit, his eyes should transmit this sense of alienation and not belonging. So we clashed a bit in how the character was conceived. Initially I asked him to write two scenes for the film, the dialogue in front of Jose Marti’s statue and some of the dialogue that you see in the classroom scene.

Dana: Are those the only added scenes?

Miguel: No, there are many other scenes that are not in the novel, which I wrote myself.. And two years into the shooting, he said “ok, I’ll just leave you alone with the film” He felt the film was moving into a different territory than the novel. Later he basically accepted it as an interpretation of the novel by a younger generation.

Dana: The ending is so surprising. I didn’t expect to see the final act take on a science-fiction element. I suppose this provides the link with the film you’re working on now.

Miguel: Yes, all my films have a science-fiction element. More than science-fiction, they are always about constructing an alternative reality. But this ending, I almost found it by accident. Me and the producer were scouting locations in Southern Utah. Those are real people who live on this Martian base in Southern Utah. They are called The Mars Society and they built this base and they walk around in space suits, raising money to go to Mars. There is a group of scientists who live there and make videos about the project. I found it by accident, I was scouting for locations and I thought “I must finish the film here” because these are people who still have an utopia. Unlike Sergio, my character. It’s crazy but they have an utopia. The astronaut is played by Trent Harris a maverick cult filmmaker from Utah. Again this scene is one of those things its impossible to plan on paper, the idea only came, like many other things in the film, when I found the place. Its about using everything happens around and find a way to weave it into the narrative of what you are doing.

Dana: Another surprising and ironic turn in the narrative is when Sergio goes to the desert to get away from humanity and is visited by the Mormon women. Was that your way of saying that there is no escape from ideology?

Miguel: Funnily, two thirds of the novel is about the relationship that the main character has with one of the Mormon women. In the novel she is a Jehovah’s witness. This takes place in upstate New York. So yes this is a man who wants to avoid any type of commitment and responsibility, not only with society but also with his family, politics. While somehow still clinging to faded ideals of social justice, his dreams are shattered. He doesn’t believe in anything at the end. The novel ends with him dying in the arms of his daughter who goes and finds him in this cabin. But I thought death was a relief and I thought that keeping him alive is letting the anguish to continue. The feeling of discomfort is very important to me.

Dana: In what light do you see the character in Memories of Underdevelopment?

Miguel: I think many people interpret that film as the drama of a bourgeois who can’t adapt to the new society created by the revolution. But for me he was a man who was unable to function in either society. But because of that reason he becomes a good vehicle [that enable us] to see the society through very critical eyes. His relationship with his family also fails. A lot of people see him as a misogynist but for me he is closer to a misanthrope, all his emotional relationships fail, even his relationship with his brother in Overdevelopment. That’s because he is unable to get hold of something and there’s been many interpretations, whether it’s the fact that he grew up in Cuba. I don’t think so. But there is a Cuban film critic who talks about the schizophrenic nature in all of us who were born after 1959 in Cuba. In this sense, he defines Sergio as autistic, he is closed off to the world. But to me, it’s more a genetic element that you cannot control regardless of the environment that surrounds you when you’re growing up, it’s something that is rooted deep in your nature. It has nothing to do with political systems or external circumstances. Of course Cuba provides a very unique backdrop to the character and doesn’t make your typical immigrant. 

Dana: Is that the “radical” gene, is he a radical?

Miguel: I think he has a very strange relationship with the myth of Che Guevara. He admires him and at the same time resents him. He resents the fact that Che Guevara, who was also a misfit and could be cruel, was a man of action whereas he himself is a very passive individual. Things happen to him instead of him generating those actions. All his activity is in the realm of creative writing. And even that starts to decrease towards the end of the film. As he gets older and more isolated, the rhythm of the film starts to slow, he becomes smaller in the frame as if he’s fading and shutting down.

Dana: I feel that this project is a way for you to explore other things as well, could you talk about that?

Miguel: Many things, yes. The novel is actually about ageing and sexuality in the third age but not so much about the socio-political events. Edmundo did not want to be too critical of the US, he said “This is a country that in the end gave me shelter and I don’t want to do what the all Latin American writers do, which is to say that the US is evil”. But to me it was an opportunity to be critical of both Cuba and the US. And because of this the film has had a hard time. Many times I screen it I get attacked from both sides, because it pulls the run from your feet. It leaves you with no politics. Many people see it in black and white, it’s a film that pulls the rug from your feet, it leaves you with no place to go and this is very uncomfortable for some people. But to me it’s great to see the audience respond so strongly, even if the response is negative. At every screening there are people who love it and people who are very vocal about how much they disliked the film!

When we premiered at Sundance, there was this woman who left the movie theatre half way through the film. And my producer was outside and he heard her saying that the movie was “pornographic and anti-American”.

Dana: But that’s great publicity for your film! And to be fair, the film is quite balanced in its views, being also anti-Cuban.

Miguel: It was a necessity to have a global objective view of the world inside the character´s subjectivity. Since elementary school my generation was brainwashed into believing that Cuba was to be the ultimate utopia. But by the time many of us were disillusioned teenagers, I became very critical and skeptical of all current political systems and have an uncanny ability to distrust politicians. That´s why the way I work is completely independent, there only very few things in this world you can control without interference, and I want art to be one of them. That´s the price to stay true to yourself. I don´t believe there is any wisdom in compromise, unless you are a politician. And the line between political activism and art gets more blurry every day. Its impossible not to be political since in the end an artist should voice his own demons instead of using art as an political agenda. In art I´m more concerned with the individual than with the masses and therefore I cannot pretend to have the answer for thousands of people that might think different that me. I´m more interested in providing uncomfortable questions that pretending I have solutions for a better world.

Here as well, it was shown at Havana Film Festival outside of competition because if you include it in the competition you have to give the director a press conference which means more publicity. It was shown in a side bar and they only screened it because it won awards outside of Cuba, otherwise they would have probably just ignored it. At the Havana Film Festival they included it in a bizarre non competitive section called “Latin American Panorama” as if I was “some Latin-American director” not Cuban. My film, as of today, like many independent productions in Cuba, does not appear in the catalogue of Cuban Cinema.

Dana: What was the reaction to your film in Cuba?

Miguel: There was again a woman who said “The images are very pretty but politically it is very wrong and I hope you get into the trouble you deserve for making it”. She was an older woman very supportive of the regime, obviously.

Dana: But you didn’t get into trouble, or did you?

Miguel: I kind of did, I’m obviously marginalised. For example news about foreign awards for Memories of Overdevelopment were omitted from the press even if an article was covering the same festival where other Cuban films were participating.

But whenever a foreign festival or showcase contact ICAIC for a retrospective of Cuban films, my film Memories of Overdevelopment is not only hidden from them, but if they dare to request it, they immediately say “that film cannot participate” as it was the case recently for a showcase for South Korea, where the woman from International Relations at ICAIC told him that if he included Memories they would shut down the whole showcase, and so the showcase was shut down. Two years ago the Latin American Film Festival in Beirut had included Memories only to remove it from the program a few days before the screening due to request from the Cuban ambassador at Beirut. Those are the two examples I can talk about because they were made public and are articles about it on the web. The rest go on behind closed doors. Fortunately these kind of pressure only applies to lower level festivals.

Dana: But you recently decided to move back to Cuba, after almost a decade spent in New York.

Miguel: Yes because it’s my country and the country goes beyond political systems. I think its s necessity to create from within. I had two scholarships in New York. The first was at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute. Everybody thought I was crazy but when the Guggenheim fellowship ended and I finished the film, I came back to Cuba and started working on my next film which takes place in Cuba. But I teach abroad and the film keeps moving on the university circuit. So I travel once or twice a year and show the film at universities in the US. Europe also but more in the US. It´s sad I cant show them or do that in my own country.

Dana: And what has been the reaction of this more academically-educated audience?

Miguel: It’s been great. The festival and academic audience, the students, are great audiences for this. Sometimes the two films screen side by side and it’s interesting to see how people in their 20s react to both of them. And it’s really weird to see it now after what happened 2 days ago, the whole peace-making between Cuba and the US, because you read it in a different light.

Dana: What can you tell me about casting, who is your lead actor?

Miguel: Ron Blair is the lead actor, he is actually not a trained actor, he is an old friend of mine, also from Cuba, who identifies a lot with the main character, like me, he can recite the original film by heart, he loves the original film and the character so much. We are very good friends and collaborators and he just had the face and energy of the character.

Dana: Who plays the female characters?

Miguel: Most of them are real people who are similar to the role they are playing, except for the student Deirdre who is a real actress, Eileen Alana. Also the Mormon woman, the brother (Lester Martínez) and his Cuban girlfriend (Dayana Hernandez), the actress who plays the aunt, Susana Perez, they are all actors. And the magazine censor in Cuba, Jorge Alí, is also actor.

Dana: That is a very funny scene by the way, with the magazine censor.

Miguel: That’s actually something that actually happened to Edmundo Desnoes but he didn’t put it in the novel for some reason. Also the fact that the character gets fired because of the affair with the student is not in the novel. In the novel he just decides to leave because he gets sick of teaching but for me it was interesting because affairs with students happen in Cuba a lot but it’s no big deal. But in the US it’s a big deal. And I thought this is really good dramatic material, I don’t know why he didn’t use it in the novel.

Dana: Well, he probably didn’t want everybody to know!

Miguel: Yes but I think this is one of the things that are lost from the original novel in which he was very self-deprecating. But in the second one, it’s like he’s above all mortals, he doesn’t question hilself as much as in the original, which is why in that regard I went back to that element of the original.

Dana: The archive material is impressive, how did you get access to all this?

Miguel: The first 10 minutes are made form a lot of cut-outs from Bohemia magazine, which is a magazine from the 1950s. My aunt actually collected all of it. Bohemia magazine is a very sensationalistic magazine, what we call here “yellow press”, with lots of images of dead people and murders. They were covering all the events of the Revolution until after the revolution Fidel decided to stop free press. He nationalized it, kept the same name but the editing profile changed. The World Trade Center footage was the first thing I shot in the US after I had arrived to the Strasberg Institute when the towers collapsed. I travel with my camera everywhere and I shoot stuff and I archive it and then find a way to use it. When I travelled to Japan, to Paris, to Las Vegas, I was travelling with my previous film Red Cockroaches, to film festivals and since I was working on this one, I was creating scenes in these places and adding the actors later using the green screen. Film festivals only pay for my airfare so I couldn’t bring the actors. Not only the collage and the obvious animation parts but every live action shot is manipulated in one way or another because in most cases the actors were not there.

Dana: It works very well because it lends a certain theatricality to the film that is needed. This is a very abstract film in a way.

Miguel: I’m not a big fan of realism. I have a problem with realism and even with documentary footage, I always try to reconstruct in and manipulate it through collage or editing. Naturalism doesn’t come natural to me.

Dana: On the production side of things, did you have an American producer?

Miguel: Yes, my producer David Leitner, is American and he helped me, not with money because he is also broke like me, but he had a lot of connections to get equipment, the computer to edit, cameras, sound equipment. He reviews a lot of this equipment so he can hang on to it for a longer time. A lot of the people in the film are his friends, some of the locations I got them through him, the cabin in Utah belongs to an ex-girlfriend of his.  He showed me a picture of the cabin as a possibility for Sergio´s final destination and I was mesmerized by the place. So he helped a lot. He is a man capable of working in any area of filmmaking which made him an exceptional ally. These film was really done with favors from a lot of people associate producer Juan Martinez is the first that comes to mind as he was of great help as well. And excecutive producers Suzana Dejkanovic and Steve Pieczenik. The budget for the film is so minor that it would be laughable. But the time I invested on it was titanic.

Dana: Who composed the music for the film?

Miguel: I did the part of the synthesisers and sound design, but since I have no musical training, I also worked with Dika Durbuzovic a classical composer for the classical pieces and a Hayes Greenfield, a jazz composer for the sequence in Las Vegas. And I used many other styles of music because, same as with images, I did not want to have a main musical theme. That’s also why “overdevelopment” is the title instead of “development”, which sounds more like an architectural film. But “overdevelopment” conveys better the sense of overwhelming bombardment that the character suffers in the first half of the film. There is also non original music by authors of many genres and styles.

Dana: This also creates an antithesis to the original film, this is reflected both in the title and also in what you’re showing.

Miguel: Yes, I think the connecting point is the voice of the author, his irony, which is something I took from Edmundo Desnoes, but the aesthetic is different. The first film leans more towards naturalism, merging live action and documentary shots. Live action is usually at the service of a hand-held documentary aesthetic.

Dana: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea was also hugely influenced by the Italian neo-realist school where he trained for a while.

Miguel: Sure. And he also borrowed a lot from Godard and a bit from Antonioni in the sense of this bourgeois alienated character. I think the reason the film is so successful is because he merged a lot of styles that were being adopted in the 60s.

Dana: Tell me a few things about your next project, I know you’re shooting tomorrow…

Miguel: Yes. We already have the first 10 minutes. It uses different genres and styles throughout. It stems from an idea that Fidel had in the 70s. Fidel was always obsessed with experimenting in the 70s, he wanted for example to produce the best cow in the world that would produce the most and the best milk and meat. Also with vegetables – hydroponic tomatoes. He was always toying with the idea of creating something. So it occurred to me he would actually do it on humans, to achieve the goal of the “New Man” who would then create a perfect society. It ends up being a political allegory because many of these characters who are experimented upon become misfits when they grow up because they turn out to have a lot of psychological problems or physical defects and yet at the same time are incredibly gifted in other areas. So they become anarchists and start overthrowing the regime.

Dana: Where are you shooting tomorrow?

Miguel: In a nuclear power plant that fortunately was never finished because it would have exploded for sure with the negligence we have here in Cuba. It started being built in the 80s with the help of the Russians and when the Soviet Union collapsed, the construction came to a halt.  But everything is there, all the structure, the reactors, it’s a very ominous place.

Dana: Was it difficult to get a permit to film there?

Miguel: I have to sneak in, I couldn’t get a permit. I actually didn’t even bother to apply for a permit. In the story of the film, is an alternative reality where they finish the power plant and then it blows up, so half of Cuba is polluted with radiation…They also built a city around there like Chernobyl… In this film we are basically working just me my partner and lead actress Lynn Cruz. She does make up and wardrobe design as well, also serving as assistant an grip while I handle all the other elements. Its exhausting to work this way, but its great when we see the results. Also because of the film taking so long, it works great for the actors to see the scenes edited and witness how their characters develop over time.

Dana: Your films are so different from all the Cuban films I saw at Havana Film Festival. Are you in contact or collaborating with Cuban filmmakers who make films now?

Miguel: I have a friend Carlos Machado, who is about to finish a feature that takes place entirely at the nuclear city, which is the city next to the nuclear power plant. He shot the film in the city with all the people who live there, the film is about their lives. I have some filmmaker friends. But in general no, I’m not really in contact with the film industry here. I think if one is going to make independent films you should really take advantage of the freedoms that brings instead of catering of the idea of Latin-American Art Films that has become predominant in many art circuits. Now that you mentioned it it should technically be a great thing if you film doesn’t look like others, but ends up being a handicap for finding a place to fit it, which is why the film doesn’t have distribution as of today. I can´t say I’m unhappy though, I´m glad the film exists as it is, that is the one thing what makes me sleep well at night.

Dana: Do you see yourself as a “Cuban filmmaker” or a “Cuba-born filmmaker”? You seem to have more of a global grasp.

Miguel: I was born in Cuba so that dictates, whether I like it or not, some of the themes I’m interested in. In Memories of Overdevelopment I was interested in showing the image of Cuba, how Cuba is perceived abroad. And how this character in the film leaves Cuba further and further behind, he ends up on Mars. The idea of leaving everything that makes you so called “Cuban” behind and becoming a citizen of the world.

“My grandfather was a real asshole so I had to make a film about him”. Colombian filmmaker Rubén Mendoza @ Havana Film Festival 2014

Colombian filmmaker Rubén Mendoza talks about his latest film Tierra en la lengua that was part of the official selection at Havana Film Fest 2014 and was awarded with a Special Jury Mention for Best Film.

Ruben Mendoza

Rubén Mendoza

Rubén Mendoza graduated from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia’s Film and Television Directing School. He also studied in the Concordia University’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, of Montreal, and had taken several courses in Cuba, China, Argentina. Mendoza is part of Día Fragma Fábrica de Películas where he has developed his work as writer, director and editor, with the producer Daniel García who has been involved in all his films as General Producer.

Filmography: ‘Statues!’, ‘The Fence’ (selection Cinefondation Cannes 2005), ‘Animal Kingdom’ (best short film in Toulouse Film Festival 2010), ‘Bringing down the house’ and ‘The Heart of La Mancha’. His first feature film ‘The Stoplight Society’ was part of L’atelier at the Cannes Film Festival and other cathedrals of “film charity”. Between 2010 and 2014, Mendoza completed three other feature-length projects. More about these in the interview below.

This interview took place on December 14, 2014 at Hotel National de Cuba.

Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a few things about your film trajectory so far.

My name is Ruben Mendoza, I’m from Colombia, Third World, Third Earth and I do films. Or I try to do films! I made three features so far: La sociedad del semáforo (The Stoplight Society), Tierra en la lengua  (Dust on the Tongue), and Memorias del Calavero (Memories of a Vagabound). I did a lot of shorts also, I was born in the 80’s and my films have been selected and awarded in several film festivals, including Cannes, Berlin, etc. I also have won a lot of developing prizes, “cinematography charity”, as I call it, because for the nature of my projects, and the spirit of my films, it is completely impossible to find finance in my own country, they don’t care at all of course about my job and I don’t like their attitude either so I have to do entirely without any help from any power person or company.

You’re a truly independent filmmaker!

 It’s impossible to be anything else but independent there. But we should say that independent films are the most “dependent” films of all. Because you depend on everything and everyone to be able to make your film. And as long as you don’t “sell” the spirit of the film, it’s ok.

At Havana Film Festival you are presenting Tierra en la lengua. This is a beautiful, evocative film with lots of surprising scenes and humorous moments. How did this project come about?

It is the story my grandfather, or at least it is inspired by him. In the film an old guy, a wonderful asshole, tries to convince his grandchildren to kill him before death or illness takes over. The setting is a very dramatic Colombian landscape: Los Llanos Orientales.

And this grandfather is a real “character”…

This grandfather is a real asshole! A wonderful monster that I was quite close to. And I shot the film in their own house, on their own land, that are kind of mine too, morally. I always loved those places so much, since I was very little. So that’s what I think the movie is about. At least you don’t feel I’m a tourist of the topic or of the land. And it is full of truth: the love and hate I felt for that man.

I loved the way in which you introduced the film, the documentary-style sequence at the beginning, you really grabbed our attention. 

Yes. Actually the first shot is a shot I made when I was 10. So it’s been 22 years that I’ve been making this film without knowing. It was with a borrowed camera from my aunt. The shot of my grandmother passing by the little bridge. The film is inspired by real characters but of course I took a distance from reality and plunged into fiction. The first part is kind of a documentary because the voice is from a dead grandma (Aurora) but my other grandmother (Rosa Elena) was the one who voiced it over, she’s still alive. It has real footage and false footage that I produced during the shooting of the film.  But it’s also a matter of what was true in my grandfather’s life. The other film is a little bit about that, I’m obsessed with that. Sometimes with several lies you can tell a big and profound truth.

Your grandfather, at least the character in the film, has an almost mythical aura about him…

Yes it’s true, he was a legend. For example, the stories they tell in the film about kidnapping attempts, it was true for him. And you could feel you were in the presence of someone magnetic and with a magical aura. Who also at any moment could break into a fit of rage. It was very stressful to be around him. He had a lot of misadventures.

How did you go about turning your real father into a “character”? How did the screenwriting process unfold?

I started writing when I was 21 but after three years of writing and working on the film I rejected what I wrote. I felt it was too teenage-like, like a teenage revenge. And I started to immerse myself into the other feature and forgot about this film.[…] I was so hurt by media in my country, not serious and real critics, but mainstream media, which has the monopoly of information there.  So I sent a text, like a poem rejecting my own script to Cannes Film Festival and they chose me for the Residence programme in the Cinefondation. And I started writing again there. Actually I didn’t write too much there but I saw a lot of films and made a lot of beautiful friends there, and thought about what I wanted the film to be.

And at the end there was a contest involving 12 scripts and the prize was a scholarship for a year. And my film won the prize, that was actually the fist money I got for the film. Then I got the National Fund and some other prizes and funds. Although it was very little money, at least by American standards, it was enough for me because I got the solidarity of a region I’m part of in a way, and of my family also.

I’m curious how much the budget was.

The budget in the end came up to $400,000. But the film could cost easily $2 million. But as we were from that place, I got a lot of generosity on the way. For instance, my grandmother helped me with the casting in a crucial way, not only with the logistics of the project. When I got really desperate after auditioning more than a hundred men for the lead role, she was the one who recommended Jairo, who really carries the film and gives it its power, along with the landscape that is also one of the main characters.

TIERRA actors

Did you work with any professional actors on this film?

No, not at all. Only the girl. For the role of my grandfather I was a month away from the shooting and I was far away. This place is the entrance to the Amazon, so it is very hard to produce there, there are no hotels or any filmmaking facilities. The most comfortable people there are not comfortable at all. You have another kind of comfort there: the air and the water and the contact with the animals, the beauty of the place and the quality of the light. Most of the actors are non professionals: the old guy, Silvio, was interpreted by Jairo Salcedo. I’ve known Jairo since I was four. He was like my James Coburn: magnetic despite being a total asshole. As I told you it was my grandma how brought his name up again and again. He is a great friend to have around and he also put his life, family and humble possessions in the film.

Your whole life is in this film!

Almost, yes. We were four people looking for actors in four different parts of Colombia and in the end we found our main actor very close to the main location.

Did they welcome the idea of being in the film immediately?

No but I knew immediately that I wanted them in the film! Until then I put some ads in the media and the casting websites that I was looking for someone like James Coburn, the actor in Sam Peckinpath’s films. He was very magnetic, he was like a bad kid. But even if he plays such bad characters, he is so beautiful and has such magnetism that it was difficult to hate him, that’s what I wanted. And I got the same feeling with this guy, he was very handsome but tough-looking as well. He has been rehearsing for 65 years without knowing!

What acting instructions did you give him?

A lot of stuff. When you don’t work with professional actors, in my country they call them “natural actors”. I don’t believe in natural or artificial because everyone who is in front of a microphone or camera is acting in some way. So I try everything when I’m working because I also work with professionals. My decisions are purely instinctive in deciding whom to work with. And then I mixed classical school techniques with personal experiences and methods, or the actors’ as well. For me to search is also to rehearse. That’s why I take so long deciding who is gonna be who. Then we go deep, for months, and I try really extreme stuff with them. I love the months of experimentation. For my short films, even the simplest, I took sometimes half a year to rehearse in some cases. In some other cases, or with some other actors, in the first rehearsal I realise that rehearsing is the mistake: no rehearsal at all is what could give me the best out of someone, sometimes, also.

This is very interesting because the acting in this film seems very even, you can’t tell who is a professional actor and who isn’t.

Yes, that’s true. But only the girl is a professional actor, she is from Colombia and this is her first feature film. Her name is Alma Rodriguez. She’s 30 but she looks younger.

How long did it take you to make this film?

You mean the shoot or the whole process? Because I see myself as a filmmaker, as an author, rewriting permanently: with my brains and the ideas, then rewrite with the letters and the paper, then rewriting with the rehearsing, then rewriting in each shot and take with the camera, then rewriting in the montage; for me thinking about the film and writing is part of the filmmaking process, part of the technical stuff. Then you just change the support.

What other film festivals are you taking this film to?

The film has been in over 30 festivals, I just came from Chicago and Oslo, so this is the last stop on the festival circuit.

A few words about your other film that is playing at Havana Film Festival.

Memorias del Calavero is also a good-bye from an old guy. The film tries to be a documentary but it keeps us out. It’s about a very old guy, he’s 65.  I wanted to celebrate uselessness, it’s a very difficult value to practice these days! I wanted to celebrate him and share his experience with the audience. It was a nice experiment, I never thought anything would come of it, but people gave me such beautiful words when I presented the film.

Rubén Mendoza links:

RUINA at HAVANA FILM FESTIVAL – Interview with filmmaker Markus Lenz

Ruina poster

Often called the largest vertical slum in Latin America, the Confinanzas Tower in Downtown Caracas, a 200-meter skyscraper-ruin originally intended as a bank and currently squatted by 3,000 people, is the subject of the aptly called RUINA, a new documentary film by German filmmaker Markus Lenz.

Ignored by the city’s administration and dreaded by the neighbourhood, the inhabitants of Torre Confinanzas build up their own model of a socialist micro-society in their vertical city.

Overcoming a lot of obstacles, Markus managed to persuade the media-shy community inside to, literally and metaphorically, open up…

This interview was taken on December 11, 2014 at ICAIC, Havana as part of THE 36th INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF THE NEW LATIN AMERICAN CINEMA

Dana Knight: Could you please introduce yourself and tell us what your film is about?

Markus Lenz: I’m a filmmaker from Germany and I’m presenting here my documentary film Ruina. The film is about an abandoned skyscraper in downtown Caracas, a building that was abandoned for more than 13 years before it was squatted by a bunch of people who started to create something like a socialist microcosm with apartment house buildings, thus changing completely the meaning of the building.

What sparked your interest in this story and how did you come across it?

My interest in this subject was aroused when I read an article in a German newspaper. It was about the crime situation and the decay in Venezuela and there were two phrases about this tower. The journalist was saying this was an abandoned bank squatted by people. This seemed very strange to me.

Also, this building is right in the centre of the city in an upmarket area, creating a visual contrast that is symbolical of the huge economic disparity in the country. In the film, it is referred to as a “cancerous growth” that had to be eradicated from an otherwise economically “healthy” area.

Exactly, it’s in a middle-class and upper-class area and also it’s a bank, there are banks and offices all around it. The area is like the Venezuelan Wall Street.

When did you come across this article? 

It was back in 2011. At the time I was looking for an idea for a film, I was doing research and when I came across this article I knew immediately that was my story, it was something I really wanted to do. Then some good things happened: I had the possibility to go to Bogota in Colombia on an exchange programme from the art school where I studied in Cologne. I had only one week to decide if I wanted to go, there was only one place left. Realising I’d be closer to the tower, I went and spent seven months in Bogota, I studied and worked there. At the end of my stay there, I travelled to Caracas to make this film.

Did you shoot the entire film while you were on this exchange programme?

Yes. But in Caracas I only stayed for three weeks, I filmed everything you saw in three weeks.

That is amazing, I had the impression that the film covered a longer period, of at least a year. 

No but it was really intense, I was working 20 hours a day. We had a short time and a small budget so it was not possible to stay longer.

And the people living there, how did they react to your idea of making this film?

Badly! The doors were closed at the beginning. They were like: “We are not interested in this project at all”. They were also afraid of bad media, there were already small videos on Youtube which were very harsh and critical of the community inside. So they were really not interested in another kind of negative depiction of their lives. And a few days before travelling from Bogota to Venezuela, I also met a girl who was trying to do the same thing. She said to me she had been trying to get into the tower for seven weeks, with no success. So my prospects were bad, I really wasn’t sure if I would be able to film inside.

How did you convince the people in the tower to open up and collaborate with you on this film?

After several days of the doors staying closed and them sending us away, I got this contact number for the secretary of the building whom you see in the film. So I just called her, I don’t know how many times per day but I basically stalked her. I could hear in her voice that she was kind of interested in getting to know me. And I really wanted to make this film, I was there with my equipment, I couldn’t go home without filming anything.

And she finally gave in at some point and I had a meeting with her. Interestingly enough, it turned out she saw me and my friend hanging out the day before in a neighbouring barrio in Bogota. So she immediately recognised me, she had a smile on her face and this kind of broke the ice between us.

Did you have to reassure them that you were going to depict them in a positive light?

At the beginning, yes. I said to her I was not interested in making this classic negative report about their building, there are so many of those already. I wanted the perspective of the people who lived there, the neighbours. I said I really wanted to know what is going on there and how they organise themselves.

Were you surprised by anything when you finally had a chance to witness their lifestyle or did it conform to your expectations?

The feel you get when you are inside, you don’t feel the height of the building so it’s like you could be anywhere, in any apartment building, it didn’t feel like a squat. Then I was really surprised by how clean it is inside and how organised it is. To be honest, I expected to find a mess inside and I expected this to be a place without any organisation, maybe with a lot of crime too.

Interestingly enough, they are evicting people who are using drugs.

Yes, they keep them out. Probably the first years were very hard because there were a lot of people who used drugs and were associated with crime but eventually they managed to stabilise their community.

What do you think will happen to these people in the future, will they be granted the right to live there?

They’ve been there for seven years now, they moved in in September 2007. But now they have to leave. When I finished the film in March this year, there was still no solution for them. But in the summer the government decided to resettle them, to kick them out but give them another place in Caracas outside the city centre, of course. This is a satellite city 70 km away which for a lot of people is a problem because they work in the centre and now suddenly they don’t have access to it. And I don’t know what will happen with the building, it is unclear right now.

They probably won’t have the money to finish it. If they needed 10 million to complete it 20 years ago, now the cost will be much higher. 

Yes, a lot more. The project was abandoned 20 years ago so to transform it now into a financial building, it will be very difficult. There were some negotiations with a Chinese bank that wanted to rebuild it, but I’m not sure, there are a lot of rumours in the media. Personally I think they will tear it down.

Are you taking the film to other festivals?Where are you on the festival circuit?

We premiered in Prague this year then travelled a lot, to Rome, Brussels, Istanbul. We screened at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen. We had a lot of screenings in November, in 5 or 6 festivals. The next screening is in Stockholm.