Democracy Uncensored

CineAstra – Havana Glasgow Film Festival are honoured to have been invited to participate in CineAstra, a new collaborative film festival bringing together film programmers and curators across the city.  We are screening a programme, Democracy: Uncensored, which explores the limits of representation and freedom of speech through the use of media and technology.

Firstly, it might be useful to define what a ‘democracy’ actually is. According to the UN, democracy provides an environment that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in which the freely expressed will of people is exercised.

Reformed Marxist W.H. Auden once referred to “our dear old bag of a democracy” in his magnificent meditation on society “Vespers”, and, certainly, that vivid phrase conjures up the plurality, frayed nature, yet necessity that we place in the institution. Of course, the U.N.’s own democratic mandate has been callously ignored this week, as its calls for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza were rebuffed, making it look increasingly irrelevant, as, some would argue, democracy itself is.

One of the largest bones of contention in its existence has long been the behaviour of the U.S., for instance, in 1983, when it invaded the Caribbean island Grenada, in what the UN termed a “flagrant violation of international law”. President Reagan’s accusation was that the island was “being turned into a Soviet/Cuban client”, an assertion explored by the first film in the programme, Rigoberto Lopez’s ‘Grenada: The Takeoff of a Dream’, which explores the history and the real reasons behind the controversial construction of the airport at Point Salinas, Grenada in the 1980s.

During the 70s and 80s, Cuba took an active role in decolonisation struggles in countries such as Angola and South Africa, giving the US, a country which has imposed various forms of economic blockade on the island since the Revolution, another reason to hate it. But to which extent can countries be allowed to democratically assert their independence and autonomy, even if they choose regimes of which we in the ‘liberal’ West may not approve?

A fascinating test case could be Chile, where on September 11th, 1973, the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup backed by the CIA, and the country’s president, Salvador Allende, shot himself through the head with a gun that had been given to him previously by Fidel Castro in a symbolic gesture to encourage him to be more militant.

With General Pinochet in charge, the country would become a laboratory in which to explore the cutting edge new economic ideas of the Chicago School, which would come to be known as neoliberalism, as they were exported around the globe. The Cuban people’s resilience and rebellion against the process of their democracy being undermined was famously captured on the hoof, with an utterly compelling sense of urgency, by the filmmaker Patricio Guzman in his film ‘The Battle of Chile’, shooting on film smuggled into the country by radical French filmmaker Chris Marker.

The rest of our film programme concentrates on Chile, with three shorts from Michael Chanan, the leading British scholar and critic of Latin American cinema, and longstanding friend of Havana Glasgow Film Festival. 

These comprise ‘Homage’, which explores the history of the cable cars operating in Valparaiso; ‘Community’, which focuses on a community television channel in Población La Victoria, a barrio in Santiago; and ‘Protest’, which looks at the student protest movement in Chile.

Valparaiso is most famous in cinema for ‘A Valparaiso’, an extraordinary short film made by Joris
Ivens in 1963 (quoted in Chanan’s film) from a screenplay by Chris Marker, who would also go on to become the cinema’s first ‘global citizen’ and proto-citizen journalist, who has moved from a marginal position in 20th century cinema to a central one in the twenty first, by predicting the audio visual medium’s shifts. He even made some of the first, and undoubtedly the best, cat videos. He visited Chile after visiting two other sites of revolutionary interest, Israel for ‘Description of a Struggle’ in 1960, and Cuba – immediately post-Revolution – in 1961, for ‘Cuba Si!’ These are two of the least-seen and known of his works, for interesting reasons. Obviously praise of Cuba was not encouraged, and Marker’s celebratory vision of the Revolution up to the Bay of Pigs, complete with revealing interviews from Fidel Castro, would certainly not have gone down well in certain quarters.

Similarly, ‘Description of a Struggle’, which may only be seen as prescient now in taking its title form Kafka, to describe a situation which may appear Kafkaesque in the extreme. While it may be hard to remember now, there was a time when eager young Socialists embraced the utopian promise of Israel, with its egalitarian promise of kibbutzim. The Palestinian Communist Party – admittedly a small grouping – even helped smuggle weapons into the nascent country from Czechoslovakia to help create Israel!

Marker’s vision, while beautifully shot, looks painfully naïve now, like a promo for the Israeli Tourist Board, made by someone who’s just read Barthes’s recently published ‘Mythologies’, and is using their fascination with signs and semiotics to almost wilfully miss their significance. The only Palestinian who appears is a small boy riding a home-made cart, which the film treats as a triumph of his imagination, as he passes cars into an obviously wealthy city, in a scene of wincingly unaware irony. It’s little wonder this film has also lapsed into obscurity, despite winning the Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival  – it certainly wouldn’t endear this darling of radical left-wing filmmaking to the contemporary left.

If both these films and their neglect signify anything to contemporary struggles for democracy and representation, it may be the importance of keeping eyes and ears open, as well as channels of communication, and we would urge audiences to approach these films in that frame of mind.

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