Cuba and Curiosity at the New York Film Festival


Monica Castillo (The New York Times) reports on two Cuban films that were screened this week at the New York Film Festival: Memories of Underdevelopment and Patria o Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death. Here are excerpts:

Cuba is a forbidden island no longer. [. . .] Perhaps it’s the same outsider curiosity that has spiked interest in artwork by or about Cubans. This week, the New York Film Festival will screen two movies from the island nation, one from its past and one concerned with its current state. “Memories of Underdevelopment” and “Patria o Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death” hail from different eras and feature different tones and structures. They are, however, steeped in the same frayed history and political unease.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea‘s 1968 film “Memories of Underdevelopment” transports us to the post-revolution era. The restoration of Mr. Alea’s film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in the spring and will play the New York Film Festival on Tuesday. In the movie, Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) watches his parents and wife leave for Miami, a typical destination for those fleeing Communism at the time. He stays behind, not out of loyalty, but apathy. He’s adrift in the changes that swept the country after Fidel Castro’s 1959 takeover of the government. Sergio neither fights nor follows the political tide, but stands still to observe it.

He is our listless tour guide to the early days of Castro’s Cuba, happier to get lost in philosophical tangents than join in a march. He was the kind of bourgeois the new government wasn’t interested in keeping around: one who talks of work but never really does anything. Yet his aimless walks through the streets of Havana give us precious insight to Cuba in the 1960s: the political fervor, the evolving attitudes, changing fashions and the steady drain of people fleeing the island.

We’ve frozen the Cuba of that era in our American imagination. It shows up in every travelogue stammering on about the island’s “timelessness” or fixating on its dilapidated buildings and beaten down muscle cars as if the land were enchanted. That image is an American invention, one Olatz López Garmendia’s documentary “Patria o Muerte” doesn’t allow viewers to indulge. That film will screen Wednesday and Thursday before moving to HBO on Nov. 28.

With a title borrowed from the country’s motto, the movie centers on candid interviews with Cubans living with shortages and rations. These people risk being seen as political dissenters just by agreeing to comment on modern Cuba. Early on, a chorus of civilians say what they want to see on the island is freedom. One person simply, powerfully offers in protest, “I am not happy.”

The documentary presents images that don’t neatly fit onto the postcards sold next to tobacco stands aimed at tourists: ancient houses collapsing on their inhabitants, lesbian, gay and transgendered people persecuted by the police, and dissenters disappearing in prisons for months at a time. Young adults bemoan costs and internet restrictions while older Cubans make do with meager wages. Housing shortages have become so severe that some adults in their 30s can’t move out of their parents’ homes. The few scenes filmed out of the country with exiled Cuban artists feel almost out of place with the movie’s tone. They miss their culture and families, and mourn a paradise lost, while some on the island are begging to get out of hell.

Like “Memories of Underdevelopment,” “Patria o Muerte” is a snapshot of Cuba taken at a time of political turmoil. Aside from active dissidents like the blogger Yoani Sánchez, many of the interview subjects are ideologically reminiscent of Sergio, neither strongly for or against the Communist government that has remained in power. [. . .]

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