Nicolás Guillén Landrián was one of the greatest, but most underrated filmmakers ever to emerge from Cuba, until fairly recently. The reason for his neglect was fairly simple – he was the most controversial and most censored filmmaker, one who was imprisoned for his refusal to compromise, subjected to ECT to ‘cure’ him, and had his films banned, before eventually leaving the island to live in Miami. One of the very few, and very first, Black filmmakers to work for ICAIC, his films problematise the complexities of racial and national identity on the island, in a manner counter to the official discourse pushed by Castro and the Revolution.
While he initially had a degree of immunity accorded him by his relationship to his uncle, the revered poet Nicolás Guillén, his savage deconstruction of a propaganda film to promote a coffee harvest, Coffea Arabiga, would prove too much, and lead to his fall from grace.
He would subsequently work as a painter, in partnership with his wife Gretel Alfonso, and influence a new generation of Afro-Cuban artists, before the rediscovery of his films by a new generation.
We spoke to Gretel ahead of our screenings of the new restorations of his work.
- How did you meet Nicolas? Were you aware of his work previously?
I first met Nicolás in 1968 in the lobby of the National Council of Culture, when I was 7 years old. I was there with my mother, who had worked there for a period. I perceived a shining presence as a man came towards me. He had an aura. I was relieved to perceive a being that I thought didn’t exist in Cuba. He passed by me, and touched my head. You could tell he’d also seen me and perceived my admiration. I asked my mother who he was, and she told me. I didn’t know about his work in any detail at that time. But I did know that he embodied what it was to live intimately with art. I later encountered him again when I was 13 and had become a friend of his step-daughter Elvira Valdez, who would later become a well-known actress.
- You and he were/are both artists. Was it an equal partnership? How does the iconography and method of his art link to his films?
In our daily life he considered me an equal, even as he was a mentor. He was a person who wanted me to use my gifts. He was a person who was very respectful of femininity. He had a great devotion for femininity, in fact. He wanted to live a life that was permanently artistic. He included me in his artistic process, and that taught me a great deal. His iconography in both his films and his visual art is tied to the faces and people of Cuba. There is knowledge of the history of Cuba in these images. There is a desire to know his environment and people; respect for the souls who were behind the labors of the country. This is also tied to the art and film that Nicolás knew from his childhood; and the poetry, of course, of his uncle, a key poet in Cuba. Nicolás, however, was also deeply interested in those who were marginalized from the Revolution.
- How was the scene in downtown Miami depicted in Inside Downtown?
The Miami downtown at that time was a place with businesses and offices, active during the day, but almost silent after hours. The ‘downtown’ was like the city centre here. At night and on weekends, it was deserted, except for the homeless. There was a sort of curfew. Everyone who had nowhere to go, the displaced, found refuge under the awnings. The downtown was surrounded by cars on the overpasses. At night, however, the cars barely entered. It was a place to rest for those who couldn’t pay rent. NIcolás had the desire to live in a place that was cosmopolitan. He used to say that to his collectors. He didn’t want to live in the suburbs. In Miami, we were evicted from three separate apartments, one in Coral Gables, and we found ourselves in a rundown downtown hotel. In the downtown, there were some Cuban artists who appear in Inside Downtown.
- How significant is Miami to Cubans?
Exile is very long. There’s a certain perpetuity to exile. At the time there was a law in Cuba that assured that Cuban exiles couldn’t return. The first wave of Cuban exiles were from a Cuban elite. These people used to go on vacation in Miami, but after the Revolution they went there to stay. They received preferential treatment from the U.S. government. The government gave these Cubans the opportunity to obtain residency, and eventually citizenship, which is very different from other migrant groups in the U.S.. They made special laws and agreements for Cuban refugees, one of which was called the Cuban Adjustment Act. This has given the Cuban community a large amount of political power in the United States, especially in Miami and the state of Florida. Because of their influence and the conditions in which they arrived, for a long time Cubans had the possibility of dominating the Miami political scene. In certain cases, they have also had the power of determining the presidency of the United States.
- How affected do you think he was by his experience in prison?
Nicolás was in prison on various occasions. He was never convicted, but spent more than 10 years in different prisons. Never spending more than a couple of years at a time. Before the Revolution, as a teenager as part of the rebellions he was sent to a juvenile corrections centre, Torrens, and later El Principe. And, then, after the Revolution as a filmmaker he was sent to a place called Isla de Pinos, and then psychiatric hospitals and prisons in hospitals. Then at the Combinado del Este he did forced labor. Prison was an abrasive space for Nicolás. He had been treated with electroshock therapy, which caused memory loss. Much had come back to him over the years, but not everything. Nicolás had certain physical remnants of his time in prison. He’d lost one of his testicles from an untreated infection. And had pain for many years due to his broken ribs. Another prisoner had broken them. His charge was what is called “peligrosidad”, literally ‘dangerousness,’ which was a vague legal category in Cuba that was applied to people who challenged or were suspected of challenging norms. There were also psychological vestiges. But his spirit was never broken, and he was never bitter. He maintained his sense of humor.
- He had gained some degree of immunity via his relationship to Nicolas Guillen. How important do you think poetry was to his work? His films certainly work in a poetic register, rather than as narrative.
Nicolás’ uncle, who had the same name, was an internationally renowned poet. His uncle was one of the first artists to embrace pan-African culture, starting in the 1930s; after the Revolution in 1959, he held an important position within one of the Revolutionary cultural institutions. The family more broadly was prominent. His father, Francisco, was elected president of the Black Societies of Cuba. Interestingly, though, Nicolás said that his last name, Guillén, was more respected before than after the Revolution. His last name did protect him, even if his uncle was not explicitly intervening on his behalf. And, yes, Nicolás had a source of inspiration in his uncle’s work, to the point that there are verses that are titles in Nicolás’ cinematic works. In El fin pero no es el fin, he recites even in exile several verses from his uncle’s poetic work.
- Arguably, his analysis of race was the most complex and problematic aspect of his work. How important was his Afro-Cuban identity to his work?
Nicolás did not have an explicit discourse surrounding his Blackness, but he was proud of his heritage. He was very dismayed when they closed the Black Societies in Cuba. And found the Revolutionary discourse on race, which said that race was no longer a factor in Cuban society, to be hypocritical. The history of slavery in Cuba is also important in works such as Coffea Arábiga, which also criticizes the way Afro-Cubans were treated in the Revolution. His choice of portraying an Afro-Cuban woman there fixing her hair also celebrates black women’s beauty, and the music and the atmosphere that’s creates emphasizes this. The way in which the texture of her skin is filmed further accentuates this. Jesús Menéndez, a black unionist, was also important for his family’s history and his cinematic work. It is based on a poem by his uncle. Racism still exists, many times hidden. There are very few Afro-Cubans within high government positions. When there are Afro-Cubans in prominent positions, there are always comments: “but he or she is ‘refined…” or other comments that reveal persistent prejudices.
- How important do you think his identity as a Cuban was to his work?
Nicolás had a universal mind and project. Even so, he said that he would have liked to have been born in a continent with the same background.