The Film Critic: A Look At Contemporary Documentary

in 34th Havana International Festival of the New Latinamerican Cinema

by Ana Busquets

Some questions posed about the role of film critics in analysing contemporary documentaries moved me to reflection. What is the approximate percentage of international critics who devote their time to writing about the documentary genre? How often do these critics see this type of film and dedicate their work to remarking on their artistic value? Would a special appeal to critics be necessary to pay more attention to analysing documentary works produced?

Personally, facing those questions, I could not say, at world level, how many critics dedicate their time and resources to analysing the genre, and I really think this data would be very difficult to obtain. But, we could say that, in a general way, as a film director told me, “documentary cinema was murdered early. The genre has only survived for cable channels. Neither distribution houses nor cinema halls present documentaries on their billboards. Nobody goes to the cinema to see documentaries. People watch only some of them, with very polemic themes. On public television there is not space for this genre, there are no programmes to educate the taste for this genre. Nothing at all.”

It is true, also, that with the arrival of cable channels at the end of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and with the possibility of segregating the public, we have seen the emergence of channels dedicated exclusively to documentary. This occurrence, in some way, assures the future of the documentary genre, at least as a TV-set genre.

However, this is not a reason to think that in all these years filmmakers have discarded the idea of documentary as a cinematic genre. The proof of this is that every year many documentaries are produced and distributed in the limited circuits of cinema halls, and almost all the world cinema festivals – at least, the most important ones – have sections dedicated exclusively to documentary films.

I am not saying that there are many critics dedicated only to this subject. I do not consider that the critics — and now I am talking not only of Cuba — really care to dedicate their work to evaluating this genre; on the contrary, I think there are very few critical works in the sector. In the newspapers we get comments and reviews, but almost never a critical work. Critics, in general, as far as I know in other countries, are not too dedicated to this aspect of the critical work, unless the films belong to controversial filmmakers such as Michael Moore or other remarkable ones who have demonstrated, using the latest resources of technology, that they can really produce works of art, and I mention this thinking about Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog.

In Cuba, we mainly review the documentaries shown on the cinema circuit. Only some critics dedicate their work to evaluating and making a very deep analysis of the documentary, even though we could be in the best moment to try to recover an audience that in our country always existed, an audience with a big preference toward documentary films. Concerning the Cuban documentary, I think it deserves deep consideration from those who make it, those who finance it and, mainly, from those who programme it.

In terms of that world panorama known to everybody, maybe this is the moment to face our own reality. Our position is different. We have public television, with assorted cinematic programming, but not featuring all the best we would like. What could be excellent for broadcasting is that the Cuban Institute of Cinema (ICAIC) is putting into practice again the old system of programming: the presentation of a Cuban documentary in each film premiere. This is a practice very appreciated by the filmmakers, who can be present within the audience at the moment of the premiere of their works.

If documentary production in our country has taken a new impetus it is because, doubtless, the filmmakers have things to say, and consider the documentary the perfect way to say it. We could even say that we are seeing a rebirth in the Cuban documentary work, after many years in which we have regretted a near-disappearance of the genre. The ICAIC, the production house “Octavio Cortazar” from the Artists and Writers Association (UNEAC) from which we have seeing many works this year, the Young Filmmakers Showcase, filmmakers working for television, and others: it is true that many of their works never make it to programming channels because they don’t fulfill certain rules. But, at any moment that will have to change.

I am mentioning this so you may notice the existence of a constant production of documentaries — certainly less than before and, maybe, with less searching or explorative purposes in terms of cinematic language — but we still continue producing them. So, we have to think about continuing to programme them and working to obtain the support of the critics with their valuable comments.

We have to continue stimulating filmmakers to show their works in the main cinemas of the country, and we have to continue encouraging the young generation to work seriously on the documentary genre. There are multiple themes to be explored, and, as one of our filmmakers said recently, we are seeing many of our main personalities of arts and culture physically disappearing without having a filmed interview of them. It’s the moment to think about it. We have to provide the new generations with a record of all that constitutes our artistic heritage, the work of our scientists, of all those in any context who have contributed to make us better human beings and as a nation, as well as any other theme which motivates the audience to think.

In Cuba, the task of critics in confronting the documentary work is only beginning.

Edited by Carmen Gray