How one Cuban filmmaker bucks the revolution and reimagines Utopia.
Photograph of Fernando Pérez courtesy Sunniva Munkelien
It was a wet, cool night in Havana last winter when I saw Fernando Pérez’s biopic of nineteenth-century Cuban nationalist and intellectual José Martí, which had just been released in theaters. In one scene in the contemplative period film, an idealistic, teenaged Martí debates with his old, bearded Spanish schoolteacher about the meaning of democracy and the lack of essential freedoms in colonial Cuba, then under Spanish rule. The parallel to contemporary Cuba was electric and impossible to ignore. I knew that many of the films that Pérez, a lauded Cuban director, had made deal with the often-traumatic relationship between young people and their social contexts, but this seemed particularly daring to me: to poke at the image of the man whose bust sits outside of every school in Cuba, who is quoted by state propaganda scrawled in bright colors on concrete walls around the island, a symbol not only of learning but of the country’s national identity.
To make a film that attempts to complicate a commonly-held principle is somewhat characteristic of Pérez. His films walk various fine lines, both aesthetically and intellectually: they are realistic and surreal at once, rooted in the issues of the day and conscious of the past, and they refuse to cleave to the polarizing readings of contemporary Cuba, the communist party line or the rhetoric of the Cuban political dissident.
Pérez was called “the figure of the ’90s” by Cuban critics after making two films that deal with one of the tensest periods in Cuban history, the economic crisis that followed the fall of the USSR in 1991. Madagascar, made in 1994, focuses on a mother experiencing a mysterious psychological crisis and her erratic teenage daughter, who wants to leave Cuba and travel to Madagascar. The film was made at the height of the crisis, when both gasoline and developing chemicals were scant; Madagascar was made by mailing each day’s negatives to a lab in Venezuela for developing, making it impossible to review the day’s shots. As a result, it’s both a topical and symbolic treatment of the cultural consequences of the so-called Special Period. 1998’s film Life is to Whistle, which interweaves the stories of an oversexed ballerina, a middle-aged woman who faints every time she hears the word ‘sex,’ and a musician who seduces a foreign tourist, won Pérez a raft of awards at the International Festival of New Latin American Film in Havana as well as a Special Jury Prize from Sundance. And his best-known film, the documentary Suite Habana, again garnered support from both sides of the Florida Straits; Variety called it an “unexpectedly melancholy homage to the battered but resilient inhabitants of a battered but resilient city.”
Pérez studied literature at the University of Havana, worked as a journalist in Angola during its civil war and in Nicaragua in the seventies, and wrote a novel about war correspondents based on the experiences. He has said that he needs only three things in his life: his children, film, and Cuba. A slim, tall, bespectacled man, Pérez, though well into his sixties, speaks with the easy smile and enthusiastic air of a guileless teenager.
I met him through a chain of events that felt as if it had floated off the screen of one of his films. In Cuba for a month to research a project, but without a journalist’s visa, I had been hesitant to contact the office of the Cuban Institute of the Art and Industry of Film, where Pérez works as the director of the yearly Young Filmmakers Festival. After three weeks of phoning every acquaintance who might possibly be able to connect me to him, I was out at a jazz club on my second-to-last Friday night, sipping a daiquiri. A man began to flirt with the friend with whom I’d arrived; it emerged that he had done some work with the Havana film festival. He offered to introduce me to Pérez, and five days before I was scheduled to leave the country, I sat in Pérez’s office, notebook of questions and tape recorder in hand.
—Julia Cooke for Guernica
Guernica: In your 1995 film Madagascar, the main character, Laura, says, “I dream exactly what I live every day.” In Cuba, though, I feel like many of my days have the texture of my dreams, the inverse of what Laura says: whether it’s because of the sometimes surreal visual atmosphere, the crazy, wonderful coincidences that happen here, or the nightmarish complications of Cuban bureaucracy. How does the unique relationship between dream and waking life in Cuba play out in your mind and in your films?
Fernando Pérez: I have one place in the world that I live in, where I was born, and that’s Havana. If you ask me why, I wouldn’t know, but then, that’s why I make films. In Cuba and specifically in Havana there’s a sort of energy that turns every situation into something unexpected. We lived through the Special Period in the 1990s in which the economic crisis that happened as a result of the fall of the USSR became, for many people of my generation and for a slightly younger generation like that of my children, a material and social crisis, it’s true, but for me, also a spiritual crisis. I went to visit my parents every Sunday, in Guanabacoa, a nearby village. I remember that had go through the tunnel under the bay of Havana to get there, and since there was no transportation I would do it by bike. And in 1993, when things got much worse—there was no food, they would cut the electricity for long periods of time—as I left the tunnel, I thought, this image that I’m living, it’s like a metaphor for the Cuban reality. It’s like one is crossing the tunnel, and we don’t see the end, but it has to be there; it struck me as very impressionistic, and that’s when the idea for the movie came. Of course, there was the short story, written by Mirta Yáñez, of a university professor who slept but when she slept she dreamed of what she was living. When someone’s life becomes something menial, something without direction, you lose the capacity to dream and to change. I felt that that was happening among many of my contemporaries, and that’s what I was trying to put in the movie. In all of my movies I’ve tried to address the need for man—not just Cubans—to have a dream and to fight for that dream, even when he doesn’t achieve it. It’s a form of happiness.
Guernica: It’s interesting that you say you don’t know why you were born in Cuba. Of course it’s true, but I don’t often think of that.
Fernando Pérez: Where I feel creative is here. Maybe it’s because I am from here, but I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot, for movies and my profession, and I love traveling and seeing the world but it’s not until I return here that I feel that I am in my place.
Guernica: How is film in particular a special or important medium in Cuba?
Fernando Pérez: The Cuban public is hugely cinephile. It’s a shame that most of the movie theaters are so deteriorated. The sense of spectacle has been lost a little, but even so, people continue to go. The magic of film isn’t just because of the big screen, or the acoustics, but the ineffable shared experience of going to the movies. And the Cuban public is special—they participate, generate a lot of energy, both in a positive and negative sense. It’s always an expressive audience. I’ve seen audiences sing along with the songs in Moulin Rouge, heckle in Fatal Attraction, make comments at Dancer in the Dark. But it’s a very cinephile audience that follows filmmakers—I’ve seen a Tarkovsky film full of young people!
Guernica: Someone once told me that you made your biography film of the childhood and adolescence of José Martí specifically for a Cuban audience.
Fernando Pérez: Specifically for a Cuban audience and a young audience. Martí has significance to every Cuban, because since you’re young, you’re learning about him, for better or worse. An audience that doesn’t have that extra-cinematic knowledge is an audience for whom José Martí: el ojo del canario would never have a certain intensity.
Guernica: There are some very heavy scenes. I’m thinking of the scene in the school, in which Martí and his schoolmates begin a debate in class with their Spanish teachers about democracy. That, to me, was a quite-direct political critique.
bq. I think that a real utopia has to start with individuality. What is happiness to me is not necessarily for you.
Fernando Pérez: I thought, what can Martí’s life show a young Cuban that’s not purely ideological? Apart from the fact that it was in a different era, Martí lived through things that young Cubans here could be living through also. So one has to wonder; what would I do? What Martí did, or no? They’re the same issues: freedom of the press, concept of democracy, or the lack of freedom of the press so that no one participates—I see a series of situations that are conflicts for a young person. That had to be in the movie. I wanted a young audience to establish that association.
Guernica: Both Life is to Whistle and Madagascar discuss themes of the exile, whether literal or metaphorical, of the characters in the two films. It’s a word that’s used so often among Cubans, both here and abroad. What does the word “exile” mean to you?
Fernando Pérez: Trips are part of humanity. Emigration is a part of humanity. And it’s ever more dynamic due to globalization—look at you and me, sitting here. I think that this necessity to travel, to see, it’s part of human nature. But immigration and travel certainly don’t mean the same thing everywhere. Here in Cuba, the big wall isn’t just the fact that it’s an island, but the fact that we need an exit permit in order to leave, and the letters of invitation in order to visit another country. There are very few Cuban families who don’t have family members outside of the country. Some people have left for political reasons, others have left for economic reasons, still others have left for personal reasons. There was a time when emigration from Cuba was a definitive separation. There were no visits. In the ’80s, ’90s, it was incredibly difficult. I’m not the only one interested in this as a filmmaker—other Cuban filmmakers have dealt with it, too, because it’s such a part of our reality.
Guernica: You have one daughter living in Spain.
Fernando Pérez: I have three children: one son lives in Connecticut—he didn’t want to start in Miami—he has two daughters. And my youngest is married and lives in Spain. She’s the one who was in Life is to Whistle. She has two children, too. I have four grandchildren, two Americans and two Spaniards, all with Cuban blood. I’ve never met one of my granddaughters, the youngest American. There was a period of time when [the Americans] weren’t giving visas. And I have another child, who lives here with me.
Guernica: Returning to Life is to Whistle, the “traumatic” words—the words that a psychologist shouts that make the Havanans walking down the seafront promenade faint in one poignant, surreal scene—are: sex, freedom, double standard, opportunism, and truth.
bq. The base of artistic pursuit is ambivalence and complexity.
Fernando Pérez: It’s true that in Cuba there are double standards, there’s opportunism, and there is a lack of freedom in some ways. I made this film in 1998, and I went to Berlin to show the film. And there was a question and answer session afterwards, and someone raised their hand and said—“Your film is a critique of the ‘doble moral’ in Cuba, and the Castro policy,” and I said, “Well, yes, in Cuba there are double standards, but that’s not limited to Cuba.” I wanted my film to talk about Cuba but also have a more universal reading. Double standards are everywhere. Remember, this was around the same time as the Clinton trial, the scandal with Monica Lewinsky—there’s hypocrisy everywhere. The Republicans were fainting because Clinton did this or that, but please. I’m playing with these tensions that are everywhere, and of course within the context of Cuba, but I don’t want it to be reduced. That’s what happens—when Cuba is discussed, there’s the tendency to make extreme readings of reality, both in the critical sense and in the positive, ideological sense. And really, it’s neither. I don’t think that the reality of Cuba is perfect, but it doesn’t cleave to the negativity, either, with which some people see it.
Guernica: Completely—so many artistic pursuits here are reduced to either the supposed political statement behind them, or vaunted simply because they come from the forbidden island of Cuba.
Fernando Pérez: To me, what most evidenced that was Suite Habana. The way it was received exceeded my expectations because I didn’t think that Cubans were going to go to a movie theater to see a documentary, without dialogue, that deals with daily life, in which there is no dramatic action in the conventional sense, but no—the people in the audience saw themselves reflected in the film and began to go. I remember one time a journalist called me and said, “Oye, you have made a movie that is the funeral of the Cuban revolution,” and I said, “Hey, I’m not burying any historical process, I’m just showing one reading of it.” And there were others who said, “It’s an homage to the resilience of the Cuban people.” And what I was trying to express was an image of a reality that’s not the dominant one shown in the media either in Cuba or outside of Cuba: the one of daily life. I try to, at the hour of showing my reality, preserve its ambivalence, because that’s the point, the sense of artistic discourse. Other discourses—religious, political—have different goals, but the base of artistic pursuit is ambivalence and complexity. And that’s what I try to do in Suite Habana and Madrigal.
Guernica: The line between reality and fiction is so blurred in your films.
Fernando Pérez: That’s what I was trying to say in Madrigal, even though no one but me and fifteen old men really liked it: how far can truth go, and where does lying begin (hasta donde llega la mentira). It seems that it’s not very well expressed in the movie, but that’s at its center. It’s about an actor who invents stories. And he lives them as if they were true, and everyone else says he’s a liar.
bq. It’s still a documentary, but the manner of filming is done in the language of fiction, to make the images more expressive.
Guernica: How did you choose the people in Suite Habana, your 2003 movie that essentially follows ten individual Havanans through one ordinary day?
Fernando Pérez: When someone suggested that I do a documentary, I had thought of doing one day: The city wakes up, the city works, the city eats lunch, the city has fun at night. Havana is Habaneros—it’s the stories of its individuals. I wanted to tell their stories. And so, whose stories? I knew the railroad worker who plays the saxophone, because he lives in my neighborhood and he sold me yogurt [on the black market]. And one day he came to deliver yogurt on his bicycle, but wearing a suit, and with the instrument, and I said, “What’s that?”—and he told me. I liked that story. I wanted to tell the story of Amanda, because that’s something that never existed in Cuba before the economic crisis of the ’90s: old women who have to continue to work to make ends meet. But people get used to things.
And then, yes, we went out into the street to meet people. I wanted there to be a family separation, someone who was leaving the country. I wanted to tell the story of someone like Francisco, a child with Down’s syndrome, because it’s true that in this country, those children have attention, have a social structure, they’re taken care of and not marginalized. I wanted to focus on his relationship with his family, especially in this case his father, who reminded me a lot of my own father. It wasn’t so difficult to find people, except for the person who was going to leave [the country], because it had to coincide perfectly with the filming period. When we found the doctor who also works as a clown, we mentioned we were looking for that, and he said, “Oh, I have a brother who is leaving.” [In the film] that was such a tense moment—the moment of the separation. No one wants someone to be there with a camera for that.
Guernica: A large part of the film’s power is its reverence for the quotidian: a close-up on a knife slicing through the supple flesh of an onion, etc.
Fernando Pérez: I wanted to capture a day moving toward night, people changing, but in that process, that there were more situations where the mental state of the characters could be expressed. That’s why we chose those scenes. It’s still a documentary, but the manner of filming is done in the language of fiction, to make the images more expressive.
Guernica: It leaves so many images and scenes unexplained, unpacked, and it leaves such an open reading. It wouldn’t be the same film to me as it is to a Cuban or as it might be to an American friend of mine who’s never been to Cuba. Can you tell me why you did this?
Fernando Pérez: A movie that raises polemics and contradictions—I’m not saying controversy—but that creates ideas, that’s how ideas move. With Life is to Whistle, for example, some people have said, “Your film left me so sad.” And others have said, “No, at the end left me with a desire to whistle.” All of it is true. I think that a real utopia has to start with individuality. What is happiness to me is not necessarily for you. Someone once said, there are three truths: your truth, my truth and the truth. And I think that’s true.
Guernica: The Young Filmmakers Festival takes place every year, and you’re the festival’s president and actively involved in it. Tell me about the new generation of young Cuban filmmakers.
Fernando Pérez: It’s hard for me to have favorites—I don’t see it yet as a movement, but a phenomenon. What marks this phenomenon is fragmentation; at the base of it is diversity. There are filmmakers like Susanna Barriga, Humberto Padrón, Arturo Infante, and there are other really new ones like Leandro de la Rosa. There are many names. But that diversity assures a talent that is alive, expressive, and which can only grow.
Guernica: And the Young Filmmakers Festival is like a nucleus?
Fernando Pérez: It aspires to be a nucleus, but I don’t think it is yet. I don’t know if they really need it. What really has to continue developing is that fragmentation, which will mark a new way to make film. Every year, it’s like showing everything that’s happened in twelve months. It’s a place of meeting, uniting, where things can be analyzed, discussed, argued over.
Guernica: I remember when the controversial film about [Havana rap group] Los Aldeanos came out.
Fernando Pérez: Every year there’s conflict. Because what characterizes this phenomenon of young filmmakers is that it’s a view of Cuba that’s not the standard stance taken by the media in Cuba, or even outside of Cuba. The perspectives on Cuba are always at the extremes. The media in Cuba, the papers, the TV, the radio—they always try to give a model more of what should be than what actually is. And outside of Cuba, it gives the model of a closed society, unilateral politics, etc. And I think that within that context, it’s film, literature, art—those are the expressive mediums that have always tried to express our reality. And even more so with the young Cuban filmmakers. In 2010, yes, there was the issue over the film about Los Aldeanos, which was a very interesting film about the attitude of the young rapper, a very interesting kid. At the beginning, there was pressure not to show it, but in the end, we did get it shown, and, well, that was an achievement of the festival. That’s one of the objectives of the festival, to be an exhibition space for pieces of artistic merit. We’re not going to show just anything—if it doesn’t make a well-achieved artistic statement as well as content, we won’t show it.
Guernica: What is the role of humor in both Cuban film and Cuban life?
Fernando Pérez: It’s often pointed out that in Cuban cinema there are too many comedies, but a sense of humor is so much part of the Cuban idiosyncrasy. Curiously, the films that have been censored the most have been humorous. Think of Alicia en el Pueblo de las Maravillas, [a controversial film] from the mid-’90s, whose exhibition was limited because it was accused of being incendiary, and in the end it was condemned by the officials. I’ve read about what happens when humor confronts power, how power can’t handle it. Cubans joke and satirize everything that life gives them, and I think that’s a positive characteristic.
Guernica: In Life is to Whistle, the character named Cuba is disappointed by her son, Elpidio, who does not live up to the high expectations she has for him. Elpidio, in turn, feels dwarfed by her lofty expectations. How directly does this relate to el hombre Nuevo, the socialist “new man” who should be driven by moral rather than material incentives?
Fernando Pérez: It’s an obvious reference to the dream that Cuba had, with the revolution, to achieve a new society and a new man. It created such high expectations. I think by the ’90s you could see that that was not a reality. The movie is an allegory—I wanted to show how the man, in the end, hadn’t been formed. I think the person who best defined that was Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who has been my teacher and who I admire very much, who once said that the Cuban revolution had a perfect script, as an aspiration, but that the staging left so much to be desired. There is so much to be resolved still; Elpidio is a part of that.
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