Unspeakable, anonymous silence may well be his perfect mood, but life has generously rewarded him as head of top-level cultural institutions: President of the Cuban Book Institute, President of the National Plastic Arts Council, editor-in-chief of El Caimán Barbudo tabloid, and director of several publications, among others.
He has been the president of the Cuban Film Industry (ICAIC) for ten years, and has a vast and prestigious literary résumé.
With his slow way of speaking, perhaps typical of a poet who notes that “tenderness is a lamb in Istanbul”, Omar González agreed to answer some questions for CUBARTE, dealing with the development of the contemporary Cuban cinema, at a moment when Havana becomes a city full of joy and reflection on the cinematographic art in the framework of the 31st edition of the Latin American Film Festival.
Can we speak of new names in the contemporary Cuban film world?
In the last ten years, the period I am best acquainted with, new audiovisual producers have no longer been a forgotten minority buy have climbed to a prominent place in the national film industry. Those most optimistic speak of an unprecedented event, not only for the magnitude of the phenomenon but for its diversity and expressive richness, as well as the circumstances. It is as if we were once again living first days, but in a very different context, somehow less romantic, with multiple signs of contamination and experience entailing another look, at the risk of becoming a burden amid what it is tradition for some people but routine for others. Undoubtedly, such climax has by no way been the work of this or that institution, this or that person, but of the entire society. However, it is worth mentioning that we do not discover the young producers of this generation at ICAIC, but while they were just making their first steps or waiting for some opportunity to prove that they existed, when not even their peers had realized their now revealed standing. This is why the Festival of New Filmmakers, inaugurated at the beginning of 2001, cannot be separated from this process of constant dialogue and recognition that goes beyond caprices and circumstances, which has never had anything in common with the demagogy of opportunists. The Festival has not and will not be a floral game, or a circus display but a working program, the moment when the phenomenon becomes fully visible. It is then that the objectives for a year work are set, with the continuity of a strategy that is not static but dialectical, participatory, that is, democratic.
Of course, not all the work by new filmmakers or so called independent producers –sorry if I am a party pooper but I have to stress that none of those conditions are synonyms of genius- arouses the same cultural (I insist on this word) interest in their contemporaries, and in fact, some are known for their devices rather than for the benefits of their manifestations. But this does not worry me much, because it is circumstantial both in art and life. Logically, such a high jump as the one by young producers, whether or not independent, involves very outstanding individualities whose best credential is love of what they do. I could mention about 20 new well known filmmakers and TV and video producers, but selections use to be unfair –even natural selection that has not always meant progress- so I prefer not to do so. They are professionals who have amassed a very solid work and whom institutions and the society –according to possibilities and impossibilities- have offered support and freedom, which is the most important resource for artistic creation, after talent and cultural training. At this moment, the role of critique and other more or less rigorous authentication system could be decisive. Anyway, it does not prevent me from giving a positive answer to your question, nor being optimistic about the present and future of the Cuban cinema and culture, as well as the continuity of a project that after 50 years of existence gives signs of freshness. I can assure you there are few countries where you can say something similar. We have the most important: the artistic movement and the institution. One without the other is neither body nor head.
Which is the importance of the impact of new technologies on the Cuban cinema?
To a great extent, new technologies have contributed to this boom of young (and not so young) producers I mentioned already. It has had a great impact, and has decisively influenced the format of the contemporary audiovisual space, so much so that you can no longer speak of cinema, TV or video separately. Now, you must mention something that brings them together, a new and yet largely undetermined phenomenon: the audiovisual.
Genres, for instance, have spread, hierarchies have mixed up, and universal communication -which has been the ultimate aspiration of the individual along history- has become impossible, because data are so much saturated that brings about confusion.
New talents are also in the hands of the audience who, in this case, is overwhelmingly young, but they must not be confused with those who create and produce, the most important to the effects of this interview.
Institutions and events were not ready for such a high jump, little conventional and dynamic, taking some people by surprise. When I say institutions and events I mean everybody, including those who represent the individual.
Cinema and social commitment: communicating vessels?
I would rather say cinema and society. Due to dogmas, both leftist and rightist, I prefer to use these terms, though they are inaccurate and into disuse. The term commitment had deteriorated a lot, up to the point that some, evading their political identity, are unrecognizable, chiefly when it is intended to state our ideas explicitly. That is, there are people who prefer to oppose imperialism without even mentioning it. For me, this is a consequence of the perversion of politics and its practice worldwide, and the unquestionable result of a strategy to denaturalize the most progressive forces and causes.
We cannot forget the world is just overcoming the zatanization of socialism, for which not only the influential mass media with its typical pervasiveness are held responsible, but also the historic experience of the system itself. But if a way of being committed is by not being so, it could be said that nothing escapes that redundant notion, and that probably it is better that way, because it demonstrates us the problem calls for other tools, other ways of presenting our ideas, and even a more efficient practice. In this period of universal disillusionment, some attitudes are not precisely nihilistic but indifferent. Nonetheless, the Cuban movie is the result and work of a commitment based on authenticity, and not even one of its crucial moments has escaped that creative relation between reality and art, between society and its ideal space, which is fate rather than relation. Paradigm -or better paradigms, because diversity is culture- would be among those good examples. The many films been produced or shot in Cuba at present are based on these premises, though some of their producers, mainly young ones, are trying to connect with the international “norm” of these times. It is there where culture, which is more important than political ideology, is decisive. An ignorant filmmaker separates from its cultural identity without even realizing it, and is unable to distinguish what determines his aesthetic condition. He is anything but a filmmaker.
What does the Cuban Film Industry (ICAIC) do to protect the heritage of this artistic manifestation in our country?
There is a restoration and preservation project under way. Its first phase includes operations in practically all the vaults and places where this heritage is kept safe, different acclimatization, implementation of norms and security systems using leading-edge technology, revision and reclassification of all materials, cleaning and recovery, duplication of films at risk, and full digitalization and spreading. This will allow the social diffusion of our film heritage, one of the world’s most important to make known exceptional periods like the second half of the 20th century, particularly the Cuban Revolution, whose history cannot be fully understood without taking into consideration its audiovisual representation. Once we make it, we will have proven the seriousness of a strategy. It is to be verified soon.
Restoring and preserving the ICAIC film legacy is one of the main objectives and tasks of the National Commission, which has been dealing with affairs linked to the country’s historical memory. It is a program divided in phases which, in our case, is also supported by international cooperation, chiefly that of the Andalusia Board and in lesser extent UNESCO and other friend entities.
How is the project for the restoration of Cuban movie theaters going on?
This task has not stopped, but it is very poor. The world economic and financial crisis, along with the disaster caused by the hurricanes that pounded the country in 2008, made us postpone a program for the modernization of over 50 movie theaters nationwide. This would have entailed the incorporation of new technologies for screening and sound, and restoration of buildings. But as I said before, these works have not finished, and another 50 movie theaters have been partially or totally rebuilt, several of them in very favorable conditions such as Riviera, 23 y 12, La Rampa and the movie of Regla, in Havana; “Camilo Cienfuegos” and Corralillo, in Villa Clara province; Rialto, in Santiago de Cuba; Huambo and Baracoa, in Guantánamo; practically all cinemas in Las Tunas; some in Holguín; Velazco, in Matanzas, among others I cannot remember now but also important. The most difficult situation is in Pinar del Río province, where the hurricanes practically destroyed the cinematographic infrastructure, so much so that the most important facility in the capital is not functioning yet. Camagüey province also faces a complex situation, and logically Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth), severely beaten by the hurricanes, where recovery takes long. I must clarify that the movie theater in that special municipality was not the cultural institution most affected.
What do you think about co-productions?
I cannot imagine the Cuban cinema without the contributions (and consequences) of co-productions. Actually, it is hard for me to think about the current cinema of developing nations without the seal of cooperation. In Cuba, joint productions did not begin in the 1990s, but they are linked to the integrating, emancipating, and universal thinking that has characterized ICAIC since its foundation. At that moment, co-productions were made with France, the Soviet Union, the Czech Republic, Spain, Burkina Faso, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela. We still make productions with those countries and others from Latin America and the Caribbean, which we help and from which we receive systematic collaboration. This exchange has enabled us and them not only to survive but also withstand, which is more important as it implies a conscious act. The problem of joint productions does not lie in the concept but in the role filmmakers and institutions must play when they agree to make them. In the case of Cuba, we have sometimes lacked balance and significance, either thematic, cultural or of genre. The continued existence of certain actually impoverishing archetypes has been evident. This is what would be necessary to avoid, especially in moments of crisis like the current one, when co-productions not always target a cultural aim, but merely economic and/or relating to local customs.
What about the Animation Production Studios in 2009?
When I deal with skeptical people I always exemplify with the Animation Studios, where its historic production has multiplied several times, and where there are so many talents and such a good combination of experience and youth that nothing seems to be impossible. It would be appropriate to see right now the production process of the feature film Meñique (Little Finger), directed by Ernesto Padrón. It is the first one we will fully make in 3D, with the collaboration of the University of Information Technology Sciences (UCI), and should be ready by 2011. It would be also pertinent to mention other projects like the versions of The Golden Age stories, by several young filmmakers, not to mention the work of teachers like Juan Padrón, Tulio Raggi, and Mario Rivas, who do not only give continuity to their series and regular characters, but decisively contribute with their teaching. It would be necessary to refer to that creative “ferment” to know what art is and what young producers of a cinematographic institution are. To better feel life, it would be opportune to stop seeing the world from the perspectives of smart alecks who are always giving lessons without realizing they have “frozen” in nostalgia. This year, despite the long time Little Finger entails -the studios previously stopped the rest of the production when they were making a feature film- this institution has had 588 animated minutes, and worked in 114 titles. Its main challenge is to preserve quality, and not to be led by the optical illusion of statistics.
The Low-budget Film Festival is a paradigmatic example of that artistic manifestation’s impact on the transformation of a community. Will it continue to be like that after the death of its main promoter: filmmaker Humberto Solás?
The continuity of the Low-budget Film Festival greatly depends on the committee that organizes it, which is the same ever, and of locals in Gibara and Holguin in general, because it would have no sense holding it in that province without their participation. Such a festival cannot be conceived separated from the community, which must welcome it as part of its image and essence. This is what has happened so far, mainly in the local scene, and must continue this way in the future. The festival must always be an expanded network, the reason why the participating works have been made known in the rest of the world and Cuba, where Cienfuegos and Camagüey provinces have served as sub-venues or spaces for thematic displays and their corresponding theoretical events. This is the original conception of the festival, the one that Humberto defended and it is very important that it spreads and consolidates in the world. Low-budget is a cultural, ethical notion; I do not even associate it to a single venue; for me it is multiple, omnipresent.
How does the 50th anniversary of the ICAIC foundation influence the Cuban and Latin American film production?
I think the celebration has gone beyond parties and joy. The main result has been reunion, investigation, and reflection, and the Cuban cinema has been made known a lot more. We are speaking of hundreds of displays, seminars, conferences, publications, debates, and audiovisual works. Someone fond of statistics recently told me that those actions have taken place in more than 50 countries, ranging from festivals to small community events. And, festivities have not finished yet; they will run through March 24, 2010.
This is very encouraging and corroborates the efficiency of a project like ours. Latin America, just like Cuba, welcomes the 50 years of ICAIC amid a revival of the film industry, with new producers as protagonists. The challenge would be to overcome isolation, and allow the union of the diverse. An event such as the Havana Film Festival corroborates the importance of going further.
Which are the points of contact between a writer and a president of a film institute?
Well, I try to write everyday, and above all read and be informed on the most diverse affairs of the reality (and the unreal world). I think that disposition for knowledge has helped me understand cinema which, on the other hand, is perhaps the artistic manifestation most familiar to anyone in the modern (and post-modern) world. Writing may also help me with the analysis and synthesis, as I come from journalism and poetry. Now, as president of ICAC I have no time for pleasant things others than watching films and writing some verses or an essay on generally secular daily events. I do not know if this has happened in other periods and other cases, but in my case, ICAIC has been a source of literary “inspiration.” In turn, it has represented an invaluable means of learning, precisely at a time when audiovisual works are enjoying the greatest boom ever in the history of mankind. As I am a great observer, the day I learn a little, I explain to myself the reasons of a human behavior, of my raison d’être, the importance of not resting ever. When I am exhausted, contrary to what I used to do before (to read over and over), I take refuge in cinema and poetry, which sometimes coincide. I have been doing this mission for nearly ten years, which means the accomplishment of my duties has implied a lot of love, though not all has been joy. ICAIC is an institution where anyone director can feel proud of and be really happy.
Have you ever tried to write a script for cinema?
I wrote the script of a film co-produced by the Film Studios of he Cuban TV and its peers from the then Democratic German Republic, early in the 1980s. It was a historic film dedicated to George Weerth, the friend of Marx and Engels who died in Havana in 1856. Despite his brief stay in Cuba, he had decided to settle and make fortune. The results of that project were not terrible form the artistic point of view, but the Germans insisted on manipulating Cubans’ political relations with Weerth, and I opposed its screening in Cuba. I wrote some anonymous scripts for TV, and at ICAIC, I have written none but have read them all, and expressed my viewpoints on the majority of those filmed during the last ten years. I try that my relation with authors is based on an inviolable ethical principle: our dialogues are private, and our agreements sacred. I am not interested in going down in history at the expense of others’ work; I respect what my peers do a lot. I am what I am, and do not pretend to be a filmmaker. Somehow or other, I deal with writing.
Despite your public activity, do you have any book under way?
I have three book projects that anxiously alternate in my briefcase: a short novel on probabilities based on the Tarot, a book of poems on death and invisible cities, and another of essays on new technologies and their impact on human spirituality. At this pace, it is very likely I cannot finish them ever. That really distresses me.
You said in a poem: how it hurts me Europe, how it hurts me Spain! But, how does it hurt you Cuba?
It hurts me too, but differently. In Europe I cannot do much, but in Cuba I have the possibility and obligation of improving things and positively influencing society and myself. It hurts me when technocrats stop me, and when I forget that I exist and finish up justifying everything, even my probable indolence. It also hurts me the misfortunes of people who think they are the center of the universe and deny and destroy what is done. It hurts me and they upset me. But Cuba makes me happy; I cannot stand being away from it, I do not want it sad.
Original article published on 10 December 2009
About the author
Dayamí Interián García is a member of Cubanow and a friend of Tlaxcala, the international network of translators for linguistic diversity. This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author and translator are cited.
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