El tren de la linea norte review

el Tren de la Línea Norte (The Train on the Northern Railway) and el Bohío

Sunday 13th November at the Reid Building, Glasgow School of art, 4.30pm.The screening will be followed by ‘el Bohio,’ at the same venue.

In their powerful and thorough documentary, Director Marcelo Martin and his crew grant their audience a candid portrait of their journey from the municipal Cuban city of Morón, to two economically unstable towns dotted further along the country’s Northern train line. The film opens with a subtitled reminder that the Socialist Cuban government holds the majority of control over means of production and development; a law set in place to ‘guarantee the wellbeing’ of the country’s citizens. Aware of the distinct lack of universal ‘wellbeing’ among his countrymen, Martin exposes the various cracks in the government’s promise by conducting a non-invasive yet highly penetrative study of Falla, the first village alighted on by his crew. Once lively and beautiful, the town was ‘frozen’ in a state of financial dilapidation in the mid-1990s, during the period of economic and social deterioration now referred to in Cuba as ‘Período especial’ – (‘The Special Period’). Type the village name into search engines these days, and you will be lucky to return any relevant results at all.

The first section of the film focuses on the effects that a sustained period of crisis has had on the town’s buildings and cultural landmarks. One townsman gives a moving tour of the landsite which once housed a sports stadium, built by co-operatives in the hope of granting the town an economic focal point. The stadium stood for over 30 years, before its various parts were dismantled and stolen for money. There was no response from the police, and no plans for reconstruction were ever broached by the government. The man hurls an invisible ball towards the metal stumps which once made up game bases. Fade to black.

Elsewhere in the town, we meet a new guide: an elderly woman, for whom Falla was once home, revisits the deserted town library and arts centre where she worked as a young woman. A few streets away, a dilapidated crumbling cinema houses a high-quality screen, rendered unusable by its rundown surroundings. The cinema attendant explains that he has written to the cultural authorities in Chambas (the municipal town with which Falla is affiliated, and which incorporates 4 other villages in the Ciego de Ávila Province). ‘This is the only cultural institution this town has left, so let’s repair it.’ So far, his requests for assistance have gone unanswered.

Martin does a wonderful job of allowing his guides ownership of the narrative for the duration of their respective sections; they are given time to ponder, and grieve before our eyes. They are not simply present to deliver the facts, but to remember, and mourn, the lost sites which were once the centres of their lives.

The cinema attendant broaches a problem that is revisited several times in the course of the documentary: that of the relative economic security of Chambas in comparison with Falla. Several times, it is implied that much of Chambas’s revenue is made by authorised leeching from the villages over which it presides as a municipality.

‘We thought that because Chambas lived off Falla, Falla would be the municipality, not Chambas,’ says one Falla local. In Chambas, with more money for recreational and cultural institutions, there is less discontent among the town’s young people. By contrast, even Falla’s annual carnival, to which people have historically travelled for many years from neighbouring towns and villages, has deteriorated. With alcohol-related crime on the rise Police have had to introduce hefty, unaffordable fines for anyone caught fighting. In Martin’s film, the vaguely crazed spirit of the event is captured with subtle yet searing insight. Apparently joyous scenes shift before our eyes; the music becomes a little bit too manic; suddenly the booze is flowing too quickly, as the people of Falla try their best to reclaim the sense of purposeful happiness that eludes them every other week of the year.

The second half of the film digs deeper still, with less focus on the architectural and cultural dilapidation of the town, and a closer look at how the poorest people are living, or ‘surviving,’ as one woman prefers to put it. Perhaps the most harrowing section of the film grants a closer look at Falla’s ‘Cardboard Quarter’ – an area so-called due to its dangerous lack of development, and the insubstantial, precarious shacks and buildings – or ‘homes’ – it comprises. One local man criticises the government’s introduction of the ‘own effort’ building initiative, which allows land owners to seek permits to reconstruct and repair their own properties. As he makes around 470 pesos per month (roughly £14), he is in no position to buy government-sold construction materials. Just before the film’s denouement, we are shown a stark and precarious housing structure in which one elderly woman has been left alone to care for her two brothers, both elderly and severely mentally disabled. ‘This is supposed to be a welfare house,’ she tells the camera. She has had no government-sanctioned assistance for years.

The film posits an important question: how far, and how widely, is the Cuban state upholding the socialist ideal of human welfare as the essential and preliminary concern. Through Falla’s story, Martin conveys the overwhelming feeling that when it comes to the ‘forgotten parts of Cuba,’ the state does not care enough; that the peoples’ lives do not matter enough to enforce the action that is desperately required. Staying true to the original intention to visit two stops on the line, Martin concludes his journey at Punta Allegre, a village further North. More dilapidation. More sadness. A black-and-white film flickers through the window of a rapidly deteriorating trailer. There is no need to tell this town’s story. We have already seen it.

The Havana Glasgow Film Festival’s screening of ‘el Tren de la Línea Norte’ will be followed by short film ‘el Bohío,’ winner of the festival’s Experimental Video Art competition. Created by Juan Carlos Balseiro as part of a series entitled ‘Prefiero hundirme en el mar’ (‘I prefer to submerge in the sea’), the short film pairs beautifully with Martin’s documentary, as we move from a concrete to a more abstract exploration of Cuban identity and political frustration. In Balseiro’s hypnotic short, a ‘bohío’, (a tiny house or shack with palm-thatched roof), is suspended, and submerged slowly into the sea. Smooth, gently paced visual images are paired with a soundtrack which is at first disjointed and staccato, before becoming rounder, steadier and deeper as we move below the water line. The use of the ‘bohío’ as an artistic focal point and spring-board for analogy recalls Mario Rivas’s 1985 animation of the same title, which highlighted key moments of Cuban history – from colonization to the Revolution – by means of a repeated motif of a dwelling shack.

by Rosa Barbour