Wednesday June 20, 2018

Cinema Before the Revolution

Pioneers of Cuban cinema featured at Havana Film Festival New York

In April the Havana Film Festival New York presented a special sidebar of early Cuban cinema, curated by Luciano Castillo (Camagüey, Cuba, 1955). Castillo is a critic, researcher, and cinema historian, and director of the André Bazin Media Library in the International Film and Television School in San Antonio de los Baños (EICTV). He has an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, which spills out in a rapid-fire delivery as he speaks. A member of the Consejo Nacional de la Union de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (UNEAC) and of La Asociación Cubana de la Prensa Cinematográfica, he writes for magazines in Cuba and abroad, and has hosted radio and television shows that cover the Cuban cinema scene. 

Luciano Castillo

According to Castillo, the founding of ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos) in 1959 effectively closed the door on earlier Cuban cinema. With an emphasis on producing documentaries to “elevate the cultural level of the rank and file,” the early pioneers of Cuban cinema were considered irrelevant. But thanks to the dedication and tireless archival work of Arturo Agramonte García (1925-2003), much of Cuba’s prerevolutionary cinema history has been salvaged. Agramonte compiled a Cronología del cine cubano, published in 1966. This invaluable reference work has been revised and expanded, in collaboration with Luciano Castillo, into a three-volume history of Cuban cinema: Cronología del cine cubano I: 1897-1936 (Ediciones ICAIC, 2011); II: 1937-1944 (ICAIC, 2012); III: 1945-1959 (ICAIC, forthcoming December 2013).

For the New York program, Luciano selected six titles from the first fifty years of Cuban cinema, beginning with a one-minute film from 1906, El Parque Palatino, by Enrique Díaz Quesada (1883-1923), who is considered the “father of Cuban cinema.” In this short, sponsored by a local brewery, Díaz Quesada captured the festive atmosphere of the amusement park in the El Cerro district of Havana. He went on to produce more local-color shorts, under the title Cuba al día, which were antecedents of newsreels.

El Parque Palatino

Another important figure of the silent era was Ramón Peón (1887-1971), who directed La Virgen de la Caridad (80 min., 1930), one of the last silent films produced in Cuba. Based on the novel by Enrique Agüero Hidalgo, who also wrote the screenplay, it has a familiar plot. A young man, Yeyo (played by Miguel de Santos), and his widowed grandmother (Matilde Mauri) are cheated out of their land by a dishonest landowner who also has his eye on Yeyo’s girlfriend, Trina (Diana V. Marde). Justice prevails when the documents proving Yeyo’s family’s title to the land are discovered behind a picture of the Virgin. The film features excellent cinematography by Ricardo Delgado, production design by Enrique Caparrós, suspenseful editing, and effective use of flashbacks.

Maracas y bongó (15 min., 1932) was the first sound short film produced in Cuba, directed by Max Tosquella for B.P.P. Pictures. The slight story line—a jealous young man (Fernando Collazo) gets into a fight over his girlfriend (Yolanda González) at a neighborhood party—serves as a frame for a variety of musical acts and dances.

Tam Tam o el orígen de la rumba (1938)

The lead cameraman of Maracas… was Ernesto Caparrós (1907-1992), who went on to direct the first Cuban feature-length sound film, La Serpiente roja (1937). It featured a Chinese detective, Chan Li Po, a popular radio character created by Félix B. Caignet, in the vein of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan. Regrettably, only an incomplete copy of this landmark film exists; it is currently being restored with the aid of ICAIC and INA (France).

Ernesto Caparrós also directed Tam Tam o el orígen de la rumba (22 min., 1938), which traces the history of the rumba from its roots in the sounds and rhythms that accompanied African slaves and its evolution over time into popular culture, through a love story of two young mestizos. Inspired by Caparrós’ frequent visits to the Eden Concert cabaret, Tam Tam… featured the dancer Chela de Castro, the singer Yolanda González (Maracas y bongó), and other popular performers. Contemporary critical praise for the short could be summed up in the comment “it appears to have been filmed in Hollywood” [“parece filmado en Hollywood”]. Caparrós emigrated to the U.S. in 1940 and indeed became a Hollywood cameraman. He was director of photography on Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker (1962).

Rounding out the Havana Film Festival retrospective were two films from the 1950s. Yambaó (90 min., 1956) was a Mexico-Cuba coproduction, by German-born Mexican director Alfredo B. Crevenna (1914-1996). Filmed entirely in Cuba, the story is set in the 19th century. It’s a tale of forbidden love as the sultry mulata Yambaó, a freed slave, attempts to seduce the handsome young landowner, Jorge, away from his pregnant wife by means of witchcraft. The slaves on the sugar plantation fear the evil powers of Yambaó, granddaughter of the witch Caridad; they attempt to kill her but Jorge prevents it. Yambaó is played by the Cuban-born dancer Ninón Sevilla, who had a long career in Mexican musicals of the 1940s and 50s. Mexican actors Ramón Gay and Rosa Elena Durgel played the landowners Jorge and his wife Béatriz. Yambaó was released as a black-and-white film for the Latin American market, and in color with a dubbed English-language track in the U.S. (under the title Cry of the Bewitched).

Yambaó (1956)

Mario Barral’s De espaldas (90 min., 1956) is an experimental work filled with existential musings as the protagonist wanders the streets of the city pondering social injustice and the meaning of life. Released as Cuban Confidential in the U.S., it is perhaps best remembered as a precursor of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968).

Festival audiences were intrigued and appreciative of this sampling of early Cuban cinema, and engaged in lively Q&A with Luciano Castillo, who also presented a talk on the early history of Cuban films and signed copies of the first two volumes of his Cronología del cine cubano.

Nadine Covert is a specialist in visual arts media with a focus on documentaries. She was for many years the Executive Director of the Educational Film Library Association (EFLA) and Director of its American Film Festival, then the major documentary competition in the U.S. She later became director of the Program for Art on Film, a joint venture of the J. Paul Getty Trust and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Covert has served on the board of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, and is currently a consultant to the Montreal International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA).