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 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!
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.
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…
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.