Coffee and Contradictions

The 1960s were the Golden Age of Cuban filmmaking, where filmmakers were swept up in the fervour of creating a new society, and the Cuban film institute ICAIC eager to facilitate filmmakers to create new forms with which to embody these visions.

In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, one of the greatest challenges was how to educate the population in the ideals and possibilities embodied by the process. Due to the massive inequalities which had prevailed under the Batista regime, many of the population were illiterate, and film was deemed to be one of the best ways in which to reach the public and spread the word. Within the Dirección de Cultura del Ejército Rebelde (Culture Division of the Rebel Army) was set up ICAIC (the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry), which still maintains the Cuban film industry and archives to this day. ICAIC emerged from a radical pedagogical impulse, initially specialising in documentary, many of which are classics of the form.

Many of these filmmakers quickly moved beyond a neorealist or simple educational impulse to explore the potential of film as an artform, in films as radical in their form as their content. One, however, went too far – Nicolás Guillén Landrián.

Landrián was, alongside Sara Gomez, one of the very first Afro-Cubans to get the opportunity to work in film. Like so many black filmmakers over the world at that time, both their careers would be truncated, but for different reasons – premature death in Gomez’s case, censorship in Landrián’s.

The revolution was keen to promote racial equality, Castro famously announcing that Cubans could dance with whomever they wanted, as long as they danced with the revolution.

However, “Nicolasito” as he was nicknamed, would subtly probe the lingering traces of racism and segregation that remained on the island. After all, you can’t just erase decades of structural racism overnight. And while he may have tried to dance with the revolution, they didn’t always make perfect dancing partners.

The films he made would be intensely personal responses to the situation, and often cut against the grain. As he later explained, “All aesthetic conflicts are the result of conceptual conflicts. I wanted to be an interpreter of my reality. I always found myself in the vortex of alienation. The result as a whole is every film I made.”

This is exemplified by a film like En el barrio viejo (In an Old Neighbourhood, 1963), which may have won a special prize at the Krakow Film Festival, but didn’t find favour in Cuba. A tender, humane exploration of the daily lives of the inhabitants of an old neighbourhood in Havana, it observes their quotidian activities with a non-judgmental eye, then comes to focus on an ecstatic Afro-Cuban religious ritual with unorthodox use of a lizard, directly in the shadow of propaganda posters of Castro. This was defiantly not the idealised image of the new man that Cuban cinema was hoping to promote. Neither was Los del baile, where we see people dancing, drinking and generally losing their shit during a performance by Pello el Afrokán, inventor of the so-called Mozambique Rhythm. 

Ociel of the Toa River (Ociel del Toa, 1965) and Return to Baracoa (Retornar a Baracoa,1966) are explorations of a remote region in Cuba where the revolution seems barely to have touched. In the former film, Landrián intimately observes the activities of his marginalised protagonists – particularly the titular teen fisherman – from working to cockfighting, with a sensuousness that recalls Flaherty or Murnau. However, he ironically undercuts the images with intertitles stating things like ‘It’s good they see this in Havana.”

Havana wasn’t amused; particularly by the latter film, where the irony explodes from the titles (“Baracoa is a prison in a park”) to the images themselves –  beginning and ending with a jet taking off, where the activities of the poor, such as an Afro-Cuban woman working, eyes wide shut, over a chocolate production line are privileged, but a speech by Castro is blacked out.

If Landrián’s position as nephew of the beloved poet Nicolas Guillen may have given him some immunity until now, this flagrant provocation couldn’t be ignored, and he was incarcerated for ‘ideological divergence’, first in a correctional facility, then in a psychiatric hospital. These measures, however, failed to cure him – they just made him determined to be even more provocative.

Coffea Arabiga was his chance to prove himself – a propaganda film about the Cordón de La Habana, an initiative to encourage the people of Havana to grow coffee. What could possibly go wrong? Neither his rehabilitation nor the ECT had ‘cured’ him; mad as Hell, he made an aggressively irreverent film repurposing footage from his previous films, culminating in a heroic image of Castro, scored to The Beatles’ Fool on the Hill. Perhaps since the Beatles were banned in Cuba, nobody seemed to get it – and the film was released. Then, ironically, withdrawn when the coffee harvest was a disaster.

The authorities had wanted a propaganda film – what they got was a bitterly ironic deconstruction of propaganda film, one that had more in common with the avant-garde iconoclasm of a Ken Jacobs or Bruce Connor than agit prop.

Santiago Alvarez’s documentaries were the most popular in Cuba at the tjme. most famous for his critique of American racism Now! He’d come up with a dynamic editing style he called ‘nervous montage’, which set photos and movie clips on a collision course which anticipates the pop video, and which had undoubtedly influenced. Here though, Landrián’s editing is positively schizoid montage, probing at and exploring the discontinuities in Cuban society, nowhere more so than in the scene with the chic white woman consuming coffee in a photomontage in high sixties style. The segregation of production along racial and gendered lines is brilliantly parodied with the ironic intertitle, ‘In Cuba all the whites, all the blacks, everyone drinks coffee.’

While this may be the wittiest industrial film ever made, the regime were not amused.

Landrián was accused of homosexuality, of plotting Castro’s downfall, even of a potential assassination attempt on Fidel. None of these charges may have been true, but he was sent to a correctional facility, and more psychiatric treatment.

From 1970 to 1989, he was repeatedly jailed and institutionalised, his films banned, eventually leaving to the US. Despite this, he has become a touchstone to younger Cuban filmmakers, become regarded as the greatest of Cuban documentary makers, and his work desperately needs to be rediscovered internationally.

His films are currently being restored by ICAIC, though some are missing, almost certainly lost. I’d love to see these films in good condition on a big screen – possibly a future Havana Glasgow Film Festival?

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