Luis Alberto Garcia is one of the most highly regarded actors in Cuba, having first come to fame 30 years ago with his role in the popular classic “Clandestinos”. “Clandestinos” explored the people’s resistance to Batista before the revolution, and Garcia has continued to work with that film’s director, Fernando Perez, who is the most celebrated director in contemporary Cuban cinema.
Havana Glasgow Film Festival is honoured to have Garcia as a guest this year; he will be in attendance for screenings of “Clandestinos” and his newest film, “Ya no es Antes” (Not Like Before).
We caught up with him ahead of the festival, where he spoke to us from Havana.
Q -You’re one of the most famous actors in Cuba. How do you think being a Cuban film star compares with being a Hollywood one?
A -There is no comparison. They are two different worlds. In Cuba, cinema is done with very few resources. We don’t have a “star system”, millionaire salaries or exclusive neighbourhoods. We don’t have a propaganda apparatus that manufactures myths.
Film in Cuba is not even considered a business. Our films have no access to big markets and it is very difficult for them to reach big festivals that exist in other parts of the world.
I am quite well known in my country because of my work in many Cuban films or in televisión, but in the rest of the world I am a complete stranger.
I am not a film star.
Q – You got your big break with “Clandestinos”. Why do you think this film had such a great reception by the Cuban public, and how do you find working with Fernando Perez?
A – “Clandestinos” had (and still has) a great reception by the Cuban public. Despite being a film with a conventional structure in Aristotelian terms, it also has an attractive script, rigorous artistic direction (scenography, costume design, make-up, soundtrack), cinematography that was able to tell a story instead of boasting technologically, fabulous music and – ‘last but not least’ – a director who, in his own debut film, already knew by intuition what he wanted to get out of his actors, and how to shoot every sequence so that people believed in the love story.
In the long term, Fernando Pérez has proven to be not just the best living Cuban director, but one of the best of all time in our country. This potential was something that was felt throughout the shooting and again after the release of “Clandestinos”.
He studies the human soul, he has an extreme sensitivity and treats every actor and actress differently, depending on their strengths and weaknesses. He discovers in each one of them what experience it is that they treasure the most and, somehow, brings it to life. He’s some kind of magician or enchanter.
Since we met, I’ve always received from him the demands I expected and he knows he can do whatever he wants with me. We almost don’t need words to know what we think of a sequence, and he has gifted me with the honour of improvising texts that were only outlined on the script. He makes you his accomplice, not his subordinate. You are not a puppet in his hands waiting for the puppeteer to pull the strings. This is very difficult to find.
Most directors prefer to rehearse every sequence of their films (or those that may appear to be more complex from an acting point of view) to exhaustion. I will always remember how Fernando, after a suggestion Isabel Santos and I made, agreed not to rehearse the final sequence of “Clandestinos”, and blindly trusted us. We arrived to the film set without him knowing what we were going to propose to him. It was like a triple somersault with no safety net.
Thirty years later I am proud that when people in Cuba are questioned, even the most specialised critics, they consider this final scene to be the best in Cuban cinema.
Q – What is your favourite of your films, and why?
A -It is very difficult for me to select just one. I’m debating between “Clandestinos” and “La Vida es Silbar” by Fernando Pérez, “Adorables Mentiras” by Gerardo Chijona and “Ya no es Antes” by Léster Hamlet. because in each one of them I had characters that allowed me to show a great variety of emotions and subtleties. But being honest with myself and not without pain, I would say “La Vida es Silbar.”
In this visually beautiful film you can perceive a mature Fernando Pérez, owning all his resources and knowledge. Despite being addressed by some as symbolist or abstract, this is a heartbreaking film that asks some of the bigger questions held by the Cuban nation: What are we? Where are we going? What did we do right and what wrong? Is the solution leaving or staying and trying to fix what is wrong? Is materiality more important than the intangible? Are Cubans that left Cuba worse than those who stayed, only because they think differently? Doesn’t Cuba belong to everyone born in it and their descendants? Must the truth be said aloud or hidden out of convenience or fear?
In this film I had to interpret “every Cuban”. Elpidio Valdés, the best example of a Cuban, is a well- known animation character in Cuba, he is like Asterix for the French, and this is the name of my character in this film: Elpidio Valdés. It is very hard for any actor to incarnate something as intangible as a nationality. Even harder in the Cuban case, because nation and family have been split almost irreparably.
This is one of those films that appears to an actor only once or twice. A film in which one holds, as a thinking being and citizen, the same doubts and certainties that are developed by the director and in the narration of the film.
Q – What do you think gives Cuban films their distinctive character, and why should foreign audiences watch them?
We are part of a country that doesn’t resemble most of the other countries existing on the planet. Some sort of rare creature, for some antediluvian, but for others extremely attractive and full of “other” possibilities. The utopian kingdom. Some celebrate what, in their point of view, have been successes but for others quite the opposite. I think Cuba is not a total hell or paradise.
We are making an effort to build a film industry with extremely limited resources, against what has been dictated by major global entertainment emissaries or the requirements of those who rule us, showing the complex society we live in, an overwhelmingly unequal competitive world and the yearnings of ordinary Cubans. Films that show our frailty and our beliefs. The lights and shadows of the current Cuba. A country with no images is orphanhood itself.
It’s been five years since we stopped shooting in 35 mm, due to the high costs of celluloid, and we are increasingly falling behind in matters of technology. A huge part of post production has to be done outside Cub,a because we don’t have the updated technology film demands nowadays. We have directors, screenwriters, actors, editors, cinematographers, musicians, sound engineers, post production specialists and highly skilled technicians who could work within the most demanding film industries in the world. Unfortunately we also have a feeble economy and a society that cannot dedicate itself to film (they are faced with more imperative concerns) and the economic funds this art form requires for it to become prominent on a worldwide scale.
Despite having so many things working against us, I believe our films can be attractive for foreign audiences, because human beings are curious creatures by nature, and there will always be people interested in knowing what it is like to live in different places, societies and cultures. This is what drives me to interest myself in what Iranian, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican or Scottish people do with their cinema. There will always be people interested in seeing a cinema different from that done by Hollywood. In fact, Hollywood is experiencing some sort of thematic and formal fatigue. This has triggered (within what is considered the pinnacle of cinema) an appetite for original film plots and has led them to “remake” works from other cinema histories to hook an audience tired of watching the same formulas being repeated to infinity.
Q -You’ve been working in the Cuban film industry for 30 years now. What do you think has changed in those years?
Before 1990 Cuban cinema was subsidised by the government and artists didn’t have to worry about the cost of their films. Then, the country entered a major economic crisis, as a consequence of the fall of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe and is still recovering. From then on, filmmakers had to learn to “knock on doors and stamp their feet” going around half the world to be able to find funds for their films. This may be a common thing, but Cubans had to learn it from scratch. It was difficult to get any interest in this from an island with increasingly reduced funds, which is continuously vetoed by bigger film monopolies, as well as the centres of monetary power on the global scale.
Co-productions started appearing as the salvation of the national film industry. Without them, Cuban cinema could have disappeared, though it cannot be ignored that co-productions did not always produce good films. Sometimes foreign producers’ demands (not acknowledging the complex Cuban reality and looking above all for a profitable product that works in their countries of origin) denaturalised scripts that promised much, and that later gave birth to films with no soul. Forgettable films.
The other monumental change, for the better has been the democratisation of technology. Thanks to his, many creators of different ages -but mostly the youngest ones – who before had to wait for the state’s industry to distribute the different allocations of budget (not always with good judgement) have started developing their own projects independently, and making interesting films, transgressive and irreverent. This makes me confident in affirming that Cuban cinema is on the doorstep of making a leap in terms of quality and quantity, superior to those we see now.
We are demanding (imploring?) a Law of Cinema that favours a legal framework to diversify and increase the production of film. We are ready to climb many steps at once; unfortunately the Cuban government is not very keen. Prejudice and fears have to be demolished. We will keep fighting.
Luis Alberto Garcia and Isabel Santos in “Ya no es Antes”
Q – In “Ya no Es Antes” (Not Like Before), you’re reunited with Isabel Santos, your co-star from Clandestinos. What was it like to work with her again? What resonances will this have for Cuban audiences?
A – Isabel Santos is a prestigious Cuban actress and I’ve been honoured to be her cinematographic and television partner for a long time. In this year’s edition of Havana Glasgow Film Festival, Scottish audiences will have the opportunity to watch the first film in which we appeared together, “Clandestinos” in 1987, and the last, “Ya no es Antes”, in 2017.
We function as a clock mechanism. If one is fortunate enough, you will also find your other half in a film. To give and to receive in acting is the “sine qua non” condition for everything to flow and for the spectator to enter the game, which consists in fabricating lies that turn into truths. Isabel and I are really different in real life, but in film we become (because God, or whatever exists, wanted it)an indissoluble unity when we act. We sense, guess, what the other suggests or plans. It’s chemistry. There is no other word that can explain this.
Cuban audiences like to see us together on screen and they know we would both leave our skin behind in order to become real characters. For them it is a celebration. For us, it’s a gift of love, to be loved by our own.
Cubans were eager to be reunited with us. They were very curious to see if that chemistry was still there, knowing that we were facing the challenge of maintaining an intense dialogue between two characters inside the confines of an apartment.
Thirty years after our first appearance as a couple, we received them with more wrinkles but I also like to think that with more knowledge and well oiled tools. I am very happy with our performances in “Ya no es Antes”. I think we both manage to condense within those two characters, mistreated by life but still hopeful about it, our own experiences and hopes. The audience knows when someone is exposing their demons and rewards you for it.