Beyond the Sugar Curtain – Disillusion, Decay and Stoicism By Boriana Mateeva

in 9th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Boriana Mateeva

The so-called “Iron Curtain” was a propaganda term used to identify the division of post-war European societies in opposing military and political blocks. It went together with “Cold War” and had a strong ideological impact for more than 40 years. Camila Guzmán Urzúa’s The Sugar Curtain (El télon de azúcar) is a réplique to that heavy ideological subject, slightly ironic in title, but made with warmth, understanding and objectivity. It communicates the intimate experience of a generation that came-of-age in the “golden years” of the Cuban revolution, weathered hard times during the “Special period” of the 1990s and bravely adapted in order to survive – “washing without soap, cooking without oil, having coffee without milk…”

Guzmán Urzúa, who is credited as the film’s writer, director, cinematographer and co-producer, was born 1971 in Chile and lived for 15 years in Cuba after the Chilean coup d’état. In The Sugar Curtain , she returns to La Havana to record the memories of her formal schoolmates, and to reflect on a period of time when she was happy and which then dramatically disappeared. She chooses the form of a first-person documentary diary, commenting in her own voice about the contrast of then and now, and making a complex and convincing portrait of a great political experiment that failed. She goes deep inside her own emotional experience as “pioneer,” showing us the ruins of pioneer camps and revolutionary — museums, old slogans, the “skeletons of a dream” — and tries to explain why almost all her childhood friends, these “builders of the future” and “heralds of Revolution,” have since defected to other countries. She also observes closely the young Cubans of today, repeating enthusiastically the same pathetic slogans like “We shall be like Che!” or “Study, work, fight! Venceremos!,” taking classes in military training and doing volunteer work in the country.

Guzmán Urzúa’s sincere conversations with the few friends who decided to stay; the old black and white photos of happier times; the concert given by Havana Abierta with a torch procession dedicated to the 150th Anniversary of Jose Marty (followed by the image of many discarded Cuban flags); the experience of the really awful, overcrowded public transportation — these images alternate with charming children’s drawings to convey in a naïve, but very expressive way the tough reality of Cuban life. Throughout, Guzmán Urzúa’s use of the recurring image of the ocean as a natural counterpoint to the difficult everyday life also helps to lend the film a uniquely melancholic atmosphere. “We lived in a cloud, never touching the ground,” says one of the director’s friends. And falling to the ground is always traumatic. But what makes The Sugar Curtain a great achievement is its balanced, objective assessment of all the good and bad in the Cuban Revolution and, above all, Guzmán Urzúa’s skillful transposing of sharp political contradictions into the realm of human feelings.

What is most striking here is the lack of fierceness and anger in the Cuban people. No matter how poor their existence is now, years after the collapse of the “Sugar Curtain,” they nevertheless live with dignity and stoicism. The film begins in a school (the filmmaker’s old Cuban primary school) and ends with a girl cheerfully entering a school. In the space between those two simple frames lies a dramatic historical period marked by revolutionary euphoria and the pain of divided families. What future awaits this world? Certainly, capitalism is not the solution. What’s important, Camila Guzmán Urzúa seems to be saying, is that we keep learning about ourselves and expanding our capacity to analyze and to love.